Since July, I have been volunteering in "the ground game" of the campaign to reelect President Barack Obama. I have been phoning and canvassing, but I especially love the canvassing because I never know what conversation will unfold when someone is home and agrees to talk with me.
On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon, an encounter with a woman, a stranger to me, gave me a very clear measure of the immensity of the choice before us between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. I began with my usual "Hi, I'm Janet. I'm a volunteer for the Obama campaign in Shadyside, and you are on my list to visit. Would you be willing to answer a few questions?"
From the window of her first floor apartment, she agreed and came to the building door. "Most of us have decided who we are voting for in the coming election. Will you share with me who you plan to support for president?" I asked her.
"You know, I am really not sure. I think they are both good Christian men. I have been praying a lot about it," replied the woman.
"May I share with you how I have come to understand the difference between them?" I asked. She answered yes and I then articulated the distinction between Obama's and Romney's religious perspectives, which had lain unexpressed on my spirit until then. I said something like this:
"There run through Scripture two contending streams of understanding God that also flow through the history of the church.
On the one hand, there is the wideness of God's mercy and embrace. Jesus expresses this in the Gospel of John: 'When I am lifted up, I shall draw all people to myself' (John 12:32). This is the stream Barack Obama has consistently reflected in his inclusion of everyone in his vision of our community -- since his youthful days in Chicago, to right now as president. His church, the United Church of Christ, lives in this stream of Christian faithfulness.
At the same time there is, in the Bible, the stream of God being for one group but not for another -- for Israel, not Moab; for the church, not for the world. John echoes this in his first letter, 'They are from the world, therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God' (1 John 4:3-6) This is the perspective Mitt Romney expresses in word and deed in his focus on profit for Bain investors, in his tax plan and in his insistence on American exceptionalism. The Mormon Church rests in this stream of Christian history.
Now that I think about it, this divide runs through all the major religions around the world, not just our Christian tradition. It makes sense that our country, perhaps the most devout developed country on earth, struggles with which faithful stream will direct our national life. It doesn't matter which religion each of us is part of or even if we forsake all of them. We have to decide whether everyone is important or only some."
The woman blinked a few times, probably not expecting to get all that from a canvasser, and then said to me, "You know I was praying about whom to vote for when you rang the bell."
More audacious than usual, I replied, "Perhaps I am the angel sent in answer to your prayer." I thanked her for listening to me and for her continued prayerful consideration of the candidates in the remaining weeks until Nov. 6. As I checked off the "Undecided" box by her name, as trained to do, I said goodbye and wished her, "Peace." This stranger, a neighbor, was a gift to me in her encouragement to share my thoughts, and I have obviously thought a great deal about this moment since.
Both American history and world history can be seen as a momentous struggle between "all" and "just us." Abraham Lincoln helped us see that the Civil War was fought so that the United States was a place for "all." We have been imperfect in this commitment but do rise to it in our best moments. The central struggle of the 20th century was between the exclusive vision of world domination and the promise of the Allies to include. The generous up-building of our enemies and the creation of the United Nations after the war are inspiring examples of including "all."
The future has to be "all" or there simply will be no future. The continued turn toward "all" and away from "just us" is the great work of the 21st century. President Barack Obama has been unwavering in his faithful lifting up of "all" even in the face of unrelieved Republican animosity as well as some frustration on the left at his open hand.
That neighbor, who is no longer a stranger, helped me to see clearly the momentous choice before us between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Choosing "all" will fuel my phoning and canvassing until the polls close on Election Day.