Polling Place as Sacred Ground

The line at my polling place this morning was long, which, given the predictions of widespread voter apathy this midterm, really made me glad, for once, to stand in a long line. It also gave me time to observe my local voters and I was struck by the atmosphere of the polling place. As I observed the orderly line and patient and courteous voters, the words of Jon Stewart at the end of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, came ringing in my ears.

Stewart spoke these words as a video of cars merging in traffic was being shown on the jumbo screens:

These cars – that’s a schoolteacher who probably thinks his taxes are too high. He’s going to work. There’s another car — a woman with two small kids who can’t really think about anything else right now. There’s another car, swinging, I don’t even know if you can see it — the lady’s in the NRA and she loves Oprah. There’s another car — an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car’s a Latino carpenter. Another car a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan. But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear — often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers.

And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile-long 30-foot-wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river. Carved, by the way, by people who I’m sure had their differences. And they do it. Concession by concession. You go. Then I’ll go. You go. Then I’ll go. You go then I’ll go. Oh my God, is that an NRA sticker on your car? Is that an Obama sticker on your car? Well, that’s okay — you go and then I’ll go.

As I watched the rally from the comfort of my easy chair last Saturday, the comedy kind of fell flat for me, but Stewart’s words at the end — though not overtly religious — made me think, as I stood in line this morning, of what the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 12:9-10:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.

Stewart’s call for a society that hews to the idea of, “You go, then I’ll go,” no matter what the ideology or bumper sticker of the person in front of us, is exactly Paul’s message to the Christians in Rome: “Outdo one another in showing honor.” If Paul had been familiar with modern traffic merging patterns, perhaps he would have said, “You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go.”

The religious right has so often completely mangled the messages of both Paul and Jesus that many Christians believe the Bible teaches “I’ve got mine, screw you,” or as the gentleman in front of me in line said, “I’ve got mine, and I’ll get yours, too.” Interestingly, this man, who, I’m guessing, was a few years older than me, told me, just before uttering that line, that he wished more women would vote because it would make the political system gentler. “Men,” he said, “are selfish and cruel. Women tend to be less so.” Men, he said, had the “mine is mine and yours is mine” mentality of the power hungry.

Perhaps that’s a bit naive, given the power hunger of such women in this race as Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Nikki Haley in South Carolina and other women whose policy ideas seem just as vicious as many men in office. My line buddy may even have stepped up to the voting machine after our conversation and cast his vote for Haley, thinking her more kind than her male Democratic opponent simply because she is a woman.

The atmosphere of the polling place, however, was much like Stewart’s idea of a “you go, then I’ll go,” society. While the line was long, as well as the wait, everyone was polite. Certainly, we each had our own political ideas and agendas, but we waited patiently with one another, made small talk and worked hard to outdo one another in showing honor.

Stewart, in his speech, was quick to point out that, in traffic, “at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute, but that individual is rare and he is scorned and not hired as an analyst.” While this political season has been filled with selfish jerks of both parties trying to zip up the shoulder to jockey for a better position — such behavior would not have been tolerated at the polling place this morning.

There was one man who was heard down the line saying something disparaging about President Obama, and his comments were met with stares and silence. Lest you think he was standing among a bunch of Democrats, my county of residence is majority Republican — and I’m betting those on line with me were in that majority. His comment was out of line in the polling place — because it is sacred ground.

The political trail may be littered with mud, lies, shouting, and personal attacks — but the polling place is sacrosanct. Here, we come to do our patriotic duty and exercise our precious right to vote. We don’t come to argue, debate, or demean one another. Here, in hushed tones, we outdo one another in showing honor. Here it’s, “you go, then I’ll go.”

The challenge for each of us, as the votes are counted and the winners and losers announced, is to find ways to bring the sanctity of the polling place back out into the larger society. No matter how the election unfolds, and no matter how we feel about who gets elected, we must find ways to, in all areas of life, “outdo one another in showing honor.” Indeed, let us heed the words of Jon Stewart, the Apostle: “You go, then I’ll go.”