Another Principle from an Older Democracy


Last time, I wrote about a principle of representative democracy long held by Presbyterian churches. Our Presbyterian representative democracy is older than that of the United States but also much simpler for all the obvious reasons of size, wealth, and power. For my explanation of this principle and application of it to the present crisis of integrity and responsible representation in the Congress of the United States, see my previous post. Now I have another.

This second Presbyterian principle becomes murkier when I try to apply it to the representative democracy of the nation. It is this: no one should serve on a committee who opposes the very purpose for which that committee has been established. Perhaps it sounds simple. No one should serve on the church council’s Christian Education Committee who thinks the church should not be engaged in Christian education of any sort. Likewise and perhaps more likely, no one should serve on the Stewardship Committee who thinks the church should not ask for financial support from its members. Is it always so obvious? No, it is not. Try this one: no one should serve on a General Assembly (our highest council) committee charged with investigating and rethinking a hot-button issue who opposes investigating that issue further and listening to differing opinions and testimonies. If you’re not willing to listen and converse, don’t serve. See, it’s already starting to get murkier, and we haven’t even switched yet from church to national issues.

When a church council at any level establishes a committee, that council should seek to include a variety of views and opinions, especially those shared by many in the church but also those of minorities; it should not include someone who wishes only to stonewall or undermine the responsibility the council charges that committee to fulfill. Such a person should not be asked to serve on that committee, and if asked, should decline. If a mistake is made, and such a person becomes a committee member, then demonstrates opposition to the purpose with which the committee is charged, the council should remove that person from the committee, which very seldom happens.

Now comes the hard part. How might this principle apply to our national government, to Congress and the executive branch – not only the presidency itself but cabinet positions and agency offices, as well? Differences of view and opinion are one thing, contempt for the office and the body itself another, but the lines become difficult to draw.

I first started wondering about this principle as it relates to the representative democracy of the United States when a television news report said that then Vice-president Dan Quayle spent much of his time advising corporations on ways to circumvent the regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency. Did he really? If so, why was he Vice-president of the United States? Do our representatives and senators really seek to chair committees so they can prevent those committees from fulfilling the responsibilities with which they are charged? If so, why are they in Congress? When does a variant opinion of how the job should be done cross the line and become an obstruction to the very purpose of the committee?

It has been said that politics is the art of gaining power, government the art of solving problems. We seem now to have people engaged in politics and seeking so to gain power who preach that government cannot and should not solve problems – that everything (except the military and the rewarding of cronies) should be left to the free market to operate as it will. Where does such a notion leave the American people? Out in the cold, I suspect.

Our government is our democracy. Without it, we have none. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address concludes with hope and determination, “. . . and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The absence of government is anarchy, not liberty, but anarchy does not last because someone seizes power, and that someone is not the people.

When we scorn our government for its very existence, we renounce our democracy and give our country over into the hands of those with the power to seize control with no democratic restraint. When we say that government is the problem, we shut the people out and leave it to become as problematic as influential powers can make it. Scorning government is a great American pastime; it is also great cover for the foxes raiding the hen house.