Lesson from an Older Democracy


The Presbyterian form of church polity or government, the system by which the church makes decisions, is that of representative democracy. In this system, the people elect representatives to deliberate upon issues and questions of the church’s life, ministry, and mission and to make reasoned decisions as faithfully and fairly as they can. The church is governed by the councils comprised of these representatives. If this arrangement sounds familiar to people in the United States who are not Presbyterians, the reason is obvious: the system of government in our nation is also that of representative democracy.

Elected representatives bear responsibility, not simply for legislating the will of the majority of the people they represent, but for delving into, studying, debating, analyzing, and deciding issues the majority may comprehend poorly. The leaders of the church are not to be guided by opinion polls, which often represent more of prejudice and misunderstanding than of reason or faith. Church councils are not to be scornful of the people’s needs, thoughts, and feelings, but neither are they to be overly swayed by outcries from the angry, frightened, or self-congratulating. They are, rather, to listen, study, deliberate, think, and pray before reaching decisions, especially on complex or controversial matters.

And they must compromise. The needs of churches and people are not always simple or one-sided. The needs of one group may conflict with the needs or desires of another. Councils must be especially aware of the needs of minorities among the people and most especially those of minorities that are unpopular with the majority or that have been regarded as inferior. Because democracy operates by majority rule, it must be balanced diligently by protections of the rights and needs of unpopular minorities; otherwise it becomes a tyranny.

Because elected representatives are to think, deliberate, and compromise, they are charged not to make up their minds in advance but to be open to reasonable argument and new information. Electing bodies such as presbyteries are not to instruct their commissioners to the denomination’s General Assembly how to vote on an issue, and if it is discovered that such instruction has been given, that presbytery’s commissioners are to be denied seats in the Assembly. No commissioner must ever promise ahead of time to vote a certain way. The church council must be a deliberative body, not a collection of mere delegates voting as pledged.

I think we need a similar understanding of our representatives in Congress. No elected representative or senator should be pledged to anything but the Constitution of the United States and legislative process which has evolved from it. We need our two houses of Congress to be deliberative bodies open to reason and compromise for the good of the nation and its people within the context of the world and its people. Though such a rule does not to my knowledge exist, I believe that no elected representative should be seated in the Congress of the United States if that person has pledged to an inflexible position on some complex issue such as taxation in response to the ever-changing forces of the national economy.

In short, no one who has signed, for example, Grover Norquist’s anti-taxation pledge should be in Congress or in the Oval Office. Such a person has been wrongly committed by such a pledge to corrupting the deliberative process of a representative democracy. We need responsible, thinking representatives, not puppets.