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I see there is an effort out there to do away with the Electoral College in presidential elections in the United States. If I thought it had even the slightest chance of succeeding, I could get behind it.

Before all you civic-minded historians get all worked up trying to explain to me the history and rationale for the Electoral College…I know, I know. I understand its history, as well as the reasons for its continued use.

My reason for saying it’s time to scrap the Electoral College is more practical than philosophical. In two of the last five US presidential elections, the winner lost the popular vote. That’s 40 percent of the time. I think the system can handle about a once-a-century anomaly, where the winner doesn’t also win the popular vote. But 40 percent of the time begins to breed distrust in elections and democracy itself.

Bigger Picture—Christianity & Democracy

And that’s really what I want to think about—not the Electoral College—but elections, majorities, voting, and democracy, in the wider society but especially within the church.

I notice within myself an impulse for greater direct democracy, “majority rules,” in society, even as I grow more and more to be uncomfortable with direct democracy in the church.

Is democracy a Christian value? Do Christians have a stake in maintaining or even spreading, democracy? There are literally shelves and shelves in libraries trying to answer questions like this.

Reinhold Niebuhr, 1892-1971

To the extent that democracy contributes to human flourishing, I think Christians do want to support it. I like democracy and am grateful for the many privileges it gives to me. All things being equal, count me in for democracy. I think it was Reinhold Niebuhr who asserted that democracy’s genius is that it accounts for humanity’s aspirational, even hallowed, character, our better angels, while simultaneously attending to our capacity for evil and blindness to our selfishness.

But let’s not forget that for millennia, Christians lived in non-democratic contexts. Millions still do. Over the centuries, Christian thinkers wrote thoughtful, scriptural treatises on why monarchy, for example, was God’s preferred way of structuring society. The Apostle Paul, living under the thumb of the Roman Empire, was able to sing gladly about freedom in Christ Jesus. Things like this make me wonder just how much democracy is concomitant with the Gospel.

Is that any way to run a church?

Or to focus more narrowly, is voting, especially majority-rules, a way to guide the church and discern God’s direction?

Whenever a pope visits the United States, I chuckle when the media starts reporting that 62 percent of American Catholics don’t support the Church’s view on X topic, or that three out of four American Catholics are in favor of such-and-so change. These reports presuppose, wrongly, that the Roman Catholic Church is a democracy. That’s not to say the Church’s hierarchy should ignore such statistics. Just like my critique of the Electoral College, any governing system that consistently ignores the will of the people puts itself in danger. The pope should know what Catholics think. But that alone is not what decisions are based upon.

We in the Reformed tradition believe the Holy Spirit speaks most clearly to groups, not individuals. We don’t have bishops, popes, and the like. That not only distinguishes us from Catholics, Orthodox and Episcopalians, but also from the strong, charismatic leader of Pentecostal Christians.

Yet if often seems that if we don’t believe in strong, centralized leadership, and we do believe we hear God’s leading best when we are gathered together, and on top of that, we are Americans who are used to defaulting to a vote when we face a decision, then the church slips into “majoritarianism.” By that, I mean that voting solves things, that a simple majority reveals God’s guidance.

At the local level, our Consistory (church board), unofficially works on a consensus model. If we don’t have near unanimous support for something as a board, then most of the time we don’t move forward. We’re also always reminding Consistory members that while they need to be aware of the congregation, they do not directly “represent” the congregation.

This may work for a local board of 12 or 16 people who are familiar with one another. But it doesn’t seem especially workable when the assembled group is 75 or 400 people who may gather for an evening or four days together, and aren’t very familiar with each other. In those instances, “majority rules” seems like the simplest, most realistic answer.

I’m just not convinced that a 122 to 116 vote by a church governing group truly tells us much about the direction of the Spirit. Would some sort of super-majority—55 or 60 percent, two-thirds—be more indicative that the church is united and ready to move? Who knows? Or does this just clog things up and slow things down? Requiring that significant changes be approved over several consecutive years is another attempt to move beyond majority-rules. Those more astute and observant than me say there are a variety of tweaks to our large, annual church gatherings that would make them more reflective.

Coming full circle back to the innate “unfairness” of the United States’ Electoral College, I am told that some of the numerically larger classes (regional body) in my Reformed Church in America, are dividing into many new classes in order to increase their political sway. It is as if New York or Texas would each divide into five new states to gain more US senators.

Surely this sort of ecclesiastical gerrymandering is somewhere between farcical and tragic. It is also prime evidence that in the church, voting alone is not the best way to do business. Perhaps the Christian church can be proud that it was an instigator for democracy in wider societies. Now, however, our own reliance upon voting to discern the Spirit’s leading may actually be a sort of cultural capitulation.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

12 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Good thoughts.

    • Anne Weirich says:

      I know that the CRC uses lots to choose elders for their leadership body. But lots aren’t so much chance when names are attached. Some women I know said that when most of the names in the hat are men’s names, women are not represented very well in leadership. My answer to that was to have 2 hats – one for women and one for men. Then make sure each class has an even number and choose 2, 4, or 6 from each hat.

      There are also ways in which the minority voice is protected in Reformed denominations. For example, the PCUSA will sometimes approve a “minority report,” or motion in place of the recommended action from a committee at General Assembly. I’m told that in the CRC, if one member should vote against leaving the denomination the church may not leave and take their property. Robert’s Rules of Order aren’t the most Spiritual way of making decisions, but it does keep us in good order, which is also an expression of the Spirit. Discernment, a process of prayer, study, Scripture, ritual and so on, is probably the best way to see where the Spirit leads. But it is not expedient. The slowness of the process, especially on issues that are divisive, can be hard on human bonds and can also cause pain and suffering in the meantime. The way forward is varied and needs many, many forms of decision making, I think.

      Gerrymandering and district splitting have robbed us of a sense of security in our church and secular democracies. And it seems as if the justice system is following suit.

      Thanks for the good thoughts and ideas. I’ll be thinking about all this for some time to come.

      • Eric Van Dyken says:

        “I’m told that in the CRC, if one member should vote against leaving the denomination the church may not leave and take their property.”

        I think you’ve been misinformed.

  • mstair says:

    How do we discern The Holy Spirit’s decisions among us? Majority, consensus, episcopacy? Biblically, a pretty important one was decided by … chance …?

    They prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s deepest thoughts and desires. Show us clearly which one you have chosen from among these two to take the place of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas turned away to go to his own place.” When they cast lots, the lot fell on Matthias. He was added to the eleven apostles.” (Acts 1: 24-26)

    … that didn’t turn out so bad… maybe an alternative to the electoral college …?

  • JoAnne Zoller Wagner says:

    I am thinking of prophets, who were a majority of one, yet nevertheless were discerning God’s mind and attempting to correct the errors of the masses. Sometimes minorities are listening to God, whereas the masses are listening to their self-interest. Perhaps we should consult the book of Numbers for some direction.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    The Holy Spirit’s guidance or will is not necessarily indicated even by unanimity or significant majority. An overwhelming majority of Israelites agreed that making a golden calf would be a great idea. The crowds railed against Jesus and demanded that he be crucified with one accord. The power of persuasion can lead to large and super majorities making decisions against God’s revealed will. Having said that, I agree with Steve that the church is not a democracy and also that seeking unanimity or near unanimity is wise.

    The electoral map at the top sort of makes me grin and chuckle a bit, and that is coming from a guy in a blue state who did not vote for Trump. The “coastals” would love to lord it over the rubes in flyover country, which is the only reason why they harangue about the popular vote. Their candidate lost, and now they stomp their feet and scream that “it’s not fair!” like little kids who just played a game and lost according to the rules but cannot stand to lose. There simply is no reason to focus on popular vote. States have power in our system of government because we are the “United States of America” not the “United People of America”. So, rather than harping about how Clinton won the popular vote, perhaps Democrats should ask themselves why their message resonates so poorly in so many states. Instead of seeking to further divide and to castigate and misrepresent everyone who did not vote for their candidate, why not seek greater understanding? The President doesn’t seem to be very good at that; why don’t they show him how it is done?

    Your “40%” statistic is entirely made up, Steve. You arbitrarily picked 5 elections and then conclude that the electoral system picks the less popular candidate 40% of the time. Not true. Why not just pick the last election and conclude that the system picks the less popular candidate 100% of the time? Or the last two for 50%? Electoral politics is played to win electoral votes, and if that is news to the Democrats and Clinton, then they are not as sophisticated and they make themselves out to be.

  • Steve Mathonnet- VanderWell says:

    Thank you everyone for your ideas, feedback, and comments. While drawing lots worked in Acts 1, are we really to make all our church decisions that way? And yes it’s true that large majorities can be very wrong, and a single prophet be true, that doesn’t help much as standard operating procedure. The line between prophet and lunatic is thin and usually can’t be distinguished for decades or centuries. Without dismissing prophets, I think that model too easily feeds into our heroic individual model, and we instead are pushed to listen and wait and pray and discuss as a gathered people.
    While I really didn’t want to talk about the Electoral College, but only use it to get you to read farther, I don’t think that two out of the last five elections is insignificant, when we are used to once a century. As for rubes and sophisticates, I think the sophisticates are the TV talking heads in cardigans and bow ties who lecture the America public, whom they take to be rubes, “You weren’t paying attention in eighth grade civics class! This is not a democracy, but a democratic republic governed by a constitution, blah, blah, blah…” And the average American, while knowing about the Electoral College, still in her/his gut believes in one vote for one person and “majority rules.” But since I really didn’t want to talk about the Electoral College, but only get people to read the rest, I’ll leave it there.

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      Hi Steve,
      A few fun facts about how “the average American” feels about the electoral college vs. straight popular vote, your guesses notwithstanding. Support for an amendment to the constitution that would do away with the electoral system peaked in 1968 at 80%. It has gone down significantly since then until 2016, when 49% supported a change vs. 47% supporting the electoral system. So, as two of the last five elections have had historically anomalistic results, trust in and support for the electoral system has grown, not shrunk. Not surprisingly given the Republican winners of the 2 recent elections in question, 81% of Democrats favor dumping the electoral system in favor of popular vote, while only 19% of Republicans do. Last I checked, Republicans still count as average Americans. 🙂

      • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

        Thanks, Eric. I guess those bow-tied, cardiganed talking-heads are more effective than I thought! Either that or those eighth-grade civic teachers are doing a really good job.

  • […] church (Universal, a denomination, and a local congregation) is not a democracy. When we want to yell, “Majority rules” and “Let’s vote” we know we are in the sway of […]

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