Listen To Article
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.
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.