If you want to see folks engage in a debate like young dogs going after an old soggy sock, just mention that the United States is a democracy. Suddenly folks that have taken any political science or philosophy course spring to action debating whether this country is a democracy or a republic of the federal constitutional variety.
Presbyterians sit back smugly and remind their sparring partners that the only clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence was the Rev. John Witherspoon (Presbys from NJ get TWO points) and that much of this country’s political organization is rooted in our own polity.
What this debate often misses is that regardless of the structure, this form of government relies heavily on the people… all the people… to make it work. Yes, we are at our root representational (those Elders in your church are elected by you and bear the responsibility for the mission and ministry of your congregation) but y’all need to know who you are electing and remain engaged by reading those Annual Meeting reports in order to ask those good questions that hold all leaders accountable.
In the same way, we the people need to remain engaged in the political structure of the United States in order to maintain those democratic values we hold dear.
What happens when the people become disengaged? Consider the following definitions of other forms of governing… and see if they are familiar forms within national or church politics:
- Oligarchy – a small group of people who have control
- Plutocracy – governance by the wealthy or powerful
- Monarchy – two forms, constitutional and absolute -both focused on the sovereignty of an individual
- Dictatorship – where a ruler or small group have complete control
In church governance there is also congregationalism… which is where each individual congregation has its own authority and may be a part of a loose association of like congregations (think states rights on steroids).
If our system is going to work it is going to require all hands on deck to question, volunteer, wonder and support. That democratic value of “for the people, by the people” only works when there are people willing to do their part.
When I’ve asked folks why they are Presbyterian I have often heard that there is a deep respect and love for a system in which there isn’t “one guy in charge”. The challenge for us all is that in order to have a system where power is shared amongst many… there must be many who are willing to hold that power.
I invite you again to this wild ride we call Presbyterianism.