On Republicans and Presbyterians

The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government . . . .

U.S. Const. Art. IV, §4

The Founding Fathers were equally skeptical of kings and mobs. The government established by our Constitution was designed to avoid either extreme. As time has gone on, we have drifted away from that careful balance and moved toward a system that is closer to both direct democracy and monarchical rule. This is a strange development.

Signing Room Independence Hall

In states like Michigan, voter-initiated proposals make law. While the proposals are written by the politically connected, the voting public has the power to enact law. This is basically direct democracy.

At the same time, the growth of administrative agencies and “regulatory law” has pushed us toward something like monarchical rule. The first month of the Trump administration illustrates this point. An Executive Order effectively creates law that can disrupt our lives.

Direct democracy and monarchy are anathema to the substance and spirit of the Constitution. The Founders intended that Americans have a republican form of government at the federal and state levels. Representative democracy is the essential characteristic of republics.

One of the byproducts of the Reformation is that the Founding Fathers had an organizational system that was already republican in form: the Presbyterian Church. The anti-Rome and anti-Anabaptist impulses of the Presbyterians ran parallel with the anti-monarch and anti-mob impulses of most of the Founding Fathers.

Russell Kirk makes this point in his book The Roots of American Order. Kirk writes, “The presbyterian form of Calvinism especially would become a forerunner of democratic institutions, even though in the beginning it had more nearly resembled the ancient Hebrew concept of theocracy.” Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order 236 (2003).

The presbyterian form of church organization is essentially a representative democracy. The local church elects or nominates members to serve on a governing council ⇒ The church council elects representatives for a regional body ⇒The regional body elects representatives to serve in a national or international governing body. The local church is the “grassroots.”

For the first 100+ years of our nation’s existence, the election of U.S. Senators was conducted in the state legislatures. This is the small “p” presbyterian model. The citizens of a state would elect state representatives and those representatives would, in turn, elect capable representatives to serve as U.S. Senators.

Though U.S. Senators are now directly elected in the states, traces of the presbyterian model are preserved. U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators serve as representatives of their various constituencies and not as general representatives for the entire country. You could imagine an alternative scenario whereby the entire country votes for Senators and Representatives and the people with the highest vote total would be elected.

The spirit of representative democracy is woven throughout the fabric of America. The only clergy member to sign the Declaration of Independence was the Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon. John Witherspoon was also the president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) and tutored the “Father of the Constitution” James Madison.

Defending the “republican” form of government is a good and worthy end for conservatives. It also makes sense to give a tip of the cap to the Presbyterians. Few things are more American than Presbyterianism.

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