Puritans And Politics

The Roots Of Democracy


Today is election day and millions of us are casting our votes and wondering if our next president will be from Kansas or Arkansas.

But as we wait for the votes to be counted, I can't help thinking of a place our political heritage began--New England, where my own roots happen to be. The Puritans, who built those small picturesque towns, helped mediate a uniquely Christian understanding of politics.

Visit any New England town and you will find a white clapboard church standing at the center, its steeple pointing heavenward. But the church also stands at the center of our political system, for it was within the walls of the church that our spiritual forefathers, the New England Puritans, hammered out the principles of self-government.

Prior to the English reformation, popular elections were unheard of. The concept of people electing their own leaders was first championed by the Puritans in the Church of England. The Puritans challenged the appointment of pastors by bishops and civil authorities. Instead, they believed God's will was better discerned through corporate means involving all the members of a congregation.

The Puritans taught that when believers covenanted together to form a congregation, God would also establish a covenant with the church--a promise to answer her prayers and guide her corporate deliberations. This included the election of pastors and church officers. The Puritans considered the relationship between pastor and congregation nearly as sacred as the marriage covenant.

But this view of the church was unwelcome in the Church of England, so the Puritans came to the New World to put their principles into practice. They established a system of self-governing, congregational churches throughout New England. And because the Puritans viewed society as a unified whole, they applied these same principles of self-government to the states as well. A concept, by the way, considered very radical at the time.

These were the beginnings of American democracy. Those who say that Christian faith has no place in the public square need to be reminded that Christianity itself shaped our public square with its unique concept of self-government.

Today's Christians need to learn from this history as well. Like the Puritans, we must trust that God works through the democratic process. We can be confident that God is sovereign over the affairs of men. No office holder from the town clerk to the president is elected by accident or luck. He is placed there by God's providential hand and for God's purpose.

At times we may believe the wrong people are elected, but this is no reason for despair. Even bad rulers can be used by God for His purposes--rulers like the biblical pharaoh, whom God used to garner freedom for the Hebrew people. Remember, God's purposes have less to do with the state than with the church. His church has flourished even under the most hostile political regimes, as we've seen recently in Eastern Europe.

You and I may not worship in the small clapboard churches the Puritans worshipped in, but on election day let's remember to cherish the rich heritage the Puritans bequeathed to us. Let us cast our votes and then--like our spiritual forebears--trust the outcome to God.