Updated: Sep 15
(Scroll to the bottom if you want to get right to the Video Lesson for students : ) . . . but here's my introduction!)
In a recent American Government lesson, students dug into the Pilgrim Code of 1636: “the first modern constitution- a constitution that is also a covenant” (Origins of American Constitutionalism Lutz 27). This was the first detailed account of just how the growing Plymouth Colony would govern themselves and it gives important insight into what they valued most and the type of civil government they sought to establish.
Remember, these were "people of the Book" and their genuine and fervent desire was to do all things in a way that was faithful to Scripture. Not surprisingly, we see a high value placed on the idea of self-government and representation. They were establishing a "republican" or "representative" form. Why was that? (NOTE: this is little "r" republican; it refers to government by representatives chosen by the people, rather than government by the people directly or by a king or some other controlling group).
The answer: they understood that representation was a cornerstone of liberty and had its basis in the type of civil government that God established for his children as they escaped the tyranny of Egypt. That civil government was to be a testimony to the nations around them...an expression of something so radically different that the surrounding peoples would take note of their righteous laws (Deuteronomy 4:8) and their liberty to self-govern under "wise men" that they chose to rule over them (Deuteronomy 1:13-15).
At the time of the Israelites, it was an entirely unique system for that point in history, a system that John Calvin, writing in 1536, characterized in this way:
"It very rarely happens that kings regulate themselves so that their will is never at variance with justice and rectitude. . .the vice or imperfection of men therefore renders it safer and more tolerable for the government to be in the hands of many . . . so that if any one arrogate to himself more than is right, the many may act as censors and masters to restrain his ambition. This has always been proved by experience, and the Lord confirmed it by his authority, when he established a government of this kind among the people of Israel, with a view to preserve them in the most desirable condition till he exhibited in David a type of Christ. And as I readily acknowledge that no kind of government is more happy than this, where liberty is regulated with becoming moderation. . ." (Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin Volume IV: Chapter 20:8)
Wow! There's a wealth of wisdom to be unpacked there but I'll limit myself to this: a system where government was not concentrated in one man but distributed to the people who chose representatives (or "magistrates" in Calvin-speak) to rule over them is what God established for His people. According to Calvin this was to "preserve them in the most desirable condition" where "liberty is regulated with becoming moderation." For those of you in my class, what Calvin is speaking of is that precious and uncommon balance on the governmental teeter-totter between tyranny and anarchy, the two pagan extremes in the expression of civil government. In God's system, there is liberty under righteous laws.
But there's more! Calvin continues:
". . .so also I consider those as the most happy people, who are permitted to enjoy such a condition; and if they exert their strenuous and constant efforts for its preservation and retention, I admit that they act in perfect consistence with their duty. And to this object the magistrates ought likewise to apply their greatest diligence, that they suffer not the liberty, of which they are constituted guardians, to be in any respect diminished, much less to be violated: if they are inactive and unconcerned about this, they are perfidious to their office, and traitors to their country.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin Volume IV: Chapter 20:8)
Did you catch that? People who "exert their strenuous and constant efforts for its (liberty's) retention.....act in perfect consistence with their duty" and the magistrates that the people choose are to be certain that "they suffer not the liberty (of the people) of which they are constituted guardians to be in any respect diminished, much less to be violated." Finally, if those representatives DON'T do this, they are betrayers of their office and "traitors to their country!"
So if the people have the "duty" of preserving liberty and are charged with choosing the "magistrates" to act as guardians of it, who is ultimately responsible for good government in a republic?
That's right - the people! Choosing well and wisely is a duty . . . and big one!
One way this was expressed in the Pilgrim Code of 1636 was that freemen who did not participate in elections were actually fined! That sense of duty, that valuing of the representative system became part of the foundation of our American constitutional republic. So you see, voting is more than a privilege, it's a duty necessary for the retention of liberty. Just as the Hebrew people were charged more than 3,500 years ago, we are to choose those "wise, able, and experienced" representatives who will be faithful to their office and who will "suffer not the liberty of the people to be diminished or violated!"
So what does that look like in practical terms? This week, I put together a short "Voting" video resource (clickable to the left as well) for young people on how voting and the election process works and how to think about it from a biblical perspective ....with notesheets and a worksheet to help them "make it personal." You'll also need the link to this document on "platforms" to do the final question. Feel free to use it with your young people and to share with others who might find it helpful.