Strakon Lights Up, No. 119

Master of the parish
   A parable of democracy


Master of the Senate, the long-awaited third installment of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, came out just a little too late to educate some small-town churchgoers whom I know.

Caro despises Johnson's means but admires his ends — heavier socialism and forcible integration of the races — and lovers of Liberty and Civilization will find that approach problematic, as will folks who believe that evil means are naturally adapted to produce evil ends. The churchfolk who participated in the politicking I'm about to describe may want to keep the latter point in mind. It would be a stretch to describe the official result of their Big Vote as evil, in itself, but often it's the unofficial, collateral results that end up dominating the history books. In other words, the choir robes ain't put up 'til the fat lady sings.


The Hoosier village that is the setting of my parable features an ecclesiastical anomaly, produced by the union of two mainline Protestant denominations in the late '60s. Since that time, two congregations of the same denomination have worshipped within half a block of each other. Like most white mainline congregations, both have been shrinking and aging over the past couple of decades, and recently the shrinking and aging have accelerated alarmingly. Each church strains to attract 40 to 60 worshippers to its Sunday service. One of the churches, which used to be the leading Protestant church in town and which 35 years ago filled its basement every Sunday evening with Youth Fellowship members, now has no regularly attending teenagers. Not auspicious.

A few years ago, the two congregations — overburdened with supporting two full-time pastors and two parsonages — formed a "cooperative parish." Under that set-up, there is one full-time pastor, who enjoys the usual fringes, and a part-timer who has no residential benefits. But the churches still conduct separate services and Sunday schools, and it seemed to be clear to everyone that more-radical restructuring was inevitable.

Over the past several months, a joint committee from the two congregations worked hard on that restructuring. They came up with an interim plan to unite services at the larger of the two churches and devote the other church to educational and administrative activities. After a few years, finances allowing, the two old properties would be sold and a new church built.

The committee members knew they would face some opposition, especially from some part of the congregation at the church whose sanctuary would be immediately abandoned. Traditional attachments are not to be despised in these matters, and the planners did no despising. They took no glee in their plan, recognizing it as a somewhat desperate move to save something. On average, the planners may have been a little better-educated than the average congregant, but they were not a bunch of arrogant, alien know-betters. No power-hungry Red Guards here. (Given the small size of the two congregations and the proliferation of committees and boards, the lay leadership is not exactly a tiny, hermetically sealed elite.)

Moreover, the planners were not about to try railroading anything through in the execrable manner of statist Progressives. Their "plan of union" proceeded slowly and deliberately through the (rather Byzantine, if you ask me) administrative apparatus of the cooperative parish, winning a solid or even unanimous endorsement at each step. Finally the Big Vote of the two congregations was scheduled for Sunday last. Now, there was a wrinkle, which you might think of as the equivalent of the Electoral College: the vote of each congregation was to be tallied separately (color-coded ballots were used), and a majority of shower-uppers from each congregation was required in order to adopt the plan.


I'm a conscientious non-voter — radical anti-voter would be more like it — but if I'd had a dog in the fight, I probably would have showed up and voted. Congregants were not asked to vote for one or another slightly different flavor of state coercion. They were voting, not for one or another man whose secret motives and masters and future actions were unfathomable, but simply Yes or No. There was no court filled with Red Judges lurking in the wings, slavering to overturn that Yes or No decision. And few enough voters were expected to turn out — 100 to 150 — that the infantile propaganda we always hear during statist elections about how "Your vote may make a difference!" might actually be true.

Plausible enough, eh? But wrong, wrong, wrong. Overall I am glad to be a small-town Midwesterner born and bred, but my ethno-cultural identity does entail one tendency that rather undermines my posture as a professional skeptic: invincible naïveté.

Here's what happened. A certain member of the planning committee there was whom I shall dub Lyndon D. Mockyvale — and let's make that "D" stand for "Daley." He shared equally in molding the plan and participated fully in the consensus that evolved in favor of it among the committee. In fact, he even "moved the question" at one or two critical points during the deliberations.

Two days before the Big Vote of the two congregations, however, congregants received a letter from Mr. Mockyvale advising them that it was "OK to say no" to the plan. He cited a number of Old Testament Prophets who had famously said no. (Later, as dust rose over the ruins, a number of Mr. Mockyvale's fellow planners noted what a shame it was that he hadn't thumbed through the New Testament, as well. He might have been reminded of another prominent naysayer, a chap named Judas.) He did include some actual arguments for his new position — arguments he had carefully refrained from advancing during the committee's deliberations, naturally — but there were a couple of matters inexplicably left out. First, an admission that he had supported the plan all the way through the committee stage; and, second, one of those, how you say, explanations accounting for his sudden, 180-degree turnabout. Still mired in my invincible naïveté, I exclaimed, "That's just sub-mental! No one can take that seriously!"

Few of my readers will be surprised to learn that, in the Big Vote, the plan of union was defeated. The congregation of the church where services would be held on an interim basis voted in favor, 42-9, but the other congregation, whose sanctuary would be abandoned, voted against, 52-44. Notice one thing: though the two memberships are about equal in numbers, almost twice as many folks turned out from the latter congregation.

This is where Robert Caro would get interested. A couple of days after the Big Vote, it transpired that Mr. Mockyvale had engaged in more than just letter-writing. He had orchestrated a "get-out-the-vote" campaign by telephone that succeeded in coaxing out of the woodwork, from that one congregation, people whom one committee member describes as chronic non-attenders, nursing-home patients, and folks who had moved away but whose names still appeared on the rolls. They were all people who, in Mr. Mockyvale's finely honed political judgment, could be relied upon to vote no. It wasn't precisely the cemetery vote, Dick Daley-style, but it was the next best thing.

Adding insult to injury, in what I might term the perfect crocodilian style, Mr. Mockyvale then sent a letter to his fellow committee members informing them that God still loved them. Lyndon Johnson would be proud. Heckfire, even Franklin Roosevelt would be proud.

Mr. Mockyvale's motives remain obscure, as do those of the "shadow voters" whom he mobilized. But if he does want to dominate the lay leadership of the not-so-cooperative parish from here on out, until it fades away, there's little to stop him. His fellow lay leaders haven't merely been demoralized; they've been repudiated in humiliating and definitive fashion. Of the many delicious political stories that Walter Karp tells in Indispensable Enemies, here's one I always enjoy citing:

It was a Republican state party boss, Senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania, who [in the early 20th century] stated with notable candor the basic principle and purpose of present-day party politics. In the face of a powerful state and national resurgence of reform and the sentiments of the majority of the Republican rank and file, Penrose put up a losing slate of stand-pat party hacks. When a fellow Republican accused him of ruining the party, Penrose replied, "Yes, but I'll preside over the ruins."

I need to make a wider-ranging point about democracy, even though I've made it many times before. Popular sovereignty, as usually understood, is just impossible. And manipulative elites are inevitable. If you can take more scripture, hearken to this from James Burnham:

The existence in [democratic] society of the suffrage machinery naturally tends to favor those individuals who are adept at using the machinery; just as, in a society where rule is founded directly on force, the ablest fighting men are favored against the rest. (The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom)

The problem, if I may express it with ruthless simplicity, is that time is short, information is scarce, and, unlike professional activists, ordinary people who have to get up early in the morning can't hang around at the party caucus until 3 a.m.


All the years I was growing up, every time the government cluster-fumbled, or the corruptionists made the air thick and yellow with their stink, or the voters landslided yet another squirrel monkey into office, I was sure to hear all the goody-goody types sing out, "Democracy is the worst form of government ... except for all the rest." I got so sick of hearing that and dwelling on its implications — and sick, too, of seeing the goody-goodies conscientiously ignore all the tyranny being imposed by honest, smart, hard-working tyrants — that I finally went out into the desert, put my hand on a rock, and became an anarchist.

I don't know what the equivalent of anarchism is when it comes to deciding church affairs. Unlike Mr. Mockyvale, I don't even know whom God loves. But on this little matter of democracy's fatal defects, brethren and sistren, can I get an amen?

May 24, 2002

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