Sunday, October 9, 2011

Learning How To Do Democracy

At more than one time in American history, the lessons of democracy had to be learned: first, in the colonial days, when each colony had its own internal republicanism in the forms of town councils and legislatures; then in 1776, when a grander scale of democracy was introduced; and later, as the nation expanded westward, small towns formed in the wilderness and had to develop democracy for themselves. Professor Szasz, at the University of New Mexico, explains:

Churches and Sunday schools served as the bulwarks of social stability. Not only did they provide venues for regular services, their rooms held a variety of social gatherings as well, thus functioning as training grounds for political democracy. The numerous church meetings introduced people to such basic democratic principles as how to conduct public meetings via accepted rules of order, how to speak to the issue at hand, and (usually) respect for majority rule. Thus, the church and political gatherings of the era overlapped and reinforced each other.

The churches on the western frontier were ideal places for democracy to develop: the Christian principles of tolerance and kindness meant that when a church building was used for a political gathering, all people were welcome to express their opinions. A fundamental respect for every person, especially those with whom you disagree, was encouraged. It is no accident that these western states were largely against slavery, and it is no accident that the first woman elected to Congress (Jeannette Rankin from Montana, elected in 1916) came from this region.