Theology of elections



During the election campaign neither of the major parties addressed seriously the major challenges facing Australia: climate change, inequality and the forced movement of peoples.

Parliament HouseThat makes it inevitable that following this election, sovereignty, mandates and other weighty words will continue to dominate public conversation.

They usually function as political knives to cut through the messiness of our democratic order. But they also carry a cultural, and specifically theological, weight that may illuminate our present condition.

In theological usage, election is an evocative, top-down word, referring to God's choice of people for salvation, not to people's choice of a God. It also referred to God's choice of particular people for positions — priests, bishops and kings. That is still symbolised in the British coronation ceremony.

The reference to God was politically important because it emphasised that people in authority were under a higher authority.

Theologians debated whether God's election of people was to be understood primarily as an exercise of will or as an expression of mind. Although apparently recondite, the question was important because, if election is an exercise of intellect, it presupposes that it is made for reasons we could in principle understand, even if we cannot know them. If it is simply an exercise of will no reasons can be found.

This had implications for the authority that rulers exercised. If their choice was an exercise of God's will, they had to obey God's commands. But these did not reflect an intelligible human order. They simply demanded obedience.

It followed that the ruler's laws over his people were similarly exercises of will, mandates to be obeyed because the emperor had made them. They could not be measured against a universal moral order. As God's representative, the ruler's sovereignty was unlimited.


"In modern representative democracies the place of God is taken by the people, who are sovereign. There is no overarching moral order."


If the choice of rulers was an expression of God's plan for the world, they were accountable to an intelligible world order that they had to serve. Their own law making and governance was an exercise of reason, and could be measured against a moral order. As God's steward the ruler's sovereignty was limited.

In modern representative democracies the place of God is taken by the people, who are sovereign. There is no overarching moral order. Through elections the people choose the government. This is an expression of will. But the candidates' proposal of policies and later parliamentary debate upon them suggest an intelligible order of what is right for the nation

The party that can gather an effective majority in parliament is said to have a mandate from the people to govern and to propose legislation. But its mandate is deliberately and severely qualified. It must persuade the representatives of the people in parliament, whose mandate is to consider and pass judgment on legislation proposed to it.

In a conflicted parliament the inability to translate a mandate to govern into a mandate to implement policy through legislation causes frustration. This is created by the fact that the people, unlike God, does not give a set of values or overarching understanding of society to guide governments. The mandate to govern contains many rules governing procedures but it is silent about what kind of a society governance should seek. So where representatives do not share values and where societies are conflicted, a government may find it difficult to pass legislation.

Proposals to deal with such a blockage will differ according to whether the mandate conferred on the government is defined in terms of reason or of will. When those who conceive it in terms of will see the inability of the government to execute its economic policies because of a divided parliament, they will judge the nation to be ungovernable. They will argue that members of parliament have no right to obstruct the government's mandate. Those who obstruct the government, of course, will claim that they also have a mandate to oppose what they believe harmful. So there is a clash of wills.

Those who conceive the government's mandate in terms of mind will argue that it must commend to the people and their representatives the kind of society it wishes to build, and must persuade them that its policies will serve that society. In a divided society public conversation must embrace social goals as well as economic means.

The theological debate about election suggests that in a sharply divided democracy in which no party is trusted to push through its legislation unimpeded, it is not possible to produce concerted action by appealing to an agreed moral order accepted by all.

It is tempting to enable action by modifying the constraint placed on government by the nation's founders to persuade representatives of its case. This assumes that governance is a matter of will. It forgets the Enlightenment roots of democracy, with its suspicion of absolute rule and respect for reason.

What remains is the messy business of thinking, persuading and negotiating, attentive to what a good society would look like as well as to the ways in which the economy can be structured to serve it.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Election 2016



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Fr Andrew. "...the major challenges facing Australia: climate change, inequality and the forced movement of peoples," Good I respectfully suggest that these three pale into relative insignificance in their effects on Humanity when compared with the abandonment of ethics, personal morality and respect for human life, progressing hand -in-hand with the ascendancy of self -interest and corruption of the systems of Western civilisation often at the hands of its very genesis, the law. We are witnessing the return of barbarity exemplified by the likes of ISIS, nationalists of all colours and politicians like the Trumps and some of our own mob on all sides of the political spectrum. Goodbye civilisation. Welcome barbarity.

john frawley | 30 June 2016  

Morality is different from both law and religion. Religion is about the spiritual realm, the interior. Morality is about the exterior, the social. Atheists can discern right from wrong, as can believers, although it's quite often very difficult to do so. Even with God's overarching care. Messy - a good word to describe elections.

Pam | 30 June 2016  

Thanks Andrew. My search for a political expression of the gospel has led me unexpectedly into support for the Greens. In all the areas of care for those marginalised in our society, concern for the creation and welcoming the stranger they came out well in front.

Margaret | 30 June 2016  

Well written Andrew, No doubt on Saturday night the winning party will claim a Mandate from the people to govern in our name. BUT they only have the 'mandate' of at most the 40% of the electors who voted for them. If the people vote in a hostile Senate or 'hung parliament' then does the winning party have a Mandate? I am reminded of three concepts of Mandate, the first two examples modern, the last one, ancient . Two decades or so ago Howard managed had control of the House of Reps and Senate. What we saw was abuse of that privilege or Mandate - when he attempted to implement "Work Choices". The result- he was thrown out for abuse of the Mandate. Second ; did the Gillard Government with the support of the Greens, have the Mandate to rule when Abbott held them to ransom, claiming they did not reflect the Will of the People ? The Ancient Chinse Dynasties were thought to hold the "Mandate of Heaven" as long as they ruled in the 'interests' of their people, signified by lack of disasters and prosperity . In practice it meant that they maintained the infrastructure. They were thought to have lost the Mandate when disaster struck ,due lack of maintenance infrastructure leading to famines etc. Referring to that apology of Mandate of Heaven , Andrew comment that; "...the major changes facing Australia: climate change, inequality and the forced movement of peoples... "These eerily reflect consequences of that ancient concept of Mandate of Heaven if nothing is done . I agree with John Frawley. We are seeing the rise of chaos because we have forgotten the tenants of the Mandate . We would do well to reflect the lessons of history. However I am not confident that we will....

Gavin | 30 June 2016  

A.H.'whether God's election of people was to be understood primarily as an exercise of will or as an expression of mind.' Objectively, God's call seems to be Constant and Universal. However, the way it is received, or perceived, is very much dependent on the condition of the Receiver. Those immersed in, or conditioned to see Reality within the restrictions of colour, creed, or race, will interpret God's call in terms of those limitations. WHAT we accept or believe is not as important as WHY we do so; although this is not always clear at the time. It took many millions of years for the first forms of life on Earth, microscopic single-celled creatures, to advance to learn the dependence/ cooperation with other cells that resulted in the multi-celled beings such as ourselves. We are slow to accept that we as individuals are part of One Great Human Being, the Human Race, where each of us needs to play our part; no more and no less. The Peace and Harmony of us all, depends on seeing and accepting this.

Robert Liddy | 30 June 2016  

Like Margaret, I have been led unexpectedly into support for the Greens. I was going to just not vote, because there was no group of any significance that I could in conscience vote for. But then I thought that, although I have big objections to the Greens, on a national and international level they are morally so far ahead of the two major parties that I would be justified in voting for them. Not first, but ahead of everyone else who's going to count. They are misguided in important respects, but at least they're not as cruel and vindictive as what we have now.

Gavan | 30 June 2016  

In the election for the Senate, I voted first for Sustainable Australia in the hope that concerns about unsustainable levels of immigration here, a fundamental cause of our massive present day and predicted problems would have a voice in Parliament. (My vote otherwise will flow to a major party.) Sustainable Australia -about which Dick Smith, for example, has spoken so passionately - is neither on the right or on the left and it is not opposed to the present refugee intake (including those refugees from Syria yet to be processed). And it is not a one issue party. Beyond of course is the population growth on this finite planet also unsustainable but for which there are possible complex solutions. In both cases, elephants in the room which yet need to be noticed.

Elizabeth Lintower | 01 July 2016  

Thankfully the Greens aim to do what they can for climate change, inequality and the forced movement of peoples. I'm ashamed to be an Australian when we torture desperate asylum seekers in off-shore hell-holes, fail to pull our weight internationally with climate mitigation, have an increasing wealth divide here and make drastic cuts in overseas aid. Thank God for the Greens.

Grant Allen | 01 July 2016  


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