The Need for Counter-Majoritarian Makeweights
Acton Institute Powerblog

The Need for Counter-Majoritarian Makeweights

Royal Coat of Arms of the NetherlandsDrawing on some themes I explore about the role of the church in providing material assistance in Get Your Hands Dirty, today at Political Theology Today I look at the first parliamentary speech of the new Dutch King Willem-Alexander.

In “The Dutch King’s Speech,” I argue that the largely ceremonial and even constitutionally-limited monarchy has something to offer modern democratic polities, in that it provides a forum for public leadership that is not directly dependent on popular electoral support. In the Dutch case, the king broached the largely unpopular subject of fundamentally reforming the social democratic welfare state.

This is in rather sharp contrast to the social witness of the mainline of Dutch church leaders, at least over the last few decades. But the churches, too, have a role in acting as makeweights against democratic majoritarian tyranny.

There is no perfect civil polity this side of eternity, which must be acknowledged consists of a divine monarchy. So each system has its faults. This is one reason that so many classical and Christian theorists have often favored a mixed polity of sorts, intended to ameliorate the faults of any single system. Thus, writes Calvin in his Institutes (4.20.8), “I will not deny that aristocracy, or a system compounded of aristocracy and democracy, far excels all others.”

In the United States, where we don’t have the benefit of even a ceremonial monarchy, the original system included significant counter-majoritarian makeweights, notably including the electoral college and the indirect election of US senators. Many of these constitutional strictures have either been eliminated or continue to come under democratic populist critique. As Lord Acton once observed, “It is a most striking thing that the views of pure democracy…were almost entirely unrepresented in [the American] convention.” Indeed, he says, “Americans dreaded democracy and contrived their constitution against it.”

As the Dutch king’s speech, the social witness of Christian churches, and the counter-majoritarian aspects of the US Constitution make clear, there is a need for checks on the will of the majority in a democratic order.

Long live the king!

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.