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Quid Est Potentia?

By December 16, 2016 10 Comments

“There are two elements of the constitution, wrote Walter Bagehot in 1867, the efficient and the dignified. … The efficient has the power to make and execute policy, and is answerable to the electorate. … The dignified gives significance and legitimacy to the efficient, and is answerable only… to God.”

In case you are puzzled, Bagehot’s words do not refer to the United States Constitution, but to the English Constitution (Bagehot’s 1867 book is entitled The English Constitution). You might recognize this speech if you, like me, have fallen under the spell of the Netflix series The Crown.

The Crown is a splendidly produced and acted period drama recounting the early reign of Elizabeth II. Those of us suffering from mild withdrawal since the end of Downton Abbey now at last have a way to soothe our need for consummate acting, lavish costumes and sets, and witty dialogue spoken with a posh English accent. So far, with one season down in The Crown, we have witnessed the transition from George VI, who died in 1952, to a young Queen (portrayed by Claire Foy) still in her twenties, struggling to live into the authority and purpose of her office.

In an early scene in episode 7, titled “Scientia Potentia Est,” we flash back to a young Elizabeth Windsor and her constitutional tutor, the Vice Provost of Eton. He explains to the princess that those two elements of British government, the efficient and the dignified, “only work when they support each other, when they trust one another.” As we shift back to the narrative’s present (1953), that question of trust settles at the heart of the episode’s conflict. Britain faces a foreign policy crisis: Russia has been testing a hydrogen bomb, a situation requiring the delicate intervention of Prime Minister Winston Churchill (rivetingly portrayed by John Lithgow) and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. However, both are incapacitated by illness—and they collude to keep this fact from the queen. Of course, she eventually finds out.

Before all that drama ensues, though, we American viewers get to marvel for a moment over the neat separations of the British system. A prime minister keeps the government operating, and a monarch provides all the grandeur and symbolism the public desires in a leader. How wise! That way, you can assign some gruff, deeply well-read, militarily experienced statesman like Winston Churchill to fuss with the day-to-day tangles of governing a nation. And meanwhile, you can foist all the ceremonial duties and photo-ops onto an entirely different figure, someone who has been raised precisely for this purpose—to symbolize the dignity of a nation and its history.

I had to consider for a moment why the scene of young Elizabeth with her tutor hit me so hard. And then I realized—it’s because the person the U.S. has elected to be the next president promises neither the efficient nor the dignified functions. We might argue about the wisdom of particular policy intentions the president-elect has signaled, but here is a person—as so many have pointed out—who has no experience whatsoever in elected office, nor with foreign policy, nor with military service, or even (that which was so mocked for President Obama) with community organizing. He is entirely unqualified to run a government, as his cabinet appointments thus far manifestly demonstrate with their blow-the-place-up cynicism.

And then there’s the lack of dignity. For those who couldn’t understand why so many people seemed emotionally devastated by the election results, I would suggest that we look to the symbolic function, the “dignified” function, the need for our president to lend “significance and legitimacy” to the mundane operations of government. I do not need to rehearse how the president-elect fails to embody the best of American ideals. Even people who voted for him admit that much.

We ask a lot of an American president, expecting that person to serve both the efficient and dignified functions at once. We pretend, sometimes, that the efficient is the only part that matters, because after all this is America and we don’t have a monarchy—we rejected all that silliness and excess and incipient tyranny in the eighteenth century. But the symbolic function is unavoidable nonetheless; it’s human nature to expect it, even to long for it.

In the latest Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates laments the end of President Obama’s second term specifically because of his symbolic power. Though Coates has sometimes criticized Obama for being too much of a peace-maker, Coates recognizes with gratitude what it has meant to have this man in the White House—mixed-race, identifying as Black, a constitutional scholar, a family man with integrity and gravitas, at ease with hiphop culture and skilled with a basketball, calm and rational. Dignity embodied. You may have complaints from the right or left about President Obama’s efficient functions. But he has admirably fulfilled that symbolic function.

One of the things I appreciate about The Crown is the way it balances respect for the British monarchy with a subtle acknowledgement of its shortcomings and excesses. In “Scientia Potentia Est,” Elizabeth suddenly recognizes how woefully uneducated she is. She knows the constitution and has mastered palace manners but, the episode reveals, has studied little else. And yet she is charged—called by God no less—to ensure that her nation is properly governed as the nuclear age dawns. She needs to know about more than dogs and horses to sit next to statesman and dignitaries, to tussle with the wily Churchill, and to negotiate with a family and a palace staff who insist that you may be the queen, my dear, but this is how we do things. Poor girl can’t even choose her own private secretary, try as she might.

In the climactic showdown of the episode, however, Elizabeth musters the confidence to give her Prime Minister and his trusty sidekick, Salisbury, a dressing down for their deceptions. She addresses Salisbury first, scolds him like a nanny, and dismisses him. Then comes Churchill into her queenly presence, and we witness a crushingly sad moment when she tells him that, even worse than shirking the duty of his office to hers, he has betrayed her personal trust. (For his performance in this scene alone, John Lithgow deserves even more awards than he has already won.)

Elizabeth gained the strength to scold her elder ministers from a previous conversation with the rumpled, tweedy professor she had hired to help her “fill in the gaps” in her education—a hopelessly overwhelming task. The professor assures her, however, that in this particular case, she has everything she needs. She is in the right, they are in the wrong. She only needs to stand for integrity and principle, and she has those qualities in abundance. Thus she decisively rebukes both her errant officers-of-the-efficient in terms of duty—hers and theirs.

Efficiency. Dignity. Integrity. Principle. Duty. Yes, it’s a lot to ask. Even so, I look to what is ahead for head of state in our Republic and I wish I could check off at least one or two. Instead I must check “none of the above.”


Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Daniel Meeter says:


  • Gordon says:

    I unhappily agree, final paragraph , God Help us all

  • Douglas MacLeod says:


  • Sharon Etheridge says:

    This is so well said. Thanks for writing it.

  • Fran Siems says:

    My heart goes out to you in your anger regarding the election. God steps into our world at times in unusual ways, and perhaps His will didn’t match yours this time. May you be warmed in His love at Christmas.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Thank you for acknowledging my anger and for your kind wishes. I am confident that we both believe in a mighty God and that we both pray: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. Grace and peace be with you.

  • Anneke says:

    LOVE The Crown. Thank you for this timely and poignant and excellent post, Professor Rienstra.

  • Ron calsbeek says:

    Excellent. Thank you. I think I may watch “The Crown” for a second time.

  • Amy Schenkel says:

    I love The Crown and have been saving the last episode for a quiet night at home (ha!). I mostly love watching Queen Elizabeth as she matures as a leader and manages her personal and professional relationships in a world where men are typically in charge. It is a great show!

  • Glo says:

    Important to point out that the quote is from The Crown, not Bagehot’s treatise.

    “No one can approach to an understanding of the English institutions…unless he divide them into two classes. In such constitutions there are two parts…first, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population — the dignified parts, if I may so call them; and next, the efficient parts — those by which it, in fact, works and rules. There are two great objects which every constitution must attain to be successful, which every old and celebrated one must have wonderfully achieved every constitution must first gain authority, and then use authority, it must first win the loyalty and confidence of mankind, and there employ that homage in the work of government.”

    “The dignified parts of government are those which bring it force which attract its motive power. The efficient parts only employ that power. The comely parts of a government have need, for they are those upon which its vital strength depends.”

    “We have in England an elective first magistrate as truly as the Americans have an elective first magistrate. The Queen is only at the head of the dignified part of the constitution. The prime minister is at the head of the efficient part.”

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