Secularization in the Netherlands

A two-part analysis of Abraham Kuyper’s impact in the Netherlands by David Koyzis recently appeared at the First Things site. The first part explained Kuyper’s approach to Christian politics in the early 20th century: “During his political career, Kuyper worked, not to turn the Netherlands into a godly commonwealth, but more modestly to secure a place in the public square for his Reformed Christian (Gereformeerd) supporters in the face of the secularizing ideologies spawned by the French Revolution. He did so primarily by means of his Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP), which would come to govern the Netherlands at various times in coalition with the Christian Historical Union (CHU) and the Roman Catholic State Party (RKSP), thus anticipating by almost a century the ecumenical effort known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, spearheaded by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson.”

Koyzis’ second piece offers an explanation of why the Netherlands has become so secular.

During the 1960s and ’70s a number of political scientists, including Arend Lijphart and Hans Daalder, turned their professional attentions to a phenomenon they called consociationalism. In a consociational polity the leaders of mutually hostile subcultures have learned to collaborate for proximate political purposes, even as their respective constituents remain fairly isolated from the others. Power-sharing occurs at the elite level, while at the grassroots each subculture has its own churches (if applicable), labor unions, hospitals, charitable organizations, fraternal associations and so forth. This social segmentation is often referred to by the Dutch word verzuiling, or pillarization. Kuyper’s efforts led to the establishment of a variety of explicitly Christian organizations parallel to their secular counterparts. (The painter Piet Mondrian grew up in this Gereformeerd subculture.)…

Nevertheless, I have found myself wondering whether Kuyper’s perhaps too peaceful coexistence with the forces of secularization in 1917 might not have been sufficient to maintain the subculture he led over the long term. Kuyper certainly wouldn’t have been pleased by his followers’ failure to evangelize, and pillarization needn’t lead to a lack of outward strategy, but historically such power-sharing agreements place a premium on reaching a least-common-denominator form of consensus and toning down differences. In a pillarized society, the distinct subcultures became adept at erecting and maintaining barriers against the other subcultures, yet the consociational arrangements they come up with have tended to be short-lived. Lebanon’s National Pact lasted from 1943 until civil war broke out in 1975. A similar arrangement in newly independent Cyprus lasted only three years. The classic era of Dutch verzuiling endured from 1917 to around 1966, when the divisions among the subcultures began to break down.

religious community focused only on its own survival in a hostile environment may already have lost the battle, and this is where the efforts of Kuyper’s followers perhaps fell short. If we genuinely believe that the redemptive story contained in the Bible is not just our story but the world’s story, then we have reason, not to keep it to ourselves, but to proclaim that news with urgency and enthusiasm and to live accordingly. A political ceasefire may serve the proximate good of intercommunal peace, but it can never be a substitute for the biblical command to preach the Gospel to the world, whose salvation ultimately depends on it. Different confessional groups may agree to disagree for the present, but the followers of Jesus Christ must manifest a confidence that the truth that sets us free is everyone’s truth, and not just a subjective truth peculiar to our own community. We should, in short, not be content to turn inward defensively but ought always to reach out to the larger world. If we lose confidence in the transforming power of the Gospel, we run the risk of losing ground in a conflict we may forget is still being waged, even under formal conditions of a political ceasefire.

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