Is the clock ticking on Dutch Christianity?

I think you can no longer say that the Netherlands is still a Christian nation in the way we knew it to be in the past. But even if no one goes to church any more this doesn’t mean you have washed away the Christian roots just like that. In that sense we remain a Christian land.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende made this statement in a recent interview with the NRC newspaper, but was this the Wisdom of Solomon or typical political double-speak?

What exactly was the former professor of “Christian social thought” and leader of the ruling Christian Democrat CDA in the Netherlands referring to when he talked about “Christian roots”?

Was he talking about the belief the world was created by an omnipotent being whose only son was incarnated as a man and died on a crucifix in Jerusalem about two thousand years ago?

Or did he mean Jesus Christ‘s message of love, charity and forgiveness as brought to us by the Bible?

One could make the case that Dutch people in general accept the wisdom of numbers 6 and 8 of the 10 commandments. Who could argue with “Thou shalt not kill” and “Thou shalt not steal”?

But do you have to be a Christian to accept the sense of not killing and stealing indiscriminately?

And let’s face it; both Christians and non-Christians alike sometimes ignore these strictures.

The other commandments which deal with having no false Gods and craven idols, keeping the Sabbath holy and not coveting etc are apparent more in the omission in Dutch society than the application.

And what about number 7: “Thou shalt not commit adultery”?

For the sake of argument, let’s accept Christianity sets out a stall packed with some useful values and ideals that the Dutch public will at least occasionally buy from.

Should the Netherlands and the other peoples of Europe shop exclusively at Christianity Ltd to find that elusive European Union identity?

This is important, because the Netherlands currently holds the six-month revolving presidency of the EU at a time when Turkey’s candidacy is being discussed.

The likely accession of predominantly Islamic Turkey — coupled with the presence of hundreds of thousands of Muslims from Turkey, Morocco and elsewhere in Western Europe — has added urgency to the drive to develop an inclusive European identity.

Balkenende has taken frequent knocks since 2002 from the local media — including Expatica — for his advocacy of values and norms.

And he has made it easy: he originally spoke about norms and values, putting the rather contentious concept of “accepted” norms of behaviour before values.

He has also been mocked for what has been portrayed as his hankering back to the 1950s; a time when everything was neat and decent in the Netherlands and the various and often fractious Christian churches ruled over their respective compliant flocks.

Nonsense, said Balkenende in the NRC interview. He wants a mosaic-like society where people from different cultures and backgrounds can live and work together in the EU.

At the same time, he feels that people who come to live in the Netherlands should learn to speak Dutch, share in the common values and respect the rights and duties that are part and parcel of life in the Netherlands.

And it is time to be fair to Balkenende: he has dared to stick his head above the parapet and start important parallel debates: What should Europeans believe in to truly call themselves Europeans?

It was an issue he addressed when speaking in The Hague earlier this month at the start of a series of debates on European values.

Balkenende has also been busy with the same debate in the Netherlands: what values do people here hold dear and how should members of the public behave towards each other?

When he said the Netherlands would remain a Christian land, he was probably stating what he holds to be self evident, rather than triumphantly crucifix rattling.

Yet if the values and norms debate is to make headway in the Netherlands, we need to define what these “Christian roots” are and whether they are worth preserving. Indeed perhaps it is vital we do.

Politicians and native Dutch alike have expressed alarm at the anti-women and anti-gay views expressed by some Muslim clerics and books sold at a mosque in Amsterdam.

But the Bible contains almost identical utterances in favour of oppression of women and gay people. Who dares cast the first stone?

Ah, Christian commentators reply, Dutch people don’t subscribe to those ancient views. These days, it’s all about do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

If that is the case, Dutch society can call itself truly enlightened. But Christian?

Surely, human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the rejection of racism and colonialism have as much — if not even more — to do with secular philosophies as they do with Christianity.

At best, Christianity — which at one time helped fuel the witch trials and persecuted those who claimed the Earth was not the centre of the universe — is very adaptive.  It absorbs new ideas and learns to co-exist alongside competitive belief systems.

Perhaps this is where a “Christian” Netherlands shows its power. For a few hundred years Catholics and Protestant churches have got on together and in turn got on reasonably well with other religious and secular groups.

If that willingness to live and let live extends to the rest of Europe, the EU will benefit enormously.

The only flaw to this idea is that the various religious and secular pillars co-existed in the Netherlands of old largely by ignoring each other.

This is not an option in the 25-nation EU. Europe’s Muslim community is growing fast and Turkey and other countries are lining up to join. Whether a Christian God can help the EU forge a common identity remains to be seen to be believed.

Expatica is the #1 English-language news & information source for expatriates living in, working in or moving to the Netherlands (Holland), Germany, France, Belgium or Spain.


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Expatica, Netherlands
Sep. 17, 2004
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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday September 17, 2004.
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