Culture war or political competition in the Netherlands?

A U.S.-style “culture war” seems unlikely in strongly secularized Dutch society, yet, with the help of American evangelical influence in the Netherlands’ small Bible Belt, this seems to be occurring, reports The Economist (January 9). In early January, 250 clerics, mainly from small conservative congregations, signed on to the Dutch version of the American-based Nashville Statement, which sharply critiques progressive ideas about sex and gender, drawing a fierce outcry from the rest of Dutch society. One signatory was Kees van der Staaij, leader of the SGP party, a conservative group with roots in the Dutch Bible Belt, which consists of a string of towns in the center of the country “where Sundays are silent, women defer to husbands, and pastors set rules in family life and politics.” Dutch society, including gay and lesbian celebrities, swiftly condemned the statement, and the government, which groups two liberal parties with two Christian ones, “reaffirmed its gay-friendly bona fides: the minister of education and culture, a member of the liberal D66 party, called the Nashville Statement ‘a step backwards in time,’ and the justice ministry said it might constitute hate speech.” Among mainline churches, the president of Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit (VU), a historic Reformed institution that counted a few faculty members among the declaration’s signers, denounced it while many congregations hoisted gay-pride flags.

The article goes on to describe how “the affair is perplexing. For the SGP, the Nashville Statement contained little new. The party takes a hard line on reproduction, sexuality and marriage, but in recent years it has voiced its views quietly, recognizing that with three out of 150 parliamentary seats, it will hardly prevail.” Even if some conflicts remain between these conservative churches, the SGP and the Bible Belt are mostly viewed now as “harmless historical curiosities.” The answer may lie in the recent growth of right-wing populist parties, such as the Freedom Party and the new Forum for Democracy, which use anti-Muslim rhetoric while pressing for gay rights. These parties enjoy broader support than the SGP, and the use of the Nashville Statement and reiterating opposition to same-sex marriage may be one way to differentiate this group from the new populist rivals that threaten its base. But confessional ferment among Dutch Protestants should not be discounted. Most of the pastors who signed the statement came from Reformed congregations that refused to join the consolidation of the Protestant Church of the Netherlands (PKN) in 2004, which included more liberal Lutheran churches. The PKN has since annually lost members while the orthodox Calvinist churches have held steady. The article notes that the drive to translate the Nashville Statement came from Heart Cry, a youth movement that joins Calvinism with “an American-style emphasis on being born again.”