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The Dutch are calvinists by coincidence


Published: 22 January 2009, NRC Handelsblad (International Edition), by Herman Amelink


The religious reformer Calvin was born 500 years ago, therefore 2009 is celebrated internationally as the year of Calvin. The Dutch are said to have him to thank for their sober nature. But historically was the Netherlands ever really a calvinist nation, and how strong is his influence today?


Nowhere did French-born Jean Cauvin (1509-1564) gain as much following as in the Netherlands, which has long been known as a calvinist country. Some of the most important Dutch political leaders have calvinist roots: prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, his deputy prime ministers Andre Rouvoet and Wouter Bos, and many others.


Public morality has reached a peak these days in the Netherlands. Current government policies could hardly be any more calvinistic. No one has been permitted to smoke in public places since summer 2008. Public policy is geared towards closing marijuana-selling cafes called coffee shops. The Dutch government is increasingly intervening in the private sphere in the lives of its citizens, sending out civil servants to visit homes to checkup on welfare fraud and influence childrens upbringing. Officially, no one should earn more money than the prime minister, according to government policy. The best-paid officials working for semi-public organisations cannot have a salary higher than that of Balkenende: 176,000 euros per year. Could things get any more calvinistic?


Still, it is ”pure coincidence” that the Netherlands has attained this reputation, according to religion historian Mirjam van Veen of the VU university of Amsterdam. The development of calvinism as a dominant factor in the Netherlands had to do with the fact that the Roman Catholics in the 16th century were associated with the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands. And they certainly weren't to be trusted.


Revolt against Spain


Martin Luther (1483-1546) came on the reformation scene decades earlier than Calvin, decrying the excesses of Roman Catholic doctrine. Yet he also taught that one should not resist the government, even ruling Catholics. This ruled out Lutheranism as a dominant religious force in the Netherlands. Calvinism rose to the fore because it was the perfect match between the political and social context of that moment in time: the beginning of the revolt against Spain.


The Dutch provinces, which at the time fell under the jurisdiction of the Habsburgs, revolted in 1568 against Spanish repression. In 1581 the Spanish king Philip II was deposed as the monarch of the Netherlands and the Dutch Republic came into being. However, not until the Peace of Münster in 1648 – after 80 years of war against the Spanish occupation – was the republic officially recognised.


Van Veen says: "Calvinism acknowledged the right of revolt against a ungodly government." In addition, calvinism focused on the local church communities. "That was a good match with the rise of cities in the 16th century, which were gaining independence from central authority." Still, says Van Veen, "the Netherlands has never really been calvinised." Certain Roman Catholic practices simply continued as before. "Church burials, for example. Or the ringing of church bells at wakes. For true calvinists, that is pure superstition." The calvinists also never banned St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas) celebrations or festivals. "The local authorities had to let certain practices continue in order to maintain the peace."


The calvinist goal was not to establish a populist church of broad appeal, but to create a pure, strict form of worship. Yet this doctrine never really came into practice in the Netherlands. Just as in the Catholic church, all children were baptised whether or not their parents took part in religious life. Local practice took precedence over doctrine.




Certain characteristics are thought to be specifically calvinistic. Calvinism is seen as gloomy, austere, hostile to mainstream culture, dogmatic, egalitarian, law-abiding, influential, disciplined, rigorous and exclusive. "Sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly," says Van Veen. Which of these features are still evident in the Netherlands today?


Calvinism emphasises austerity. Yet there were also practical reasons for modesty. During the Eighty Years' War more Spanish soldiers died of syphilis than in battle. The fact that reverends didnt dress flashily had to do with the competition posed by the Baptists, who emphasised the simple life. Austerity is still considered an important virtue. In The Hague you still see government ministers getting round on their bicycles rather than by chauffeured car.


Some elements in calvinism are hostile to mainstream culture. Such as the opposition to sculptures and paintings in church, which are believed to distract attention from the Bible. In conservative Protestant circles in the Dutch Biblebelt remnants of these beliefs live on. Some people do not go to the theatre, watch movies, dance or even have a television at home as a matter of principle. At the same time, these farmers have no objections to using the most modern machines for agriculture.


Calvin was not dogmatic. His most important work Institution was not written out of one single, established principle. He did not believe that the Bible should followed word for word. But Calvin contradicted himself. He said that God could not be captured in theological constructions. Yet he developed an elective doctrine that precisely laid out what God did or didn't have in mind. He didnt hesitate to present himself as an arrogant prophet, saying: "Yes, the word of God speaks through me." So when the Dutch voice their opinion on the world stage, and there is a distinct dogmatic undertone to their words, this harkens back to the idea that 'we know better how it should be.'


In egalitarian calvinism you can earn riches but you can't boast about them. Of whom wealth is given, responsible behaviour is expected. Showing off is out of the question !


In the calvinist tradition, people are required to look after their intellectual development. Man has a responsibility towards God - and study is one part of this. Knowledge of the Bible and religious doctrine was the most important aspect of this, but the calvinists also systematically undertook other training. Theologians were seen as also culture bearers, required to hold their own in debates. In the endless debate over the structure of Dutch education today, the ideal remains to grant a good education to as many as possible.


Law-abiding calvinists expected great things of the government, which they saw as the 'servant of God' dedicated to the good of all citizens. That implied civic responsibility as well as obligations to government. A calvinist state is paternalistic. The credit crisis seems to have highlighted the importance of a well-functioning state, according to many in the Netherlands.


Discipline in personal and community life was a characteristic of calvinism. In his own lifetime Calvin worked as a lawyer. Good recordkeeping of business rules and laws is calvinist. The flip side to this is the tendency, in politics, to come up with a rule for every problem, and believe that through rulemaking the problem is resolved.


Many people in the Netherlands long felt that the Dutch were a 'chosen people' and could serve as an example for other nations. A remainder of this sense of exclusiveness or specialness is the feeling that the Dutch are leaders in many fields. Yet this sentiment has been expressed by different countries as part of their nationalism. Americans, for instance, have a similar reputation of telling others what is good for them. This often has religious connotations, though not calvinist per se.


To read more about Calvinism, you can click here (Wikipedia article).


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