Some events have had a great impact on history, creating a collective memory like the Second World War, or more recently 9/11. The impact of these events are not only inspiring many writers but also play an important role in the political debate even today. The memory of 9/11 separates good from evil in the Western world. In the Western view patriotism and women’s rights are good, while terrorism, religious fundamentalism and a traditional patriarchal society are evil. The memory of the Second World War has a similar moral function. Democracy, freedom of expression and toleration of ethnic minorities are right, while dictatorship, censorship and discrimination are wrong.
The aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789 created a collective memory in the nineteenth century, which had great impact on the political debate. On the one hand, the ideals of the French Revolution – liberty, equality and brotherhood – lead to the development of three political ideologies: liberalism (freedom), socialism (equality) and nationalism (brotherhood). On the other hand, there were also political ideologies which opposed the French Revolution and its ideals. Conservatism, developed by political philosophers such as the Anglo-Irish politician Edmund Burke, the French-speaking writer Joseph de Maistre and the German ecclesiastical lawyer Friedrich Julius Stahl, promoted traditional and Christian values and institutions and defended the privileges of both the nobility and the State Church.
In the Netherlands the French Revolution was heavily criticized by Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer, a devout Christian historian and politician. Groen was influenced by Burke and Stahl but didn’t call himself a conservative, a counter-revolutionary or a reactionary. Groen rejected the entire available spectrum of political positions, promoting a "radical alternative in politics, along anti-revolutionary, Christian-historical lines". The real political antithesis was not the antithesis between conservatism and progressivism, but the antithesis between belief and unbelief. According to Groen, the French Revolution was in essence unbelief, a rebellion against the authority of God. Other revolutions, for example the Belgian Revolution of 1830 and the Spring of Nations of 1848, were also condemned by Groen. In fact, all revolutions and all non-Christian ideologies were considered unbelief, and therefore must be condemned. On the contrary, the Dutch Revolt in the sixteenth century against Spain was approved by Groen, because this was a Calvinist rebellion against Catholic Spain, motivated by Christian principles.
Groen is the godfather of the anti-revolutionary movement in the Netherlands. Not only the Anti-Revolutionary Party (1879-1980) of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) was part of this movement, but also the Christian-Historical Union (1908-1980) of A.F. de Savornin Loman (1837-1924), and small orthodox protestant parties like the SGP (Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij, Reformed Political Party) (1918-), the GPV (Gereformeerd Politiek Verbond , Reformed Political Alliance) (1948-2000) and the RPF (Reformatorische Politieke Federatie, Reformed Political Federation) (1975-2000). These small Christian parties – together they represented 5% of the Dutch votes - believed they were the true heirs of Groen’s legacy. Since the year 2000, the GPV and the RPF are merged into the ChristenUnie (ChristianUnion ), representing 3% of the Dutch votes.
This paper will research the function of the ‘ghost of the French Revolution’ and the legacy of Groen van Prinsterer in the political ideology of the orthodox-protestant parties from 1945 to today. Why was the French Revolution so important for the collective memory and identity for these parties, even after other big historical events, such as World War II and the attacks of 9/11?
Fighting the ghost: Verbrugh’s vision
The French constitution of 1791 was originated by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789. This Declaration had a humanist spirit and advocated the political principles of the Enlightenment. Authority is not God-given but comes from the people, humans have human rights and society is made up of individuals with equal rights, instead of different groups with different privileges. In Universal and Antirevolutionary, Verbrugh gives much attention to the Declaration. The French revolutionaries borrowed familiar iconography of the Ten Commandments and wrote their Declaration on two tables of stone. This could be considered as a rebellion against God. For Christians the Ten Commandments are the Law of God, written by God himself. The Declaration on the other hand is the Law of Man, written by the representatives of the People.
According to Verbrugh, a good constitution is based on the Law of God. Verbrugh therefore advocates a Christian constitution with an explicit reference to God. A Christian constitution protects the Christian State against the (possibly unchristian) will of the majority, in order to preserve the Christian identity of the nation. For extra protection, Verbrugh promotes the establishment of a Supreme Court with authority to overrule democratic lawmaking by Parliament. The Supreme Court will be presided by the King, thereby increasing Royal political powers.
Verbrugh makes perfectly clear that he is not in favor of a democratic government. He links democracy with popular sovereignty, which was fiercely condemned by Groen van Prinsterer. Verbrugh cites with approval a statement of Groen (who cited the Swiss protestant Alexandre Vinet) concerning the impossibility of a Christian democracy, because “in such a combination of words the noun devours the adjective.” According to Verbrugh, the Dutch political system is not a democracy but a constitutional monarchy with a parliament, universal suffrage and important fundamental rights such as the freedom of religion. Despite the fact that Verbrugh opposes democracy, he does not advocate the idea of theocracy. Verbrugh advocates freedom of religion and opposes discrimination and persecution of religious minorities. Furthermore, he rejects the idea of a State Church. The fact that the state should be a Christian State, does not mean that the State has to recognize one church as the true church.
The anti-democratic and anti-theocratic vision of Verbrugh makes his political philosophy quite unique. Despite the fact that the SGP and the RPF considered themselves as heirs of Groen, the way they approached the French Revolution and the Dutch political context is somewhat different.
Fighting the ghost: Spiritual warfare
The GPV of Verbrugh approached the French Revolution in a very elementary way: its constitutional legacy must be stopped, and therefore the state must introduce a Christian constitution. This approach can be explained by the rational Calvinist culture of the Reformed Churches (Liberated). All members of the GPV were members of this church. The theology of this church is strictly orthodox as well as rational.
In contrast to the GPV, the SGP and the RPF were less political, less rational and more spiritual.
The SGP, established in 1918, was first led by hyper-calvinist theologians. In its early years the party warned against modernity, rejected the authority of both parliament and democracy and in its opinion, the Roman Catholic Church was the Antichrist. The party was in fact far more radical than the godfather of the antirevolutionary movement Groen himself, who accepted parliament and tolerated the Roman Catholics. After World War II however the SGP became less counter-revolutionary and more antirevolutionary. The party resisted the consequences of the cultural revolution of the sixties, especially feminism and gay rights. In their opinion, the cultural revolution of the sixties was a fruit of the French Revolution of 1789, driven by the same unbelief.
In 1989, remembering the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, party leader Bas van der Vlies criticized the legacy of the French Revolution in general clichés. The French Revolution was the antipode of the Reformation of the 16th century. The Revolution was rebellion against God, the Reformation was submission to God. The French Revolution was human pride, a new Tower of Babel. According to Van der Vlies “The year 1789 was the year when the political emancipation of unbelief started.” Last but not least Van der Vlies criticized the Christian democratic party CDA (in 1989, this party had approximately 35% of the votes), because this moderate Christian party was conciliating the revolution and did not resist. The noun democracy indeed ‘devours’ the adjective Christian.
The SGP was in favor of Calvinist theocracy. However the party realized that its political ideal was very difficult to achieve. Therefore, the party adopted a defensive strategy. The main purpose of the SGP was to uphold the rights and privileges of orthodox protestants Christians as a separate group.
The RPF was even more spiritual in its criticism of the legacy of the French Revolution. The party called itself theocratic in spirit, but was democratic in practice. Like the GPV, the RPF advocated a Christian State with freedom of religion for minorities.
Members of the RPF were reformed protestants and evangelicals. The party had strong ties with evangelical organizations, especially the Evangelische Omroep (Evangelical Broadcasting Foundation).The RPF can be compared with the Christian Right movement in the United States, where evangelical Christians fight a culture war against progressive values. The RPF saw itself not only as a political party in the strict sense, but as a broad social movement. Instead of a defensive strategy, the party adopted an offensive strategy. The struggle against the Legacy of the French Revolution was a culture war, a war against feminism, gay rights and ‘godless’ science (especially the Theory of Evolution). Groen van Prinsterers critic of the French Revolution was interpreted in an evangelical way.
Furthermore, the RPF was very fearful of the majority rule. The party feared that secular democracy would end in tyranny, like the French Revolution. The democratic majority not only legislated laws, which were considered as unchristian (the Equal Treatment Act and the laws discussing abortion and euthanasia), but in the view of the RPF also threatened the rights of minorities (especially the rights of orthodox protestant Christians of course). According to R.H. Matzken, a philosophy teacher of the Evangelical College, Christians were discriminated by the secular society when they did not submit themselves to the humanist discourse.
The ghost after 9/11 and the Arab Spring
The Second World War had relatively little impact on the political ideology of orthodox-protestant Christians. Political groups that identified themselves as antifascist were (radical) leftwing. Political values which became very important after this war, democracy and non-discrimination, were contested as revolutionary values by the orthodox-protestant parties.
The political-theological impact of 9/11 however was greater. The SGP became more and more anti-Islam. The Roman Catholic threat was replaced by a Muslim threat and became political. The party proposed a ban on minarets, because these were symbols of Islamic imperialism and a threat to Dutch (Judeo-Christian) culture. Muslims are denied freedom of religion. However, they are allowed to have freedom of conscience.
In 2000, GPV and RPF merged into the ChristianUnion. The vision of this party is more moderate. According to the party, Muslim citizens in the Netherlands deserved the same rights as Christians, but (political) Islam was seen as a dangerous threat. Senator Roel Kuiper, a political pupil of Verbrugh, wanted an absolute ban on Sharia legislation in the Dutch constitution, a proposal which was hailed by the populist politician Geert Wilders. Interestingly, party ideologue Gert Jan Segers, head of the Groen van Prinsterer Foundation, the political think-tank of the Christian Union, compared Islam as a political ideology with secularism. In Islamic countries, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism after 9/11 and the Arab Spring threatened the civil rights of religious minorities, like Shiite Muslims and (of course) Christians who are persecuted. In the Netherlands, the rise of secularism threatened the freedom of religion. According to Segers, despite the fact that Christian are (not yet) persecuted, the Dutch situation may develop in the same direction.
Kees van der Staaij, leader of the SGP, subscribed Segers critical analysis of the situation of Christians in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. He invoked the ghost of the French Revolution explicitly when he wrote that the situation in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak may get worse: “After the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century the guillotine came. After the Iranian Revolution of the twentieth century there came a dreadful dictatorship.”
It is very interesting to see that despite the fact that history moves on, the historical analysis of the political situation stays the same. On the one hand, Dutch orthodox-protestant parties were antirevolutionary in their appreciation and condemnation of the French Revolution. On the other hand, their actualization of the French Revolution was flexible and they adapted their view on it constantly. The French Revolution was relevant for Verbrughs analysis of the Dutch constitution, but it was also relevant for their negative reaction to the cultural revolution of the sixties. Furthermore, even the Arab Spring of 2011 was interpreted by them in an antirevolutionary, Groenian way.
Two aspects of the French Revolution in particular were important for the Dutch orthodox-protestant parties: 1) The fact that the French Revolution had a secular fundament, that was rooted in unbelief. 2) The fact that the French Revolution resulted in tyranny, and that majority rule is a dangerous threat for Christians. The first aspect has everything to do with the ambition of Dutch orthodox-protestant parties to establish a Christian State, the dream of these parties to dominate the political theatre. The second aspect however has everything to do with the greatest fear of these parties, to be subjected to marginalization and persecution by a hostile society, and perhaps a hostile government.
It is still difficult for the orthodox-protestant parties to accept liberal democracy, because their minority opinions often conflict with mainstream opinions in the Netherlands, which are liberal and secular.
Ewout Klei (1981) is specialized in political and religious history. He wrote his master thesis about the Dutch politician Joan Derk van der Capellen tot den Pol (1741-1784). This advocate of the American struggle for Independence and leader of the Dutch patriot movement deeply inspired the populist politician Pim Fortuyn (1948-2002). In 2011 Klei finished his Ph.D.-thesis about the Reformed Political Alliance, a small conservative Christian party in the Netherlands, with little political power but influenced the Dutch political history in its own way.