By Ewout Klei
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 the Second World War separates good from evil in the Western world. Democracy, freedom of expression and toleration of ethnic minorities are right, while dictatorship, censorship and discrimination are wrong. The memory of 9/11 has a similar moral function. In the Western view democracy, patriotism and women’s rights are good, while terrorism, religious fundamentalism and a traditional patriarchal society are evil.
The aftermath of the French Revolution of 1789 created a collective memory in the nineteenth century impacting heavily the political debate. On the one hand, the ideals of the French Revolution – liberty, equality and brotherhood – contributed greatly 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 devote Christian historian and politician. Groen was influenced by Burke and Stahl and promoted his own orthodox-protestant version of conservatism. But Groen didn’t call himself a conservative, a counter-revolutionary or a reactionary. He 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 French revolutionaries sovereignty resides in the people and not in God. For this reason Groen condemned the French Revolution as unbelief, as 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 and the Dutch rebels acknowledged God’s sovereignty. Their rebellion was not motivated by revolutionary ideas but 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).
ARP and CHU had often participated in the Dutch government. The ARP represented approximately 10% of the Dutch votes, the CHU 8%. Before World War II, they had a dominant role in Dutch politics because many Dutch still considered the Netherlands as a Protestant nation. After the war however the KVP (Katholieke Volks Partij, Catholic People’s Party) and the PvdA (Partij van de Arbeid, Labour) became dominant. In response to the secularization and the loss of votes, ARP, CHU and KVP decided to merge. In 1980 the Christian Democratic Appeal was founded, a Christian democratic party for Protestants and Catholics, but also for Muslims and other non-Christians. In its heyday the CDA represented 35% of the votes.
SGP, GPV and RPF together represented 5% of the Dutch votes. These small Christian parties were testimonial parties and focused on their principles, instead of adapting them to local or temporal issues in the pursuit of coalition government participation. They have a marginal role in Dutch politics. SGP, GPV and RPF believed they were the true heirs of Groen’s legacy.
Since the year 2000, GPV and RPF are merged into the ChristenUnie (ChristianUnion), representing 3% of the Dutch votes. The ChristenUnie did not want to stay a testimonial party. From 2007 to 2010, the ChristenUnie participated in a centre-left government coalition. The SGP too aspired more influence on the government. From 2010 to 2012, the SGP gave passive support to the centre-right minority coalition.
Figure 1: Protestant Parties in the Netherlands
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 SGP, GPV, RPF and ChristenUnie 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 September 11 attacks?
Fighting the ghost: Verbrugh’s vision
One of Neo Calvinism’s most interesting political philosophers is A.J. Verbrugh. He was the ideologue of the GPV and representing them from 1971 to 1981 as a Member of Parliament. Verbrugh developed the ideas of Groen, especially those concerning the ideal of the Christian State. Groen criticized the Dutch liberal constitution of 1848 because of its ungodly and revolutionary principles, but his criticism was only theoretical and he didn’t develop a real alternative. Verbrugh did. In response to the secular constitutions of the Netherlands and of France, he advocated a Christian constitution based on God’s Law.
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 inalienable human rights and society is made up of individuals with equal rights, instead of different groups with different privileges.
The French Declaration had a strong influence on the Dutch civil rights. In 1796, one year after the French armies invaded the Netherlands and the Batavian Republic was established, church and state became separated. Before 1796, only members of the Dutch Reformed Church were allowed to occupy public positions. Our first National Assembly however had catholic, Jewish and protestant dissenter representatives. However, when emperor Napoleon met his Waterloo at Waterloo and the House of Orange was back in the saddle, these liberal changes were made undone. After 1848 Catholics, Jews, protestant dissenters and new groups like atheists finally were emancipated , thanks to the new liberal constitution of Johan Rudolf Thorbecke.
Because of its influence on the Dutch constitution, Verbrugh gives much attention to the French Declaration in his magnum opus Universeel en Antirevolutionair (Universal and Antirevolutionary). The French revolutionaries borrowed familiar iconography of the Ten Commandments and wrote their Declaration on two tables of stone (see figure 2). 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. The vision of Verbrugh is an attack on the separation of powers, defended by the French philosopher Montesquieu. The power of the legislature is strongly limited.
It is possible Verbrughs ideas for constitutional reforms were inspired by F.C. Gerretson, a far-right member of the CHU who in the Interwar Period flirted with fascism. In the year 1934 Gerretson wrote a controversial booklet called Koninklijk kabinet of dictatuur? (Royal Cabinet or Dictatorship?) In this pamphlet Gerretson advocated an authoritarian government, headed by the Dutch monarch, and wanted to limit the power of parliament. After the war Verbrugh advocated the same ideas and he called Gerretson a ‘Great Dutchman’, because of his staunch opposition to the decolonization of the Dutch East Indies and European integration.
In Universeel en Antirevolutionair 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 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 and does not want to revoke the civil rights of Catholics, Jews or even atheists. 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.
For the GPV the ghost of the French Revolution was an important identity marker. In 1976 the party remembered Groen van Prinsterer, who had died in 1876. The GPV invited only the SGP for this commemoration, not ARP and CHU. According to Verbrugh, these two moderate protestant parties have betrayed the antirevolutionary legacy of Groen. “The Christian democratic parties have lost their chance to be strong in the fundamental debate, because they have surrendered themselves to the ideology of neutrality.”
A year later, during the general elections, the GPV attacked the CDA. In 1977 ARP, CHU and KVP still existed as separate political parties, but for the first time joined forces in the elections and formed a common list. Party leader Dries van Agt (a Roman Catholic) said at the congress of the CDA there were three ideological movement in the Netherlands: the liberals who were the party of freedom, the socialists who were the party of equality and last but not least the Christian democrats who were the party of brotherhood. The GPV fiercely condemned Van Agt. The Christian democrats now exposed themselves as a revolutionary party. The GPV of Verbrugh on the other hand was of course loyal to the antirevolutionary principles of Groen. In fact, the GPV was one of the few political parties who still resisted the dangerous ideas of the French Revolution and upheld the believe that all authority was God-given.
Verbrugh left parliament in 1981. Verbrughs successor Gert Schutte was not an intellectual but his colleague Eimert van Middelkoop, Member of Parliament from 1989 to 2002, was. Van Middelkoop considered himself as Verbrughs political pupil and defended his master’s voice both in parliament as well in the Groen van Prinsterer Stichting, the political think tank of the GPV. According to Van Middelkoop the Netherlands were ruled by a democratic consensus. Of course, the liberals of the VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), the social-democrats of the PvdA, the social-liberals of D66 (Democraten 66, Democrats 66) and the Christian democrats of the CDA had different notions about some political issues, for example the economy and social policy. But in principle they shared the same democratic ideology. They were all heirs of the French Revolution. These democratic parties all supported the ideas of equality, the right of self-determination and popular sovereignty. Only GPV, SGP en RPF, the heirs of Groen van Prinsterer, resisted the dangerous democratic doctrine and remain true to their own beliefs. For this reason the small Christian parties were alienated by a democratic and secular majority who did not reckon with their conscientious contributions to the political debate.
It is worth mentioning that Van Middelkoop was more cautious than his mentor. He did not attack democracy as such, only the democratic consensus. Were Verbrugh uses Groen’s antidemocratic analysis to formulate an alternative political system, Van Middelkoop uses the analysis of both Groen and Verbrugh to portray the small Christian parties as endangered parties, marginalized by the majority. He hereby contributed strongly to the orthodox protestant self-image as a tiny group of faithful Christians in a secular society, threatened by a hostile majority who’s secret goal is to persecute them, an image GPV shared with SGP and RPF. Verbrugh himself did not use this image because he was an optimist who thought that his ideal of a Christian state was perhaps within reach. In response to the secularization of Dutch society the GPV became more pessimistic. Especially during the Purple Coalitions (1994-2002), when Christian parties for the first time since 1918 were excluded from government and euthanasia and same-sex marriages were legalized, the GPV feared that the ghost of the French Revolution had definitely won.
Concluding, the anti-democratic and anti-theocratic vision of Verbrugh makes his political philosophy quite unique. His political pupil Van Middelkoop uses his political philosophy in a different context and portrayed the small Christian parties as marginal parties, endangered by a democratic and secular majority. SGP and the RPF considered themselves as heirs of Groen too. The way they approach the French Revolution is quite similar, but also a bit different.
Fighting the ghost: Spiritual warfare
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 perhaps be explained by the rational Calvinist culture of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. All members of the GPV were members of this church. The theology of this church is strictly orthodox as well as rational. Liberal theology of course is fiercely condemned by liberated Reformed theologians, but humans are rational beings and are able to understand the Word of God.
In contrast to the culture of the GPV and the liberated Reformed pillar, the political cultures of the SGP and the RPF were less political, less rational and more spiritual. Nevertheless they shared with the GPV a similar self-image, of a group of true Christian who were marginalized or even persecuted by a hostile secular majority.
The SGP, established in 1918, was first led by hyper-calvinist theologians. In its early years the ultra-orthodox 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 van Prinsterer himself, who accepted parliament and tolerated (to a certain degree) the Roman Catholics. Reverend G.H. Kersten, the first party leader of the SGP, however often cites anti-Catholic quotes from the works of Groen. His main purpose was to show the ARP and the CHU that they have betrayed Groens legacy because they formed a government coalition with the Catholics. Under the leadership of Kersten the SGP was a true testimonial party. Kersten was a misunderstood prophet. In parliament nobody really listened to his warnings or took him seriously.
After World War II 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 and condemned it in abstract, spiritual language. 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, 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 ultra-orthodox protestants Christians as a separate group, the ultra-orthodox Reformed pillar. Ultra-orthodox protestant parents must have the right not to vaccinate their children and have also the right to send their children to ultra-orthodox protestant elementary and secondary schools. Furthermore, in municipalities were the SGP do have a majority swimming pools and shops have to be closed at Sundays. Finally, the SGP wants to have the right exclude women to be elected in parliament.
The SGP feels threatened by progressive political parties as PvdA, D66 and GroenLinks (GreenLeft) and the feminist Clara Wichmann Fonds. They want to force the SGP to treat women equally as men, after all. The will of the secular majority in the Netherlands, who is quite intolerant towards the convictions and especially the practices of the SGP and the ultra-orthodox pillar it is representing, is interpreted in an antirevolutionary way. During the French Revolution the secular majority brought terror and persecuted Christians who upheld their convictions, the secular majority in the Netherlands is marginalizing these true Christians now and will persecute them in the future.
The RPF was even more spiritual in its criticism of the legacy of the French Revolution. The party called itself theocratic in spirit, but considered itself democratic in practice. In 1992 André Rouvoet of the Marnix van Sint Aldegonde Stichting, the party’s think-tank, formulated his vision in a quite different way as Verbrugh. Nevertheless his actual political vision was quite the same. He also advocated a Christian State with freedom of religion for minorities.
Members of the RPF were reformed protestants and evangelicals. The RPF had strong ties with evangelical organizations, like the EO (Evangelische Omroep, Evangelical Broadcasting Foundation), the EA (Evangelische Alliantie, Evangelical Alliance) and the EH (Evangelische Hogeschool, Evangelical College) in Amersfoort. Together with this organizations, the RPF formed its own pillar, the evangelical pillar.
The RPF and the evangelical pillar can both be compared with the Christian Right movement in the United States, where evangelical Christians fights 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, sometimes miliant strategy. The struggle against the legacy of the French Revolution was a culture war, a war against feminism, gay rights and ‘ungodly’ science (especially the Theory of Evolution). Groen van Prinsterers critic of the French Revolution was interpreted in an evangelical way. GPV and SGP were only fundamentalist in theology, the RPF was also fundamentalist in attitude.
Furthermore, like the other small orthodox protestant parties the RPF was very fearful of the majority rule. The RPF feared that secular democracy will 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 EH, Christians were discriminated by the secular society when they do not submit themselves to the humanist discourse.
During the Purple Cabinets many supporters of the RPF felt that Christians were being discriminated, when party leader Leen van Dijke was condemned to a fine of 300 guilders, because of the offending nature of remarks he made about homosexuals. In an interview in 1996, Van Dijke told that he considered homosexual people who practice their orientation as in the same category as swindlers. Van Dijke himself considered his case as a test case for the freedom of religion in the Netherland. “Are Christians still allowed to repeat what the Bible has to say about this?” In the year 2001 however, he was cleared by High Court. Because Van Dijke´s remarks were based on his religious conviction, he was allowed to make them. The Netherlands were not a secular tyranny yet.
The ghost after 9/11 and the Arab Spring
The Second World War had a 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 critical about the Islam and developed a hostile attitude towards this religion. On the other hand ,the Roman Catholic Church was no longer seen as a threat. On the contrary, conservative Catholics like Mariska de Haas-Orbàn of the Katholiek Nieuwsblad (Catholic Newspaper) were even considered as allies. The old Calvinist slogan ‘Rather Turkish than Papist’ was replaced with the slogan ‘Rather Papist than Turkish’.
The SGP proposed a ban on minarets, because these were symbols of Islamic imperialism and a threat to Dutch (Judeo-Christian) culture. The Islamic minority of 800.000 people in the Netherlands are allowed to have freedom of conscience, but are denied freedom of religion. Because theocracy is nowadays associated with (fundamentalist) Islam, the SGP for opportunistic and strategic reasons does not use the word theocracy anymore. Party leader Kees van der Staaij called the SGP from time to time democratic, because his party has accepted democracy as a working model. Of course this does not mean that the SGP is truly democratic nowadays.
The vision of the ChristenUnie is more moderate. The party nowadays officially defends democracy, but interprets democracy in an orthodox protestant way and is still hostile towards the democratic principle of majority rule. According to the ideologues and representatives of the ChristenUnie, Muslim citizens in the Netherlands deserve the same civil and political rights as Christians. Nevertheless they considered (political) Islam as a dangerous threat to (their own limited interpretation of) democracy, but especially to Christians.
Former party ideologue senator Roel Kuiper, a political pupil of Verbrugh, in 2011 wanted an absolute ban on Sharia legislation in the Dutch constitution, a proposal which was hailed by the populist politician Geert Wilders of the far right PVV (Partij van de Vrijheid, Party for Freedom). For Kuiper, the democratic rule of law state (which he implicitly defined as Christian) was more important than the democratic principle of majority rule. Like Verbrugh he wanted to protect the Christian heritage of the Netherlands by constitutional reforms. Kuiper was afraid for the (theoretic) possibility that if Muslims formed a majority in the Netherlands they may pass legislation which threaten the Christian minority.
Interestingly, current party ideologue Gert Jan Segers, head of the Groen van Prinsterer Stichting, the political think-tank of the Christian Union, had 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, especially 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 about the situation in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak: “In Egypt it is a time of transformation, a time of hope and fear. In such a time it is very important to draw clear lines, because it may all develop in the wrong way. 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 very conservative antirevolutionary in their appreciation and condemnation of the French Revolution. Despite the fact that Groen van Prinsterer lived in the nineteenth century and the world has changed since then, GPV, SGP, RPF and ChristenUnie never criticized Groen’s analysis and maintained their vision.
On the other hand, the actualization of the French Revolution by the orthodox-protestant parties was flexible and they adapted their vision constantly. The French Revolution was relevant for Verbrughs analysis of the Dutch constitution, but it was relevant too for distinguishing themselves from the moderate Christian democratic parties and for their negative reaction to the cultural revolution of the sixties. Not only liberalism and socialism, but also feminism, the theory of evolution and gay rights were revolutionary. Furthermore, even the Arab Spring of 2011 was interpreted by the small orthodox-protestant parties 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 is 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 strive of Dutch orthodox-protestant parties to establish a Christian State, the dream of this parties to dominate the political theatre, despite the fact that his was of course impossible. 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.
Senator Gerrit Holdijk of the SGP cited once with approval a statement of the theologian A.A. van Ruler, who said that for Christians there were two political realities: theocracy or persecution of Christians. Van Ruler denied the possibility that a Christian minority can participate in a secular society and a secular political system. Both the ChristenUnie and the SGP call themselves democratic nowadays. It is, however, still difficult for them to accept democracy, because their minority opinions often conflict with mainstream opinions in the Netherlands, which are liberal and secular.
Finally, despite the fact that orthodox-protestant parties say they want to protect the rights of (Christian) minorities, they are often intolerant towards the so called double minorities, people who happen to be a minority of a minority. Within the SGP women do not fit the mold. And for the ChristenUnie the admission of homosexuals is a highly controversial issue. The SGP denies women the freedom to be elected in parliament and therefore equal rights, the ChristenUnie denies freedom and equal rights to homosexuals. The inner-party politics of both parties are therefore very antirevolutionary so to speak, because there too orthodox protestants fight the ghosts of French Revolution.
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 their own way.