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Christian comeback in the Dutch election?

UTRECHT, The Netherlands – The elections of March 15 ushered in a revival of Christian democracy in the Netherlands. It is true that the ChristenUnie (CU) and Staatkundige Gereformeerde Partij (SGP), already small, did not advance in seat totals, holding only five and three seats respectively in the new parliament. But the Christen-Democratisch Appel (CDA) rose from 13 seats to 19, becoming the third largest party of the country. Overall, the Christian parties increased their share from about 14 to nearly 19 percent of the total vote. More important, the CDA was almost immediately recognized as an indispensable party in the anticipated coalition, ideologically close as it was to the largest party, the conservative liberal party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Even if that attempt at such a coalition should fail, the Christian Democrats would be needed to create a coalition of the left-wing parties, a prospect that the leader of the CDA, Sybrand Haarsma Buma, has until now rejected. Moreover, it is possible that the CU might join the coalition, if talks between the Christian Democrats and the liberal parties with the Green Left party, another big winner in the election, fail. In contrast to the elections of 2012, one or two Christian parties are key to forming a government, and even the SGP might play a role in supporting the new coalition if the parliamentary majority seems too small.

In Dutch coalition politics, it is extremely difficult to know ahead of time which parts of the various party platforms will be implemented and which ones will be sacrificed in the horse-trading. What seems likely is that with the CDA in the government is that the effort by the liberals to introduce far-reaching “completed life” legislation, which pledges to help those who consider their lives as fulfilled to end their lives, will be made more difficult if not impossible. The CDA would do this by either committing the liberals to not pursue such legislation or making it a “free” issue not introduced by the government but left open to parliament. A more family-friendly tax structure might result from this coalition too. Also, legislation further secularizing the state through eliminating “by the grace of God” from all royally-signed laws would likely slow or be stopped. A government by the CDA would likely look kindly on Christian schools – still teaching two-thirds of Dutch primary school children – and possibly also the public broadcasting system, which includes Christian associations. In all these senses, Christians with traditional concerns may feel some reason for optimism.

The new Christian Democracy
I would argue, though, that there is as much cause for concern as any relief in this victory for the Christian Democrats. The CDA in its party program made almost no references to the Christianity that ostensibly continues to inspire it. This is because they concluded that the number of churched voters was both too small and too politically divided to merit attention, and that a more nostalgic appeal to Dutch nationalism would be more successful. Taking a strong stance against immigration, singing the Dutch national anthem the Wilhelmus at schools, and forbidding the holding of more than one passport now became the warp and woof of the Christian Democratic agenda. Traditional themes of the stewardship of creation, social solidarity or support for a pluralistic society that allows for minority beliefs were now hardly to be discovered in the new Christian Democracy. It illustrates that parties purporting to stand for Christian values in a society that have become increasingly unchurched are sometimes tempted to become narrowly tribal and ungenerous in their ethos, much more so than when they were led by people of deeper Christian conviction. 


  • James C. Kennedy is Dean of University College Utrecht in The Netherlands. He's the author of A Concise History of the Netherlands (Cambridge University Press), forthcoming this summer.

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