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Gavin Matthews

Netherlands: pluralism and tolerance

The Netherlands is known throughout Europe as the leading exponent of radically liberal social, medical and ethical policies.

A view of Amsterdam. / Kaci Baum

The Netherlands has at last got a new government, the culmination of a process which has tested the Dutch commitment to pluralism and tolerance.

The Dutch elect their lower house by direct proportional representation, resulting in 11 parties gaining seats. This means that outright majorities are rare and coalition-building the norm.

Nevertheless, the 209-day coalition-building process has been unusually difficult. Mark Rutte, leader of the liberal VVD Party, has emerged as Prime Minister, in partnership with the pragmatic D66 party which bills itself as “progressive and socially liberal”. The other two parties in the coalition, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and Christian Union (CU) - the latter of which is more socially conservative - bring enough seats to gain a single-seat majority in the House of Representatives.

Although there are substantial differences between these partners, they are united in their determination to build a government which excludes Geert Wildeers’ right wing Freedom Party. Wildeers seized the political initiative early in the year, alternating his populist and nativist polemics against Islam and the European Union alternately. His early lead in the polls meant that he was on course to lead the largest party in the house, and a serious contender for office.

In Wildeers’ estimation, Islam, coupled with elites in Amsterdam and Brussels, are conspiring to abolish Dutch identity. He proposed a ‘Patriotic Spring’ in Europe, which he saw as a Northern European revolt against the EU; from Brexit, via Marine Le Pen to himself. Domestically, he advocates a “de-Islamification” programme, including closing mosques, banning various modes of Islamic dress, the arrest of all ‘radicals’, and has even “threatened mass deportations”. Wildeers is accused of hugely overestimating the numbers of migrants, and the percentage of Muslims amongst them.

Justice activist and CU party member Antonie Fountain finds little comfort in Wildeers’ subsequent exclusion from power. “The far-right Freedom Party are not part of the government, but if you look at the policies, they didn’t have to be,” he says. “Government policy is set up to deny access to refugees.” A fierce critic of the compromises his party has made in order to forge a coalition, Fountain continues, “People who care about human rights, hospitality and care for our neighbours seem to have lost the war of ideas with the hard-right populists.”

Of particular concern is the streamlined asylum application process, which takes only eight days and denies refugees legal representation. Jeff Fountain, director of The Schuman Centre for European Studies, points out that the CU has been able to bring some of its distinctly Christian policies to the coalition agreement, notably blocking D66’s “Completed Life” policy, which would have radically deregulated euthanasia. The controversy persists, however. Antonie Fountain concludes, “If you self-identify with Jesus as a political party, if you say you are trying to do Jesus’ will, then you set the bar very, very high for yourself indeed. So they need to either change this [refugee] policy, or change the party name!”



The Dutch have a long tradition of tolerance and plurality. Until the 1960s a system of ‘Pillarisation’ (vertical segregation of society on religious lines) predominated. The result was that while Catholics and Calvinists, for example, would not share neighbourhoods, churches, businesses, political parties, trades unions or social space, they did not try and remove the ‘other’ but existed in parallel ‘pillars’. Remnants of the pillars can be seen in the political parties and broadcasting networks today.

The Netherlands is known throughout Europe as the leading exponent of radically liberal social, medical and ethical policies. This is seen in Holland, not as general endorsement of things such as prostitution or recreational drug use however, but of toleration of others mixed with pragmatism. That “gedoogbeleid” (allowing some laws to be universally unenforced) is considered to be a national characteristic and is consistent with the state constitution, the first chapter of which is entirely taken up with the defence of individual freedoms.

Despite that, the Dutch commitment to openness has been often tested. More than 4500 Dutch people have been honoured for their selfless work in hiding and rescuing Jews from the Nazis during World War II, while others collaborated with the invaders. Openness is being tested again today, an irony not lost on Antonie Fountain. “A lot of these people who are trying to shut down our borders say they are doing so because they want to protect Dutch traditional values,” he says. “But one of our key traditional values has been hospitality and opening the doors to those who are not safe in other places.”



Although secularisation has sapped the church of the numbers it once enjoyed, Jan Wessels of Missie Nederland insists that the gospel of Christ is being lived out clearly and openly and there are pockets of growth. He describes the Netherlands as being truly ‘post-secular’, in that secularism is now so firmly established that it is welcoming to voices from faith communities in the public square, firstly because its hegemony is unassailable, and secondly because it has moved beyond being a movement exclusively defined by its desire to shun a religious past. As such, Christian voices are engaged in public debates without hindrance, and can use mainstream media to present Christian ideas.

Churches have also been bolstered by immigration, as over half the immigrants from outside the EU are active churchgoers. There are also many Muslim-background believers meeting in anonymous house churches across Holland, but little research has been done into the numbers or practices of these significant groups.

A study by Professor Wijsen of the University of Nijmegen in Rotterdam revealed higher than anticipated participation rates in Christian churches. Furthermore, he calculated that the social services offered voluntarily by these churches was worth 130m to the city. The city has in turn begun to help fund these faith-based responses to debt, poverty, homelessness and other needs.

The Netherlands might be seen as radically liberal, but its freedoms are open to all; not only to those with approved opinions. Antonie Fountain remarks, “It's very easy to be a Christian in this country. We can be as Christian as we want to be, we can do whatever we want; it’s a very good time to be a Christian here. In fact, it’s better than it used to be.”




Population: 17,053,420

Size: 41,526 sq km

Population density:  406.26 people per sq km. This is the densest concentration of population of any major European nation, only surpassed by smaller states and islands such as Malta, San Marino and Gibralta.

Economy: The Dutch economy is among the largest 20 in the world. It is highly developed, and interlinked with the economies of its European neighbours, especially

Germany and the UK. Its key sectors are transport, technology, agriculture and fisheries, creative and media, chemicals and energy.

Christian history: The Netherlands has a rich but largely forgotten Christian history, notably the towering figure of Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920). Kuyper was a journalist, educator, theologian, leader of the Anti-Revolutionary Party from 1897, and prime minister 1901-05.

Prime Minister: Mark Rutte 2010-present (VVD – People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy).

Monarch: King Willem-Alexander with Queen King Maxima since the abdication of Queen Beatrix in 2013.

Europe: The Netherlands has been a member of the EU in all its stages of development since 1958. It joined the Eurozone on 1 January 1999, and the Schengen area on 26 March 1995.


Gavin Matthews is a writter, blogger and Bible-teacher.

This article was first published in Solas magazine.




1.,, Telephone interview with Jeff Fountain, Shuman Centre for European Studies, NL.


3. Email correspondence with Dr Jan Wessels, Missie Nederland. Phone interview with Jeff Fountain, Schuman Centre for European Studies.

4. Interview with Jeff Fountain., "Count Your Blessings" F. Wijsen: University of Nijmegen, 2006.




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