The Netherlands: The 'most Calvinist nation in the world'
This month marks the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth, the hugely influential theologist in the Protestant Reformation. But proud as the Dutch may be of him, Calvin wasn't a Dutchman.
Dordrecht -- French theologist John Calvin may never have set foot in the Netherlands but the teachings of this leader in the Protestant Reformation found no more fertile soil than here.
"Many say we are the most Calvinist nation in the world," Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, a proud adherent, said recently at the opening of an exhibition to mark the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth this year.
"Hard work, frugal living and tenacity of opinion: that is the typical make-up of the Dutch," he added.
Karla Apperloo, curator of the show entitled 'Calvin & Us' (Calvin & Wij) in the central Dutch town of Dordrecht, says the rise of Calvinism in the Netherlands coincided with the Dutch uprising against Spanish rule in the 16th century.
A believer in the separation of church and state, Calvin's reformist Protestant teachings "permitted revolt against power under certain conditions," unlike the reigning Catholic and Lutheran dogmas, she explained.
Dutch statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper revived Calvin's teachings in the late 1800s as neo-Calvinism, which was soon adopted as part of the country's national identity and became the official ideology of a political party, a trade union, a newspaper, a university and many schools.
By the mid 19th century, half the Dutch population was Protestant.
"There is no denying it: the Dutch are Calvinists. Perhaps not so much in a religious sense, but in our behaviour we often display characteristics that are typically Calvinistic," said Balkenende.
The inhabitants of the Netherlands, also known as one of the world's most liberal nations, are generally described in country guides as sober, reserved, conscientious, rule-driven and thrifty: all typical Calvinist characteristics.
In the northern Netherlands, some isolated communities still live without television or the Internet in a Calvinist rejection of popular culture.
Dutch Reformed Church in rural Netherlands
Yet 40 percent of the population described themselves as not religious in 2007, as opposed to 19 percent Protestants, 28 percent Catholics and five percent Muslims.
"Calvinism is today no longer tied exclusively to religious beliefs," said Apperloo.
There was a strong backlash against the dogma in the 1980s as society rebelled against Calvinism's rigid conservatism, including a strictly enforced prohibition on Sunday work.
Nowadays, commentators are pointing to signs that the Netherlands is returning to conservatism after decades of liberalism and tolerance, including moves to curtail legal soft drug use and prostitution.
Balkenende regularly advocates for the return of traditional "norms and values", and in true Calvinist style government policy dictates that no public manager should earn more than the prime minister's annual salary.
According to Lodewijk Dros, the author of a paper on Calvinism in the Netherlands, many compatriots were convinced that Calvin had been Dutch.
Dros has developed a test of Calvinism which he gave to 70,000 volunteers over nearly four months. His findings were that 56 percent of the Dutch can indeed be classified as Calvinist.
According to Balkenende, the moral teachings of Calvin are now "more relevant than ever before."
"The economic crisis is also a moral crisis created by greed, preoccupation with money and egotistical acts," he said recently.
"The credit crisis has made one thing clear: the need to strengthen morality in the economy. Calvin knew that society needed strong moral anchors; this is a lesson we need to take to heart."
Alix Rijckaert / AFP / Expatica
Calvin & Wij runs from 8 May to 31 October in De Grote Kerk, Dordrecht. For more information, see the exhibition website.
Photo credits: De Grote Kerk, Dordrecht by basje; Heldring Church, Hoenderloo by FaceMePLS (both Flickr.com, Creative Commons license)