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June 17-20, 2004 - Baylor University, Waco, Texas

Justifying Government Intervention: Diversity, Religious Conflict and the Dutch Government

by Christiaan Ravensbergen
Theological University of the Protestant Church in the Netherlands - Kampen, The Netherlands
A paper presented at CESNUR 2004 international conference, Baylor University, Waco (Texas), June 18-20, 2004. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.


In April 2004, during a debate on terrorism in Parliament, the Dutch Minister of Justice, Piet Hein Donner, proposed far-reaching limitations on the freedoms of expression and religion (Ten Hooven 2004a). This announcement was prompted by the discovery of a book called, The Path of the Muslim, in the Al Tawheed Mosque in Amsterdam (Djezeiri 2000). In this book, Muslims are advised to kill people who have abjured their Muslim belief, as well as to kill homosexuals and adulterers. The call to throw homosexuals upside down from the highest building in the neighborhood especially provoked indignation in Dutch society. That this book is mentioned in a debate on terrorism reflects the current political climate in the Netherlands, and the difficulties the government is facing in dealing with extreme Muslim groups and individuals. Of course this concerns only a small part of the Muslim community, but after 9/11/2001 and 3/11/2004 in Madrid, both the government and society carefully watch over these extremists. The frequent occurrences of incidents concerning Muslims, and the continuing discussion on the integration of Muslim immigrants into the Dutch community reveal something of the sensibility of society at this point.

            After the decompartmentalization of the Netherlands in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the Dutch government took a detached position towards matters of religion; but, recently we see this changing. In the above-mentioned debate on terrorism, the Minister of Justice said that more rules are needed to stop the spread of hatred and discrimination caused by the dangerous excesses of religious and non-religious extremism. It is clear that the government does not want people to use their freedom of expression to say things that undermine that same freedom of expression. According to the Minister of Justice, a curtailment of freedom rights may be necessary to protect them against groups that may take advantage of those rights to establish a regime excluding the freedoms of expression and religion. This idea corresponds with the German idea of ‘streitbare Demokratie’ (Ten Hooven 2004b). The Christian Democratic Minister said he does not oppose closing a mosque when the mosque incites hatred and violence; however, he does not have the legal capability to do so. The Civil Law Book does not give the government the right to close a mosque or other religious communities that are threatening the public peace. In the decompartmentalized Netherlands, where the government prefers to take a detached position in matters of religion - religion is now back on the political agenda, and government is being forced to say whether the manifestation of certain religious and non-religious ideas in public can be tolerated or not.

            What are the limitations of tolerance? And what are the grounds for government to intervene actively in religious matters? These are actual and very old questions. To answer some of these questions, we will discuss an event from Dutch history. At this point in history, the Dutch government intervened in matters of religion because the limits of tolerance were reached. After this discussion, we will come back to our time.


            On the issue of tolerance, the Netherlands has a reputation that goes as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries (Gijswijt-Hofstra 1989; Berkvens-Stevelinck 1997; Po-Chia Hsia 2002). This was the time of the Reformation, when governments in Europe were confronted with a diversity of religious denominations. As a way of dealing with diversity, religious tolerance became an important concept during this time. The model developed in the Dutch Republic contained a publicly recognized and privileged church, the Reformed Church, flanked by several other confessional groups. Sometimes those groups were officially forbidden, like the Roman Catholic Church, but all of them were more or less tolerated. Religious co-existence and tolerance were pragmatic solutions for a new phenomenon in the religious history of the Netherlands: The presence of a diversity of religious denominations. At the same time, this solution also had a principle side. One of the fundamental principles the new Republic of the Seven United Netherlands was founded on was the Freedom of Conscience (Frijhoff 2002, 30). In the founding document of this country, the Union of Utrecht (1579), it is stated that “everybody shall remain free in his religion, and nobody shall be examined because of his religion.” The policy of the Dutch government towards religion was one of tolerance and detachment. In keeping with this policy, the Netherlands has earned a reputation that echoes those works and is still being cultivated in our time (Kaplan, 2002).


            Seventeenth century tolerance did have its limits. An example is the Resolution of the States of Overijssel from 1616. On March 11 1616, the States of Overijssel decided that preaching about predestination in the Reformed Church would not be allowed (Baudartius 1624, Het Achste Boeck 1). This resolution was the result of the conflict between two factions in the Dutch political assemblies and the Reformed Church. The differences between the so-called Remonstrants and the Counter-Remonstrants almost precipitated a civil war in the young republic. It started as a conflict between two professors at the University of Leiden on the subject of predestination. It soon spread and became mingled with the discussion about the right of the government to say something in clerical affairs. The conflict in the church developed into a political conflict.

            This clash caused so much tension in society that the different governments were forced to do something about it. Everyone was involved in the conflict, not only theologians, but also the common people. They were discussing the predestination controversy everywhere – in church, in the tavern, and on the canal-boot (Van Deursen 1991, 275-276). An eyewitness account by Wilhelmus Baudartius, a minister from Zutphen attending a church service in Kampen, reveals the seriousness of the situation. On June 5 1615, after a sermon preached by the Counter-Remonstrant minister, Daniel Souterius, a group of people loudly entered the church. Souterius was called a heretic and a false teacher. A fight ensued. A Counter-Remonstrant nobleman was beating someone on the head and put his hand at his sword – but his mother prevented him from drawing it. This eyewitness account tells us that this affair easily could have led to bloodshed. After this incident, the magistrates of Kampen arrested the Remonstrants who caused this turmoil. The next day a Remonstrant minister came to the town hall, accompanied by 150 men to demand the release of the prisoners. Under the threat, the magistrates complied with this demand (Baudartius 1624, Het Sevende Boeck 5). After this affair, the situation stayed turbulent in the city of Kampen. In Deventer, another city in Overijssel, 200 citizens came to the town hall and demanded that the Counter-Remonstrant minister, Johannes Acronius, be accepted as a minister of the city. The magistrates of Deventer were afraid this minister would speak in public about ‘the controversies and present-day differences in Holland and elsewhere’ and would not ‘keep the peace and unity’. They were also afraid he would cause ‘schisms among the common people’ and therefore they refused to approbate the call on Acronius. This caused great anger among the majority of the population of Deventer (Van Slee 1926, 153).

            These events and others in the province in Overijssel lead to the enacting of a resolution of the States of Overijssel, called ‘The Resolution of Nobility and Cities, representing the States of the Country of Overijssel, calling for the maintenance of good peace and Christian unity, in the churches and places of this land’ (Knuttel 1889). In this resolution the States declared that the unrest among ministers and congregations was dishonoring and slandering God, disordering the countryside and the cities, and endangering the existence and the survival of the country. That the government was responsible for taking care of the honor of God was self-evident in those times. The examples from Kampen and Deventer are showing the necessity for the government to keep the peace. The Dutch Republic was also at war with Habsburg Spain, so the survival of the country was at stake. The front crossed the province of Overijssel, which further concerned the Overijssel government. Three groups in the country, the Spanish enemy, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Protestant dissenters, used the conflict within the public church to blame and slander the Calvinistic reformation of the churches in Overijssel. The conflict gave the public church a bad image. This was very inconvenient to the Reformed Church of Overijssel in their struggle to win the hearts of the people. At this time, less than 20 percent of the population of the Netherlands were members of the Reformed Church, and almost half of the people did not belong to any church at all (Po-Chia Hsia 2002, 5). The controversy within the public privileged church on the preaching of the doctrine of predestination caused so much social disturbance, that it could no longer be tolerated. In this time of war, the government needed a public church as a guarantor of civic order (Frijhoff 2002, 36).

            By enacting the resolution, and demanding the signatures of the reformed ministers on the resolution, the States of Overijssel tried to remove the source of conflict and put an end to the disunity. The Remonstrants agreed to this government solution to restore the peace in the country, but the Counter-Remonstrants did not. They wanted a clerical solution to the conflict, not a political one. To them, only a national synod could restore the peace and find a satisfying solution to the conflict. In their view the Overijssel government had exceeded their competence by enacting the resolution and deciding which part of the Christian doctrine was not allowed to be taught in church. Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants both agreed on one thing: Government had a responsibility in matters of religion. But there was no agreement among the Dutch Calvinists on what the content of this responsibility was and how far it should go. The conflict between Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants can be seen as an attempt to obtain some clarity on this point. A separation between church and state did not exist at that time; both felt they had responsibility in religious affairs. In times of peace and quietness one can live with some obscurity about the limits of the responsibility of the government in religious matters, but now it had come to a religious, and more importantly, to a political conflict, and something had to be done. It was Maurice of Nassau who forced a breakthrough. He left his detached position and got actively involved in the conflict. As stadholder and leader of the army, he chose the side of the Counter-Remonstrants. With his help the Counter-Remonstrants succeeded in gathering the political support they needed to call together a synod. This resulted in the national synod of Dordrecht (1618-1619) where the doctrines of the Remonstrants were condemned. The remonstrant ministers were exiled, the political leaders were sentenced, and Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, the leader of the Remonstrants was put to death.

            By the interference of Maurice of Nassau in the conflict, who combined the power of the government with the theological position of the Counter-Remonstrants, the peace was restored (Deursen 1991, 267). It is striking that neither the wishes of the Remonstrants dominated government, nor the wishes of the Counter-Remonstrants dominated the church, were honored. Maurice restored the balance, but he did not create clarity on the responsibility of the government in matters of religion. During the whole period of the Dutch Republic, the Reformed Church always stayed the public, privileged church and never became a state church (Dekker-van Bijsterveld 1987). After the traumatic events of the conflict between Remonstrants and Counter-Remonstrants the government of the Dutch Republic remained detached towards religion in general, and the public church in particular. It pursued the politics of tolerance towards the various religious denominations, carefully gardening the pragmatic and successful model of a pluriconfessional society (Po-Chia Hsia 2002, 5). In the 17th century, the continuation of these politics was unique in Europe.


            If we come back to the reasons why the States of Overijssel enacted their resolution, we see three reasons: 1. The honor of God. 2. Social peace, and 3. The existence or survival of the country. These were the causes that forced the Overijssel government in 1616 to intervene in matters of religion by determining which subjects the ministers were allowed to preach on in the public church. What are the grounds currently being used to justify the intervention of the Dutch government in religious affairs? It is certainly not the honor of God. Is the survival of the country in time of war a good reason? Although you might think otherwise, the threat of war plays an important role in the discussion on the limitation of freedom rights. We live in a time of war on terrorism, and safety is one of the main issues on the political agenda of almost every country. It is no coincidence that the intention of the Dutch Minister of Justice to limit in certain cases, the freedoms of expression and religion was brought up during a debate on terrorism. The threat of war certainly adds to the feeling of necessity for safety and therefore limits on freedom rights. The third argument – social peace, is currently the main reason for government to consider intervention in matters of religion. The fact that the discovery of the book, The Path of the Muslim – being part of a succession of incidents – caused so much disturbance, makes it clear that what is being said in this book collides with certain values broadly shared within Dutch society. These values cannot be questioned too much. After a period of multicultural thinking and after getting acquainted with certain kinds of fanaticism such as 9/11 and the murder of the popular Dutch politician Pim Fortuin, the call to put limits on tolerance has become louder and louder (Becker 2004 68-69). Apparently, at this moment, Dutch society needs a shared set of values – a kind of civil religion, just as the Dutch Republic needed a public church without too much internal conflict.

Is it justified to forbid the book The Path of the Muslim, to close the mosque where this book was found, and to send the Imam of this mosque back to Morocco? Right now, the Dutch government has no legal basis to do so; however, it is discussing the desirability of creating such a basis. The national government and especially the Minister of Justice are very reluctant to put an end to their politics of tolerance, and to leave their detached position towards religion. But perhaps it is necessary to maintain their politics of tolerance, and to leave their detached position in order to find a solution for the conflict on values. One might make the same move as Prince Maurice; as a man of the political minority, he joined the majority in church and brought two sides together. At this moment we see the mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, talking to the Muslim community in his city. Different from Prince Maurice, Job Cohen, who belongs to the majority side, does not share the beliefs of the people with whom he is speaking, but is bringing together politics and religion. He is convinced that they have to find a solution to the conflict on values together. This is another way of intervening in religious matters, and it might be more successful than talking in parliament about the limitations of freedom rights.



Baudartius, Wilhelmus 1624. Memorien, ofte Cort verhael der Ghedenckweerdighste, soo kerckelijkcke als Wereltlijcke Gheschiedenissen, van Neder-lant, etc. Het Sevende Boeck. Het Achste Boeck. Arnhem.

Becker, Marcel 2004. Verstandige tolerantie. In Wil Derkse, ed. Grenzen aan tolerantie. Erasmus, Hugo de Groot, Spinoza en de actualiteit. Budel, 68-82.

Berkvens-Stevelinck, C., J. Israel and G.H.M. Posthumus Meyjes, eds. 1997. The Emergence of Tolerance in the Dutch Republic. Leiden, New York, Köln.

Deursen, A. Th. van 1991. Bavianen en slijkgeuzen. Kerk en kerkvolk ten tijde van Maurits en Oldebarnevelt. Franeker, 2nd Ed.

Djezeiri, A.B.D. 2000. De weg van de moslim. Deel 3: Sociale betrekkingen. Leiden.

Frijhoff, Willem 2002. Religious tolerantion in the United Provinces: from ‘case’ to ‘model’. In R. Po-Chia Hsia and Henk van Nierop, eds., Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age, Cambridge, 27-52.

Gijswijt-Hofstra, Marijke, ed. 1989. Een schijn van verdraagzaamheid. Afwijking en tolerantie in Nederland van de zestiende eeuw tot heden. Hilversum.

Dekker-van Bijsterveld, S.C., ed. 1987. Kerk en staat. Hun onderlinge verhouding binnen de Nederlandse samenleving. Baarn.

Hooven, Marcel ten 2004a. Vrijheden op de schop. In Trouw, 27th April 2004.

Hooven, Marcel ten 2004b. De ‘strijdbare democratie’ en het CDA. In Trouw, 30th April 2004.

Kaplan, Benjamin J. 2002. ‘Dutch’ religious tolerance: celebration and revision. In R. Po-Chia Hsia and Henk van Nierop, eds. Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age, Cambridge, 8-26.

Knuttel, W.P.C. 1889. Catalogus van de pamfletten-verzameling berustende in de Koninklijke Bibliotheek. Deel I, 1: 1486-1620. ‘s-Gravenhage. Number 2239: Resolutie Van Ridderschap ende Steden, Representeerende de Staten der Lantschap van Over-Yssel. Tot onderhoudinghe van goede ruste ende Christelijcke eenicheyt, in de kercken ende Ghemeenten desselven Landes. 11th March 1616.

Slee, J.C. van 1926. De gereformeerde gemeente van Deventer in de eerste veertig jaren na hare wederoprichting in 1591. In Nederlandsch Archief voor Kerkgeschiedenis, Nieuwe Serie, 19e Deel.

Po-Chia Hsia, R., and Henk van Nierop, eds. 2002. Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age. Cambridge. 



Resolutie van Ridderschap ende Steden, representerende de Staten der Landschap van Overijssel, tot onderhoudinghe van goede ruste ende christelijc–ke eenicheydt in de kercken ende Ghemeynten desselfden Landes

Alsoo Ridderschap ende Steden der Lantschap van Overijssel, representeerende de Staten desselven Landes, hoe langer hoe meerder in ervaringe komen ende verstaen, dat verscheyden predicanten ende Leeraers des Godlijcken Woorts, haer voornemen ende onderstaen, het stucke ofte Materie van Godes eeuwige Predesti–natie, ofte Verkiesinge der Menschen, met den aencleve van dien, Ende meer andere hooge strijdighe Poincten, oock op de Predickstoelen in de openbare Vergaderingen der gemeenten te brengen, ende aldaer te verhande–len, Ja hooger te disputeren, als Christus onse Meester ende Leeraer selfs ons die heeft willen openbaren, Daeruyt dan niet alleene, onder denselven predicanten, wegens der Schriftuirlijcken plaetsen ende texten in Godes Woort, die d'eene sowel als d'ander weetet te allegeeren ende bij te brengen, allerley hefftige disputen met verbitteringhe ontstaen, Maer oock onder den Ghemeen–ten groote ergernissen ende Scheuringen veroorsaeckt worden, tot oneere ende Lasteringe Godes tot verwerringe goeder Politie in Landen ende Steden, ende tot pericul van den staet deser Landen streckende, Onse wederpartije ooc daerdoor occasie ende oorsaeck gevende, omme sich hierover te ervreuwen, ende de reforma–tien onser kercken te blameeren ende te lasteren, Om dan hierentegens tot voorderin–ge van Godes eere ende glorie, tot welstant deser Lantschap, ende tot stichtinge ende onderhoudinge van goede ruste ende eenicheyt in Kercken ende Ghemeente, in tijdts te versien, ende allen onheyl voor te comen. Soo is 't dat Ridderschap ende Steden deser Lantschap, in Godes vreese met rijpe deliberatie op sulckes alles gelettet hebben–de: Ver–staen, dat de Predicanten ende Leeraers des Godtlijcken Woorts, sowel van de eene als d'ander zijde: sodane hooghe disputen van Godes eeuwige Predesti–natie, ofte verkiesinghe der Menschen, ende andere questieuse poincten, daerdoor men in de geheimnissen Godes wil tasten, opte Predickstoelen, ofte anders onder het gemeene volc, tot groote ergernisse ende onruste van de Ghemeente, niet behoort te brenghen ende te drijven. Ordonneeren ende ghebieden daeromme allen Predicanten ende Dienaren des Godlijc–ken Woorts sowel van d'eene, als van der ander zijde in opinie zijnde, dat sij hun voortaen sulcker disputen van de Predestinatie ofte Godes eeuwige Verkiesinge der Menschen, alsooc anderer hooge Poincten ende questien in de geheimnissen Godes bestaende sullen onthouden, sonder dieselve opte Predick–stoelen in 't openbaer te brengen, velemin eetwes meer daervan te Schrijven ofte in Druck te laten uytgaen by pene van datelijcke Cassatie ende ontsetting–he des dienstes, Soo veerne yemant bevonden worde daertegens gedaen ende ghehandelt te hebben, Alles bij provisie ende ter tijt toe, dat hierinne naerder gheordonneert ende versien sal wesen.

Aldus gedaen op den Landtdaghe binnen der stad Campen, den 11. Martii Anno 1616.

Onderstont, Ter Ordonnantie van Ridderschap ende Steden.


(Source: Baudartius 1624, 1)

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