The Dutch Bible Belt

Article excerpt

I am writing these words in the heart of the Bible Belt. I'm in a small town that is traditionally pious but has swelled in recent years with the infusion of well-educated commuters who have left the nearby big city to escape crime and immorality. Here and in neighboring communities, newly built megachurches are growing. They preach a very traditional orthodox theology. Also booming are hardline fight-wing political parties which take very conservative positions on issues such as homosexuality, abortion and gender roles.

This certainly is not the standard picture that Americans have of the Nether lands. But the Dutch have a Bible Belt, or Bijbelgordel, which runs from the northeast of the country to the southwest. Its borders can be easily mapped using patterns of religious affiliation and political voting. It is not a large territory--in places it is only 30 or 40 miles wide--but it represents a substantial portion of this small country (the entire Netherlands is only about as large as Maryland and Delaware combined).

The persistence of a rigorously orthodox Protestant area in such a bastion of progressive liberalism must make us rethink any generalizations we might be tempted to make about the state of religion in Europe as a whole.

The belt is the location of the conservative and ultra-orthodox Reformed churches and sects that refused to join the general movement toward Protestant unity. Although these groups account for just 4 or 5 percent of the population, their geographical concentration gives them a profound influence. In the purest orthodox communities, women long wore the traditional clothing that defined these black-stocking churches. In this area at least, church leaders can still aspire to the kind of Calvinist moral discipline that prevailed in places like Scotland, the Netherlands or New England in 1630. Everywhere, the sabbath is strictly observed, and it's enforced by law in some communities. Many families refuse to own televisions. Some villages ban swearing.

The Netherlands was long famous for the "pillars" that defined everyday life. People adhered to one or another of three pillars, Catholic, Protestant or Socialist-secular, and that membership strictly determined the schools and institutions that one attended, the newspapers and radio programs that shaped one's opinions, and the political parties one voted for. The collapse of those pillars in the 1960s contributed powerfully to the general secularization. …