Taming the Beast: The Long and Hard Road to the Christian Social Conference of 1952

By van der Woude, Rolf | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Taming the Beast: The Long and Hard Road to the Christian Social Conference of 1952


van der Woude, Rolf, Journal of Markets & Morality


The Beast from the Abyss

The final week of May 1947 was sunny and warm, ideal weather for spending a couple of days at the rural conference center of Birkhoven, where the Dutch Christian Farmers and Growers Association (CBTB) had organized a two-day conference. The Netherlands had been liberated two years earlier, and traces of the five-year German occupation were still visible everywhere. Many supplies, especially luxury items such as coffee and tobacco, were still being rationed; the event would be a simple affair. Nevertheless, there was no evidence that the mood of the conferees suffered on that account. On the contrary, like most Dutchmen, they were convinced that looking back and complaining made little sense, that they needed to put their shoulder to the wheel, and that unity needed to be preserved. Only in this way could the nation once again rise above its circumstances.

On the first day, the chairman of the CBTB, Chris van den Heuvel, gave an address. Van den Heuvel, at age sixty, was a leader through and through and an experienced Christian politician who operated on the right wing and was known as "the man who devoured socialists." (1) The second day featured the young economist--he was not yet thirty--Jelle Zijlstra. He spoke on the subject of planned economy. In the days of reconstruction when the government held the reins rather tightly this was a theme discussed widely.

Zijlstra had become enamored with the ideas of John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946). There was a new world to build with this "economic penicillin," one "free from scarcity and unemployment." At Birkhoven, Zijlstra showed himself to be a missionary convinced of this new "gospel." (2)

With a self-confidence arising more from naivete than complacency, Zijlstra proclaimed that a free-market economy could not possibly be defended from the Bible. The government had the indisputable task of functioning as "a guiding entity" in terms of global economic issues. (3) This was followed by "a very lively discussion," which included Van den Heuvel as well. He gave Zijlstra "the broadside" by saying, "I have never heard anything good about the state," and he referred to Revelation 13, wherein the state, clothed with absolute power, was portrayed as "the Beast from the abyss." (4) After a bit of reflection, the astonished Zijlstra had his answer ready. He, too, referred to the thirteenth chapter but of the biblical book of Romans, wherein it spoke very differently and much more positively about the government as opponent of evil and protector of the weak.

It looked as if a generational conflict was brewing--one in which the experienced Van den Heuvel vigorously defended his spiritual legacy, assigning responsibility for a compassionate society to believers, church, and religiously inspired organizations, rather than to the state. Protestant youth, Jelle Zijlstra included, thought Van den Heuvel was defending a world that no longer existed; the insights of Keynes had already tamed the beast of the state. Some went much further. In a yet-to-be constructed welfare state, care and support would no longer be a matter of charity but a matter of justice and righteousness to be guaranteed by the government: the beast as ally. (5)

Protestants from the various camps and traditions were convinced that a penetrating and principled debate was needed about the post-WWII organization of society and the question about what role the Christian social traditions should play in that organization. Almost immediately after the liberation, appeals were being sounded for organizing a new Christian Social Congress, similar to those held earlier in 1891 and 1919. In this way, the Christian social traditions could come closer together and show their unanimity. The long and difficult road to this new congress, and the gathering itself, provide good illustrations of the origin and functioning of both Christian social traditions in the Netherlands. …

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