Political Defeat and the Divided Church

from Christian Political Action in an Age of Revolution (Aalten: WordBridge Publishing, 2015), pp. 129–135.

Now, did this influence of ours, which was considerable at times, have any legitimate basis? Were we right to make use of it and make our appeal to the nation? Apart from our partial and fleeting successes, was not such a claim, over against a fiercely hostile public opinion, simply evidence of our insolent and ridiculous arrogance?

There is a simple answer to these questions, which at first sight appear embarrassing. Public opinion is not the same thing as national sentiment. The one is transient, the other enduring. The one agitates the surface, the other penetrates to the core. In the kingdom of the Netherlands, the territory of the United Provinces (that cursed corner of the earth, as one Jesuit put it), Christianity and Protestantism have retained—in opposition to every change of government, every shift of policy, and every theory of unbelief and doubt—their deep roots. Precisely where the Protestant Christian interest was at stake, public agitation, fully aware of the real significance of our religious and political mission, provided irrefutable proof that we were the popular party, the real representatives of a historically-rooted nation that, in its distinctive features, the torrent of revolutions and systems was unable to extinguish. “In France,” Prévost-Paradol wrote not long ago, “purely religious issues are unlikely to stir men’s minds. It is especially in its relationship with politics that religion still exercises the prerogative of attracting public attention here, and we do not have to penetrate far into our religious quarrels to recognise that, when they do excite keen interest, it is because they are really party quarrels under a thin veil of doctrinal difference.”[1] In Holland things are different.

Such indifference to religious matters is not general, by a long chalk. It is partly true of the upper classes, who are pretty much the same everywhere. It is also true of sections of the middle classes; but definitely not the lower orders. Constituting as they do the largest section of the nation, they have ever guarded themselves, unlike the higher orders, against any whiff of unbelief or rationalism. Among these folk things are quite the reverse. They have no interest in purely political debates; they don’t understand them, and care even less. They have no interest in the affairs of government, and only take part in them when they involve religious issues. And then they take part with gusto; it becomes a matter of life-and-death; and they make it clear what they regard as their lawful rights. As soon as we grasp the essentially religious nature of the debate and recognise the true nature of the problem and the heady mix of obscurities in which those who fear the popular and national enthusiasm like to wrap it so they can ignore it, we become—or at least are on the way to becoming—master of the situation. If people are to truly understand what was rash and what was reasonable in our demands and in our expectations, they must always keep in mind the distinction between the people and the voters, and between the nation and those with the right to vote. Under any form of government we should keep the common good in mind and consider the interests, needs and rights of the people. Every form of absolutism should be excluded and, perhaps more than any other, parliamentary absolutism should fill us with dread. Even the constitutional and representative forms become the most detestable government, when by a legal fiction we identify the representative with the represented and absorb the individual wills into the legal majority; to do so is to put the most sacred rights at the mercy of the government’s whims and encroachments. Far from blindly trusting to parliamentary opinion, let alone public opinion, there needs to be a constant concern for popular sentiment and instinct, especially in religious matters, those that affect the heart and conscience. In problems of this nature, social distinctions should have no consideration; wisdom, according to the apostolic witness, is given to the meek and lowly of heart. Here especially we have to take care not to violate the people’s rights; they should not be provoked, by attacking what they hold most dear and most sacred, to desperate opposition and abandonment of their duty. Under the impress of these thoughts, I have never tired of repeating the warning that, here in Holland too, most politicians exhibit contempt in this regard, and that they do so at their peril. “Religious questions … secretly govern all the rest; their mysterious and profound effects baffle all calculation: by turns they fall short of, or exceed both hopes and fears; they put forth the most invisible and the most inevitable snare to worldly policy.”[2]

The moderation of our demands and the justice of our complaints increased their force. You do not have the right, we said, to force the Reformed Church, by means of a state-created ecclesiastical body, into a religious syncretism that will ruin it. You do not have the right to restructure public education according to your own whims, or to banish religious education in schools and make them inadequate for the needs of a religious people. You do not have the right to use constitutional government to enslave a sizable portion of the nation and sacrifice the lawful wishes of Protestants to liberal or ultramontane cravings.

By calling for the rights of all individuals and the historic rights of the Reformed Church, and that as inalienable, we became the mouthpiece of thousands of our citizens. This turned us into a strong, compact and determined minority, and we could congratulate ourselves on having imposed a measure of caution on the liberals and of rallying the conservatives … and even the Catholics.

The conservative party looked like it might vigorously oppose us, but all too eagerly it distanced itself from the struggles and abandoned the field.

The weakness of the Protestants, their divisions, and their increasingly apparent dissolution, aroused and encouraged the Catholics to embrace liberalism as a means of achieving universal domination. But they take the opposite tack when you take away their hope by erecting insuperable barriers against their audacious plans. When they become sensible of the fact that Protestantism will not give in, and that, in fact, if it becomes exasperated by their vaunted boldness, it is likely to return upon them their just deserts, you will soon see the Catholics openly move closer to the orthodox Protestants in order to obtain, through their mediation and impartial justice, securities against the very principles of intolerance they themselves have practised so well elsewhere, but of which they have little inclination to be the victims. You will see not only sensible and intelligent Catholics but even the ultramontanists, beating a retreat from the onslaught of the Revolution by ranging themselves against liberalism and for the common faith.

How to explain the disappointing result of our action—and yet, no reason for despair

I cannot suppress a tinge of sadness, when I compare our opportunities and the means we had for succeeding in them with the actual outcome of all our efforts. I have to admit that it would be ungrateful of me, even humanly speaking, to say that we have laboured in vain. I am fully aware that an accurate assessment of the results is difficult; that in the realm of religion and morals we should recall the advice of a wise economist: reflect on what you see, but even more on what you do not see. I know too that when neglect of principles becomes a way of life, merely daring to advocate them is a great service and has untold effect; and if one cannot do a lot of good, one can at least prevent a lot of harm. And in many respects, but especially in our fight for freedom of worship and for the freedom of education, our contest was neither useless nor unappreciated.

However, even when these things have been taken into consideration, there is something surprising and enigmatic in the history of the orthodox Anti-Revolutionary Party, and in the way in which, for some time at least, it was incapacitated just when it seemed on the point of triumphing. In 1856 especially, there were strong grounds for hoping that, in the law on primary education, we would gain a victory of the utmost importance, that the separation of the schools would open a wide door to the evangelical influence on popular education, and that the House of Orange, remembering its history and providential mission, would fulfil the duty of constitutional monarchy to maintain the rights of religion and liberty.

Why was our hope disappointed? What brought about such a quick and decisive reversal? How did a setback turn into a sudden and general rout, in which the party appeared to vanish completely?

It is a difficult and sensitive issue, a serious question concerning my country’s past as well as its future!

While not denying secondary issues, I have to admit that we caved in, not because of the strength of our opponents, but because of the disunity among Christians and the opposition of our friends.

It was above all errors regarding the nature of the church that led, in my opinion, to a disaster that will prove incalculable in its extent and duration; for they led to a misunderstanding of both the legitimacy and the timeliness of our efforts.

What was actually necessary for success? A coming together of Christians; a serious, conscious rapprochement among those who were deaf to the siren voices of modern theology, those who still clung to the authority of Holy Scripture and the fundamental verities of Christianity, the Reformation, and the evangelical Réveil. We needed to be patient with the disparate elements, not exacerbate them. Minds needed to be enlightened through discussion and debate, and hearts strengthened through struggle. Above all, if we were to achieve unity and agreement, we had to assert the exclusive nature of truth and its practical consequences; in the interests of freedom of conscience for all, we had to ensure that no one was allowed to disrupt the church by denying its beliefs; we had to remind everyone that, in a church that rests on a set of beliefs, we are called upon not to bicker over its doctrines but to be built up on their foundation, not to stage a clash of philosophical opinions, not to assemble a raft of mutually-contradictory opinions under the transparent veil of false forms, but sincerely to serve God in spirit and in truth, in the spiritual bond of a common worship.

It is just this very simple idea of the church that was being increasingly challenged and abandoned. The proposed axiom was a paradox, and the paradox became an absurdity. The church, it was claimed, is a common forum and meeting point for individual opinions, and the permanent residence of truth and error on an equal footing. In matters of faith, the church’s rule is to have no rule. The only rule—either inside or outside the church—is freedom for all.

One can well understood how, under the dominion of such individualistic errors—“The Individualists’ errors are a misbegotten product of Christian piety and the spirit of the age…. perhaps the most subtle of all those currently circulating among us”[3]—we were defeated on the two great issues of church and school.

It would not be without interest to unmask the process by which we gradually arrived at a church that had no confession and no doctrine, and where, we are told, it is perfectly acceptable to denigrate, betray, and even remove the Redeemer; and at a public school where Christianity is admitted only to the extent it upsets neither Jew nor Greek, and only in the apathetic state that is the last sad refuge of discouraged spirits after a long and useless struggle.

For the time being we have to confine ourselves to the task of not losing either confidence in our principles or our sense of duty. When we talk about our principles, they counter with freedom of conscience and the rights of the individual. And when we mention the future, they insist that our cause is lost for ever. Often, though, I am uplifted by the approval of a writer one might not suspect of having misunderstood the interests of Christianity and humanity, or of having entertained fanciful hopes. I am happy that I can quote him in closing.

Speaking of a church, much like the modern Dutch Reformed Church, whose unity consists in nothing more than the payment of its ministers’ wages out of the same purse, Vinet adds: “Such, notoriously, is the thinking of certain energetic men of consequence. I blame them for only one thing: calling this anarchy an institution and this chaos a church.”[4]

While noting the benefits of the development of individuality, he warns against merging “two sworn enemies into an imaginary brotherhood: individualism and individuality. To the latter, society owes all its substantiality, vitality and reality. The former is an obstacle to and a negation of all society.”[5]

What’s the point of trying to deny or play down our reverses! Sure, we suffered a defeat; the sudden defection of a group of friends made it inevitable. Nevertheless, in faithfulness to the Gospel, with feeble means, and despite what may have been faulty or blameworthy in our actions, we fought for a good cause; a cause of which, more than any other, we can assuredly say—tandem bona causa triumphat [ultimately, good will prevail]—that it gives us abundant consolation and holds out unshakeable hope. “We do not promise,” Vinet goes on to say, “We do not promise [the public Christian] popularity, we do not guarantee him from all discomfiture; but he will call to mind that the germ of victory is concealed beneath every defeat sustained for the cause of God; he will remember also, that whatever may be the aversion of the wise of this world, to the counsels of Christianity, the world is so constituted, that the moment Christianity re-enters into the heart of its societies, its counsels will be followed, even without being accepted.”[6]

[1]Introduction to Samuel Vincent, Du protestantisme en France, nouvelle édition (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1860), pp. xix-xx.

[2]Vinet, An Essay on the Profession of Personal Religious Conviction and Upon the Separation of Church and State, p. 220.

[3]Frédéric de Rougemont, The Individualists in Church & State, trans. Colin Wright (Aalten: WordBridge, 2015), pp. 13, 14.

[4]Liberté religieuse et questions ecclésiastiques, p. 224.

[5]Études sur Blaise Pascal [Studies concerning Blaise Pascal] (Paris: Chez les Éditeurs, Rue Rumford 8, 1848), p. 102.

[6]Vinet, An Essay on the Profession of Personal Religious Conviction and Upon the Separation of Church and State, p. 151.