Since many decades the Netherlands has a coalition government. As a result radical shifts in political direction, following an election, are rare—either towards the left or towards the right. Several parties must work together and must agree to numerous compromises when forming a coalition agreement, and thus the course remains mostly in the middle.
Presently the country is ruled by a coalition of a liberal and a socialist party, in which both liberal traits and some socialist hobbyhorses can be recognized. But this time the situation is unusual, for no religious party is involved. And this will not remain unnoticed.
As the coalition agreement was being constructed it was soon quite clear that every form of reticence with regard to permitting Sunday shopping would be something of the past. If a local city government decides that all shops can be open on Sundays, that is fine. If some local councils in the Dutch Bible Belt believe that the Day of the Lord must be kept sacred and all shopping must be banned on that day, they have the privilege to decide accordingly.
As the weeks go by, we also hear of other plans. The ancient law that forbids blasphemy will soon be cancelled. Admittedly, it was rarely invoked, but part of Christian Holland is far from happy with this plan. The pretext is freedom of opinion and freedom of expression! But does blasphemy not primarily have to do with civilization?
There is another sensitive point. Any prospective civil servant involved with performing marriages must henceforth be prepared to also perform same-sex marriages. New civil servants will no longer have the privilege of excusing themselves from this task, on the basis of conscientious objections. Even if one might not be opposed to the right of same-sex couples to get married, one might nonetheless accept that civil servants may not want to be involved with such ceremonies. But in the future they will not have that privilege. The law of the land allows same-sex marriage and all civil servants are supposed to administer the law!
The coalition partners have also agreed that the government may find another ten million euros if the subsidy will be discontinued that pays for the free transport of certain categories of pupils to religion-based schools. And they have found they can further economize by making some additional cuts in the funding of certain radio and television organizations. In addition to earlier announced cuts that amount to 100 million euros, it is now also proposed to do away with all subsidized broadcasting by religious organizations—Christian and non-Christian.
This is what was announced within just a few weeks. Who knows what plans will yet be unveiled? Is this just a series of coincidences, or are these systematic signals that religion is to be pushed from public life, so that it will stay ‘behind the front door of the home’? Atheists and agnostics who plead for a strict separation between church and state are mostly satisfied with these and similar measures. And many others also agree. For why would the government get involved with religious matters, let alone pay for them?
I would fully agree that there are things that must remain totally outside of the domain of the state. Internal religious affairs may not depend on the attitude of the authorities. But, religion is an important aspect of the daily life of millions of citizens and the government has the task to ensure that there are adequate facilities to ensure that all important aspects of life can flourish. Just as it desirable that the state ensures a good climate for a healthy cultural life, and provides adequate facilities for sports (even though not everyone plays soccer or will want a daily work-out). It must be feared, however, that the present coalition will continue to remove all manifestations of faith from ‘the public square’ (unless the Senate will decide to resist some of these measures).
Traditionally, the Netherlands was a conservative Calvinistic country. Over time it has turned into one of the most secularized nations of Europe. Is that to be regretted? In some ways we may actually rejoice that the country has become a more pleasant and tolerant place to live in, where the people have more space than before. God is, however, not only gradually disappearing from the Netherlands by an ongoing process of secularization—but this is now a process that is actively promoted by the authorities. And that may be a much more serious matter than the effects of the current economic crisis that may make us lose a few percent of our purchasing power.