In early January 2019, a media firestorm erupted in the Netherlands over a document authored in — of all places — Tennessee. A translation of the so-called Nashville Statement — a declaration of fealty to traditional biblical sexual ethics signed by over 22,000 Christian leaders in the U.S. and abroad — was released after two theologians from the Theological University Apeldoorn wrote an op-ed opposing it, thereby putting pressure on those working on the Dutch version of the document to publish it ahead of schedule.

Although the document had already been circulating in some Dutch Reformed circles as early as 2018, the premature release of the Nashville Statement — which simply lays out what Dutch Christians have believed for centuries — created a firestorm, particularly since the names of signatories included Kees van der Staaij, leader of the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (Political Reformed Party or SGP), the oldest political party in the Netherlands.

Kees van der Staaij speaking in Den Haag in 2011. Image courtesy of Apdency, under the CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Although the Netherlands was the first nation to redefine marriage (in 2001), there is still a significant Christian minority which holds to the biblical definition of marriage. However, due to the ongoing ‘balkanization’ of Dutch society — with many Christians keeping to their own church-oriented communities — many in the progressive mainstream seemed shock to discover that people who held these views still existed. Within traditional pockets in the ‘Bible belt,’ secular progressivism had failed to secure a foothold.

Dutch LGBT activists immediately condemned the Nashville Statement as “hate.” The Public Prosecution Service promised to investigate whether publication of the Statement broke the law (affirming the following year that it did not). And opera singer Francis van Broekhuizen, claiming that the Nashville Statement was a “call [for] discriminating against [LGBT] people,” even filed a police complaint — against the SGP’s Kees van der Staaij.

Although he had not been aware that the document would be released, van der Staaij responded calmly. “The Nashville Declaration reflects the classic Christian notions on relationships and sexuality on a current and much-discussed theme,” he wrote on the SGP’s website. He continued:

“These notions are shared across borders of churches and countries. The SGP has never made a secret of standing for the biblical notions of marriage, family, and sexuality. In line with this I have indicated that I can agree with the scope of the Nashville Declaration. I find the comprehensive afterword in the Dutch version particularly valuable. It rightly emphasizes the great responsibility for careful handling of people who have probing questions about their sexual orientation and gender. These notions are an essential addition to the [American] declaration for me.”

Over the following weeks, van der Staaij gave numerous interviews, appeared on television, and calmly and compassionately addressed his critic’s concerns. This had an impact. Many who heard him expressed surprise that a man so demonized in the press could turn out to be the furthest thing from the hateful person he had been made out to be. Instead, van der Staaij emerged as a powerful witness for the Christian worldview in a dominant secular culture.

In one television interview he reflected: “I’ve heard from young people today who say, ‘It seems as though you are allowed to do and think whatever you want in the Netherlands — except when you still confess traditional Christian values: then the world’s too small. Are you still allowed to be a Christian in this country, in the traditional, Christian way?”

The political career of Kees van der Staaij is a powerful response to that question. And his work as a member of the SGP is part of how he lives his faith in the public square.

Van der Staaij during ‘Partijdag’ on September 5, 2020. Image courtesy of the SGP’s Facebook account.

Founded in 1918, the SGP is the oldest party in the Dutch parliament. “[It] is an orthodox Christian political party,” van der Staaij told me during a recent interview. “Based on Biblical principles, my fellow MPs and I wish to defend traditional Christian values such as the sanctity of (unborn and elderly) life and the traditional family. We also strive for a small government, a strong army, positive attitudes towards Israel, and for justice for the poor and needy worldwide.”

Although few people outside of the Netherlands may have heard of him, the 51-year-old van der Staaij is the longest-serving member of Dutch Parliament. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1998 and became party leader in 2010. And during his 22 years working as MP for the SGP, he has been a consistent and articulate advocate for traditional Christians in the Netherlands on a wide range of issues.

This is in contrast to the work of Dutch MP Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV) whose name is more recognizable in conservative circles. Wilders gained international notoriety for his stance against immigration and the impact of Islam on Dutch society, but he is not a conservative in the traditional sense of the word: his concern about Muslim immigrants, for example, often revolves around the impact on the LGBTQ community and the preservation of progressive secularism.

In a speech Wilders gave in New York City in 2010 on the anniversary of 9/11, he revealed just how secular his worldview is when he quoted Abraham Lincoln: “We are here in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, the president who freed the slaves. President Lincoln said: ‘Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves.’” While Lincoln did say that, Wilders ignored the rest of the former president’s statement. What Lincoln actually said was: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and under a just God, cannot long retain it.”

The SGP offers a different vision. Unlike other right-wing and populist parties, it does not claim to be a secular party. “The SGP is very explicit about the Biblical principles that drive and guide us,” van der Staaij told me. Cultural heritage is essential, he said, but not enough. He elaborated:

“Parties that merely seem to identify with Europe’s Christian heritage do not literally follow the example and teachings of Jesus Christ. For those parties, the nature of their sympathy with Christianity seems to be somewhat ‘romantic’ or ‘nostalgic.’ One can compare this to a nice bouquet of flowers: they bloom beautifully, but just for a while since they are cut off from their fertile source. Our Christian party wishes to maintain that connection. Having said that, one cannot underestimate the importance and potential blessing of a positive identification with our Judeo-Christian past. That is something that we should indeed cherish.”

While there is some overlap, with both PVV and SGP sharing some important priorities — “we are both pro-Israel and concerned about mass immigration” — there are some important differences in their agendas. “In contrast to the PVV, the SGP is strongly pro-life and pro-family,” he said. There is also quite a difference in their approach to politics. The SGP has chosen a constructive attitude towards government coalitions. “The PVV, on the contrary, is fiercely oppositional.”

In the Netherlands, coalitions are essential to accomplishing anything politically due to their system of proportional representation. “The SGP is represented in both chambers within our bicameral system: de Tweede Kamer [comparable to the House of Commons in the UK or House of Representatives in the USA] and Eerste Kamer [comparable to the House of Lords in the UK or Senate in the USA],” van der Staaij explained, adding:

“Due to the low election threshold, many new political parties can enter our Parliament. There are currently 14 parties in both chambers. On the one hand, the fact that (at least) three or four parties are needed to form majority coalitions, may endanger the stability and effectiveness thereof. On the other hand, our system stimulates consensus-seeking and allows small parties and minorities to articulate their interests and viewpoints. Indeed, ‘polderen’ — striving for broad consensus on important issues — is a highly important characteristic of Dutch parliamentary democracy.”

Interestingly, the manifestation today of the so-called ‘Polder Model’— which derives its name from the Dutch term for tracts of land enclosed by dykes — is a relatively recent development. It was brought about by the near-total collapse of the churches during the second half of the 20th century. Dutch historian and journalist Geert Mak has observed that by 1958, nearly a quarter of Dutch people were churchless. Today around half of the Dutch population is atheist, with Protestants reduced to 10% of the population and Catholics to 17%. Prior to this collapse, Mak has explained on his own website, the Polder Model of consensus-based decision-making informed every aspect of Dutch life:

“The Netherlands was formerly intensely religious and, because of the socio-political ‘pillar’ system it had, political contradictions largely coincided with religious or ideological divides. Not just politics, but social life was divided this way too. In the small provincial town I grew up in, I went to a Protestant school — the newspaper, the university where my brothers studied, the football club, the scouts, the baker and the milkman were Protestant too. Even the leaves on the trees were, I sometimes thought. The world of my uncle, who was a socialist and taught at the local state school, looked the same, only he bought his bread at the socialist co-op, and the leaves on the trees looked slightly different to him too.

Yet, there was no problem ruling the country. The elites at the top of the pillars made continual compromises with each other. Such was the tradition of what is called the Polder Model. The system as a whole functioned as a very effective pacification machine in this religiously divided country. And, at the same time, created a national community which seemed much more tolerant than it really was, because people simply looked away from each other.”

But according to Mak, the collapse of the churches triggered a collapse of that old model — and with that collapse, “the foundation … disappeared,” he writes. “Since the ‘70s, many of the old political parties have been abolished or merged, but only now are the consequences of secularization having an impact on political culture.”

The Binnenhof, house of the Dutch parliament. Image courtesy of Michiel Jelijs, licensed under CCA 2.0 Generic.

Because of the Netherlands’ system of proportional representation, small Christian parties like the SGP can still punch above their weight. “With the help of God,” van der Staaij told me, “and in cooperation with many other parties, we can indeed achieve many things.” He cited several examples, such as:

“continued funding for pro-life organizations, advocating for marital fidelity and strengthening the traditional family, protection of the freedom of education, promotion of farmers, increased defense spending, less support for anti-Israel-resolutions within international bodies, helping the persecuted church through policies and funds, etcetera.”

Van der Staaij as a young MP two decades ago. Image courtesy of his Twitter account, @keesvdstaaij.

Over the years, van der Staaij’s consistency and advocacy has gained him begrudging — and sometimes outright — respect from his parliamentary colleagues, even when they inevitably disagree with him. An independent analysis in 2013 determined that he was the “most effective member of Parliament.” That said, there are still challenges to being a Christian politician in an increasingly secular country. “As Christians,” he observed, “we should not be intimidated by appearances or difficult circumstances but lift our eyes up to the King of kings.” Politics, in short, is about more than politics:

“We should always be prepared to share the gospel of God’s amazing grace for broken, sinful people. The challenge is to share the Good News in ways that are understood by a secular environment. For instance, many people can still identify themselves with, or feel sympathy for, the youngest or eldest Son in the parable of the prodigal son, which is in essence a parable about a caring and loving Father. A challenge might also be to focus merely on the spiritual side of things. As a politician, I am elected, expected and ordained to contribute to good governance and to the best possible legislation and policies. In my experience, it is also political, rhetorical and juristic ‘handicraft’ that helps to build respect and credit among both colleagues or the broader public. In other words: it helps to be heard.”

What the controversy over the Nashville Statement highlighted was the fact that despite the much-discussed rise of populist parties, which often use the symbolism of a nation’s religious heritage and traditions without necessarily adopting the principles and values in which they were once rooted, there are still Christian politicians and Christian parties who doggedly defend that heritage and those traditions. They never abandoned them in the first place.

“In some ways, the controversy clearly revealed the shrinking space for deviating political positions,” van der Staaij said. “The views of the majority, especially regarding marriage and sexuality, are very dominant in our society. Traditional standpoints are disregarded as being not only old-fashioned but dangerous as well. One can call this ‘the intolerance of the tolerant.’”

With freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of speech all under threat by secular forces, all of whom are ready to repeatedly accuse others of ‘discrimination’ and ‘intolerance,’ Christians in the public sphere — and parties like the SGP and some of its allies in the Christian Union Party — have a daunting task ahead. “I see this as part of a higher and spiritual ‘battle’,” van der Staaij said. “But as the Bible tells us: ‘Light has already conquered darkness.’ Therefore, we should take heart, and remain friendly and compassionate towards our fellow citizens.”

For 22 years, Kees van der Staaij has done just that — and Dutch politics has been better for it. ◼️