Review

Fevered Pitch

De Terp van Leidschenveen in The Hague. The small, austere white chapel high on a green mound was designed by Laurens Kolks and Dennis Lohuis in 2009 as an art commission on a strip of polluted land on the edge of a new housing estate.

In Dutch parliamentary elections in March 2021, orthodox Christian parties (such as SGP and CU) and radical right-wing populist parties (such as PVV and FvD) jointly obtained about 25% of the seats in the Lower House. These parties and their supporters appear to work well together, as is the case with other conservative alliances in several other European countries. For people like political scientist and investigative journalist Sander Rietveld, however, cooperation between such groups is preposterous—and is, according to him, a disturbing development in Dutch politics. Rietveld thus speaks without irony of a “holy alliance between orthodox Christians and radical right-wing populists” who, in his view, have become the “new crusaders.”

The author himself grew up in the orthodox Protestant “Bible Belt” of the Netherlands, which stretches from Zeeland in the southwest, through the the center of the country, to parts of the the northeast, a fact that, for better and more empathic writers, might have given this book greater depth and nuance. For Rietveld, however, there is no room for empathy. His book aims not to explore but to warn that the faithful Protestants he knew are now right-wing populists, a development that terrifies him. In his view, true Christianity and right-wing populism are wholly incompatible. 

If it had been well-argued and informed by a serious engagement with Christian theology, this claim could have been a real contribution to contemporary debates about how Christians should engage with politics. However, the author relies on caricatures, oversimplification, and fearmongering, in the end producing a book that paints a profoundly unsympathetic picture of Christian populists as nothing but nuts on the fringes of politics who are motivated by insecurities and the desire for power. 

A stylized classification of the Dutch Right

The groups that make up what he calls a “holy alliance of crusaders” are multifarious, so Rietveld attempts a stylized classification. Those who accept traditional Christian dogmas and who take conservative political positions he labels “orthodox.” They see biblical moral precepts as a part of divine revelation—or, formulated in more Catholic terms, as the unchanging ‘natural order’ that man must respect. “Right-wing populists,” in turn, think they are the only ones who understand and interpret the true will of the people, believing that society is comprised of “nativists,” who believe in the existence of “pure people,” and “corrupt elites.” But since Rietveld believes populists frequently fail to offer answers to most social issues, he argues that they are always looking to form alliances of convenience with those who have more substantive political views. 

Rietveld also identifies a group he calls the “radical Right,” which is essentially authoritarian: it values strong leaders and strict laws, embraces only a minimum of democracy, and tends towards autocracy. Finally, there are “extreme Right” groups, which Rietveld condemns as explicitly anti-democratic, and he warns that they are prepared to use violence to achieve power. 

What Rietveld’s survey of groups on the Right seeks to indicate is that they all share something very backward, negative, and fundamentally retrograde. Rietveld implicitly holds that all these groups are fundamentally motivated by entirely selfish ends, saying that  they are essentially disinterested in the values they purport to promote. This presumption of bad faith is, of course, could be true. Perhaps people on the Right have fallen prey to the worst parts of their nature, in which case it is important for authors to argue this point and suggest how the Right might grow. However, Rietveld offers no serious evidence in support of his claims, instead relying on straw men.

The book’s subsequent chapters hasten to the conclusion that an ominous international alliance of “new crusaders” is real. To his credit, Rietveld has interviewed a range of people in order to understand how various organizations on the Right have worked together to bring conservative arguments to prominence and supported right-wing candidates. Using these interviews and independent research, he then methodically maps out what he sees as a network of persons and organizations that exist to attack the ideals of equality and democracy. He examines mutual contacts and attempts to trace the flow of money, raising questions about funding sources and their interests. But in the end, he simply fails to prove that cooperation between conservatives is any more nefarious than cooperation between progressives and liberals. This is simply insinuated, not proven or even really discussed. 

The mere fact that some right-wing populists cooperate with like-minded groups internationally does not prove the existence of a secret international alliance working for villainous ends. Rietveld presumably finds little to object to in progressive and liberal NGOs coordinating their efforts for social change, and in the case of many nations, such a ‘network’ is far larger and better-funded than anything the Right is doing. Indeed, hugely powerful multinational organizations like the EU and UN themselves tend to work for progressive ends. Unfortunately, Rietveld seems so obsessed with the caricature of the Right that he has created that he plows clumsily ahead without doing the necessary work of distinguishing those he is criticizing from people ‘on his team.’

The exploitation of Christianity?

Early in the book, Rietveld reflects on the orthodox Calvinist world in which he grew up. Up until 1989, that world waged a culture war against left-wing ideas, especially those linked to communism. The fall of the Berlin Wall changed all that, leaving the Right searching for a purpose, he argues. With the later rise of Dutch populists such as Pym Fortuyn, Geert Wilders, and Thierry Baudet, Rietveld sees a similar culture war developing—this time over the issue of immigration and Islam. Rietveld argues the new ideas about these issues on the Right are accompanied by all sorts of conspiracy theories.

Rietveld believes that today’s right-wing populists cleverly exploit the common Christian feeling of being disadvantaged and even persecuted, explaining that he thinks the populist appreciation for the Christian religion is a marriage of convenience with shallow roots. To bolster his argument, Rietveld recalls the time when conservative scholar and orthodox Protestant Bart-Jan Spruyt stopped working with Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom because, in Spruyt’s judgement, Wilders was simply not interested in a conservative cultural struggle but only in dabbling in right-wing populism. 

Thierry Baudet of the Forum for Democracy has flirted more explicitly with religion, says Rietveld. Baudet, who calls himself an agnostic cultural Christian, has hijacked rather than promoted religion, Rietveld tells us. This “Christianity without Christ,” according to Rietveld, has no roots in faith and is, therefore, doomed. However, Baudet’s party has the support of many believing Christians. 

Rietveld pays much attention to Baudet’s hybrid ‘cultural-Christian’ profile, but he fails to achieve any real understanding, either for himself or his readers. Rietveld struggles to comprehend why the Forum for Democracy party has any orthodox Protestant backers, since—according to Rietveld’s view—Baudet and his party solely engage in racism and hate speech. Rietveld believes that orthodox Christians embrace right-wing populists like Baudet not despite but precisely because of latent nativism and xenophobia. But why?

One explanation Rietveld offers is a theory that within the Dutch Protestant community, theological thought and xenophobic nationalism are often coupled. He claims the aversion to Islam that many Christians feel is fueled by scurrilous stories of Christians being persecuted in Islamic countries, and by a belief that Christianity and Islam are engaged in a spiritual battle. According to Rietveld, the evangelical view of the end of time and of the role of the Jewish people in the Apocalypse also underscores this aversion to Islam. Radical right-wing parties are both anti-Semitic and pro-Israel, he argues, a contradiction only explained by evangelical eschatology, which sees the Jewish people—or nation-state—playing a special role in the final battle against Islam, the ultimate adversary of Christianity.

The influence of America

Rietveld really goes off the deep end when he tries to link the Dutch and European Right to groups in the U.S. To make this case, he turns his attention to the theological idea that God has given a mandate to Christians to rule—something called “dominionism.” This is something that originated in the United States and seems to appeal to a growing number of mostly evangelical and Pentecostal Christians in the Americas and Europe. A core idea is that the return of Jesus to Earth can be hastened if the “Seven Mountains”—education, religion, family, business, entertainment, media, and government—are conquered in His name. 

Incredibly, Rietveld believes that such theocratic ideals are mainly financially supported by one billionaire family in Michigan, the DeVos family. This, like so much of the book, is an unsubstantiated assertion. Although Rietveld refers to the claims of Anne Nelson, author of Shadow Network, an ideologue who thinks that through the Council for National Policy, funds are being used to turn America into a Christian nation and to promote the same agenda across Europe. 

Before concluding the book, Rietveld discusses some of the conservative Catholic allies of evangelical right-wing populism. He cherry-picks, focusing on Luca Volontè in Italy, who was accused and sentenced for financial irregularities. Rietveld skims over many of the anomalies of the case, and clearly wants readers to believe that the conviction of Volontè was justified and fair, and to accept the fallacy that anyone tied to Volontè must therefore also somehow be culpable. 

The final section of Rietveld’s book attempts to tie it all together. Again, without convincing evidence, Rietveld tries to show that there is a sinister network of Catholic, Evangelical, and Calvinist conservatives working together for political ends. As an example, he points to the World Congress of Families. Its 2014 congress took place in Moscow, and Rietveld claims it has grown into a dangerous alliance involving many radical right-wing movements from across Europe. His big conclusion is that European populists and conservatives are being crudely manipulated by the Kremlin to serve Russia’s broader geopolitical agenda. His charges are dramatic; but his evidence is scant.

Rietveld’s metaphorical failures

Anyone who reads this book from cover to cover will realize that what Rietveld has done is simply repeat the premise of his book over and over in different ways. Perhaps, had Rietveld made an earnest attempt at fairly examining the political arguments made by orthodox Christians and right-wing Protestants and thoroughly evaluated the validity of those claims, this might have been a decent book. The author, however, seems quite content not to bother with those facts that do not support his left-wing narrative.

Even in his choice of title, which makes a metaphor of the Crusades (a tactic used often by progressives and liberals to smear their political opponents), we catch a glimpse of Rietveld’s agenda. The fact that he quotes one orthodox Christian who rhetorically called himself a crusader does not legitimize the use of this metaphor to describe all conservative Christians. 

Despite a promising start to this book, Rietveld immediately lapses into alarmist pronouncements, factual distortions, and simplistic guilt-by-association arguments. At times, he reaches a fevered pitch, such as when he turns his attention to the Crusades. He argues that a bellicose pope used propaganda to incite unprovoked aggression against civilized, tolerant Muslims—completely failing to do justice to history. He would have benefitted from consulting the work of someone like Rodney Stark, who in recent historical works like God’s Batallions, has shown us a very different picture of the Crusades as a justifiable response to ongoing Islamic conquest, destruction, plunder, and slavery in the centuries that preceded. 

Rietveld would have been far better off not using such a metaphor and eschewing the sloppy reasoning that he uses to support it. On the other hand, without his incendiary title, the hysterical allegation of Russian collusion, and his cartoon-like representations of different political and social actors, his publisher may not have published the book—and progressive liberals may not have bought it. 

Christiaan de Kiefte is a litigation lawyer specialised in Dutch education law.

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