The Unintended Reformation:

A Kingdom that no longer says Whatever

posted by Ernst van den Hemel

As a scholar working and living in the Netherlands, I apparently live in a state of affairs in which disinterested moral disorder reigns: “Whatever the particular country in which they happen to reside, all Westerners now live in the Kingdom of Whatever.” According to Brad Gregory, our present is the endpoint of a process through which we have come to lose “any shared or even convergent view about what ‘we’ think.” The result is a condition in which the grounds for morality might altogether disappear. Or, in more colloquial terms, this lack of a moral framework leads to an attitude of disinterest: “Whatever.”

I suspect that in Gregory’s view the Netherlands must be a prime example of the Kingdom of Whatever. The influence of the Reformation has nestled itself so deep in the soul of the country that Calvinist capitalist frugality and boundless moral liberalism have well-nigh become synonymous with Dutch national character.

Or at least, so the narrative goes.

In what follows I will explain my ambiguous reaction to The Unintended Reformation. On the one hand, even though I disagree strongly with the implicit, but undoubtedly conservative, ideology underlying Gregory’s analysis, I am sympathetic to his politically engaged view on the history of religion, and I appreciate that he aims not only to trace contemporary issues back to their sources in the past but also to reread and reaffirm the historical past in order to influence the present. On the other hand, it is precisely this concern for current affairs that leads me to question the validity of his overarching narrative. The notion of the hyperpluralist Kingdom of Whatever, for instance, seems to me to have limited value when applied to the contemporary crises of secularism and religion in Western Europe and, more specifically, in the Netherlands.

For instance, concerning the current state of the Netherlands, “whatever” is not quite the word that comes to mind. At the present moment, the conservative-nationalist PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid, “Party for Freedom”) leads the polls in Netherlands. This party has attempted to outlaw the Koran, has proposed replacing Article 1 of the Dutch Constitution (outlawing discrimination) with an article that expresses the superiority of Judeo-Christian culture and secular values, and is now seeking European allies in its struggle on behalf of Judeo-Christian nation-states against “Islamization” and EU bureaucracy.

The new right-wing political movement in the Netherlands combines a conservative outlook on cultural issues with the liberal values that have long been central to Dutch political culture. As can be seen from the PVV’s proposals, the movement is explicitly antagonistic towards any sort of cultural relativism or pluralism. Religion has played a remarkable role in this development. It has been used not only to identify an enemy (“Islam”), but also to offer ground for defense against this foe. In contrast to Islam, which is presented as inherently intolerant and theocratic, the West is presented as superior precisely because its Judeo-Christian roots have led to the rise of secularism, tolerance, and liberalism. In a telling appropriation, all sorts of progressive crown jewels (gay rights, freedom of speech, feminism, etc.) have been presented as illustrations of the superiority of Judeo-Christian culture over against Islamic backwardness.

The PVV’s tumultuous rise has gone hand in hand with a steep decline in the popularity of multiculturalism. Criticized as incapable of facing the challenges of political Islam, immigration, and a shrinking economy, multiculturalist progressives have suffered one electoral defeat after another. The result is that the progressive Kingdom of the Netherlands has experienced what I propose to call a ‘postsecular turn to the right.’ This turn has profoundly changed Dutch society and it challenges narratives in which secularization leads to a retreat of religiously inspired morality.

Incidentally, this development is not limited to the Netherlands. In Great Britain, Belgium, and France, conservative nationalist movements are becoming part of the political mainstream and can look forward, it seems, to electoral gains and even broader acceptance in the near future. Whether it is the UK Independence Party, the Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the French Front National, or the Dutch PVV, almost every Western European country is experiencing the rise of nationalist movements of which a culturalized notion of religion is an essential component. A less radical yet revealing example of this movement that would do away with relativism is the work of political philosopher and Anglican theologian Phillip Blond. After having published a collection of essays entitled Post-Secular Philosophy in 1998, Blond increasingly turned to the political arena in the 21st century. In Red Tory (2010) Blond combines a conservative outlook with progressive values. One of the cornerstones of his argument is that without a strong sense of community, society is lost. Blond played a key role in providing the agenda for the British Conservative Party that won the national elections in 2010.

Seen from this viewpoint, Gregory’s suggestion that we work towards replacing the Kingdom of Whatever with a community guided by a religiously inspired moral framework is already very much part and parcel of political reality. Furthermore, liberal, secular values are fused with conservative interpretations of the religious roots of these values. In order to understand the way in which these movements have fused liberal, secular ideals with a religious-cultural framework points, we might need a different kind of genealogy of our present.

For instance, if we take a look at the role of Dutch history in the narrative of The Unintended Reformation, we see that it is allotted quite an important role in the development of the Kingdom of Whatever. In two dense pages, in which he moves from toleration in the Dutch Republic to contemporary human rights, and ends up sketching a bleak picture of our present circumstances, Gregory repeats a classical secularization narrative. “[M]ost Dutch Christians,” he writes, “understandably preferred the prospect of greater material prosperity to religio-political hostilities”; this lead to the “politically protected individual right to freedom of religious belief,” which in turn became the basis for individual and human rights in general. Although Gregory highlights the positive dimensions of these developments, he nonetheless argues that the removal of religion created “a centrally important, paradoxical characteristic of modern liberalism,” namely,

that it does not prescribe what citizens should believe, how they should live, or what they should care about, but it nonetheless depends for the social cohesion and political validity of the regimes it informs on the voluntary acceptance of widely shared beliefs, values and priorities that motivate people’s actions.

In this sense, our hyperpluralist present is indebted to the early Dutch Republic whose leaders brought about peace by tolerating differences. Yet, we also inherited the absent center that resulted from these pragmatic practices of toleration. This moral void is opposed to the fullness of religious (that is, for Gregory, Catholic) conviction, which in contrast offered human societies a firm moral framework.

However, this vision of toleration as a predominantly economic imperative that leaves a moral void is rather limited. Firstly, I wonder how Gregory’s analysis of the role of the Dutch Republic would hold up if it were taken into consideration that the Dutch Republic did end up curtailing religious liberties, with the result that Catholics were for centuries seen as second-rate citizens in the Netherlands. Even at the time of its inception, factions differed continuously on the topic, with Calvinism continuously playing a major role in the debates.

As R. Po-Chia Hsia and Henk van Nierop have put it, the central paradox of the Dutch Republic is “the existence of a confessionally pluralistic society with an official intolerant Calvinist Church that discriminated against Catholics, but whose pragmatic religious toleration elicited admiration and bewilderment.” Secondly, even though Gregory discusses the way in which religion and the rise of consumerism and capitalism are connected, he nonetheless seems to separate the two when he implies that the choice for toleration was a choice for immoral economic activity and not for religiously inspired morality. As Peter van der Veer has recently stated in an analysis of secularization in the context of China and India under modern-day globalization, emphasis on the economic dimension of secularization often hides the religious and moral dimension of both secularization and economic functioning. And, on a more theoretical level, Wendy Brown has pointed out that tolerance is not just a withdrawal of moral judgment to accommodate “pluriformity” but should also be seen as a “discourse of power,” that is, as a way of legitimizing a certain morality.

These remarks might point to a need for a different reading of toleration, secularization, and its erosion of morality: the toleration debate in the Dutch Republic was not simply an economically pragmatic affair but an extension of religious struggle, with a strong Protestant bias as a permanent factor. Similarly, the contemporary situation in the Netherlands cannot be characterized as a Kingdom of Whatever that resulted from the depoliticized toleration policies of the Dutch Republic; it seems to me that the thread that connects the Dutch Republic to our present predicaments might be characterized more correctly by emphasizing the way in which seemingly secular inclusive values have been used in religiously inspired struggles for cultural hegemony.

In closing, as a scholar of religion living in a region where the crises of liberal secularism have been successfully instrumentalized for more than a decade now, I am both intrigued and frustrated by The Unintended Reformation. Intrigued because debates about the religious past are necessary for a community seeking to shape its role in changing times. Even though my outlook on life and on scholarly activity is not the same as Gregory’s, polemical debates about the value of the religious past for the present are sorely lacking in the Netherlands, and narratives like these do offer occasion for discussion of the constitutive role of the past in the present and vice versa. Yet I am also frustrated because, instead of providing a new impetus to the discussion about our contemporary predicament (which is the self-stated goal of the book), The Unintended Reformation seems to me to repeat and affirm a mode of thinking that has not only become mainstream, but that is also very problematic. The thrust of the main argument of The Unintended Reformation—an anemic West needs to insist on its religious-cultural roots in order not slide into anarchy—reminds me a lot of the arguments used by present-day conservative nationalists. This brings me to the question that perhaps troubles me the most when reading The Unintended Reformation: what prevents the moral framework that Gregory argues for from serving as ammunition for a party like the PVV, which embraces the religious roots of the West’s moral framework? As has already been pointed out by James Chappel in this forum, democracy is largely absent from Gregory’s discussion. Yet, unlike Chappel, I do not see “a deeply anti-democratic attitude” in this book. I do think, however, that one of the goals of Gregory’s book is to provide an aristocratic cultural-religious framework for values such as democracy. I wonder what the difference is between such a moral framework and the closed-off culturalized form of religiously sanctioned secularism that is now in the process of reframing Western-European societies such as the Netherlands. Unfortunately for the Kingdom of the Netherlands, The Unintended Reformation does not seem to address the challenges that arise when an Aristocracy of Culturalized Religion actually supplants the Kingdom of Whatever.

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