"...there are Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Brownists, Independents, Arminians, Anabaptists, Socinians, Arians, Enthusiasts, Quakers, Muscovites, Libertines, and many more... I am not speaking even of the Jews, Turks, and Persians... I must also report on an enlightened and learned man, who has a great following... His name is Spinoza. He was born a Jew and had not swore off allegiance to the Jewish religion, nor has he accepted Christianity. He is a wicked and very bad Jew, and not a better Christian either..." (cited by Willem Frijhoff, "Hollands Gouden Eeuw", in "De gouden delta der Lage Landen. Twintig eeuwen beschaving tussen Seine en Rijn", Antwerpen, 1992)
Those are the words used by Colonel Jean-Baptiste Stouppe, a Reformed Swiss commander in the troops of Louis XIV during the occupation of Utrecht in 1672-3, responding to the criticism leveled to him, that he was making war with his fellow Reformed co-religionists in the Netherlands, and that explained well enough the state of affairs of religious strife in the country which perhaps didn’t come to an abrupt end until very recent times. Manifold are indeed the vicissitudes that are wrapped into the history of religious tolerance in the Netherlands, so that the impressions of Colonel Stouppe could not have been entirely mistaken to describe the status quo of tolerance even today, in the absence of religion.
There is a common assumption that the Dutch Republic in the Golden Age was the only society that tolerated religious dissenter of all persuasions in early modern Europe, despite being committed to a strictly Calvinist public church. This is often embedded in the most varied myths, of which there are two common versions that do not entirely shy away from the truth; one is that the Dutch have been always a tolerant people and the other is that they were tolerant because it was convenient for business and since they wanted to promote the free trade and were greedy capitalists, religious tolerance would be more than useful. Both versions are also not without their excess of imagination and as we know from Plato since immemorial times, there is no such a thing as a mythology that is not politically persuasive; he himself said that theology (and he was the first Greek to use the word) was not necessarily the rational explanation of the facts of the world but rather the education of the powerful elites on how to rule the ignorant mobs. This whole discussion about religious tolerance seems to be more appropriate for finely printed tourist guides than it is for describing the overtly complicated situation and status of religion in the country; without overlooking for a moment the fact that the Dutch were incredibly precocious even by the most worldly European standards.
The country was not reformed from the prevalent Catholicism of the Holy Roman Empire through the spell of Luther and the official reformation occurred in subsequent waves that did not entirely take hold until the 17th century and in fact as a totality, the population was never entirely reformed; however the seeds were planted there long before the Reformation, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam was avidly critical of monasticism and once ordained a secular priest and put to good use by the authorities because of his status as man of letters, he advanced so many of the ideas that would be put forth by Luther in the following century, elsewhere in Europe and under circumstances much graver than those prevalent in the Netherlands, his Christian humanism stressed the importance of personal faith and shied away from the excesses of Rome and the ecclesiastical authorities; in the same century Gerard Groote founded the Roman Catholic order known as the "Brethren of the Common Life" that would emphasize personal devotion to Christ and denounced the decadent and evil life of the clery with their excesses. The Brethren entered into rather smart political allegiances with powerful protectors and in spite of their radically reformed position, they were able to establish schools all over the Netherlands and Germany and to have Luther himself and Nicholas of Cusa as their pupils. It could be that it was Erasmus himself and not the other way around, who fell under the influence of the Brethren.
At the same time Catholic absolutism remained much alive in the practices of the polity in the Netherlands and it is difficult to imagine how a supposedly open society would have fallen under the spell of Calvin's religious dictatorship in Geneva; what is true however is that by the beginning of the Dutch Republic, Calvinism enjoyed the political status of "official" religion in the Seven United Provinces and this happened not without its particularities: The strife between Catholicism and Protestantism would remain ablaze for at least three hundred years more and because the country had become a safe haven for many of the persecuted Christian and non-Christian communities the religious demographic map turned out to be rather odd and at any given time the Reformed Christians didn't exceed in number 40% of the total population, however their stronghold with the ruling powers granted them full civil and ecclesiastical powers which they knew how to use very well. The Reformed faith, to whomever is acquainted with its rather radical demands, would strike me as anything but tolerant, while at the same time the United Seven Provinces emerged out of the revolt against Spain and the rather short-lived republic was founded upon the principle that there should be freedom of conscience, a demand that in the Netherlands preceded the spread of the Enlightenment and in the Union of Utrecht, the first European constitution, would be materialized in the article 13 of this felicitous Union, "no one shall be persecuted for religious reasons". So radical was the nuance of this decree that it inspired the American articles of Confederation and would materialize in the Provinces a degree of religious freedom unparallaled in the Western world.
The eventfulness of this happy decree would not arise willy-nilly so that another provision was made to work out this tolerance within the principles of the nascent state: There would be no persecution for religious reasons, well, except in the case of Catholics. No matter whether there were Catholic minorites or majorities within the Republic, the status of Catholicism was rather diminished and in many places the Catholics would have to bribe Reformed sheriffs and plaintiffs with large amounts of money in order to be allowed to practice their faith unmolested; the citizenship status of many cities would be conferred only to Reformed Christians and to Catholics only under the condition that they should recant their faith or marry into a Reformed family. The deranged status of Catholics remained well into the Kingdom of the Netherlands and is practiced even today as a subtle form of cultural prejudice. The constant bribes allowed Catholics to live in relative peace as the state officers would turn a blind eye to them and would not enforce the strict regulations directed against the practice of Catholicism by the centralized Reformed authorities. There was this widespread feeling (not completely unsubstantiated) that the Catholics represented the evil within as they would be all too prone to enter in political associations with the King of Spain against the newborn republic, so that any attempts to revolt on their part had to be tampered with and curtailed.
Another breach in the supposed tolerance of the Republic was made by the Regenten, the leaders of the Dutch cities that hailed from the powerful merchant families and that more than anything were concerned with keeping the social order of the Republic, so that all forms of Christianity would be tolerated as long as they were not Catholics, the Jews had their distinctly separate society and were not allowed into the city guilds and when given citizenship anywhere, this could not be inherited by sons or daugthers (just like in Imperial Prussia); what could not be tolerated were heresies that would threaten the established order such as Unitarianism and philosophies without God, of which Spinozism and its followers was the most popular example. The true nature of Dutch tolerance was not founded upon any specific ideology but seemed very convenient to the Regenten to establish a tri-partite social order based on tolerance of religion, state absolutism and social control. The Regenten split up Dutch society into faith groups on which they kept a very severe and strict eye as not to allow any deviances harmful to the policies of the State and by requiring the different religious communities to provide for their own needy, they built the "Zuilen" or pillars of the Dutch society that were maintained until the rise of the Kingdom and that until the previous decades still were much in practical use in the structure of the educational system of the modern Netherlands. To split up the society into pillars, made it possible for them to exercise absolute control and to keep each one of the pillars in order. By doing this, they sharply marked boundaries between the larger civil sphere and separate religious spheres; this genius in mapping out the topography of society, enabled religious and civil identities to thrive in separate spaces which allowed for a perfectly defined articulation of individual, community and polity in different spheres of representation.
Rifts between the religious groups were not common, not even against the Jews (many of which not as a community, but individually and as citizens were protected by the Regented, stimulated by their commercial interests established through their trade connections in other countries) and when they arose, unless kept private, they were severely punished, just as much as atheism; they imposed taxing fines, imprisonment and exile from the cities for rather lengthy periods. The established social order helped to maintain the stability necessary for the trade routes and was maintained with an absolute rigor. This meant of course that Dutch religious toleration was one thing, but toleration of radical ideas quite another thing altogether, and in this, the spiritual milieu was not in any way different from the rest of Europe, since the Reformed Church didn't stray from its demands as the true religion, and therefore the principle of tolerance was grounded in something as fragile as the modern criticism of tolerance: To tolerate does not mean to love, but rather to define something as intolerable in principle but acommodated under certain circumstances; this was certainly the faith of Catholicism for the greatest part of Dutch history. That this had been as harmonious a society as possible by European standards did not rely on tolerance per se but on strict discipline enforced by an authoritarian regime and some occassional but very carefully planned, social engineering.
This tolerance however, it is not only that we know it was practically maintained by turning a blind eye to certain religious practices and radical ideas, from the part of some petty officials, but it was unheard of in private circles. The likes of Erasmus and Buchelius expressed in private their impatience toward Jews and their distaste for Catholics and for many of the reformed and ultra-reformed churches even within close friendships. The rather multi-denominational milieu of the country made people conscious of the fact that it would be unwise to split families and whole regions on the basis of faith alone, but as a social norm, the groups did not tolerate one another, certainly not from within the ruling class -this is evident from the hundreds of personal documents and letters of learned men of that time which we are able to examine today critically, showing only that these men were to a great extent, tolerant and intolerant at the same time. To make a case for the Dutch and their tolerance, arguing that they practice tolerance because they are tolerant people is a little bit less than tautological and difficult to sustain. That this particular form of tolerance was practiced among and with religious communities says little about the nature of this tolerance, it rather attests to the fact that in early modern Europe, religion enjoyed the privileged status accorded today to art (as predicted by Hegel) or to politics (as predicted by Kant) in the societies of the Enlightenment.
The history of religious tolerance in the Netherlands is doubtless shaped by the 19th century discussion over the Dutch national identity that resulted in pride over the famous Verzuiling or pillarization of society and it emerged as a consequence of the Romantic movement the today seen as childish, talk about the national traits of Volk as a consequence of Herder and the German Romantics. I doubt whether the Dutch saw themselves as tolerant in the course of the Republic and it has been pointed out by many that the popularization of Dutch tolerance was carried out by foreign spectators such as Descartes and Voltaire, even when it is clear that the manifold religious groups had little impact in shaping the peculiar characteristics of Dutch society. Nowadays people speak both with longing and spitefulness about this tolerance, grounded in a modern prejudice that understands this tolerance as principle basically derived from the Enlightenment and the secularization process that belong after the destruction of that Dutch confessional state in 1795 that gave birth to the Netherlands as a nation-state where all elements of religion were carefully re-organized and engineered into a rather homogeneous whole.
Even the Dutch themselves overlook the fact that the history of the Netherlands was certainly not one of stable political unity and that whatever principle of religious tolerance embedded within the law of the time had been subject to major changes. It is true that the Treaty of Utrecht in 1579 forbade religious persecution with the added nuances that we trated in the course of this essay but one has to be clear that the laws in fact did not include the slightest reference to social rights until very recently. With the demise of the Republic, a new constitution was drafted in 1795 for the Batavian Republic, the "Verklaring der Rechten van de Mensch en van den Burger" and later in 1798 the "Staatsregeling voor het Bataafsche Volk" became the first modern constitution in the modern sense, but the pillarized character of religious freedom remained untouched. In August 1806, the "Constitute voor het Koningkrijk Holland" set the foundation for the national-state constitution of 1814 when the Kingdom of the Netherlands, that is, the monarchical national state still prevalent today, rose under political upheaval similar to that of other European states and only then the current shape of the constitution, "Grondwet voor de Vereengide Nederland" was written not without the particular feature of not having any ideological preamble whatsoever, something very untypical for the 19th century.
This constitution still didn't made guarantees for anyone's social welfare outside the pillars of our society and was continuously reformed in 1830, 1840, 1848, 1884, 1887, 1917, 1922, 1938, 1946, 1948, 1953, 1956, 1963 and 1972 only in order to accomodate for the most varied provisions, in particular those related to the new status of the colonies, either because they were colonized or gained their independence or their status as a part of the Kingdom but not of the Netherlands. It was only until 1983 that so far all of the constitution was re-written and the first time when social rights made their felicitous appearance in it (with the exception of article 23, about the sensitive freedom of education which once again hearkens back to the pillars and the problem of education for the different religious groups that was in place until very, very recently) using a rather uniform legal terminology rather than the different layers of historical continuity and foreign influences that had pervaded until then. The bill of rights was expanded with a prohibition of discrimination, a prohibition of the death penalty, a general freedom of expression, the freedom of protest and a general right to privacy. Further reforms were effected in 1987, 1995, 2002 and 2005. So far the provisions for the so-called tolerance of which Dutch people are so proud, and others alike, do not go further back in the practice of law, than the happy year of 1983, which also coincided with an amendment made after the investiture of Queen Beatrix, so that female successors could also become sovereigns. Just as the likes of Hans Janmaat (a now forgotten political figure who had expressed his opinions of wanting all foreigners out of the country and who declared publicly that MP Ernst Hirsch Ballin should be removed from his post because his father was a Jew), the late Pim Fortyuin and the now current Geert Wilders, have clearly demonstrated, there remains even within the reformed constitution, an open struggle between Article 1 (Freedom of Speech) and Article 7 (Forbiddance of discrimination on the basis of religion, life principles, political inclinations, race or sexual preferences) that is so far unsettled.
Even the tolerance between the Reformed Church itself is only very recent, for it was until 2004 that all Reformed denominations united under the name of Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, but each one of the previous three denominations has kept its own theological school; 90% of the Dutch Jews were sent to their deaths in the course of the Nazi occupation and so far, Islam, remains the only growing religion in the Netherlands for the past 50 years while non-sectarianism or even atheism comprises a good 40% of Dutch society. Perhaps it could be well said that nothing has changed, yes, the pillars no longer exist and society is no longer defined by religion, but in the contemporary scene when the political sphere is not longer independent of private affairs but rather the opposite, there is a clear imbalance between the public tolerance and the private intolerance. Perhaps it is not the churches but the politicians who today turn a blind eye to the regulations for the sake of social harmony, regulations that in principle, even though no longer religious, could be hardly defined as friendly toward those tolerated. Tolerance in the Netherlands? For how much longer?