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Thanking the Dutch for liberty and Thanksgiving

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This Thanksgiving let’s thank the Dutch, who gave refuge to the Pilgrims before they came to America, and who transmitted their own spirit of liberty to America.

Thanking the Dutch comes to mind in response to Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame University, author of Why Liberalism Failed, who tweeted Sunday:

"I am currently in Amsterdam for the first time, a city clearly built on ideals of beauty and transcendence. Walking around city center, I wondered: is its descent into drugs, prostitution and hedonism because or in spite of the Protestant Reformation? Discuss."

It’s no surprise that Deneen would link contemporary Dutch decadence with Protestantism. His book derides the “liberalism” of America’s Founding Fathers as poisoned fruit from the start, built on false philosophical premises and doomed to inevitable corruption. The book never cites Protestantism or the Reformation per se. But he dates liberalism back 500 years and credits philosopher John Locke, who touted government by consent, as a founder. Deneen is a favorite for many integralists, who advocate a pre-liberal/post-liberal state in which the Roman Catholic Church is supreme in society including in civil law. They deny their project is theocratic but critics see it as such.

For many of today’s critics of liberal democracy, with its stress on rights and individual liberty, Protestantism is the ultimate target in their demonology. Surely it’s no coincidence that Locke himself in the 1680s was a political refugee in Holland, where he wrote his Letter Concerning Toleration, a seminal argument for religious freedom. He did not return home until The Glorious Revolution, when the Dutch Prince of Orange was invited to replace the increasingly autocratic James II as King William III of England.

Of course, the Pilgrims had fled to Holland 80 years before Locke, also to escape persecution. William Bradford recalled that his fellow Pilgrims, because of their nonconformity with England’s state church, were “hunted & persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken & clapt up in prison, others had their houses besett & watcht night and day…” The Dutch Republic privileged Calvinism but offered relative religious freedom and attracted religious dissidents from throughout Europe.

The Pilgrims spent a decade living among the Dutch in safety, but they wished to remain English and also feared the Dutch might face reconquest by Spain, their former master. So the Pilgrims returned to England temporarily to plot their departure for America. Without the refuge the Dutch offered, the small congregation of Pilgrims in England during persecution might have been dispersed and eradicated, forgotten to history. Where would America be without the Pilgrims, from whom millions of Americans descend, and whose example of courage and freedom is central to the American narrative? The Mayflower Compact, drafted before they stepped on Plymouth Rock, pledged government by consent and is one of America’s key charters of liberty.

Another key charter of liberty is the Bill of Rights added to the U.S. Constitution as part of its 1789 ratification, guaranteeing freedom of speech and religion among other key protections. Its origins trace to England’s Bill of Rights of 1689, ratified by King William III after Parliament invited the Dutch prince to become their king. It guaranteed that the monarchy couldn’t interfere with the laws legislated by the nation’s elected representatives in parliament, ending the threat of royal supremacy.

A Dutch prince, more so than an English one, could agree to his subordination to law and parliament because his native republic already precluded royalism. That same year William also ratified The Act of Toleration, protecting religious dissenters from the state church, similar to the Dutch precedent.

The Dutch Republic, focused on industry and trade, had vigorous public political and religious debates fueled by Europe’s largest and most outspoken publishing industry. Its relative freedom afforded protection to the Pilgrims, to Locke, and provided England with a new king who, unlike the deposed native English king, would yield to law and parliament. The Pilgrims, Locke, and King William III were all key actors in advancing religious freedom and other key liberties, deemed classically “liberal,” that have centrally shaped America, with assistance from the Dutch.

Deneen disdains current Dutch decadence as the legacy of Protestantism. But the Dutch, modern or historic, have no monopoly on vice. He cites prostitution, infamously legal and open in Amsterdam. Historically Catholic Spain legalized prostitution in 1995. Both traditionally Protestant and Catholic Europe have suffered ongoing collapse of religious practice and loyalties. Whatever their vices, the Dutch still enjoy very low crimes rates relative to the rest of Europe. It is still an orderly and prosperous society, perhaps thanks at least partly to its Calvinist heritage, though urgently needing spiritual renewal, like most of Europe and the West.

The Dutch don’t deserve disdain and instead, especially this Thanksgiving week, merit America’s gratitude. When you eat turkey and stuffing with family and friends in our free and prosperous society, able to think and worship as you please without fear of theocrats or secret police, recall and thank the Dutch. Remember the Pilgrims in England before escaping to Holland were “hunted & persecuted on every side,…taken & clapt up in prison, [or] had their houses besett & watcht night and day…”

The Dutch were central to a wider tide of liberty flowing across centuries, choppily like the Mayflower on the stormy Atlantic, and always threatened, yet we pray always surging forward.

Originally published on Juicy Ecumenism

Mark Tooley became president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in 2009. He joined IRD in 1994 to found its United Methodist committee (UMAction). He is also editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence.

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