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A Shot in the Foot

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The Change of Protestant Churches in Post-War Society in the Netherlands

image of Church History and Religious Culture

Historiography of the Netherlands 1945–1970 leaves one with the impression that the church as an actor in society had already acknowledged that it was obsolete. The role of the church in these decades is above all a passive one: at first the church does not do anything of importance within society, and subsequently it is abandoned by it. This impression overlooks the fact that the church—Catholic as well as Protestant, but this article is focused on the two largest Dutch Protestant denominations—changed its attitude towards society in these decades immensely. From institutions that sustained the societal order they became its major critic, calling for justice in a welfare state that blurred moral boundaries. This change is most clear in the new role the diaconie [the social welfare work of the church] assumed. Now the welfare state took care of the material needs of the destitute, the diaconie focused on social and also counter-cultural church social welfare work. The churches’ criticism of especially Protestant civil society ultimately achieved the opposite of what it was aiming for: in the hope that they could change the character of society and under their influence bring about salvation, their criticism led externally to a further weakening and a greater invisibility of the church in society. The churches’ new role engendered much debate in the 1960s in and outside the churches, but the result was increasing isolation. This became visible when members started to leave the church en masse in the 1960s and 1970s. The abandonment of the churches in favour of society that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s was preceded by the churches’ rejection of that very same society. In other words, the churches were not overcome by this reversal of fortune, but had themselves provoked it.

Affiliations: 1: Theological University Kampen/VU University Amsterdam


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