Groen van Prinsterer as the father of Christian democratic politics and his role in the consolidation of the Dutch constitutional democracy

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As 19th-century Dutch statesman and historian, Groen van Prinsterer (1801–1876) achieved renown by virtue of his conservative opposition to the philosophical and political ideals associated with the Enlightenment. Appreciation of Groen’s historiographical and political contributions has traditionally been confined to Dutch Reformed circles, however, with little recognition outside of these confines. Groen’s distinctly Christian historiography has often been regarded as detrimental to appreciation by a broader audience (Berkelaar 1997:24–5). Viewing his historical narrative strategies as a political act in itself, however, can disclose the historical significance of his historiography and political engagement to a broader audience of historians, theologians and philosophers. By means of the phenomenological-narrative approach of the contemporary philosopher of history David Carr the narrative sanction behind Groen’s strategic political positioning and political action is highlighted in its historical context. To Carr, narrative is integral to all human experience (Carr 2014:112–3). He advocates a realist view of narrative as the inescapable framework that provides meaning to the present in light of both the past and an envisaged future (2014:2). In other words, human experience becomes sensible when understood in terms of narrative (2014:73–5). Historiography must therefore not be understood as mere “metaphysical claims about the reality of the historical process, but as a kind of discourse more appropriately compared with the political-rhetorical kind of story-telling” (2014:121). Groen’s own historiography can be appreciated in a novel way in terms of the phenomenological-narrative approach: as in itself a political act that shaped his political engagement in a unique and historically significant way.

Groen narratively cast the ideas of the French Enlightenment as the fruits of a rationalist religion idolising humankind. He rejected the revolutionary notions of the social contract and egalitarianism as a threat to true liberty (Groen van Prinsterer 1847:273). By forsaking the authority of the divinely ordained social and moral order, society is placed on a path to anarchy from which government tyranny alone offers liberation. An acknowledgement of and submission to the higher authority of God is therefore the only bastion against state absolutism (1847:563). Countering the Enlightenment, Groen’s historical narrative emphasised that Dutch prosperity was the result of the nation’s historical rootedness in the principles of Christianity and in particular the Reformation (1847:389).

Shortly after the publication of his magnum opus, Unbelief and revolution, a significant constitutional revision radically changed the Dutch political landscape in 1848. Historians generally regard this constitutional revision as historically initiating the start of the democratic era in the Netherlands (Te Velde and Willink 2006:26). Groen, elected to parliament in 1849, expressed his dissatisfaction with the liberal spirit of the constitution (Groen van Prinsterer 1849:4). His historical narrative sanctioned the idea that liberalisation leads to apostasy and societal decline, which was decisive in this regard (Groen van Prinsterer 1849:1). He was nonetheless willing to engage politically within the framework of the new constitution, given his narrative emphasis on religious and epistemic principles as decisive for any political system, regardless of the constitutional or systematic framework in which it was cast (1849:70–1). In fact, he rejected the idea that changes in the political system as such, without a change in fundamental principles, could offer any liberation from injustice or tyranny (1849:15). Groen’s repositioning in light of the constitutional changes can furthermore not be ascribed to a change in Groen’s political theory as such, but must be understood in terms of his narratively sanctioned political agenda in his historical context. The political changes of 1848 necessitated a reaffirmation and renewed application of his anti-revolutionary political principles in a new context. By means of his narrative emphasis on principles he was able to decentre the constitution and the democratic process, by rather amplifying the need to return to traditional Christian political principles even within the framework of the newly established constitutional democracy of which he was no principled supporter. A change in the political system without a change on an epistemic level would simply amount to yet another revolution (1868:409).

Even when given a platform by the Dutch king to call for significant reforms in 1856, Groen chose a path of non-intervention. A mere eight years after the constitutional revision, King Willem III wanted to recast the political system, with which he had become displeased, yet again (Van der Meulen 2013:336–7). Groen, however, surprisingly rejected the reactionary suggestions of the king (Groen van Prinsterer 1876:19). His narrative sanctioned a future hope in the success of his rhetoric in terms of convincing the Dutch people to embrace his principles. He therefore regarded it as the best strategy at the time to remain content with the newly established democratic system, despite his principled disagreements with it (1855:88). This did not amount to viewing the constitutional democratic system as a neutral framework for the engagement of contradictory political positions, however. His contentment with the status quo in 1856 must be viewed in light of his narratively sanctioned hope in the eventual victory of his political position by the test of time itself, since revolutionary ideals at odds with the divinely ordained natural order were doomed to failure in the long run (1849:483). He therefore rhetorically encouraged his audience to continue to engage politically on the basis of unchanging and perpetual anti-revolutionary principles (1847:389). At the time Groen probably didn’t expect the unhindered progress that those very Enlightenment ideals which he opposed would enjoy in terms of the later constitutional development in the Netherlands. The first article of the Dutch constitution of 1983, for example, which prohibits discrimination based on religious convictions, is often interpreted as irreconcilable with the political ideal of a Christian state (Dölle 2005:100).

Nonetheless, Groen’s rejection of the king’s hints in 1856 brought a definite end to all reactionary tendencies in Dutch politics. He thereby consolidated the Dutch constitutional democracy at a time when the system was still young and, given the revolutionary climate at the time, still vulnerable. By means of his narrative emphasis on principled political engagement within a constitutional democratic framework he laid the foundations of the Dutch political party system. He also thereby opened the pathway for Christian democratic political engagement. His role as the father of Christian democratic politics is evidenced in his legacy: the Anti-Revolutionary Party founded in 1879 was not only the first political party in the Netherlands, but also the world’s first Christian Democratic Party (Kuipers 2011:333).

The historical mark that Groen left in terms of shaping and solidifying the Dutch constitutional democracy in the 19th century merits appreciation outside of Dutch Reformed confines. Young constitutional democracies such as South Africa, especially in light of recent debates regarding the very constitutionality of Christian political engagement (Mutelo 2017:24; Henrico 2017:547–8), could also benefit from taking note of Groen’s historical contributions in terms of shaping the Western democratic tradition.

The way in which a narrative approach highlights Groen’s historical contribution also challenges common historiographical conceptions of the 19th century. By looking beyond the mere theoretical content of political positions, a narrative analysis of political-rhetorical strategies allows for an unprecedented appreciation of the strategic similarities between conservatives and liberals at the time. Furthermore it also challenges historians to re-evaluate common conceptions of secularisation or deconfessionalisation in 19th-century Europe. This study shows how Groen as an anti-revolutionary statesman played an active role in historically shaping and consolidating a democracy that is often viewed as being merely a product of Enlightenment liberalism.


Keywords: anti-revolutionary; Christian democratic politics; David Carr; democracy; Enlightenment; Groen van Prinsterer; narrative


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Groen van Prinsterer as vader van Christen-demokratiese politiek en sy rol in die konsolidasie van die grondwetlike demokrasie in Nederland

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