The Making of a Fundamental Value

A History of the Concept of Separation of Church and State in the Netherlands

in Contributions to the History of Concepts


Separation of church and state is one of the key concepts in contemporary debates in increasingly secular democracies like the Netherlands. It is not only used to describe the legal and political arrangements between the state and religious organizations, but is also part of a larger discursive struggle over national identity and the meaning of citizenship. This article traces the history of the concept of separation of church and state in the Netherlands since the eighteenth century. First, it shows how the concept has always been a contested one. Second, it argues that the current framing of separation of church and state as a fundamental value of Dutch society is relatively recent and is connected to growing secularism and the position of Islam in Dutch society.

The separation of church and state is nowadays widely believed to be a fundamental aspect of modern liberal democracy. This is certainly the case in the Netherlands, where, in fact, over the past decade, several scholars have noted that the notion of the separation of church and state has become more prevalent and is more explicitly used than before in political and public debates on the relations between government and religion.1 Most of these recent debates seem to revolve around the question of to what extent religion can and should be accommodated by self-proclaimed secular democracies. In these debates, the phrase “separation of church and state” is not only used to describe the legal and political arrangements between the state and religious organizations, but is also part of a larger discursive struggle over the role of religion in society and the meaning of citizenship in an increasingly secular and multicultural society.2 The sociologist Jan-Willem Duyvendak recently concluded that in contemporary public debates on citizenship in the Netherlands, three themes come to the fore as the main markers of what is considered “true” citizenship: women’s rights, modern attitudes toward gender and sexuality, and, last but not least, the separation of church and state.3.

Despite the attention on the separation of church and state in contemporary debates, surprisingly little is known about the history of the concept. What meaning(s) did separation of church and state have in Dutch history, and when and how did the uses of the concept develop into their present-day forms? Which actors used the concept and to what ends? This article analyzes the different meanings of separation of church and state in Dutch public debates since the late eighteenth century, and presents its argument in two parts. The first part of the argument is that the concept of separation of church and state has always been a contested concept, with different meanings in political discourse through most of modern (understood here as the period since the late eighteenth century) Dutch history. This may sound like a truism, but the literature on the topic, although acknowledging a historical variety of opinions on the meaning of the concept, tends to designate a specific legal-institutional interpretation of the concept as its basic definition.4

The second part of the argument is that the use of the concept changed most notably, at least in the postwar period, during the late 1970s and the 1980s. This conceptual history of the separation of church and state therefore hopes to add to the further refinement of the historicization of “the secular” and “secularism,” categories in which the (concept of) the separation of church and state plays a central role.5 Social scientists have rightly argued for a more critical and detailed analysis of the “processes of ‘secularization,’ the practices of the ‘secular’ and the political ethic of ‘secularism’” for some time now.6 Despite the calls for a more precise and specific historical account of these categories, the common timelines of religious-political developments in the Netherlands and other Western European societies are still rather schematic and undifferentiated. They either affirm the importance of the 1960s, perceived as a period of radical discontinuity in dealing with religious difference in society,7 or the period since 2000–2002, when debates on integration of Muslim minorities reached center stage.8 It was, however, not in the 1960s or at the start of the twenty-first century but rather during the 1980s that the concept of the separation of church and state was reframed and, partly in reaction to this reframing, supplemented with a new understanding of the concept.

Separation of Church and State as a Concept

This article discusses the specific ways in which actors used the term “separation of church and state” in historical political debates.9 The term “political” is meant to be broadly understood here: not only parliamentary debates (although they form an important part of the source material) but also reports, books, newspapers, and journals reflecting on the concept are taken into account. The sources and cases have been selected from the existing literature in combination with (for the post-World War II period) keyword searches in parliamentary and newspaper databases.10 The article follows the diachronic trajectory of the concept by situating the use of the term “separation of church and state” in political speech within larger discursive formations and the broader political-historical context of the respective periods.11 In the second part of the article, the conceptual change since the late 1970s will be analyzed in more detail.

The first sections describe the different uses of the concept from the late eighteenth century until the mid-twentieth century. Such a long-term overview is risky for two main reasons: the concept can easily become isolated from its linguistic and historical context, and there is the danger of suggesting that a concept has some kind of “fundamental” or “essential” meaning with a linear and continuous development.12 However, the overview here serves to prevent precisely such an interpretation. As will be made clear in the first sections, separation of church and state meant something quite different in different periods of Dutch history. It is important to stress these differences, since many uses of the concept in present-day speech suggest some kind of age-old tradition of the separation of church and state. If we want to write a critical conceptual history of the present, as Jan-Werner Müller has suggested, present-day claims about a concept’s past must be subjected to a “semantic check.”13

Separation as Nonestablishment (1750–1850)

Some historians note that the principle of the separation of church and state in the Western world has roots that date back to early Christendom. John Witte Jr., for example, concluded that Christian theology has always emphasized the dichotomy between the religious and the secular in one form or another (from Augustine’s distinction between the City of God and the City of Man to the “two swords” theory of the late Middle Ages) with the aim to separate the church from the state. Different branches of Protestantism later developed their own variations of these earlier binary oppositions.14 In general, the idea that church and state had different duties and responsibilities and should therefore operate separately was primarily aimed at the protection of religion from the corrupting influences of profane life. These historical theological concepts are not unimportant, if only because twentieth-century actors sometimes referred to them in their own constructions of the concept. Most accounts of the separation of church and state start in the late eighteenth century, when the new regimes of the Atlantic Revolutions proclaimed the separation of church and state in their decrees and constitutions.15 The Batavian Republic, established in 1795 as the revolutionary successor of the Dutch Republic, was no exception.

The revolutionary regime issued a decree on 5 August 1796 “on the separation of the Church from the State—or to end the existence of a privileged Church.”16 The last part of the sentence points to the issue at stake: a majority of the revolutionaries wanted to abolish the existing privileges of the Dutch Reformed Church and treat all religious denominations equally before the law. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the then dominant view that morality and public order were best served by close cooperation between a privileged public church and the government was increasingly contested. The mixed influence of Enlightenment notions of individual autonomy and natural equality, an early form of nationalism that emphasized unity, and a new theological focus on personal and individual religious conviction led to a different vision on the role of the state with regard to religion. All citizens of the Dutch nation-state, many believed, should be allowed and encouraged to develop and express their religion as part of good citizenship, aimed at the moral civilization of society and the common good, which stressed unity instead of discord.17 But if religion, certainly in the hands of responsible citizens, was an indispensable source for a good society, any obstacles against its salutary influence should be removed. Whereas the privileging of one public church over the others had been used as a solution against war and discord in past centuries, this position of the public church at the end of the eighteenth century was identified as one of the main causes of dissatisfaction.18

Separation of church and state in 1796 was first and foremost conceived as a necessary abolishment of certain privileges, based on the principles of the revolution that had been put down in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1795. The decree stated that the principles of liberty and equality were in conflict with a “ruling or privileged Church,” and that their establishment in 1795 “had already separated the Church from the State.”19 Although the separation of church and state of 1796 meant a brief end to (especially the financial) ties between the Reformed Church and the government, this by no means implied an antireligious position. The revolutionaries drew a distinction between the institutional position and powers of an established church, which was “an intellectual madness, a political heresy, inconsistent with our Revolution” on the one hand, and religious beliefs and convictions, which were important and beneficial, as long as they were considered “enlightened,” in this case presented as the opposite of “sectarian” or “dogmatic.”20 The revolutionaries did, however, place restrictions on public worship: the Constitution of 1798 prohibited religious service, religious dress, and religious symbols in public spaces.21

Some of these meanings of the concept of the separation of church and state, constitutionalized in 1798, were short-lived: the Constitution of 1801 reversed the financial disestablishment of the previous years, and under the successive regimes of the French Bonapartes (1806–1813) and King William I (1813–1840), the state strengthened and expanded its involvement with the churches and religion in general. A Ministry of Religious Affairs was created to observe and regulate the organization of religion, an aspiration the centralizing nation-state started to fulfill by drawing up Reglementen (regulations) for the Christian and Jewish denominations during the 1810s.22 All in all, the autonomy of the churches during the first decades of the nineteenth century was, in line with the curtailing of many civil liberties, restricted in favor of stronger government control.23

This kind of involvement of the state with religion would have been un-acceptable to most revolutionaries of the Batavian Republic and how they had conceived the separation of church and state—a concept that did not play a noteworthy role in the sparse political debates of the early nineteenth century. But the dominant views on the role of religion in society were similar: both the revolutionary governments and William I embraced the ideal of an enlightened form of (Protestant) Christianity as the foundation for the moral education of the virtuous Dutch citizen. Whereas the Batavians believed that political involvement with religious organizations would only hamper the process of religious and moral enlightenment, both King William I and a number of politicians and clergymen were willing to make a combined effort for the promotion of an enlightened Christianity.24

Separation as Equal Accommodation (1850–1945)

These efforts and their underlying ideal were contested from the start. Especially within the Protestant churches, the course of the Reformed Church was challenged. In 1834, a number of churches decided to break off from the Reformed Church. Although the Afscheiding (secession) was suppressed at first by the Reformed Church and the government, it signaled the start of a new period of disentanglement. The constitutional reform of 1848 ended many of the state’s controls over the churches.25 The architect of that constitutional reform, the liberal statesman J. R. (Johan) Thorbecke, noted in 1869 that the Netherlands enjoyed “separation of church and state … in its true meaning.”26

Yet, at this point, that phrase had a different meaning from its meaning in 1796. The liberal reformers had wanted, in line with their general opinion that the influence of the state had to be restricted, to end the state’s power over the churches. The separation of church and state therefore referred not primarily to the privileges of the church or the unequal position of the different denominations but rather to the ideal of a truly autonomous church within the state. Thorbecke, himself a Lutheran, was convinced that religion could only play its important and beneficial role in society if the churches, which should have the same legal status as other public associations, enjoyed as much negative liberty as possible. According to him, the state had gradually been separated from the church over the past centuries, and now the time had come to let the church develop without interference from the state.27

But how complete could and should a separation of church and state be? In the infamous pamphlet Scheiding van kerk en staat (Separation of church and state), published in 1875, the philosopher C. W. (Cornelis) Opzoomer warned against a “total” separation. Although the “total separation was lately recommended as a panacea, also for Europe, and following the American example” Opzoomer believed that this was too simple a solution.28 According to him, only “radicals” who were indifferent toward religion, and “clericals” who saw the separation of church and state as a means to eventually realize their ideal of a theocratic state, were in favor of a total separation. In his view, the state had to concern itself with the churches and make sure that they would not exploit their power. Opzoomer was particularly worried that the Roman Catholic Church would abuse the recently extended freedom of religion, and he argued for a Dutch version of the Maigezetze, the laws of 1873 that were meant to restrict the position of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany.29 Opzoomer’s opinions were heavily criticized in the liberal press. Several commentators followed Thorbecke’s example and argued that church and state had become increasingly separated as the century went on, and that Opzoomer’s state interventions would end this continuity toward a free church in a free state. Furthermore, the May Laws were too “German” in the eyes of his critics, unsuited to the “Dutch tradition.”30

Opzoomer’s pamphlet shows, however, that the existing classical liberal understanding of the separation of church and state as part of this tradition was contested. This was triggered not only by international developments such as the Kulturkampf in Germany but also by national developments. The late nineteenth century witnessed an organizational boom of religious groups—Opzoomer had mentioned that it had become impossible to speak of one church in the state, and that there were many religions that the state had to deal with.31 Protestants, Catholics, and Jews established all kinds of organizations for different aspects of public life on the basis of a shared religious identity. This societal segmentation-a phenomenon that would become known as “pillarization”—undermined the notion of a united (enlightened Protestant) nation and broadened the scope of religion.32 The development of all kinds of faith-based organizations by (members of) religious denominations as part of a growing religious sphere reinforced the conflation of the terms “church” and “religion” within the concept of separation of church and state—and the possible number of conflicts that could be described in terms of the separation of church and state.

The new social imaginary in which the Dutch nation was seen as made up of individuals belonging to separate (religious) groups was propagated by many but also fiercely attacked by those who believed that segmentation was breaking up the unity of the nation.33 The emergence of this context and its impact on the concept of separation is clearly visible in the most comprehensive historical overview of Dutch church-state relations written in the twentieth century. J. Th. (Johannes) De Visser, former minister of education for a Dutch Reformed political party (Christelijk-Historische Unie, CHU), published his three volumes of Kerk en staat (Church and state) between 1925 and 1927.34 In these books, he not only described the history of the relations between church and state in Dutch and Western history, but he also evaluated the current system under what he called the “modern state.”

This modern state, De Visser wrote, had made the idea of the “separation of church and state” its “favorite slogan.”35 De Visser immediately confessed, however, that the phrase itself could mean a number of different things: two coexisting sovereign bodies, a completely secular state emancipated from all confessional influences, or the abolishment of a special position for the churches in public life. He further argued that the separation of church and state could hardly be called a constitutional reality, considering the lack of uniform practical implementation, not only in the Netherlands but also in other countries like Germany and the United States.36 According to him, the separation of church and state as understood by Thorbecke had never been fully implemented.

De Visser did not consider this to be a problem. He agreed with the liberal position that the state should not favor one religion over the other or interfere with church affairs.37 The churches for their part should not control any part of the government, although De Visser considered this a nonexistent possibility in the early twentieth century, a time when the state had such a powerful position that it no longer had to fear the political power of the church.38 But this should not lead to a “liberal neglect” of religion by the state. The state had to be led by the moral convictions of its citizens—and these were Christian morals in the eyes of De Visser. If the state dismissed these Christian roots of public morality, it could be led toward totalitarian alternatives.39 For De Visser, the separation of church and state did not exclude the state’s support for the social initiatives employed by (religious) groups and organizations. This particulier initiatief coincided, especially in the areas of education and poverty relief, with the interests of the state and should therefore be financially supported by the state. Even the churches themselves were eligible for support, since they “benefited the moral consciousness of the people.”40

De Visser’s discussion of the different views on church-state relations and of his own opinion on the matter shows that the use of separation of church and state in the first half of the twentieth century must be understood against the background of a religiously segmented and highly organized civil society. The state accommodated many initiatives of churches and other faith-based organizations in different spheres of public life, on a proportional basis. Thorbecke’s liberal ideal of a free church in a free state was still in place, but in the social imaginary of the pillarized society, the state should not only protect the negative liberties of the church and individual believers but also promote some positive liberties for groups. This view was not uncontested either (Opzoomer’s “radicals” and “clericals” had far from disappeared), but it proved to be highly influential during the largest part of the twentieth century.

Separation in a Pluralist Welfare State (1945–1980)

At the end of the German occupation of the Netherlands in 1945, the relation between state and religion (and the churches as part of it) was briefly questioned by a new group of social reformers who wanted to end the segmentation of society and cut the link between religion and politics.41 Simultaneously, the postwar Cabinets were concerned with a number of cases that directly concerned the relationship between church and state: in 1946, a state commission was set up to reevaluate the still-existing state contribution to the pensions of clergymen, and in 1955, another state commission had to decide whether a state provision for the construction of new church buildings was in order.42

However, the public discussions of the 1960s, when the reports of the two committees were debated in Parliament, demonstrate that the concept of the separation of church and state was not central to the postwar debates. In 1962, Parliament discussed a proposal for a temporary subsidy arrangement for the construction of new church buildings. The proposal and the debate had been triggered by a decision of the provincial Estates of Gelderland in 1953 to deny a subsidy for a new Roman Catholic church in the city of Nijmegen. The Estates of Gelderland had founded their rejection partly on the argument that a subsidy was in violation of “the principle of the separation of church and state, which entails that, considering their respective sovereignty in their own affairs, no financial connections may exist between them, in order to keep their relations pure.”43

The “purity” of the relations would be tainted by this kind of subsidy, since subsidies entailed oversight and therefore the risk of state interference with the organization and practice of religion.44 A similar argument was made by the Cabinet in 1969, when it dismissed a proposal for a new financial contribution for the churches instead of the existing state contribution to the pensions of clergymen. The Cabinet argued that religious belief and worship were not part of the public domain but “typically belonged to the private domain” and should be “free of any interference.” By subsidizing churches, the state could at least appear to influence the churches in their “own sphere” and therefore jeopardize the churches’ fundamental freedom.45

The proponents of subsidies in both cases agreed that the autonomy of the churches had to be protected, but they denied that the proposals had anything to do with the separation of church and state. Some, like Partij van de Arbeid (Social Democratic Party, PvdA) member of Parliament (MP) J. H. (Johan) Scheps, used the argument that the separation of church and state was no constitutional principle at all (indeed, the Dutch Constitution did not and does not contain the term) and that a separation between church and state in a strict sense had never been applied in the Netherlands.46 Both arguments were used to delegitimize the “separation of church and state” argument in the political debate. Rather than claiming the term for their own use, proponents of church subsidies simply stated that the state had an obligation to support and stimulate the public organization of religion, not only because many religious organizations were indispensable for the provision of education and different forms of social welfare but also because religion itself was an important aspect of the welfare of at least a part of the population.47

Liberals and orthodox Protestants believed financial state support could endanger the liberty of the churches, while those on the political Left believed this support was necessary for the churches in maintaining this freedom. But whether negative or positive liberty was stressed, when the concept of the separation of church and state was used until the 1970s, the emphasis was on safeguarding the autonomy of the church and the equal protection of all denominations.

The peripheral position of the concept is confirmed by the number of occurrences in the national public debate. The phrase “separation of church and state” was used in only seven separate sittings of the House of Representatives from 1950 to 1960, in five sittings from 1960 to 1970, and in eight sittings from 1970 to 1980.48 During this whole period, only two books with “separation of church and state” in their title were published in the Netherlands (both during the 1950s).49 Occurrence in newspaper articles was obviously higher. During the postwar period, the number of articles (based on a selection of national and regional newspapers)50 that included the phrase “separation of church and state” ranged from 300 in the 1950s to 226 in the 1960s, followed by 256 in the 1970s and 317 in the 1980s. An analysis of the content of the articles shows, however, that in the vast majority of the cases, the term was used in relation to foreign news. Separation of church and state was a concept that did not seem to concern Dutch society and was hardly applied to public debates on the relation between state and religion in the Netherlands.51

During the first postwar decades, the concept of the separation of church and state was still hard to pin down. In 1946, the politician I. A. (Isaac) Diepenhorst had written, in his book on the relation between church and state in the Netherlands, that there existed “great confusion and perhaps even more misunderstanding” concerning the principle of separation of church and state. With the term, “people usually mean the disentanglement of the bonds between the two, but there is hardly any consensus on the specific consequences.”52 This lack of clarity continued but, until the second half of the 1970s, without much public contestation. In 1971, P. J. (Piet) Boukema, senator for the orthodox Protestant Anti-Revolutionaire Partij (ARP), noted that the debates on the aforementioned state contribution to the pensions of clergymen lacked passion. He felt this was understandable, “because the relation between church and state does not give much rise to conflict at the moment. The boundaries are stabilized; church and state both know their place.”53

A decade later, such a statement was much less credible. The concept of separation of church and state had different and contested meanings during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although it had been an integral part of Dutch political discourse during the whole period, the framing of the concept would change rapidly and dramatically from around 1980. The combination of a growing emphasis on the rights of nonbelievers and new debates on immigration and the integration of religious newcomers created a context in which the concept of the separation of church and state became very explicitly framed as a core value of Dutch culture and politics and a norm for others.

Separation of Church and State as a Fundamental Value of Dutch Society

In 1982, the young sociologist Paul Schnabel noted, in his dissertation on the growing influence of religious sects, that the topic of the relation between church and state had become almost obsolete: “there is hardly any recent scholarship, the handbooks are very brief on the subject.” But, he continued, “I think the time has come to resume the discussion on the relation between church and state.”54 A year later, Minister of Finance Onno Ruding wrote, in a letter to Parliament concerning the financial relations between the state and the churches, that “the relation between church and state is dominated by the principle of the separation of church and state.”55 And in 1986, Minister of the Interior Kees van Dijk detected a “growing need in politics and society for a fundamental debate on the separation of church and state.”56

The combined arguments that church-state relations had become more pressing, and that the separation of church and state was the central concept of this topic was reflected in a quantitative boom. The term was used in twentyone separate sittings of the House of Representatives in the 1980s, compared to eight sittings during the 1970s. The term was used in seven book titles during the decade, and newspapers now regularly applied the term to domestic issues. Among these were the political debates on minorities policy, on new religious movements (so-called sects), and on the existing financial arrangements in the aftermath of the government buyout of the state’s contribution to the pensions of clergymen. Although the specific contexts of the use of the concept of the separation of church and state were different in all these cases, its position in the debates of the 1980s shows a general development of conceptual change. At the end of the 1980s, the concept of the separation of church and state had become firmly framed as a fundamental and specific value of Dutch culture and society. This nationalist and culturalist turn in the use of the concept was visible in, and simultaneously a result of, a number of claims about the nature of the separation of church and state as a fundamental value.

In one important development, separation of church and state was now presented as a norm for religious newcomers in Dutch society, especially Muslims.57 Although the public debates on newcomers during the 1970s and 1980s (mostly immigrants from Turkey and Morocco) largely revolved around the perceived social-economic and ethnic characteristics of these groups, their religion was not completely ignored. One of the first commentators who linked Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands to the principle of the separation of church and state was A. J. (Bart) Verbrugh, the leader of the orthodox Protestant Gereformeerd Politiek Verbond (GPV). During the 1970s, Verbrugh had developed a conservative, nationalist Christian political agenda. He considered immigration a threat to Dutch culture, and he often criticized the government’s policies toward the new minorities.58

In 1978, during a debate on the desirability of state funding of new theological university degrees, Verbrugh argued that his party had always voted against these subsidies, because he considered them a violation of the separation of church and state. Subsidies would lead to all sorts of problems, especially with new denominations who he felt did not take the separation of church and state very seriously: “If the government would subsidize, for example, an Islamic educational degree, it would in fact subsidize a kind of Arabization of Dutch culture because spiritual and cultural aspects are closely linked over there, while Christianity knows much better how to separate those aspects.”59 Two years later, he again defended “Dutch” culture against the notion of a “multicultural society” that the government was propagating, in his eyes. To him, Dutch culture was in certain respects incompatible with others:

Does the Minister not think it is impossible to bring together, the strong conviction amongst many Muslims that the religious and the state power should not be separated, with the notion of separation of church and state and complete religious liberty? This idea of liberty, after all, has been the result of a battle of centuries in the Netherlands, and under the influence of the Gospel.60

The concept was used in a similar fashion (but without the Christian overtones) by liberal and social-democratic actors following the second half of the 1980s. In 1991, the newspaper De Volkskrant published an article by the liberal politician Frits Bolkestein, in which he attacked the “cultural relativism” that to his mind dominated Dutch attitudes toward immigrants. Instead, the government should stand for a number of “fundamental and non-negotiable principles” that characterized Dutch society: “the separation of church and state, the freedom of speech, tolerance and non-discrimination.”61 A year later, the government followed suit when Minister of the Interior Ien Dales, of the Dutch Social Democratic Party, wrote a letter to Parliament concerning the integration of ethnic minorities. Equal treatment was the basis of government policy, the minister stated, but under the condition that the laws and rules of the country were fully respected: “Minorities have to realize that a number of fundamental values of Dutch society are non-negotiable, such as: democratic rule-of-law, freedom of speech, individual autonomy, equality of man and woman, and the separation of church and state.”62 Although both Bolke-stein’s article and the new minorities policy were criticized, the notion that the separation of church and state was a fundamental principle of Dutch society was not questioned in the reactions. By many, it was now claimed as a Dutch and/or Christian achievement against those who had not (yet) embraced this concept.

In a second development, a number of commentators used the concept during the debates of the 1980s in an argument for the termination of all specific relations between the state and religious organizations. Religion, in this view, should hold no special position in the public realm and in the eyes of the legislator. This goal in itself was not new. Since the nineteenth century, it had often been noticed that both state and church would be better off without mutual interference or direct assistance.63 However, this was now put forward not only as a means to protect church and state but also with the explicit aim to guarantee the equal treatment of all citizens or organizations—religiously affiliated or not. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, for example, the issue of whether the government should keep track of the religious affiliation of citizens was debated inside and outside Parliament. Rob Tielman, chairman of the Humanist Association, argued that the existing practice of stating a citizen’s religion in the Dutch passport “is at odds with the separation of church and state and discriminates [against] humanists and others who do not belong to a religion.”64

A second aspect of this registration, whether this kind of government information could be used by the churches for their own administration, was discussed by Parliament in 1987. A majority concurred with the motion of PvdA MP M. J. (Piet) De Visser that the separation of church and state was a basic principle of Dutch politics and that religious denominations should not have more access to data than “other non-(semi-)governmental organizations.”65 Despite objections by a number of representatives from religious political parties that a church was not the same as a workers’ union or the Royal Dutch Touring Club, the majority agreed that religious organizations were equal to other types of public organizations and that special arrangements were discriminatory. Separation of church and state was in these cases presented as a core principle of the Dutch political system that guaranteed equal rights of all citizens and denied any legal distinctions between religious and nonreligious groups and individuals.

Reaction: The “Abuse” of Separation of Church and State

It was especially this second development that triggered a reaction. Religiously affiliated commentators, but also social democrats and some liberals, argued in turn that the concept of the separation of church and state was being misused to discriminate against religion and to attack the freedom of religion. In

1983, MP H. G. (Hette) Abma from the orthodox Reformed Staatkundig Gere- formeerde Partij (SGP) aptly summarized the concern of his party’s rank and file during a debate on a new antidiscrimination law: “The strong separation of church and state, which is now occurring, can lead to laws which will make it difficult for churches and worshippers to believe and exercise what is essential to them.”66 Two years later, the Roman Catholic philosopher P. A. (Pieter- Anton) van Gennip held a lecture in which he showed himself worried about the marginalization of religion. What is happening now, he said, “is that the separation of church and state is used to legitimize the discrimination of religion and non-secular worldviews in Dutch politics and society.”67 These and other participants in the public debate argued that the principle of the separation of church and state was being wrongly interpreted. They did not deny the importance of the principle but argued that it had to be understood as a principle that guaranteed religious freedom and the emancipation of religious groups, not as a ban on contacts between government and religious organizations or on the public presence of religion. As Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers stated in 1982, “Although I have the highest respect for the separation of church and state, we should not translate it as some kind of leprosy, in the sense that one could [not] or should not meet one another.”68

Although the “meeting” of church and state in most cases referred to (financial) arrangements between government and religious organizations, the concept of separation of church and state was also applied against the use of religious symbols in the realm of the state (the inscription “May God be with us” on Dutch coins, for example), and (in)formal contacts between the gov-ernment and representatives from religious denominations. Lubbers’s quote above referred to his plan to have Cabinet meetings with members of the clergy, a plan that was heavily criticized by many politicians and newspapers, who called it at odds with the “principle of separation of church and state.”69 Additionally, public statements from religious leaders about politics and from politicians about religion were also questioned on the basis of the concept of the separation of church and state. In 1977, the conservative-liberal politician Hans Wiegel gave an interview in which he criticized the Council of Protestant Churches after it had released a statement on the upcoming elections. According to Wiegel, the advice could be read as a statement against his party, but he warned the council that it had “to realize that we have a separation of church and state in this country” and that such statements would “delegitimize the position of the church.”70 Ten years later, a similar controversy arose when Bishop Bomers called for Roman Catholics not to vote for the social democrats and the liberals because of their position on abortion.71

Within these debates, another discourse that was critical of the use of the concept of the separation of church and state emerged among a group of (legal) scholars, civil servants, and administrators. In a series of reports, journal articles, and conferences, these professionals constructed a different meaning of the concept, which would become and remain influential in the public debate but would be especially influential in governmental and scientific spheres. One of its earliest and most influential expressions can be found in the government report Overheid, godsdienst en levensovertuiging (Government, religion, and life philosophies), which was published in 1988 by a state commission that had been formed to advise on financial state support for faith-based organizations.72

In the report, the commission wrote that it wanted to give its opinion on the meaning of the separation of church and state, since this principle had been used in previous years to argue against state subsidies for religious organizations. For the commission, separation of church and state had a limited meaning, which it defined as “the state and the churches and other faith-based organizations function as independent bodies.”73 The state, the report argued, should not privilege one religion over the other or interfere with the internal organization of religious groups and religious practice. The commission concluded that the separation of church and state did not prohibit state support for the building of houses of worship, for example. They therefore disagreed with Parliament’s rejection of such a subsidy for the building of mosques in 1984, which had been based on a reference to the separation of church and state: “the commission concludes that this would overextend the meaning of the principle.”74

Separation of church and state was used as a concept in these cases with a very limited meaning and scope, from which it followed that the concept was “misused” in many situations. Sophie van Bijsterveld, one of the authors of the report and since then the most prolific and influential author on the topic of Dutch church-state relations, developed this perspective further. In a 2006 government report on the public role of religion, she defined the separation of church and state in a strictly institutional sense as “a lack of institutional authority from one over the other,” and noted that the principle should not “be asked [to do] too much.”75 Using an old and fairly limited constitutional principle in a modern setting had become largely unfruitful, according to Van Bijsterveld: “It is important that fundamental discussions on the relation between government and religion are not clouded by false arguments. It is also important that we do not try to find answers to questions in legal principles that cannot offer such answers.”76

In this discourse, separation of church and state was presented as a largely outdated concept with limited meaning, as a reaction to the growing secularist and culturalist use of the concept since the 1980s. This meaning and use of the concept has been dominant in the scientific literature and policy reports of the past decades concerning the relation between government and religion. Virtually all of these publications, like a report by the Amsterdam City Council on the Separation of Church and State (2008), emphasize that “separation of church and state is often cited in discussions on the public role of religion, but these two topics have nothing to do with one another whatsoever.”77 And, from a 2013 academic article on church-state relations: “The principle of church and state is nowadays often overextended. People ignore the relatively limited, institutional meaning of the principle: both the state and the churches and other faith-based organizations function as independent bodies.”78

The attempt to limit the meaning of the concept in reports and scientific literature has served to open up space for new discourses on the relations between government and religion. Rather than using the concept of the separation of church and state, authors of different books and reports have suggested using different types of state “neutrality,” Article I (nondiscrimination) and Article VI (freedom of religion) of the Dutch Constitution, and/or concepts such as differentiation, communication, coordination, and proportion to describe relations between government and religion.79 But despite these attempts to contain and even replace the concept of the separation of church and state with new concepts, separation of church and state has remained a central concept in public debates on the relations between the state and religion and identity politics in the Netherlands. Considering the concept’s historical flexibility and broad applicability, there is no reason to assume that it will disappear from these public debates any time soon.


The concept of separation of church and state has been used in Dutch public debates for at least the past two centuries. However, other than its recurring use and an observed confusion about its meaning, a fundamental or essential meaning of the concept cannot usefully be distilled. In the late eighteenth century, the concept was used to attack the position of the Reformed Church as a privileged church. In the mid-nineteenth century, it was fitted to a liberal understanding that the churches should be autonomous organizations in a civil society operating freely from the state, in a reaction to increased state control over the organization of religious life in the early nineteenth century. From the late nineteenth century, separation of church and state was defined within the context of a pillarized society, as the obligation of the state to protect and support churches and other faith-based organizations on an equal and proportional basis. This continued after World War II, when the prewar settings returned and the notion of the welfare state even supported the view that the state should support religious life as part of people’s well-being. In this period, the concept was used sparingly in the national context and was not a topic of strong political debate.

That changed after the late 1970s. Separation of church and state became a central concept in fierce public debates on the place of religion in modern society. Fueled by a growing emphasis on the rights of nonbelievers and debates on the emergence of new religious groups, the concept was now presented as a fundamental value of Dutch society (sometimes even as part of broader Western culture) and part of Dutch tradition and identity. Although this position in itself was not questioned, the meaning and consequences of this value were hotly debated. As a reaction to the political secularist and culturalist use of the concept, an attempt was made to limit its use and introduce new concepts to discuss the relation between government and religion from a pluralist but nonpillarized position.

It is important here to stress that the debate was not simply a battle between “secularist” (here defined as the ideological position that religion should be contained in its own religious sphere completely separated from a “neutral” state)80 and “religious” positions: some Christian groups used the concept of the separation of church and state to argue against provisions for Muslims, while many nonreligiously affiliated actors still defended the position that the state can and should be allowed to accommodate religious groups.

Within these debates, different versions of the historical development of the separation of church and state were used that do not necessarily hold up to historical-conceptual scrutiny. Presenting the concept as a foundation of Dutch politics and culture misses the point that the concept was understood and used in very different ways that cannot easily be compared to other periods. Conversely, the history of the concept is also misrepresented when it is stressed that the concept has a limited institutional meaning. In all periods, the concept has referred to more than just the institutional independence of state and church. Historical actors have always linked the concept of the separation of church and state to the position of religion in society and used it as a legitimation for their views on the public presence of religious beliefs and practices.

In his impressive Separation of Church and State (2002), Phillip Hamburger argued that the separation of church and state was not a foundational principle of the United States, contrary to common belief. Rather, it had been “invented” as a constitutional principle after 1900, under the influence of anti-Catholic rhetoric and American nativism.81 Such a critical historical evaluation of a popularly held conviction is not only important for the United States, where the separation of church and state has acted as an important aspect of American collective identity for some time, but also for countries like the Netherlands, where this is increasingly the case.

The author would like to thank the editors and reviewers for their comments, and the members of the research project “Religion Renegotiated: Faith-Based Organizations and the State in the Netherlands since the 1960s” for reviewing earlier draft s of the manuscript. The research for this article was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).


Sophie van Bijsterveld, “Scheiding van kerk en staat: Een klassieke norm in een modernetijd,” in Geloven in het publieke domein: Verkenningen van een dubbele transformatie, W. B. H. J. van de Donk, A. P. Jonkers, G. J. Kronjee, and R. J. J. Plums (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 227–261, here 227–229; James Kennedy and Markha Valenta, “Religious Pluralism and the Dutch State: Reflections on the Future of Article 23,” in Van de Donk et al., Geloven in het publieke domein, 337–353, here 337; Notitie Scheiding Kerk en Staat (Report Municipality of Amsterdam: Amsterdam, 2008), 1.


Cora Schuh, Marian Burchardt, and Monika Wohlrab-Sahr, “Contested Secularities: Religious Minorities and Secular Progressivism in the Netherlands,” Journal of Religion in Europe 5, no. 3 (2012): 349–383, here 375, 377–379; Baukje Prins, Voorbij de onschuld: Het debat over integratie in Nederland, 2nd rev. ed. (Amsterdam: Van Gennip, 2004), 25–28.


Jan-Willem Duyvendak, “Zijn we dan niet altijd al modern geweest? Over collectief geheugenverlies in Nederland en de overwinning van de jaren zestig,” Socialisme en democratie 73, no. 1 (2016): 13–19, here 15.


Sophie van Bijsterveld, Overheid en godsdienst: Herijking van een onderlinge relatie, 2nd ed. (Nijmegen: Wolf Legal Publishers, 2009), 173.


José Casanova, “The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms,” in Rethinking Secularism, ed. Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan Van Antwerpen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 54–74.


Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan Van Antwerpen, “Introduction,” in Calhoun et al., Rethinking Secularism, 3–30.


Peter van Rooden, “Dutch Way of Dealing with Religious Differences,” in Religious Newcomers and the Nation-State: Political Culture and Organized Religion in France and the Netherlands, ed. Erik Sengers and Thijl Sunier (Delft : Eburon, 2010), 59–75.


See, e.g., Joris van Eijnatten and Fred van Lieburg, Nederlandse religiegeschiedenis, 2nd rev. ed. (Hilversum: Verloren, 2006), 328; Rogier van Reekum, “Out of Character: Debating Dutchness, Narrating Citizenship” (PhD diss., University of Amsterdam, 2014), 149–150.


I view the concept here predominantly as a political concept rather than a religious one. On the specific semantics of religious concepts, which goes beyond the scope of this article, see Lucian Hölscher, “Contradictory Concepts: An Essay on the Semantic Structure of Religious Discourses,” Contributions to the History of Concepts 10, no. 2 (2015): 69–88.


The phrases “scheiding van kerk en staat” and “scheiding tussen kerk en staat,” in the digital minutes of the Dutch Parliament before 1995 ( and of the Parliament since 1995 (; the digital newspaper database of the Dutch Royal Library Delpher (; and the database Digibron (, which contains a number of Protestant newspapers.


The focus here is on the phrase “separation of church and state” itself, but sometimes I use phrases or “elementary sentences” that refer to the same concept, such as “church and state should be separated,” “when the church became separated1 from the state,” etc.


For a recent overview of the debates on conceptual history and more specifically Begriffsgeschichte, see Jan-Werner Müller, “On Conceptual History,” in Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History, ed. Darrin McMahon and Samuel Moyn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 74–94. Writing Begriffsgeschichte for the twentieth century is debated in “Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe Reloaded? Writing the Conceptual History of the Twentieth Century,” special issue of Contributions to the History of Concepts 7, no. 2 (2012): 78–128, especially the contribution by Willibald Steinmetz, “Some Thoughts on the History of Twentieth-Century German Basic Concepts,” 87–100.


Müller, “On Conceptual History,” 76, 88.


John Witte Jr., “Facts and Fictions about the History of Separation of Church and State,” Journal of Church and State 48, no. 1 (2006): 15–45, here 16–25.


Hugh McLeod, Religion and the People of Western Europe 1789–1989, new ed.(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), v.


Dagverhaal der handelingen van de Nationaale Vergadering representeerende het volk van Nederland, 9 vols. (The Hague: Van Schelle and Comp. 1796–1798) (8 August 1796, no.145), 2:544.


Van Eijnatten and Van Lieburg, Nederlandse religiegeschiedenis, 241–242; Van Rooden, “Dutch Way,” 64.


Van Rooden, “Dutch Way,” 65.


Dagverhaal (8 August 1796, no. 145), 2:544.


Ibid., 2:538. Citation by Representative J. Hahn, who continued his statement by saying that “we all agree, that without Religion and virtue, no man can be happy.”


Staatsregeling des Bataafschen Volks (The Hague: Lands Drukkery, 1798), arts. 22–23.


Van Eijnatten and Van Lieburg, Nederlandse religiegeschiedenis, 255–256; Nikolaj Bijleveld, Voor God, Volk en Vaderland: De plaats van de hervormde predikant binnen de nationale eenwordingsprocessen in Nederland in de eerste helft van de negentiende eeuw (Delft : Eburon, 2007), 36–37, 46–51; Emo Bos, Souvereiniteit en religie: Godsdienstvrijheid onder de eerste Oranjevorsten (Hilversum: Verloren, 2009), 239–246.


Bos, Souvereiniteit en religie, 282, 515–516.


Bijleveld, Voor God, Volk en Vaderland, 81–82.


Van Eijnatten and Van Lieburg, Nederlandse religiegeschiedenis, 271; Bos, Souvereiniteiten religie, 510.


Cited in J. A. Bornewasser, “Twee eeuwen kerk en staat: Een veelledige confrontatie met de moderniteit,” in Geen heersende kerk, geen heersende staat: De verhouding tussen kerken en staat1796–1996, ed. J. de Bruijn, Th. Clemens, O.J. de Jong, P.T. van Rooden, and J. Vree (Zoetermeer: Meinema, 1998), 29–61, here 38.


J. A. Bornewasser, “Thorbecke en de kerken,” Low Countries Historical Review 87, no. 3 (1972): 375–395, here 392–393. Thorbecke’s thoughts on these matters had developed since the 1830s, when he still supported government control over the churches, into his more liberal view after the 1840s.


C. W. Opzoomer, Scheiding van kerk en staat (Utrecht: G. A. van Hoften, 1875), xi.


Opzoomer, Scheiding van kerk en staat, ix–x, xiv; Leen Dorsman, “C.W. Opzoomer ende ‘Scheiding van kerk en staat’ (1875),” in Is ’t waar of niet? Ophefmakende publicaties uit de “lange” negentiende eeuw, ed. F. G. M. Broeyer and D. Th. Kuiper (Zoetermeer: Meinema, 2005), 215–233; Pieter de Coninck, Een les uit Pruisen: Nederland en de Kulturkampf, 1870–1880 (Hilversum: Verloren, 2005).


De Coninck, Een les uit Pruisen, 225–229.


Opzoomer, Scheiding van kerk en staat, vi.


Van Rooden, “Dutch Way,” 69.




J. J. Woltjer, “Visser, Johannes Theodoor de (1857–1932),” in Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland, last modified 12 November 2013,–2000/lemmata/bwn3/visserjt.


J. Th. De Visser, Kerk en staat, 3 vols. (Leiden: A. W. Sijthoff, 1925–1927), 1:9.


Ibid., 1:10.


Ibid., 3:606–613.


Ibid., 3:648.


Ibid., 3:606–613.


Ibid., 3:615–616.


Frans Becker, “Een strijd om nieuwe verhoudingen: Sociaaldemocraten en christendemocraten in de Nederlandse politiek na 1945,” in Achter de zuilen: Op zoek naar religie in naoorlogs Nederland, ed. Peter van Dam, James Kennedy, and Friso Wielenga (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014), 301–333, here 304–310.


The Staatscommissie voor de Zaken van de Erediensten (also called the Van Walsum commission, after its second chairman) and the Commissie Kerkenbouw (also called the Van Sassen commission, after its chairman).


Verslag der Handelingen van de Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal (Minutes of the House of Representatives of Parliament, hereinafter HTK), 1961–1962 (22 May 1962), 3851.


HTK, 1961–1962 (22 May 1962), 3851.


HTK, 1969–1970, Kamerstuknummer 10030, ondernummer 1, “Brief van de minister van Financiën, 19 februari 1969,” 2.


HTK, 1961–1962 (22 May 1962), 3852–3855.


Mart Rutjes, “Separation of Church and Welfare State: Dominant State Conceptions and the Financing of Churches in Postwar Netherlands,” Journal of Church and State 59, no. 3 (2016): 409–427, doi:10.1093/jcs/csw002.


Based on a count of the phrase “scheiding van kerk en staat” in the digitalized Minutes of Parliament ( The numbers only refer to the occurrence in the proceedings (Handelingen) of the House of Representatives, but different methods of counting (also counting the phrase “scheiding tussen kerk en staat,” also including the proceedings of the Senate and parliamentary documents) show a similar pattern.


Based on a search in the database Picarta (, which includes bibliographical data of all Dutch public libraries.


Based on a search in the digital newspaper database of the Dutch Royal Library ( Although the database does not include some important newspapers such as De Volkskrant, Trouw, and Het Parool (and, after 1970, NRC Handelsblad), it contains a sample that covers a broad geographical and ideological range of newspaper media.


Out of the 442 newspaper articles found in the Delpher database containing the phrase “scheiding van kerk en staat” between 1960 and 1980, eighty-four concerned contemporary domestic issues, and an additional twenty-six articles spoke of the concept in relation to Dutch history. The vast majority (332) of the articles used the concept in relation to foreign news.


I. A. Diepenhorst, De verhouding tusschen kerk en staat in Nederland (Utrecht: Kemink en Zoon, 1946), 121.


Handelingen Eerste Kamer der Staten-Generaal (Minutes of the Senate of Parliament, hereinafter HEK), 1970–1971 (2 February 1971), 814.


Paul Schnabel, “Tussen stigma en charisma: Een analyse van de relatie tussen nieuwe religieuze bewegingen en geestelijke volksgezondheid” (PhD diss., Erasmus University Rotterdam, 1982), 315.


HTK, 1982–1983, “Memorie van antwoord wetsontwerp beëindiging van de financiële verhoudingen tussen Staat en Kerk (ontvangen 27 April 1983),” 17642, no. 9.


Nederlands Dagblad, 4 December 1986.


Jan Rath, Rinus Penninx, Kees Groenendijk, and Astrid Meijer, Nederland en zijn islam: Een ontzuilende samenleving reageert op het ontstaan van een geloofsgemeenschap (Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis, 1996).


Ewout Klei, “Klein maar krachtig, dat maakt ons uniek”: Een geschiedenis van het Gereformeerd Politiek Verbond, 1948–2003 (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2011), 174–175.


HTK, 1978–1979 (20 December 1978), 2526.


HTK, 1980–1981 (15 October 1980), 371.


De Volkskrant, 12 September 1991; Van Reekum, “Out of Character,” 115. Bolkestein presented the principles as part of a larger “Western culture.”


HTK, 1991–1992, “Brief van de Minister van Binnenlandse Zaken, 27 maart 1992,” 22314 (Minderhedenbeleid 1992), no. 9, 2.


Van Bijsterveld, “Scheiding van kerk en staat,” 238–239.


Nederlands Dagblad, 13 June 1979. The article cites the original interview with Tielman in the magazine Burgerzaken.


HTK, 1986–1987, 19512, no. 6. For the parliamentary debates, see HTK (3 June 1987), 83/4181–4208.


HEK, 1983–1984 (29 November 1983), 137–146.


Nederlands Dagblad, 6 September 1985.


HTK, 1982–1983 (24 November 1982), 719.


Nieuwblad van het Noorden, 7 October 1982; De Telegraaf, 9 October 1982; Nederlands Dagblad, 24 November 1982.


Nederlands Dagblad, 12 May 1977 and 14 May 1977; Het Vrije Volk, 12 May 1977.


Het Vrije Volk, 11 May 1987; De Waarheid, 11 May 1987; Nederlands Dagblad, 12 May 1987; Leeuwarder Courant, 13 May 1987.


Overheid, Godsdienst en levensovertuiging: Eindrapport van de Commissie van advies inzake de criteria voor steunverlening aan kerkgenootschappen en andere genootschappen op geestelijke grondslag (ingesteld bij ministerieel besluit van 17 februari 1986) (The Hague: Ministerie van Binnenlandse Zaken, Stafafdeling Constitutionele Zaken en Wetgeving, 1988).


Ibid., 57.


Ibid., 58.


Van Bijsterveld, “Scheiding van kerk en staat,” 229, 248.


Ibid., 251.


Notitie Scheiding Kerk en Staat, 2.


Paul van Sasse van Ysselt, “Financiële verhoudingen tussen overheid, kerk en religieuze organisaties,” Tijdschrift voor religie, recht en beleid 4, no. 1 (2013): 65–86, here 69. The same definition was used in a 2004 report on civil rights, which also referred to the report Overheid, godsdienst en levensbeschouwing: HTK, 2003–2004, “Nota grondrechten in een pluriforme samenleving,” 29614, no. 2, 7.


Van Bijsterveld, Overheid en godsdienst, 162–165. See also the report by the Vereniging Nederlandse Gemeenten (Association of Dutch Municipalities), Tweeluik religie en publiek domein: Handvatten voor gemeenten (March 2009).


Casanova, “The Secular, Secularizations, Secularisms,” 69.


Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

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