The New York Times, Sioux Center, And Calvinism

I guess that Dutch Calvinists in Orange City and Sioux Center, IA do not often feature prominently in the New York Times but they did in an August 9, 2020 story by Elizabeth Dias. The dateline is Sioux Center, IA, one of the more significant Dutch Reformed towns in Northwest Iowa and the home of Dordt University, an independent university mostly identified with the Christian Reformed Church. The other college town mentioned, Orange City, IA is the home of Northwestern College, a denominational school of the Reformed Church in America.

Strange Bedfellows

The organizing question behind the story concerned the support of theologically and culturally Dutch Reformed Christians for a notorious playboy for the presidency in 2016. Dias reminds us that it was at Dordt University that then candidate Trump boasted that he could shoot someone on 5th Ave., in New York City and get away with it. Why did these members of a close-knit, conservative, religious and cultural minority vote for someone whose own ethics and theology were so distant from their own? According to Dias it is because they felt threatened by the social changes introduced by the two Obama administrations. In a story of just under 5,000 words Dias used “white evangelicals” or similar phrases no fewer than 14 times to help explain Trump’s appeal. The message was clear: these people are racists. She makes a point of observing the growing Hispanic population in NW Iowa and some of the accompanying tensions but there was some evidence in the article itself that her subjects are a little more culturally aware than her narrative sometimes indicated:

Mr. Schouten’s wife, Caryn, had walked over with the other wives. After the election of President Barack Obama, the country seemed to undergo a cultural shift, she said. “It was dangerous to voice your Christianity,” she said. “Because we were viewed as bigots, as racists — we were labeled as the haters and the ones who are causing all the derision and all of the problems in America. Blame it on the white believers.”

Dias reported that religious conservatives in NW Iowa feel under siege but she did not seem to understand why.

“The religious part is huge for us, as we see religious freedoms being taken away,” Ms. Driesen said. “If you don’t believe in homosexuality or something, you lose your business because of it. And that’s a core part of your faith. Whereas I see Trump as defending that. He’s actually made that executive order to put the Bibles back in the public schools. That is something very worrisome and dear to us, our religious freedom.”

She made not a single reference to the bakeries in Washington State and Colorado that have been sued and fined since the Obergefell decision nor did acknowledge the Supreme Court’s post-Obergefell decisions, which have recognized not only the potential but the reality of genuine hostility to Christians trying to live according to their religious beliefs.

The principal thesis of the article is that these Christians see Trump as a vehicle to regain the cultural and political power they lost during the two Obama administrations.

Evangelicals did not support Mr. Trump in spite of who he is. They supported him because of who he is, and because of who they are. He is their protector, the bully who is on their side, the one who offered safety amid their fears that their country as they know it, and their place in it, is changing, and changing quickly. White straight married couples with children who go to church regularly are no longer the American mainstream. An entire way of life, one in which their values were dominant, could be headed for extinction. And Mr. Trump offered to restore them to power, as though they have not been in power all along.

Perhaps the most important lines in the article, however, are these, which Dias did not highlight:

“Is he a man of integrity? Absolutely not,” he went on. “Does he stand up for some of our moral Christian values? Yes.”

The guys agreed. “I’m not going to say he’s a Christian, but he just doesn’t attack us,” his friend Jason Mulder said.

Apparently the Calvinists of NW Iowa are more sophisticated than the reporter sometimes seemed to suggest.

Strangers In A Strange Land

She did recogniz that there were was a sociological component to support for Trump in flyover country:

Explained Jason Mulder, who runs a small design company in Sioux Center: “I feel like on the coasts, in some of the cities and stuff, they look down on us in rural America. You know, we are a bunch of hicks, and don’t know anything. They don’t understand us the same way we don’t understand them. So we don’t want them telling us how to live our lives.”

Even if she did not seem to remember some ways in which Christians might feel increasingly ill at ease in late-modern America, she did note some history that helps explain what some might have such a concern:

Mr. Driesen works for the utility company, and his wife is a nurse. They have raised their five children in the area, where they grew up. Mr. Driesen’s grandmother’s grandparents were among the first Protestant immigrants to come to Iowa from the Netherlands in the late 1800s. They were among hundreds of families looking for economic opportunity, and a place to worship without interference from the Dutch government. The immigrants called their first colony Pella, after the place where first-century Christians fled to avoid persecution. Their second colony, which would include Sioux Center, settled on land that had been home to the Yankton Sioux, before the U.S. government had forced them west.

There have been three great waves of Dutch immigration to the New World. The first in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, which led to the formation of the RCA, the old Dutch Reformed Church in the US, which is today mostly broadly evangelical and tending toward mainline liberalism (a borderline denomination). The Dutch folk of NW Iowa are mostly the product of the 2nd wave, which occurred in the mid-19th century, which led to the formation of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in 1857. The third wave, occurred in the post-World War II era, but those pilgrims tended to settle in Canada and the Western US.

A Religious Minority

According to the Pew Center, there are about 51 million Roman Catholics in the USA. According to Pew, as of 2014, there were about 62 million “evangelicals” (a notoriously slippery category to describe—Pew includes the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, which would surely offend Lutheran confessionalists in the LCMS—in the USA. Of those, however, the Reformed, even if we include the borderline groups (i.e., those groups who live between the sideline (NAPARC) and the seven sisters of the mainline) there are no more than about 723,000 Reformed confessing Christians in the USA or about 1.1% of all evangelicals. Contrast this with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, which has about 2,000,000 members to which, if we add the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (354,000 members) and the Lutheran Brotherhood (60,000) the dwarfs NAPARC and the two borderline Reformed denominations.

Some of the people interviewed are part of the CRC and some part of the breakaway federation, the URCNA, which is in NAPARC. It was fascinating to see these groups mentioned in the New York Times but the story is also a reminder of what it means to be a religious minority in America: theologically misunderstood and misrepresented. Referring to Dort University, Dias writes,

The school was named for a major church assembly in 1618 and 1619 that declared salvation was only for God’s chosen ones, and expelled from Dutch territory anyone who disagreed. Its students are “Dordt Defenders,” represented by a knight in gray armor, wielding a sword like a cross.

She is partly right and partly wrong. The sentence leaves the impression that this odd group is the only group that has ever said such a thing. One suspects that the reporter might be surprised to learn that the Synod of Dort, to which she refers, was defending views held and taught at least since St Augustine in the early 5th century AD and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.

She listened but seems to have misunderstood the sermon by the pastor of the United Reformed Congregation, the Rev Jon Bushnell. She quotes him as saying, “God’s standard requires absolute, total, perfect, obedience,” which, without further explanation, leaves the impression that he was preaching a religion of salvation through good works. The story leaves the impression that Max Weber was right about Calvinists after all. Nevertheless, since Pastor Bushnell was a student in the school where I teach and he is a minister in the same federation of churches where I serve and confesses the same confessions as the rest of us, I am reasonably sure that he was referring to the law in its pedagogical use whereby it teaches the congregation (and Dias) the greatness of their sin and misery and need for the Savior Jesus, who saves helpless sinners by grace alone, through faith alone. I am confident that Pastor Bushnell also preached the good news of free salvation through Christ.

Lessons Learned: A Twofold Kingdom

I suspect that there was some miscommunication. The Dutch Reformed sub-culture in America, especially those with roots in the Afscheiding (1834), Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), and his neo-Kuyperian successors in the Netherlands and in North America needs to be aware that the watching world will not understand the language and assumptions of cultural transformationalism. Some of the rhetoric used by some of the subjects of the story language familiar to adherents of cultural transformationalism (e.g., “taking back” and “redeeming”) is heard by outsiders (e.g., Dias) as a sort of bizarre triumphalism. The subjects also indicated that they wanted to be “left alone” and that they wanted to be protected.. There are inherent tensions in those desires that would have signaled to a more sensitive interviewer the ambiguities inherent in being a cultural and religious minority with a heritage of triumphalist language and aspirations. One suspects that Dias is unaware of the Kuyper, the Anti-Revolutionary Party, the Free University of Amsterdam and what those achievements continue to signal to conservative Dutch Reformed folk in the USA.

For all the talk of “cultural transformation” and “redeeming the culture” and “taking back America” what Dias found is a cultural and religious minority practicing nothing less than Realpolitik, which the Oxford Dictionary of English defines as “a system of politics or principles based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations.” This means that for all the transformationalist rhetoric, the Dutch men and women of NW Iowa have become Americans and practical citizens of God’s twofold kingdom in America with all the ambiguities that entails. They know that Trump is no Christian nor even a political or cultural conservative but he is, in their eyes, better than the alternative, a candidate they found positively hostile to their political, cultural, economic, and religious well being.

According to Calvin’s theory of a “twofold kingdom,” we live in both a secular sphere and a sacred sphere under God’s providence. After Christendom, that distinction means that Christians must grapple with the same sorts of secular dilemmas with which everyone else must grapple. They have to make difficult but necessary choices in light of the realities before them, which is what Dias found the Calvinists of NW Iowas doing. It may be some time before the theory catches up to the reality but the theory already seems to be in practice.


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  1. Sounds as if the reporter came with a mass of misinformed prejudices and selectively heard only what confirmed them. She hated us to begin with, and continues to do so.

  2. Wayne Grudem has been lambasted recently by someone criticizing his support of Trump and he has provided a detailed reply along some of the same lines as those in IA. It’s been circulating around on the Web. Except that his critic seems to come from a direction within evangelicalism, not from an external secular source. What’s interesting to note about these conservative Dutch IA people is that their ancestors came from the Netherlands, the same Northern European region from which the ancestors of the left-wing, mainline liberal ELCA Swedish and Norwegian protestants immigrated.

    • George,

      Turns out that at least some of the Dutchmen of the 2nd & 3rd wave came from sections of the NL that held a version of King James Only-ism (the State Bible) and are theocrats. Still learning about this history and movement but it means that they did not come from the sort of pluralistic, tolerant Europe you might imagine.

  3. Historically, many Reformed believers have fought to preserve our worship and our culture – nothing more, nothing less. In 1651 our Fathers stared across the battlefield at Worcester at fellow Reformed Christians. Our Fathers, who were called out in defense of the Stuart kings, were fighting to preserve our worship and our culture. The Puritans across the field were fighting to erase us from society, advocating that all Scottish Gaels were “Irish” and alternately “Papist” and “Pagan”. The Reformation had come to the Duthaich mhic Aoidh in the 1560s and the Stuarts, for all their faults, guaranteed our worship and culture, whereas their opponents did not. Trump has his faults but he is not attacking biblical Christianity and its worship.

    • Wesley,

      It’s true that under Christendom such was done. What to do post-Christendom, that’s the question. Do we really want to fight to preserve the current culture?

      How much culture-warring went on among Christians before Christendom? How much went on in the New Testament?

      Do we really want to rebuild Christendom? Really? I don’t. I’m happy to live cheek by jowl with Baptists and Papists et al. The American experiment has been, until recently, a marvelous success. It’s worth defending but I can’t see that Christendom is.

  4. What is Reformed view on “avoidance of the world”? Radical Reformation has interesting experience (Amish-Mennonite, for example, and they still exist today). In reformed world, as I remember, Jean de Labadie group try to make something similar.

    • Ihor,

      The question is: how have Reformed people related Christ to culture? Historically there has not been one, single dominant approach. There have been three or four. It would take a book to explain them all but very briefly:

      1. During the Reformation virtually all Reformed people assumed the validity of Christendom, i.e., the state-church and a Christian civilization. There was relatively little awareness that there was a world beyond Christendom until the colonial expeditions began in the late 16th century.

      2. In the late 17th century, there were Pietists, e.g., Labadists in the Netherlands, who advocated a kind of world flight, this occurred in the context of the state-church and concern about growing worldliness and in the context of the very early stages of the European Enlightenment movements (e.g., Descartes).

      3. In the 19th century there arose a “neo-Calvinist” movement in the Netherlands led by Groen van Prinsterer, Abraham Kuyper, who rejected the French Enlightenment & Revolution, who sought not merely to engage the world (more below) but to “transform” and “take captive” every human endeavor and discipline. Hence they published Christian newspapers on politics, founded a Christian university, and a Christian political party (the Anti-Revolutionary Party). It is from the neo-Calvinists that we received the strong emphasis on “worldview.”

      4. There is an alternative, which I advocate, i.e., a modification of Calvin’s theory of a “twofold kingdom” (as distinct from “two kingdoms”). Like Kuyper et al, it affirms that Christ is Lord over all (“not one square inch…”) and like Kuyper it affirms more than one sphere in which God exercises his providential care but unlike Kuyper it retains the classic Reformed distinction between sacred and secular (which is anathema to Kuyperians) and nature and grace (which is anathema to most Kuyperians). It calls for engagement with the world but not transformation of it. Kuyper’s amillennialism was rather closer to what I call triumphalist postmillennialism. I would be opposed to world-flight or some sort of monastic withdrawal from the culture (e.g., The Benedict Option) as attractive as it might be.

      Dave VanDrunen has written at length advocating an appropriation of the Reformed “two kingdoms” approach, which overlaps with what I’m arguing but is distinct in some ways.

  5. Dear ladies and gentlemen,

    The Dutch were tolerant of my ancestors for which I am
    always grateful and there is a park named after one of them in Amsterdam, Sarfaty Park.
    My grandparents came to the US at about the same time 1880 as many of yours. We stayed in NY. I was taught tolerance as a child. I personally believe you should be able to live in your religious communities undisturbed. If you didn’t want to bake a cake for a gay couple I would disapprove but wouldn’t want you sanctioned. But Donald Trump has damaged our nation that has given me a good life. I am patriotic and my dad is MIA POW Purple Heart. If you damage the US and speak the way the Dreisins and others spoke in the Times article , I reluctantly come to the conclusion we are no longer together as countrymen. I believe your churches are teaching you bigotry as it did not come from on high.

    • Jared,

      You’re inferring all that on the basis of a NYT article, which is manifestly wrong about a number of things?

      The cosmopolitanism of Amsterdam isn’t representative of the entire NL. That said, what makes you think these folks aren’t prepared to live with others with whom they disagree?

    • Jared, I did some quick googling and found Sarphatipark in Amsterdam. I’m guessing this was your ancestor.

      “Named after the Jewish doctor and philanthropist Samuel Sarphati (1813-1866) whose marvelous 19th century monument dominates the park, this small (it stretches for only two blocks) rectangle of green in the middle of trendy De Pijp area, is one of the nicest in Amsterdam… During the World II, the bust of S.Sarphati was removed from the monument, because of the doctor’s non-Aryan origins, and the park has been renamed after the Dutch philosopher Gerardus Bolland (1854-1922), who suitably was under the influence of the German philosopher Hegel, and seemed to the Nazis racially more appropriate. Only 12 days Amsterdam has been liberated, on May 18, 1945, these changes were overturned.”

      Here’s the link:

      Perhaps a question might be appropriate. As you know, the Dutch have been known as being among the most tolerant of all European countries for their Jewish residents, and that’s not a new phenomenon. It dates back hundreds of years when the Netherlands was a very conservative country, and explicitly Reformed. The park honoring your ancestor was only one example of that.

      You’ll find a similar history in England. Oliver Cromwell was no liberal, but he was the one who made it possible for Jewish people to live openly in England under the Commonwealth, an explicitly Reformed and very theologically conservative period of English history.

      Rather than saying you believe our “churches are teaching (us) bigotry as it did not come from on high,” perhaps there’s something about the Reformed faith which leads to a desire to be encouraging and supportive of the civil rights of Jewish people?

      There are reasons why the Dutch Reformed were welcoming persecuted Jewish people during the same era that Spanish Catholics were expelling Jews or forcing their conversion, Martin Luther was writing horrible anti-Jewish books, and the Russian Orthodox were killing Jews in pogroms.

      A closer look at the Reformed faith and asking WHY it is that Reformed people were treating your ancestors well might be a good idea.

  6. Jared – “…Trump has damaged our nation that has given me a good life… we are no longer together as countrymen… your churches are teaching you bigotry…? Really? What cave have you been living in? If you want to launch an attack against an institution don’t pick the president or the churches, pick public education. It and it alone has been responsible for brainwashing the younger generations in garbage that has divided the nation. And if you want to pick a president who accelerated that process, pick the one who preceded Trump. He did more to divide the nation than any other. As has been said by people like Prager and others, we are already in another civil war…it’s just not a shooting war, yet! Guess what, it’s now turning into one thanks to the communists and anarchists who go around promoting protests and violence and the “community activists” who instigate looting and rioting.

  7. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for posting a reference to the article by Elizabeth Diaz in the NYTimes. I read her article; it seems the majority of people in Iowa, not just those of Dutch heritage, chose Donald Trump, by a landslide. Also Diaz’ photos portrayed the simple lives of people who are devoted to religious freedom. The people chose a candidate whom they believed would and has protected our liberty and freedom to practice religion. (It is socialist governors who oppose freedom to worship.) President Trump supports capitalism and opposes the destructive actions of socialists and Marxists.

    What I do not understand are people who claim to be Christian but vote for socialist and Marxist candidates.

  8. Thank you for your answer, Dr. Clark.
    I understand your position. About neo-monasticism, truly, this can looks very attractive (as for me). This remind me of semi-monastic tendencies in Reformed Pietism of Gerhard Tersteegen. In 1727 Gerhard Tersteegen lived with his disciples in religious community in Otterbeck near Heiligenhaus, and that community was highly rated even by one modern Eastern Orthodox(!) priest, and was described by him as “semi-monastical”. Tersteegen even wrote for this community a kind of Ordensregel, “Important Rules of Conduct for a Community of Brothers Living Together”. Also, Tersteegen read and knows many monastic authors, Anthony the Great, Macarius of Egypt, Nilus of Sinai and others… Very interesting example of how Reformed christian can meet and…reform monasticism…

  9. I can directly confirm that Rev. Bushnell did not preach legalism. The sermon from the service Dias quotes was tied to QA 2. Her quotes were selective with an eye to pushing her thesis.

    From talking with her for over an hour and knowing who else she talks to, as well as her background and training, she’s not ignorant of the nuances mentioned in your piece, she just chose to ignore them. As she said to a colleague in a follow-up conversation, “You’re all just different flavors of Conservative out there. You’re pretty much the same.”

    • Scott,

      Sorry not to respond sooner. I got carried away by the start of the school year.

      To my memory, he preached the orthodox Reformed understanding embodied in QA 2, which leaves no room for legalism. I can’t remember if he specifically set aside time to mention and condemn the concept by name, but he certainly emphasized the greatness of our sin and misery and our complete inability to live up to God’s perfect standard (that standard being where Ms. Dias drew her quote).

  10. Legalism is anathema to any true expression of the Reformed faith. As Ephesians 2 so clearly expounds: we are not saved by works (our own efforts and doing) but rather by grace – to do the works which God has prepared in advance for us to do…

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