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.
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.