The Magazine

Going Dutch?

From the May 31, 2004 issue: Lessons of the same-sex marriage debate in the Netherlands.

May 31, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 36 • By STANLEY KURTZ
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ONLY A FEW YEARS AGO, two prominent demographers hailed the Dutch family as a model for Europe. Somehow the Dutch had managed to combine liberal family law and a robust welfare state with a surprisingly traditional attitude toward marriage. Even as a new pattern of highly unstable parental cohabitation was sweeping out of Scandinavia and across northern Europe, the Dutch were unswayed. To be sure, premarital cohabitation was widespread, but when Dutch couples decided to have children, they got married. At least they used to.

Today, marriage is in trouble in the Netherlands. In the mid-1990s, out-of-wedlock births, already rising, began a steeper increase, nearly doubling to 31 percent of births in 2003. These were the very years when the debate over the legal recognition of gay relationships came to the fore in the Netherlands, culminating in the legalization of full same-sex marriage in 2000. The conjunction is no coincidence.

A careful look at the decade-long campaign for same-sex marriage in the Netherlands shows that one of its principal themes was the effort to dislodge the conviction that parenthood and marriage are intrinsically linked. Even as proponents of gay marriage argued vigorously--and ultimately successfully--that marriage should be just one of many relationship options, fewer Dutch parents were choosing marriage over cohabitation. No longer a marked exception on the European scene, the Dutch are now traveling down the Scandinavian path.

Call it the end of the Dutch paradox, the distinctive combination of liberal social policies and traditional behavior. On euthanasia, prostitution, drug use, and now gay marriage, Dutch law is the cutting edge of Western liberalism. Yet among Dutch people, drug use and sexual license are far from rampant. Many have asked whether this balance of tolerance and tradition, with its deep roots in Dutch culture and history, is sustainable over the long term. At least for marriage, the answer appears to be no.

THE ORIGINS of Dutch tolerance lie in the mercantile pragmatism of Holland's Golden Age, under the republic of the 17th and 18th centuries. Back then, the Dutch had their own Puritans, who, as American gradeschoolers used to learn, harbored the English religious dissenters for more than a decade before they set sail on the voyage that would take them to Plymouth Rock. More recently, Holland's blend of tolerance and tradition found expression in the late 19th- and early 20th-century policy of "pillarization." Dutch society was divided into three "pillars." Calvinists, Catholics, and socialists lived in self-contained worlds, each with its own universities, newspapers, football leagues, and eventually radio and television stations. Working together, the elites of the three pillars kept conflict at bay by setting principle aside and adopting an attitude of pragmatic toleration.

Today, the ghost of pillarization survives in the Dutch tendency to cede a large degree of cultural liberty to others, while behaving traditionally themselves. When a new social movement presents itself to a Dutchman, he typically says, in effect: Do as you please, but I'll go on as before. This tolerance for what is culturally alien is a legacy from a world built on religion. Not obvious is what happens when tolerance remains and religion disappears.

No Western society has secularized more radically or rapidly than Holland. The cultural revolution of the 1960s weakened the churches. Once faith became too fragile to sustain the social order, the pillars collapsed. The Netherlands changed from one of the most religious countries in Europe to one of the most secular. Today, nearly three-quarters of the Dutch under 35 claim no religious affiliation. The very speed of the collapse virtually guaranteed that some traditional patterns of behavior would linger at first. Sooner or later, though, would Dutch society fray, as one social experiment after another drew down the cultural capital of the past?

This question has come into sharp focus around the family. Even as premarital cohabitation became nearly universal, and as cohabitation acquired virtually equal status with marriage under Dutch law in the 1980s, scholars attributed Holland's continuing attachment to parental marriage to the persistence of the Calvinist and Catholic moral codes.