The United States and the Netherlands share a regional social-religious phenomenon called the Bible Belt, also known in the Netherlands as the Bijbelgordel. In both countries the Bible Belt is a strip of land which is inhabited chiefly by a concentration of segregated conservative Protestants.
The Netherlands, best known abroad for its liberal policies on sex, drugs and homosexuality, is also home to a Protestant Bible Belt. It is a world away from big cities like Amsterdam or Rotterdam, where society is a lot more free and diverse.
Just 90 minutes’ drive from Amsterdam and its temptations is a village so devout that swearing is banned, women refuse to wear trousers and the bank machine does not dispense cash on a Sunday.
The Bijbelgordel stretches from Zeeland, through the West-Betuwe and Veluwe, to the northern parts of the province Overijssel. According to official figures 41 percent of Dutch have no religion, 30 percent are Catholic, 12 percent Protestant, 6 percent Reformed Protestant and 6 percent are Muslim. Currently, the traditional Dutch churches have around 250,000 members.
The Protestant faith in the Netherlands is fragmented. Besides the traditional Protestant church, there is also a more fundamentalist Reformed Protestant Church, formed in the 19th century.
When Flanders and North Brabant were reconquered by the Spanish army during the Eighty Years’ War, their Protestant inhabitants were required to either convert to Catholicism or leave. Many emigrated north of the border, particularly during the Twelve Years’ Truce of 1609 – 1621. Many of them later became staunch supporters of the pietist movement known as the nadere reformatie (further reformation).
In Bijbelgordel communities, a strong religious tone in public life is accompanied by conservative outlook and an emphasis on traditional values: a preference for large families (protected sex is frowned upon); children attend special religious schools; parents are suspicious towards state-run vaccination programmes; women are not allowed to ‘rule’ in a professional capacity and are not expected to work when they start a family.
The Bijbelgordel differs from Dutch society in many aspects, amongst them a regular Sunday church attendance – often twice on a Sunday. The region also bears a strong contrast to the traditionally Catholic provinces of Noord-Brabant and Limburg in the south and northern parts of the Netherlands where Sunday church attendance averages between a mere 2% to 3% of the population. Overall, the Netherlands become increasingly secular with every passing year.
In the Bible Belt however, conservatism slows this trend. The doctrine of the faith plays a central role in the life of the more fundamentalist communities. Consequently, they typically oppose the liberal ways of Dutch life – perpetuating their segregated outlook on life. Nevertheless, secularisation is causing the Bible Belt to slowly shrink and become clustered into ever smaller societies.