Economic crisis boosts Dutch Calvinism

Amsterdam, the Netherlands - Five hundred years after the birth of French Protestant theologian John Calvin, his teachings seem more topical than ever.

Hard work and frugality, the values espoused by Calvinism, are back in fashion as people reassess their lives because of the economic crisis.

Nowhere is this more so than in the Netherlands, which is often described as the most Calvinist nation in the world. Calvin never set foot there, but his influence is hard to miss.

The Thomas church, in Amsterdam's financial district, looks far from inviting, with stark concrete walls and bare brick floors. You could call it Calvinist architecture - but the simplicity has a calming effect.

Ruben van Zwieten, 25, is training to be a reverend here. Unusually, he also runs a recruitment company.

So he feels he is uniquely placed to give business people a chance to unload their burdens.

"I know a lot of people working in the business district, I know their doubts," Ruben said. "They are working harder and harder and it seems increasingly meaningless."

Bringing people together

With his navy blazer, this tall young man looks more like a fashion model than a man of the church.

Maybe that is why Ruben has found ways to make Calvinism cool. In the autumn, he is planning to bring together bankers and local Muslim youths for a football match.

On Valentine's Day, he asked some 200 young professionals to "date" senior citizens from the parish.

So, for instance, a 35-year-old banker from ABN-AMRO went to a park with an 88-year-old woman.

Afterwards, a young man told Ruben: "I feel more like a human being after this day."

Among those who have started coming to Ruben's lunch-time services is Ingrid Toth, a translator.

When asked if Calvinism is relevant today, she laughs.

"It's very strange to hear myself saying this, but yes. With all the excess, I thought the sobriety, the down-to-earth approach to things, is right after all."

From the Thomas church, it is just a short walk to the glass-fronted building of the Amsterdam World Trade Centre.

But few here spend their lunch hour praying or confessing their financial sins.

"They might consider turning to Calvinism because of the crisis," said Hendrick Sippe, who works for an American bank.

"But soon they go back to the old patterns and after a few years, the sky's the limit."

But the governing social-Christian coalition has started ringing the changes.

Call for morality

Under cabinet rules, people working in the public sector should not earn more than the Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende - that's $240,000 (£147,000) a year.

In several recent speeches, Mr Balkenende - a devout Calvinist - has called for more morality in the economy.

"The economic crisis is also a moral crisis created by greed, preoccupation with money and egotistical acts," Mr Balkenende said earlier this year.

"Calvin knew that society needed strong moral anchors, this is a lesson we need to take to heart."

Only 19% of the Dutch describe themselves as Protestants, as opposed to 28% Catholics, 5% Muslims and 40% who say they are not religious at all.

But after decades of tolerance, stricter policies are emerging on soft drugs and prostitution.

A graffiti-like painting, with the words "sex, drugs and debate" scrawled in vivid colours, is the striking decoration in the office of Joel Voordewind.

The deputy parliamentary leader of the Christian Union, the junior coalition partner, speaks of a moral revival.

"I think a broad Christian moral sense is now flourishing again in Holland," said Mr Voordewind.

"I'm very proud of that because I see that we have been lacking that moral agenda for the last 20 years.

"So I'm very hopeful for the future that through the crisis - although it's very difficult for a lot of people who are losing their jobs - but through the crisis, the government makes our economy more just and moral for the coming 10 years."

The 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth has generated huge interest and a marketing boom which seems to go against the moderation advocated by the theologian.

Barack Obama

Every week, thousands visit the "Calvin and I" exhibition at a church in the central Dutch town of Dordrecht, where Calvin mugs, chocolate and even wine is also on sale.

In a special "Calvin Glossy" magazine, a contributor bafflingly describes the French reformer as the "Barack Obama of the 16th Century".

Then there's the "C-factor", an online test developed by Lodewijk Dros for the religious daily Trouw, which asks you to agree or disagree with statements such as "I always keep my promises", "I should work harder, really" and "I love good, luxurious food, which may cost a bit".

After 70,000 volunteers took it, Mr Dros concluded that 56% of the Dutch could be classified as Calvinists. "I think Calvin is in our veins," Mr Dros told me.

Being neither Dutch nor a Calvinist, I decided to take the test too. The results were surprising. It turns out I have a C-factor of 58.

As the test concludes: "Working hard is fine with you, but your attitude towards others isn't necessarily radically black-and-white.

"You live your life in a temperate and moderate way, but you don't mind a little extravagance now and then."

I suppose in this time of crisis, we are all going at least a bit Dutch.