STAPHORST, Netherlands (Reuters) - 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 Netherlands, best known abroad for its liberal policies on sex, drugs and homosexuality, is also home to a Protestant “Bible Belt” mapped out by villages such as Staphorst.
Now a small political party long associated with the Bible Belt, the Christen Unie (United Christians or CU), is benefiting from a surge of support outside its rural heartland triggered by nostalgia for a more moral, compassionate society.
After almost doubling its vote in last November’ general election to 4 percent, the CU has become the kingmaker in the Netherlands’ new centrist coalition government, a feat unthinkable at the time of the previous election in 2003.
“Society has opted for more traditional values, for principles such as security and community feeling,” said Gerard Vroegindeweij, a political correspondent with the Reformatorisch Dagblad, a Protestant newspaper.
“There is a sense that these values continued to flourish in the countryside whereas they vanished in the city.”
In Staphorst, where the council is dominated by the CU and an even more orthodox Protestant party, the SGP, the well-kept thatched houses, bright-green doors, and austere mood are seen as the epitome of a rural Dutch settlement.
It is a world away from big cities like Amsterdam or Rotterdam, where social and racial tensions simmer.
“People gave me funny looks when I first said I was moving to Staphorst — as an outsider you probably think that time has stood still here,” said Eelke Lap, a local undertaker who brought his family to the village seven years ago.
“Certainly the social control in a village is much more than in the cities. I know my neighbors and they know me, but I have to say these are perfect people here.”
Lap says he has been to Amsterdam just twice in his life, and the Netherlands’ permissive policies on drugs, prostitution and euthanasia make him feel ashamed.
The rise of the CU, led by fresh-faced father-of-five Andre Rouvoet — a model of integrity to some voters — has alarmed some of those who support the more liberal Dutch values.
“The farmers have seized the power,” a columnist wrote in the national daily NRC Handelsblad.
“The Netherlands has opted for nostalgia for the past ... for small-minded bourgeois suspicion, and national pride,” he added.
Last November’s election — which has only just yielded a new government after weeks of coalition talks — saw a surge in support for the far left and the far right, as well as for the CU at the expense of the familiar centrist parties.
“Our base has always traditionally been in the Bible Belt, but recently it has broadened and we are gaining in the big cities and the Catholic south,” said CU Director Henk van Rhee.
The Protestant faith in the Netherlands is fragmented. Besides the traditional Protestant church, there is also a strict Reformed Protestant Church, formed in the 19th century, and a growing evangelical movement.
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.
CU Communications Manager Shahied Badoella, a Christian convert of Surinamese Indian origin, says he is the product of a new diversity in the party, driven by new arrivals from Africa and former Dutch South-American colony Suriname.
“The traditional image of us no longer applies. We are a fresh, modern, realistic, though orthodox Christian party.”
Having courted the Christian immigrant vote, the CU also has more unexpected sources of potential support.
“There is a huge potential electorate there for them,” said Andre Krouwel, a political scientist at Amsterdam’s Free University.
A survey he carried out matching people’s political beliefs to the most appropriate party indicated many voters might find the CU’s social conservatism a natural fit.
If the party shed some policies such as opposition to gay marriage, it could easily double its representation, taking seats from Labour and the Christian Democrats, he said.
“Permissive society is over. Now you have a new generation concerned about what was lost during that age,” he added.
Not all the party’s new supporters will find common ground.
“There are those who think that the CU should carry on doing what they have always done up to now — bearing witness to the word of God in parliament,” said Vroegindeweij.