Last month’s elections in the Netherlands caused a political earthquake.

Led by the Islamophobic and Eurosceptic Geert Wilders—often described as the Dutch Donald Trump—the populist Party for Freedom (PVV) won 37 seats in the 150-seat lower house of Parliament, more than doubling their 17-seat result in 2021. Winning a substantially larger share than the runner-up Labor–Green-Left coalition with 25 seats, the PVV, led by Wilders in singular authority, now has the inside track to forming a government.

The PVV clearly benefited from the brutal October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, demonstrating that extremism breeds radical responses not only in Israel but also in Dutch elections.

Left-wing parties continued their decline. In 1998 the Labor Party, Green-Left Party, and non-coalition Socialist Party together received 61 seats. The same parties sunk to 30 seats in 2023.

Wilders’s election and the rightward shift of Parliament is the capstone not of religious resurgence, however, but of a 70-year process of secularization that has seen faith-based parties decimated amid growing uncertainty about the cost of living.

Three denominationally based Christian Democratic parties dominated Dutch politics from the early 20th century, claiming 76 seats in 1965. In the 1970s, they campaigned under the motto of “ethical revival,” advocating a return to Christian norms and values in politics. And from their 1980 merger into the modern Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) Party until 1994, no government could form without their participation.

In 2006, the CDA captured 41 seats and returned to power in a Liberal Party–led coalition in 2010, despite its decline to 21 seats. But in this election, it won a mere 5 seats, while the traditionally smaller Christian Union and Calvinist Reformed Political Party obtained 3 seats each. Never have Christians had so little representation in Parliament, with faith and ethics playing a negligible role in election debates.

Wilders, meanwhile, appealed to Dutch voters on the basis of “preserving the Christian character of the nation.” He campaigned under a slogan of “the Netherlands first,” combining anti-Muslim rhetoric with an unreservedly pro-Israel stance. Employing fear-based distortion of statistics on crime, he has called for the Netherlands to leave the European Union, for a halt to accepting asylum-seekers, for migrant pushbacks at Dutch borders, and for the “de-Islamization” of the Netherlands with methods that are clearly unconstitutional.

Article continues below

His version of populist conservatism never refers to personal faith.

Wilders has long been a far-right firebrand. In 2008, his film Fitna spurred death threats against him amid widespread criticism for its demonizing criticism of mainstream Muslim religion. At the time, I was in Egypt leading the Center for Arab-West Understanding (CAWU). We partnered with the Protestant Church in the Netherlands’s social action arm Kerk in Actie, churches in Egypt, and Cairo’s al-Azhar, the foremost religious center in the Sunni Muslim world, to diffuse the crisis.

In 2011, Wilders was brought to court for his aggressive, offensive, and abusive language against Islam. Though acquitted, the PVV combined his speech with patently false information on Christian persecution in Egypt. But in 2016, he was found guilty of insulting Muslims as a group—not the religion itself—and inciting discrimination.

In this election cycle, he moderated his rhetoric—but not the PVV platform—to better appeal to a diverse population. And after his victory, he presented himself as the potential prime minister for all Dutch people while warning that his opponents represented an “elite” who are trying to keep him out of government. Except for a brief period between 2010–12, other political parties did just that. It is yet unclear if, this time, a government can form without him.

Italian academic Antonio Scurati has written against a return to populist power politics in Europe. Such politics, he says, are based on reducing complex societal problems to a nebulous enemy, witnessed previously in the rise of Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini, who at that time blamed all ills on socialists and Jews.

Today, populists around the world focus on immigrants and, often, Muslims. If elections had been held across the continent, it is likely that right-wing parties in other European nations would also have benefited from Hamas’s slaughtering of Israelis.

Though Wilders’s surge has caused a shock across Europe, the results of these elections were partially expected. Dissatisfaction with traditional Dutch politics has grown exponentially, related to the increasing cost of living and the largest housing shortage since World War II. Migration issues collapsed the previous government, while frustration boiled against the Liberal Party’s promotion of the business class over lower income citizens.

Article continues below

While accurate polling data about Christian voters does not exist, the PVV populist revolt included the support of Christians who fear further change to cultural values in the Netherlands. However, Marietta van der Tol, head of Oxford University’s Protestant Political Thought project, does not believe that Wilders attracted large numbers of Christian votes, despite the attention given him by established Christian networks.

Christian values, however, have long been part of the Dutch establishment, which was deeply religious until the 1950s. Preaching tours by Billy Graham attracted tens of thousands of people to stem the secular tide, and other evangelists followed in his footsteps. Evangelical churches were founded, largely taking from established Reformed congregations, and in the 1960s, the Evangelical Broadcasting Company strengthened conservative faith more widely. But secularization had already settled in as a social trend, and by 1966, one-third of Dutch citizens did not consider themselves to be members of any church.

Today only 34 percent are members, while only 11 percent attend regularly.

But many churches are uncomfortable with Wilders’s victory. This is especially true for those who support ministries in the Muslim world and are unhappy with his culture of polemics.

Samuel Zwemer, a 19th-century American Reformed missionary of Dutch origin, mobilized many Dutch Christians, especially doctors, nurses, preachers, and teachers, to serve in the Middle East. Their work helped establish Protestant churches and addressed the local widespread economic and educational poverty.

Over time, the focus shifted to intercultural and interreligious dialogue. Dutch ministries have realized that churches in minority positions will have no future if they do not engage in building peaceful relations with the Muslim majority. Wilders’s polemics, however, do not fit with the traditional inclusivity of Christianity, in which all are welcome regardless of their background.

But not all is bleak politically. In 2019, the agrarian right-wing populist Farmer-Citizen Movement (FCM) formed. This election, it won 7 seats. Another new party is the New Social Contract (NSC), formed in 2023 from internal splits within the CDA. It won 20 seats. Both parties have clear Christian Democrat roots, and while the FCM appeals only to traditional values—not Christianity—the NSC speaks clearly in reference to Christian principles.

But while the PVV won 25 percent of the vote, 75 percent of the population prefer someone other than Wilders. Migration policies will certainly change to become more stringent, while the next government will have to work hard to address social issues and regain the trust of the wider population.

Article continues below

Many Christians, however, have taken refuge in populist rhetoric, secular conservatism, or religious nationalism—all of which dilute the biblical message of love, peace, and justice. Neglecting the gospel call to care for one’s neighbor, their political choices are accelerating the exit of many from the church. Without a widespread and inclusive revival, Christianity in the Netherlands is expected to dwindle further.

Wilders is not the answer. He does not pretend to be.

Cornelis Hulsman is the senior advisor of Center for Arab-West Understanding, a former member of the Christian Democratic Appeal, and joined the New Social Contract when it was founded in August. He served as a freelance journalist for CT from 2000–12.