PhD study summary

In 2006 I took my PhD. The dissertation was published by Shaker, Maastricht. The full reference:

Meulen, M. van der. 2006. Vroom in de Vinex. Kerk en civil society in Leidsche Rijn. ShakerPublishing: Maastricht.

Excuses to English readers, but the dissertation was written in Dutch only. I am busy reworking parts of the material in English, (hopefully) to be published in a few articles. For your convenience, I have written an English summary.

English summary
The title of this book translates as “Pious in the Vinex. Church and civil society in Leidsche Rijn.” It describes my research on church and civil society in the suburb of Leidsche Rijn, located in the centre of the Netherlands near the city of Utrecht. Leidsche Rijn is still under construction. It constitutes the largest building project in the Netherlands and is part of a plan by the Dutch government to built 635,000 houses between 1995 and 2005, the so-called Vierde Nota Ruimtelijke Ordening Extra or Vinex programme. The Vinex-location Leidsche Rijn will consist of 30,000 new houses with 80,000 new residents by 2015. The suburb is being built on the property of the former municipality Vleuten – De Meern. At the start of the project in 1999, Leidsche Rijn already had 20,000 residents, mostly living in two villages forming the municipality Vleuten – De Meern.

For more than one year I participated in two church building projects in Leidsche Rijn: the evangelical reformed RijnWaarde and the ecumenical mainline Kerk Zijn in Leidsche Rijn (“Being Church in Leidsche Rijn”, shortened as Kerk Zijn). RijnWaarde was started by three conservative reformed churches located in Utrecht and a nearby village. Kerk Zijn was founded by the protestant and Roman Catholic churches of Vleuten – De Meern. The theoretical framework of my research is based on the concepts of civil society and social capital. I identify four perspectives in the current civil society debate. These perspectives are distinguished on the basis of their different expectations of the productions of civil society: communicative rationality, diffusion of power, solidarity or social capital. The four perspectives can be placed in a matrix, outlining (1) civil society as a public or a social domain and (2) civil society as a normative or descriptive term. I give an overview of the debate on civil society, discussing several important civil society theorists, such as Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Robert Putnam, Bob Edwards and Michael Foley.

In my research the social capital perspective is dominant. I use the definition of James Coleman (1988): social capital is defined by its function as a potentiality that inheres in the structure of relations between actors. In the concluding chapter I explore the question how social capital relates to normative definitions of civil society. I define civil society as follows:

“In a minimal sense, civil society is a network of associations of citizens that try to achieve common goals set by themselves. This network can be distinguished, but not separated from the domains of state, market and the private sphere. In a stronger sense, civil society promotes the ‘civility’ of society by strengthening communicative action, solidarity and the diffusion of power.”

Civil society is a part of the broader social infrastructure. In theory, it is connected to the other domains of society: the market, the state, and the private sphere. In Leidsche Rijn we see two different models of civil society and social infrastructure. In the villages Vleuten and De Meern a civil society already existed, in which the churches played a relatively important role. For instance, the churches built two community centres which served the local population by providing space for associations, health care etc. The churches were part of the social infrastructure of Vleuten – De Meern; they were connected to the relevant persons and institutions that defined what was going on in the local social infrastructure. This all changed when the construction of the new suburb began. Vleuten – De Meern lost its independence, political power was transferred to the city of Utrecht, and a complete new social infrastructure started to develop with the coming of the new suburb.

An important difference between the old and the new social infrastructure is the dominance of the government in providing social functions, such as schooling and health care. In the suburb the churches and possibly other civil society organizations are poorly connected to the social infrastructure and experience a social vacuum. The new social infrastructure leaves little room for these organisations to participate. This phenomenon can be identified as the “dissolution of civil society” (Dekker, 2002): the process by which social functions formerly performed by civil society are transferred to other societal domains. In Leidsche Rijn, the dissolution process seems to have come to completion. Despite the situation in Leidsche Rijn, the two church building projects still have their own ideas on how to participate. RijnWaarde focuses on the development of a personal lifestyle in which faith in Jesus Christ plays a central role. It sees presenting the gospel to all new suburbians as its primary contribution. To fulfill this mission, RijnWaarde developed several initiatives to promote a healthy Christian lifestyle, the most important one being an alpha course. Kerk Zijn has a double focus: it wants to contribute both socially and spiritually. One of the initiatives by Kerk Zijn is the Cultuurcampus (“Culture Campus”), a cooperation of various social partners, such as the music school, centres for health care and a secondary school. Kerk Zijn wants to help people to meet each other and, in the process, develop new ways of being a church that t the residents of Leidsche Rijn.

The participation of Kerk Zijn in the Cultuurcampus is based on the social capital derived fromthe connections of its churches to the old social infrastructure. The principal of the music school of Vleuten asked Karel Vermeer, the chairman of Kerk Zijn and a well-known figure in the local civil society of Vleuten – De Meern, to work together in developing the Cultuurcampus. They invited other social partners to join, and started a committee to work out the plan’s details. Vermeer became the chairman of this Cultuurcampus-project as well. The churches were considered logical and trustworthy partners for this project. Karel Vermeer and Bernard Sluis are typical examples of what I call “rooted cosmopolitans”, based on a distinction Merton (1957) makes between “local influentials” and “cosmopolitans”. According to Merton, there are two types of influential people in a local situation, such as a village. Local influentials base their influence on who they know (e.g. politicians), while cosmopolitans base their influence on expert knowledge (e.g. physicians). Sluis, Vermeer and other persons in Vleuten – De Meern combine these two types: they are rooted in the local social infrastructure and have access to expert knowledge because of education or training. These rooted cosmopolitans enable projects like the Cultuurcampus.

At first, the churches had a large share in the project, but quickly a conflict arose within Kerk Zijn about the manner of deploying the available capital. Not all participants in Kerk Zijn saw the Cultuurcampus as the best way to accomplish the mission of Kerk Zijn. An important source of conflict concerned the definition of ecumenical cooperation. Sluis and Vermeer saw spirituality and the development of new, ecumenical forms of church life as an essential part of the Cultuurcampus. This was a bridge too far for the churches of Vleuten andDeMeern, who rather kept the status quo between Protestants and Roman Catholics. This internal conflict
resulted in minimal participation in the Cultuurcampus.

Two conclusions can be drawn from the case of the Cultuurcampus: (1) Social capital enables participation in the social infrastructure and / or civil society, but also defines the limits of participation. The social capital embedded in the cooperation of the Roman Catholic and protestant churches of Vleuten – De Meern made the Kerk Zijn project and the Cultuurcampus possible, but also limited how far Kerk Zijn could go. (2) Views on ecumenical cooperation were contextual versions of civil society-ideals in this case, because they motivated and delineated
the public mission of Kerk Zijn.

The religious mission of RijnWaarde to present the gospel can also be seen as a contextual ideal of civil society. One of the main initiatives of RijnWaarde is the alpha course. In this course, the major principles of Christian belief are presented in fifteen evenings. Each evening starts with a meal and much attention is given to create an informal atmosphere in which the participants can explore and discuss what is presented to them. To RijnWaarde the alpha course is a contribution to society, because it makes the transforming power of the Christian faith available to people. In one of the courses I attended, a few intense moments of prayer arose, which were instrumental in changing the lifestyle of some participants. We can conclude the following: (1) Religious views can again be understood as contextual versions of civil society ideals. RijnWaarde sees promoting a Christian lifestyle as its primary contribution to society. (2) The alpha course can be seen as a way to produce social capital mediated by religious ritual. Prayer in particular was crucial to the development of relationships among the participants of the course. The question arises whether the alpha course and other religious meetings can be seen as driving forces of social capital: religious rituals create collective identities and produce and sustain social capital every time they are performed.

From my research we can derive several conclusions that are important to the theoretical discussions about civil society, church and social capital. First, it is to be expected that the ‘traditional’ civil society as an integrated and significant part of the social infrastructure will not develop in Leidsche Rijn. The new social infrastructure is fundamentally different from the social configuration that existed in Vleuten – De Meern. For the churches this means they have less access to social capital, especially to its bridging form (Putnam, 2000). Civil society organisations that want to remain significant to the larger social infrastructure will need to base their activities on other forms of capital, e.g. human and economical capital. Another conclusion is that the view held by many sociologists that the existence of social capital has a beneficial effect on civil society cannot be maintained. Social capital is a neutral force with differing consequences. It enables but also limits the public participation of, for example, churches, depending on who has the power to decide how the available social capital will be deployed. A third conclusion is that the distinction made in civil society theory between religious and sociocultural functions is questionable. Dividing the mission of these projects in a socio-cultural and a religious part, in which only the former can be seen as a
contribution to society, does not do justice to the views of the two projects. They both take their religious activities to be important contributions, inseparable from the whole of their public mission. Any researcher of civil society must take these contextual perspectives on civil society seriously, for two reasons: (1) Without an understanding of these perspectives a researcher cannot understand the dynamics of civil society. The contextual definitions are of much greater importance for the happenings in the empirical field than the definitions that reside in the researcher’s mind. (2) Why would a researcher know better what civil society is than the civil society organisations themselves? Defining civil society is not solely the task of the researcher.

On the basis of my research I propose to conceptualise civil society according to Charles Taylor’s model. This model offers an interesting starting point to see religious contributions as contributions to civil society and to incorporate
Decker’s thesis of the dissolution of civil society. Taylor sees churches and other civil society organisations as communities of common understanding that bind people with the same views of the good society together and connect them to the democratic decision-making process. Religious groups can fully participate in the public sphere, contributing their religious understanding of society. Social capital remains of importance, but not necessarily as the primary source of power for civil society organisations. Churches that want to remain socially relevant will need to develop “innovative forms of contact and commitment” (Davie, 2002). For instance, religiously inspired professional organisations or spiritual centres that see their religious traditions as their primary contribution to society may be better equipped to participate in the social infrastructure.

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