President Donald Trump has pursued policies undermining LGBTQ+ rights and restricting abortion access in America in an effort to win the votes of conservative evangelicals. His agenda has also won him a club of dedicated supporters in The Netherlands: a Dutch Reformed Church lobby group that fights against gay marriage, abortion and women's rights, with support from a network of conservative American think tanks, cheese traders from the Dutch city of Gouda, Dutch far right wing party Forum for Democracy, and the American ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra. The group's influence stretches from the Dutch parliament to the United Nations.
On a drizzly evening in February 2019, the first guests begin trickling into The Hague residence of American ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra. With its art-covered walls and chandeliers, the stately home is warm and inviting. The visitors sip their wine as they take their golden, red-cushioned seats. Henk Jan van Schothorst, a political trainer and former policy adviser for the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (SGP), the Reformed Political Party, eagerly greets everyone upon arrival. Van Schothorst's friendship with the ambassador is the reason why this group of Dutch Reformed Church business owners and school administrators has come together this evening.
The reception is for members of the business network of the Transatlantic Christian Council (TCC), a lobby group co-founded in 2013 by Van Schothorst and Todd Huizinga, an American diplomat, with the goal of promoting Christian values in government policy-making. Life, family, religion and freedom, as Van Schothorst politely puts it. But what that means in practice is fighting against gay rights, transgender rights and women's rights.
The lobby group's impact seems fairly limited at first glance: Van Schothorst is an amiable guy who works from his home to roll back women's emancipation - with help from his wife and daughters. But Van Schothorst’s TCC is part of a large international network of think tanks, politicians, business people, media and lawyers who work together to exert influence over the Trump administration, the European Parliament, the United Nations and the Dutch Senate and House of Representatives.
Conservative American think tanks have been pumping millions of dollars into Christian groups in Europe for years, empowering them to champion the cause of "family values" around the world. The think tanks are bankrolled by wealthy American families, like the DeVoses (including Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos), the Kochs and the Scaifes, using their money to curtail LGBTQ+ rights, comprehensive sexual education and access to abortion. The TCC has benefited from these think tanks as well: The Acton Institute, The Heritage Foundation, Cardus and the Colson Center have sponsored multiple TCC conferences. It is unclear how much money the TCC has gotten from these organizations over the years, but their own annual reports confirm that the Dutch lobby group received 150,000 dollars from the Sarah Scaife Foundation in 2018.
American think tanks provide groups like the TCC, which is based in the Dutch Bible Belt town of Bodegraven, with funding and equip them with know-how. In the TCC's extremely detailed annual reports, Van Schothorst describes attending strategic meetings with Family Watch International and Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Family Watch International gives presentations attempting to persuade United Nations diplomats that homosexuality is "not genetically determined" and that "same-sex attraction can be helped by therapy." In the United States, Alliance Defending Freedom is described as an LGBTQ+ hate group and a Christian legal powerhouse that works with thousands of lawyers to "defend state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad" and wants to recriminalize "sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ adults" in America.
Religion and politics
President Trump's administration is full of former employees of these kinds of think tanks, says American journalist Sarah Posner, who has written extensively about how religion and conservative politics are often intertwined. Trump is relying on the support of white evangelicals in the upcoming election. In 2016, 17 percent of the US population identified as evangelical, but the group represented 25 percent of the electorate, and 81 percent of them voted for Trump. They count on Trump to defend their values, and he counts on their votes.
That arrangement is why conservative Christian think tanks can exert so much influence over Trump's policies, Posner says. "So if they want judges who oppose abortion, he's delivering. If conservative Christians say, 'I don't want to comply with this non-discrimination law,' Trump can arrange a religious exemption." Amy Coney Barrett, whom Trump recently nominated to the Supreme Court, is also connected to Alliance Defending Freedom, and representatives of ADF and The Heritage Foundation were present at the Rose Garden ceremony where Trump announced Barret's nomination.
The American ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra, is a part of that conservative Christian movement, Posner says. "He is an opponent of abortion, he is an opponent of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights. He was also part of a group of Republican members of congress who perpetuated and disseminated anti-Muslim conspiracy theories. And that was also a big part of the agenda of the Christian right, especially under Obama", according to Posner.
"His views are very similar to ours", Van Schothorst says of the ambassador. "He's a passionate guy who is working extremely hard to improve our relationship with America. He’s very active here meeting with Dutch political parties and visiting schools and businesses."
Van Schothorst has been in Hoekstra’s corner from the very beginning of his tenure in the Netherlands: he was in attendance at Hoekstra's first public event after becoming ambassador. "We pray for you, and God bless you!", he called out from the front row at Hoekstra's first press conference after becoming ambassador. Since then, Van Schothorst has attended at least 15 public events together with the American ambassador. He brought Hoekstra along to pay a visit to Christian schools and cheese traders in Gouda, and Hoekstra introduced Van Schothorst to congressmen in America and invited TCC-linked Christian Reformed Church business owners to the embassy. This past summer, Pete Hoekstra and Henk Jan van Schothorst hopped on their race bikes for a PR cycling tour through all twelve Dutch provinces - Van Schothorst accompanied the ambassador in Brabant.
"We're in touch on a regular basis. I've gotten to know him pretty well, let me put it that way", Van Schothorst says. "But on formal occasions, I address him as ‘mister ambassador’, of course."
Van Schothorst is a frequent flyer to Brussels, Geneva, New York and Washington, where he shares his views with politicians and policy-makers. "You're working in the corridors, mingling in the places where the action happens, where the decision makers are, trying to nudge resolutions in the right direction", he says of his work there.
Thanks to Peter Smith – a long-time anti-abortion lobbyist - the TCC was able to secure consultative status in the United Nations. "That was a big achievement in and of itself", Van Schothorst says. The TCC has used that status to prevent inclusion of comprehensive sexual education - which teaches young people how to understand and enjoy their sexuality in a positive and responsible manner - in the development goals for UN member states, according to Van Schothorst.
Van Schothorst also regularly lobbies in Washington and recently set up a sister organization in a building a stone's throw away from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. Thanks to Todd Huizinga, an American with Dutch roots and co-founder of the TCC, the lobby group has good connections with Republican members of congress, such as Vicky Hartzler (who supports groups that believe sexual orientation is a choice and want to legalize conversion therapy), Frank Wolf (who opposes gay marriage and abortion) and Chris Smith (also against abortion, with close ties with president Trump).
"I know a few member of congress by now. I bring up topics with them that I think deserve attention. I try to keep them informed about what is happening in Europe and what kind of positions international organizations are taking", Van Schothorst says.
Todd Huizinga was in contact with Pete Hoekstra on behalf of the TCC well before he became ambassador to the Netherlands. Hoekstra was connected to The Heritage Foundation at the time - the think tank also supports the TCC - and was working in the Investigative Project on Terrorism research team. Huizinga was already an acquaintance of Hoekstra's: "My colleague in Michigan had met him for coffee a couple of times because he lived pretty close by", Van Schothorst says. Like the ambassador, Huizinga's roots trace back to the Dutch province of Groningen, and he also grew up in Michigan, which is home to many Christian Reformed Church members of Dutch descent. Many of the evangelicals who form Trump's voter base live in Michigan, so the TCC fits right in.
In late 2019, Hoesktra accompanied Van Schothorst during a visit to Christian schools in Michigan, introducing him to congressmen John Moolenaar and Bill Huizenga, both of whom Hoekstra has made campaign contributions to in the past, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The ambassador also put Van Schothorst in touch with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, yet another Michigander with ancestors from the Netherlands. They met for the first time at the embassy in Wassenaar, and Van Schothorst and a delegation of Dutch reformed educators later had a second audience with her in Washington. Van Schothorst says, "I said to her, 'could we talk about the Dutch system some time? We have freedom of education and school choice.' And that's what she's trying to implement there now, free school choice."
Ambassador Pete Hoekstra does not simply attend TCC events - he seems to be playing a more active role. "The fact that Van Schothorst was able to get a meeting with her personally is remarkable", Posner says. "I would say that he either has a lot of sway with someone who has a lot of power, or that his agenda is so closely aligned with something that she otherwise wants to accomplish that she wants to build those kinds of relationships with people who advance that agenda. Or it could be both things. She has been very open about her willingness to use taxpayer money to fund religious schools that have a specific sectarian point of view."
And if it is true that Hoekstra serves as a sort of patron on behalf of the TCC, that would not be compatible with his ambassadorship, Posner says. "That would be against what the American foreign services are supposed to do. The ambassador is supposed to be apolitical, but under Trump, a lot of that is changing, as Trump appoints people who are very political to ambassadorships."
According to Hoekstra, there is nothing out of line about his relationship with the TCC. In an emailed statement, the embassy asserted that the TCC simply serves to put the ambassador in touch with Dutch companies who want to invest in the United States. "American Ambassadors are charged with building bridges between countries and cultures. My embassy team and I interact frequently with a wide variety of non-profit and civic groups in the Netherlands", Hoekstra writes. "Engaging with organizations does not equate to endorsing them. The U.S. Embassy does not endorse any political party or religious ideology."
The ambassador says that he seeks out contact with all sorts of Dutch organizations in order to better understand the country. "The TCC focuses on many of the same themes our Embassy does: strengthening transatlantic ties, economic cooperation, and dialogue on policy issues. Recently, for example, at the TCC’s invitation, I visited Dutch companies who are interested in doing business in the United States", Hoekstra continues.
Such an assessment of the TCC's activities seem to gloss over the fact that they are not a business association, but first and foremost a lobby group with a clear goal. Involvement with such an organization crosses a line, according to University of Leiden international relations professor Rob de Wijk. "Of course an ambassador can go for a bike ride with friendly parties, and he is entitled to his preferences. But that cannot result in that particular group having a bigger voice in the Netherlands, and any sort of fund raising activity would absolutely be out of bounds."
Back to the reception on that rainy February evening in February 2019, where the members of the TCC Business Network were gathered inside ambassador Hoekstra's residence. It is no coincidence that Van Schothorst invited this particular group of people to meet Pete Hoekstra. He not only wants to introduce them to the ambassador - he also wants to impress them.
Van Schothorst needs their money in order to do his job, and a meeting with Hoekstra is good incentive to get them to open their wallets and pledge their financial support to the Transatlantic Christian Council. Business people from Dutch companies like DB Keukengroep, Van den Berg Hardhout, Olympic Fruit, accountancy firm Hak + Baak and Maas & Hagoort management team appear to have been in attendance. Administrators from Hoornbeck College and the Association for Reformed School Education also accepted the invitation to have a drink with the American ambassador. The TCC has not publicly disclosed how much money the members of their business network have donated, but their annual reports and newsletters reveal that the group regularly contributes tens of thousands of euros at similar events.
Friends of Baudet
Other notable guests at the reception are real estate magnate Cor Verkade and historian Geerten Waling, both of whom are personal friends of the leader of the populist political party Forum for Democracy: Thierry Baudet. During a road trip through America in 2016, a photo of Waling and Baudet gladly posing alongside James Ronald Kennedy, a Southern nationalism propagandist, when they met him in Louisiana caused an uproar in the Dutch media. Earlier that summer, the Dutch duo attended the Republican National Convention together, where Donald Trump accepted the nomination as the presidential candidate for the Republican party.
Verkade describes Forum for Democracy as "a blessing for Christians" and actually encouraged Baudet to start a political party. The Reformed real estate mogul initially expressed an interest in starting a political party in 2014, "to stop driving people into the heathen arms of D66", a Dutch Democratic party, Verkade says. "Thierry's name was mentioned as a potential political leader for a conservative people's party."
Baudet has been renting property in one of Verkade's buildings on the Herengracht canal in Amsterdam for years, initially for next to nothing. "Baudet organized a lot of meetings there, and that was all going well, but he kept saying about how difficult it was to keep a think tank afloat. I told him, and I probably wasn't the first to say so, that there's no room for think tanks in the Netherlands. In this country, you have to be a political party - otherwise, you won't make it. So I was extremely pleased when he became a political party."
Verkade is also a prominent member of the TCC. Around the same time that Verkade discovered Baudet and began pushing him to go into politics, Baudet was a speaker at the very first TCC conference. A few months later, Van Schothorst and Baudet were both speakers at a conference at the Danube Institute, a think tank in Budapest which, via a foundation, receives funding from Viktor Orbán's government. The following year, in April and June 2015, Van Schothorst was invited by Forum for Democracy to take part in a series of start-up meetings for the party.
"Thierry and I don't work together, but I could definitely get him on the phone", Van Schothorst says. "I wouldn't say that I was there at the birth of Forum as a party, but I have seen up close how he has tried to make his dreams a reality."
Forum for Democracy has other close connections with conservative Dutch Christians. In 2018, the party arranged for a secret meeting with Christian business owners at the Hotel De L’Europe in Amsterdam. The evening, which was organized by a Reformed lawyer named Jan Louis Burggraaf, netted 25,000 euros in donations for the party, as we discovered in our investigation together with Follow the Money. Verkade, who also provides financial support to the TCC, was in attendance at the Hotel De L’Europe evening as well, but declined to disclose any details about the event.
In keeping with conservative Christian beliefs, Baudet has expressed negative views of abortion, euthanasia and equal rights. He believes that Christian schools should be allowed to fire gay teachers, voted against penalizing gay conversion therapy, and - like Van Schothorst - opposes "identity politics" that prioritize LGBTQ+ rights.
"He's certainly an ally on a number of issues", Van Schothorst says. "I'm a member of the SGP, and he has taken a lot of what the party stands for and run with it. He has adopted quite a bit of our party program."
In an emailed response to our questions, a spokesperson for Forum for Democracy says that they have great esteem "for Western tradition and the Judeo-Christian values which underpin our society." But the party insists that their policies are not dictated by any interest groups. "We believe it is important to speak with different kinds of civil society organizations, which includes both 'mainstream' and non-'mainstream' parties. But we set our own agenda."
Whether or not Baudet actually believes in God is ultimately beside the point for Van Schothorst and many other conservative Christians. He is seen as a strategic partner in the crusade for smaller government and a more Christian world. "The TCC puts more stock in an individual's policies than who they are as a person. It's about getting results", Van Schothorst says.
That same calculus is behind Van Schothorst's outspoken support for president Trump. "From a Christian perspective," Trump has "accomplished a lot of good things", Van Schothorst recently wrote in the Dutch newspaper Trouw. He sees Trump as an "important ally".
That goes for ambassador Hoekstra as well. In spite of the coronavirus forcing the TCC to cancel most of their 2020 events, Van Schothorst has managed to meet up with the ambassador repeatedly in recent months. Van Schothorst joined Hoekstra on his 12 province cycling route, and he and his wife were invited to a private screening of the musical Hamilton at a movie theater in The Hague in celebration of the Fourth of July. And two weeks ago, Hoekstra paid a visit to several businesses in Zeeland on invitation of the TCC.
Van Schothorst has cultivated Hoekstra's patronage, but he is also a pragmatist. If Trump is not re-elected and Hoekstra is no longer the ambassador, the TCC founder will inevitably hitch his wagon to someone else. Van Schothorst says, "You're always trying to bring people together who have the same goals and are fighting for the same causes as you are. But the policy matters more than the person."
This article was written in collaboration with freelance journalist Traci White and research journalism platform Follow the Money. Read more about Forum for Democracy's financial ties at Follow the Money. Illustrations by Jesse Ros.