One cannot serve two masters, it has been said (by Our Lord), and that is the first thing to say about “Christian Democracy.” The proof is in the pudding of history. But here I do not quite mean the whole history of the world, only the small and local part of it that consists of the Christian Democratic movement, which began on the Continent of Europe in the later nineteenth century and is still, after a fashion, participating in the parliamentary life of many countries.
Indeed, the Christian Democrat Internationale is next largest after the Socialist one. And counting parties that believe themselves to belong to it, it forms at this day the largest single bloc within the European Parliament. It has done throughout the current century – though since 1976 it has been called the “European People’s Party.” It is the party of the “centre-right”; what we in North America might call the “conservative party.”
Except it isn’t. Nor, by a long shot, is the Christian Democrat movement elsewhere in the world (including a little nominal rump in the USA) “conservative” in the first sense likely to pop into the mind of any political labeler this side of the Atlantic. There is an extensive Christian Democrat tradition in Latin America, for instance. It became associated with “liberation theology,” and to this observer at least, that’s about as Christian as it gets.
As in Europe, however, party membership tends to be taken up by people who don’t feel tremendously happy about abortion on demand, or same-sex “marriage,” or other things like that, but who are willing to compromise. They will not however compromise on the “welfare state.” There is total commitment everywhere, in principle and in practice, to the notion that the State must provide universal healthcare; and that’s just for starters.
By consulting standard sources, one may find Christian Democrat positions defined as sort-of conservative on social questions, and sort-of not; sort-of liberal on “human rights” initiatives, and sort-of not; sort-of socialist on market regulation, and sort-of not. The position on the basic Marxist proposition of class warfare could be characterized as, “sort-of, but not really.”
The purpose of sweeping generalizations is to sweep, and of course, the analysis above leaves a lot of lumps under the carpet, corresponding to different countries and regions. On the European scale, however, it all comes out in the wash, or rather, in the verbiage that embraces concepts like the “social market economy,” which rises to tautology on its good days, but on the bad sinks to contradictio in terminis.
It is an interesting historical aside, that the pioneers of the Christian Democrat movement, about one century ago, championed a political order known to the English-speaking world as, “Distributism.” Their immediate goal was not to win elections at any cost, but to provide an explicitly Christian, decentralized alternative to both socialism and laissez-faire.
Otto von Habsburg: Christian Democrat
And that was long before the “green” agenda was added to the top of a towering structure that still claims “subsidiarity” at its base. The word remains in many party manifestos as a ghost from the past. As recently as the late 1940s, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi, and Robert Schuman (the Christian Democrat leaders of Germany, Italy, and France respectively) were in fact delivering some degree of semi-anarchic bottom-up subsidiarity, in the chaotic conditions after World War II.
Verily, the “economic miracle” that lifted post-War Europe from the ashes had a great deal to do with what I’d call “Accidental Distributism.” It followed from the sweeping away of central bureaucracy – much less by politicians, than by “events.” On the other hand, Christian Democrat leaders were among the fathers of the supra-national NATO, to defend Europe against Soviet imperialism; and of the incipient European Community, which set out to create a single market across the Continent, starting with coal and steel.
“Perpetual peace” was a stated object, and everyone from Dante Alighieri to Immanuel Kant was cited as a begetter of ingenious schemes to produce unity in diversity. Europe’s actual Christian heritage was persistently invoked, and still flavored rhetorical currents of idealism right into the 1960s.
There were two masters to be served: the “Christian” one, and the “Democrat” one. At the heady, booming height of the Cold War, it didn’t seem there could be any contradiction in service to both. I am just old enough to remember something of the atmosphere I ingested, along with my first bottle of Evian water, as a boy sitting with my dear papa a long time ago in a Paris café. As carefully as I can reconstruct the feeling, it was “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” though without quite the Christian vision of Godhead I was later to encounter in Julian of Norwich.
As recently as a decade ago, I was moved by the matter-of-fact way in which the late Otto von Habsburg – deprived of the Austro-Hungarian throne, but eventually prominent as a Christian Democratic politician – addressed a Bavarian Euro-audience of his party. He said everyone seemed to grasp the importance of the “Democrat” in the party label, but few cared for the “Christian” part. He was himself trying to restore this latter, in a spritely way; but then, he had become a very old man.
The secularization of his party proceeded, on the argument that it could not afford to alienate potential allies who might buy into “centre-right” politics, but were Christian in neither practice nor theory. Rather than Christianize them, it was easier to secularize ourselves.
“One has to be reasonable,” as a (self-consciously Christian) German CDU politician once explained to me. “Democracy requires coalitions. Without them you just can’t win.”
Which returns us to Christ’s point, with which I began. No one can serve two masters. Either the party is unambiguously Christian, and prepared to gain or lose on that basis. Or, it serves some other God.