The Christian Democratic Response to Modernity & Materialism
by Allan Carlson
During his address to the 1992 Republican National Convention, Pat Buchanan delighted his supporters and appalled progressive Republicans when he declared that the election was “about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. . . . There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.”
The term “culture war” popularly dates from this speech, yet its true origin actually reaches back over a century and across the Atlantic. During the 1870s, the then new German Empire launched a broad assault on religious liberty and family autonomy, a campaign called Kulturkampf. Its principal target was the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, from which it tried to wrest control of educational and cultural institutions.
Culture War Children
Perhaps the most important, if unintended, result of this original culture war was to encourage a still-amorphous political movement called Christian Democracy, in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. This experiment in applying Christian principles to popular modern governance developed its own history of triumph and tragedy, and it offers lessons for twenty-first-century Americans also trying to apply Christianity to modern democratic politics.
It is said that the twentieth-century Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai, when asked what the impact of the 1789 French Revolution had been on human affairs, replied: “It’s too soon to tell.” His answer rings true. The revolutionaries of 1789 unleashed passions and ideas that continue their work. Many of them directly target religious and family relations, including the leveling idea of equality, the denial of tradition, a celebration of the state, and the choice of rationalism over revelation.
Christian Democracy rose as a somewhat delayed response to events in France. As a prominent early Christian Democrat explained, 1789 marked “the birth year of modern life,” which he also described as “the catastrophe of 1789.” Indeed, one of the most successful Christian Democratic parties (that in the Netherlands) would take the name the Anti-Revolutionary Party in the late 1870s and would retain it until just two decades ago.
During the late nineteenth century both Catholic and Protestant versions of Christian Democracy developed. By the 1920s, Christian Democratic parties could be found in Germany, Italy, Belgium, and France, as well as the Netherlands. The movement showed an almost revolutionary energy and influence in the two decades after World War II. Disoriented by the events of the 1960s, Christian Democracy showed new vigor again in Eastern Europe at century’s end.
Authentic Christian Democracy, I hasten to add, has not been simply another name for “conservatism.” Unlike European conservatives, the Democratic Christian goal has not been to defend the remnants of the old feudal order, nor existing class structures, nor persons of wealth. Nor has it simply been the “rural” or “country” party, defending the interests of small farmers while ignoring the urban, industrial order.
Instead, the movement should be seen as a distinctly Christian response to modernity, one with its own platform. To begin with, its founders understood the French Revolution as unleashing—in the Dutch Reformed leader Abraham Kuyper’s words—an “appalling anti-Christian world power that, if Christ did not break it, would rip this whole world forever out of the hands of its God and away from its own destiny.” “It would,” he added, “be utterly absurd for a person to take . . . a confession of Christ on [his] lips and ignore the consequences that flow directly from it for our national politics.”
Moreover, Christian Democracy has formally opposed economic materialism, in both its socialist and liberal capitalist manifestations. In this view, Europe’s early twentieth-century disorders arose from the “exaggerated liberal-capitalistic economic order” of the prior century. As the Christian Democratic writer from the 1940s, Maria Meyer-Sevenich, explained: Marxism and fascism “are nothing but powerful reactionary movements, grown out of the native soil [ Mutterboden] of the same liberal-capitalist thinking.” Christian Democracy has claimed to offer instead a spirit-centered, Christ-centered worldview that would build distinctive political and economic orders.
Notably, Christian Democracy has stood for organic society. The legacy of the French Revolution in both politics and economics was a quest for uniformity, which meant the suppression of diversity, the denial of “everything fresh and natural.” Christian Democrats have held that the spontaneous structures of human life—villages, towns, neighborhoods, labor associations, and (above all) families—need protection from the leveling tendencies of modernity.
Only through these organic structures, they have maintained, can the human personality thrive. Christian Democrats have insisted that such groups pre-exist the state. That is, the law does not create families and small communities; it “finds them.” Accordingly, they have favored tax benefits and state allowances to support marriage and the birth and rearing of children as recognition of this prior existence of families.
As the contemporary analyst Guido Dierickx explains, Christian Democrats have also viewed the family as holding both instrumental and intrinsic value. On the one hand, the family is the vehicle for the regeneration of all society:
The Christian Democrats view the (core) family as a privileged opportunity to implement their social . . . principles. They want the citizens to adapt their private lives to demanding interpersonal relationships. Family life, especially the traditional family life of a married couple with several children, is a first embodiment of such relationships in other sectors of society.
On the other hand, Christian Democrats also have used public policy to return real tasks to families and so strengthen them. When they entrust health care and welfare duties to the family, they do so in large part to restore “social functionality” to the home. Similarly, they have sought to funnel modern governmental services through other “organic” structures as well, notably voluntary and religious agencies.
In its purest form, Christian Democracy has also aimed at Christian political unity. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which spawned the ideological side of the French Revolution, had itself emerged largely in revulsion over the religious wars of the previous century. In that intolerant era, Catholics and Protestants battled against each other. Millions perished in this form of Christian civil war.
The modern movement has consciously worked to transcend theological differences between Catholic and Protestant by focusing on their common enemy—Kuyper’s “appalling anti-Christian world power”—and by building a common agenda. All the same, there were distinctive Roman Catholic and Protestant paths to this end.
The Catholic effort had to overcome the view that the Church of Rome, from the fall of Napoleon in 1815 through the revolutions of 1848, was reactionary, favoring the oppression of the people, opposing their democratic aspirations, and ignoring the new problems posed by industrial society. It had also to overcome the tendency of Catholic groups to stand mainly for Catholic causes and interests.
In the German states, for example, the revolutionary year 1848 saw the creation of the Catholic Federation of Germany. Designed to protect Catholic rights in any future German union, this “Catholic club” became the Fraction of the Center in 1858, and eventually the Center Party. While open in theory to non-Catholics, the Center Party focused first and foremost on defending Catholic authority, rights, and church schools.
However, the young Bishop von Ketteler of Mainz began to shape a more interesting, and ecumenical, social Catholicism. During the Catholic Congress of 1848, he offered a toast to “the plain people” of Germany and declared that “as religion has need of freedom, so does freedom have need of religion”: in that time and place, unexpected, even radical statements.
During the 1860s, he turned to the “social question.” He denounced the development of what he called “capitalist absolutism,” called for the creation of Christian labor associations to protect workers, and urged political reforms that would increase wages, shorten the working day, and prohibit the labor of children and mothers in factories.
In 1871, following German victory in the Franco-Prussian War, the German Empire took form. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck immediately launched his Kulturkampf. At one level, it aimed at reducing the influence of the Catholic Church in a predominantly Protestant empire. The Jesuit religious order, for example, was banned.
At another level, however, all Christians faced new restrictions, as seen in a new law banning all clergymen from discussing political issues from the pulpit. Four years later, the empire required that all legal marriages be civil—not church—ceremonies. In response, Catholic political action through the Center Party accelerated. This “culture war” lasted until 1878, when Bismarck decided that the greater internal threat to the German Empire came from the socialists.
Leo’s New Age
The “social Catholicism” of Bishop Ketteler and the foray into electoral politics represented by Germany’s Center Party came together in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical, The New Age ( Rerum Novarum). This remarkable document testified to Roman Catholicism’s willingness to meet the promise and problems of industrialization with an affirmative Christian alternative both to the laissez-faire of classical liberalism and to socialism.
Arguing that “the present age handed over the workers, each alone and defenseless, to the inhumanity of employers and the unbridled greed of competitors,” Leo rejected the wage theory of liberalism that considered a wage to be just if it resulted from a free contract between employer and worker. Leo repudiated socialism with even greater fervor, terming it “highly unjust” because it injured workers, violated the rights of lawful owners, perverted the functions of the state, and threw governments “into utter confusion.”
Instead, Leo turned to “the natural and primeval right of marriage” and to the family—“the society of the household”—as the proper foundation for social and economic theory. The right of ownership, for example, while bestowed on individuals by nature, was necessarily “assigned to man in his capacity as head of a family.”
Similarly, Leo declared that the duty of “the father of a family [to] see that his offspring are provided with all the necessities of life” is “a most sacred law of nature.” Women were “intended by nature for the work of the home . . . the education of children and the well-being of the family.” Consequently, the principle of all employer-worker contracts must be that the wage be at least “sufficiently large to enable [the worker] to provide comfortably for himself, his wife, and his children.” This was the goal of the “family wage.”
Christian Democracy from the Catholic side is, in fact, best understood as Rerum Novarum put into action. Indeed, in 1901, Leo issued another encyclical, Graves de Communi Re, which openly embraced “Christian Democracy.” Contrasting this movement with the principles of Democratic Socialism, Leo said that
Christian Democracy, by the fact that it is Christian, is built, and necessarily so, on the basic principles of divine faith, and it must provide better conditions for the masses, with the ulterior object of promoting the perfection of souls made for things eternal. Hence, for Christian Democracy, justice is sacred; it must maintain that the right of acquiring and possessing property cannot be impugned, and it must safeguard the various distinctions and degrees which are indispensable in every well-ordered commonwealth.
In 1906, Germany’s Center Party launched a great debate on its future. Some argued that the party should cease being strictly Catholic and increase its Protestant membership, as the only way to break out of perpetual minority status. Action toward this end, however, was deferred.
The Protestant strain of Christian Democracy is strongly associated with the Dutch pastor, editor, and politician Abraham Kuyper. The Netherlands, it is important to remember here, was a nation born out of religious sentiment. For over eighty years, from 1566 to 1648, the Dutch Calvinists had fought the Catholic Hapsburgs for religious, and ultimately political, freedom. The result was a Protestant-led nation with a large Catholic minority.
The ideas and armies of the French Revolution, however, swept over the Netherlands in the 1790s, representing an “anti-Christian world power” hostile to both communities. The necessary task became the building of a unified Christian nation. In 1879, Kuyper transformed a confessional Calvinist political movement into the Anti-Revolutionary Party. He saw the French Revolution as marking “the emergence of a spirit that stole into the historical life of nations and fundamentally set their hearts against Christ as the God-anointed King.”
Kuyper also raised his banner against the intrusion of the industrial principle into local, organic communities. “The power of capital, in ever more enormous accumulations, drains away the life blood from our retail trade. A single gigantic wholesaler swallows up the patronage that formerly enabled any number of stores to flourish.” What he called “the iron steam engine” even endangered the family:
No longer should each baby drink warm milk from the breast of its own mother; we should have some tepid mixture prepared for all babies collectively. No longer should each child have a place to play at home by its mother; all should go to a common nursery school.
All the same, he emphasized that there was no going backwards. Rather, those who believed in Christ must embrace democracy, the spirit of which would only grow. They must “position themselves courageously in the breach of this nation” and “prepare for a Christian-democratic development of our national government.”
Kuyper also held that this movement must proceed in cooperation with Holland’s Catholic minority, politically organized as the Catholic Party. As he told fellow members of the Anti-Revolutionary Party:
[W]hereas all the parties of the Revolution ignore, if not ridicule, the Second Coming of our Lord, our Roman Catholic countrymen confess with us: ‘Whence he will come again to judge the living and the dead’. . . . They, like we, acknowledge that all authority and power on earth flows from God and is rooted in the reality of creation.
All the same, Kuyper opposed a merger of the two Christian parties, calling such a move “a betrayal of our history and our principles.”
Crisis & Renewal
These cautious steps toward practical cooperation were as far as Christian Democracy went before the middle of the twentieth century. In the Netherlands, the Anti-Revolutionary Party played a strong role in national politics from 1897 until the Nazi conquest of the land in 1940.
In Germany, the Center Party participated in a number of coalition governments and after World War I helped to craft the Weimar Republic. However, the party was destabilized by the economic upheavals of the early 1930s and failed to prevent Adolph Hitler and his National Socialist Party from rising to power. Hitler abolished the Center Party in July 1933. Similarly, a Christian Democratic movement in Italy, called the Popular Party and organized in 1919 by the priest Don Luigi Stutzo, was declared illegal in 1925 by the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.
However, in the late 1930s and 1940s, Christian Democracy found renewal, and a fresh language. A key figure was Emmanuel Mounier. Writing in the French Catholic journal Espirit, Mounier worked out a “Christianized” version of individualism, called “personalism.” This vision rejected the raw individualism of classical liberalism and the materialism of the socialist. It strongly emphasized the importance of developing all dimensions of the human personality, “social as well as individual and spiritual as well as material.”
Rejecting the statism of both the Fascists and the Communists, Mounier emphasized that the full flowering of the individual would come only through social bodies such as family, local community, and labor association. He called for the creation of a revolutionary Christian party, one worthy of Christ, one “radical” in its social-economic vision.
Further elaboration of Christian Democratic doctrine came from the French Catholic philosophers Etienne Gilson and Etienne Borne, both writing for the French journal Aube. They rejected the atomistic individualism of the nineteenth-century “bourgeoisie,” which, they said, had shown “an indifference toward basic institutions such as the family,” as seen in the employment of young mothers and children. They also scorned the socialists and Communists for their “materialism” and their hostility to revealed religion.
Indeed, they labeled bourgeois liberalism and communism as “two facets of a single error.” The task now facing Western civilization was to find a middle way between bourgeois liberalism and collectivism.
In the new Christian Democratic platform, the party would openly embrace all Christians. Following the anti-religious darkness of the Nazi and Fascist era, this movement would forcefully seek to unite Catholic and Protestant believers and sympathetic others—Jews and agnostics—in a defense of Christendom as a civilization rooted in faith.
The postwar Christian Democrats gave priority to the defense of the family and other natural communities as their predecessors had done. Notably, though, they openly renounced the rigidly patriarchal family system of old Europe. This model could not be reconciled with “personalism,” they said.
Postwar Christian Democrats held that women should enjoy basic civil, legal, and political rights, including the vote and the right to handle property. At the same time, restoration of the family did mean that control of education should be returned to parents, that motherhood and childhood should enjoy special protection by the state, and that fathers should receive a “family wage,” so that mothers would be free to remain home with their children.
Human rights also became a defining concern, but with a special twist. Rejecting the evolutionary understanding of rights advanced by the French Revolution, the new movement emphasized the rooting of human rights in the Natural Law. Such rights were “inviolable” and “innate” because their fountainhead was God himself. Moreover, Christian Democrats embraced human rights not only to protect the rights of individuals but also to protect the rights of “natural social groups” from the overweening power of government.
In France, Christian Democracy took political form as the Mouvement Republicain Populaire (or MRP), which became part of the French governing coalition of 1946. In the Netherlands, the Anti-Revolutionary Party, in alliance with the Catholic Party, reclaimed governing power the same year. Parties openly named Christian Democratic then won important elections in formerly Fascist Italy (1948) and West Germany (1949). Meanwhile, Christian parties rooted in the “free churches” (i.e., Protestant churches not part of the Lutheran state churches) emerged among the Scandinavian nations.
The effect was large. Within a decade, Christian Democracy had created the spiritual and political conditions that made possible rapid European economic renewal. The parties implemented free-market reforms that encouraged rapid growth tied to social welfare policies that were broadly supportive of families organized on the male breadwinner/female homemaker model.
The movement had two other enduring legacies. First, the dream of European union was largely born among the postwar generation of Christian Democratic leaders, notably Robert Schumann of France, Conrad Adenauer of West Germany, and Alcide de Gaspari of Italy. The early treaties creating the European Coal and Steel Community (Paris, 1952) and the European Economic Community (Rome, 1957) focused on economic questions, but their animating spirit came from a dream to revive Christendom, and indeed, to build a democratic version of the old Holy Roman Empire on the ruins of a continent recently ravaged by war.
Second, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948, is “largely identical” with the Christian Democratic worldview. Article 16(3) affirms “natural” social institutions: “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state.” And article 25 supports family social rights, with particular emphasis on a “family wage”: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family.”
Other provisions reflecting Christian Democratic principles declare that men and women have “the right to marry and found a family” (article 16) and that “motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance” (article 25). The declaration also affirms that parents “have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (article 26).
Decline & Rise
However, within a decade, Christian Democracy entered another period of crisis. The youthful excitement, energy, and sense of positive Christian revolution evident in the 1940s dissipated. By the early 1960s, Christian Democratic parties were increasingly pragmatic and bureaucratic defenders of the status quo. Ambitious office seekers, rather than Christian idealists, came to dominate the parties. Movements for “moral and political renewal” became simply mass parties of the right-of-center.
Moreover, a “silent revolution” in values set in among Europeans after 1963, a challenge that Christian Democracy failed to meet. Demographer Ron Lesthaeghe defines the revolution as a shift away from values affirmed by Christian teaching (“responsibility, sacrifice, altruism, and sanctity of long-term commitments”) toward a strong “secular individualism” focused on the desires of the self.
Family life became a casualty. A published survey of European youth in the 1970s and 1980s showed that they “appear to be extending non-conformism with respect to abortion, divorce, etc., to parenthood as well,” agreeing by large majorities with statements such as “Children need only one parent” and “Children are no longer needed for personal fulfillment.” Another commentator noted that “naked individualism and unbridled libertinism have become increasingly widespread in recent years. . . . Female emancipation, which is well advanced . . . appears to be headed in this direction” as well.
Parliaments made abortion legal across the continent. Meanwhile, European courts and public opinion grew tolerant of sexual deviance. The European Union itself, modeled initially on dreams of Christendom renewed, transformed itself into a militantly secular institution hostile to the family and other “natural social groups.” Understood in terms of worldview, such changes symbolized the new triumph of an old foe—“the anti-Christian world power” originally unleashed in 1789—over Christian Democracy.
All the same, the 1990s marked another resurgence of Christian Democracy, albeit in some unexpected places and showing a new ecumenism. In Scandinavia, the Christian Democratic parties reached beyond their “free church” origins and adopted family policies openly informed by Roman Catholic social thought.
Norway’s Christian Peoples Party participated in, and sometimes led, conservative coalition governments. An election in 1991 brought the Christian Democratic Social Party into Sweden’s Parliament for the first time, where it joined the governing coalition. The party successfully pushed for the teaching of Christian values in the state schools and won—for a short time—a new social benefit for stay-at-home parents, but it also eventually de-emphasized its anti-abortion stance, in a quest for more votes among “moderates.”
More dramatically, parties inspired by Christian Democracy emerged in all of the East European nations freed from communism in 1989–1990. Several of these lands could still claim a relatively intact Christian heritage; all had tasted the bitter fruits of communism.
In Poland, to choose one example, the Solidarity Electoral Action bloc came to power in 1997, with a campaign manifesto declaring, “We can build a modern, just, and self-sustaining sovereign state; a state founded on patriotic and Christian values, on love and freedom. These values have formed our core identity for a thousand years.” In Romania, the National Peasants’ Christian Democratic Party won that nation’s November 1996 election. Christian Democratic parties have also been parts of ruling coalitions in Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Latvia.
Family issues loom large in these nations, and on contemporary Christian Democratic agendas. The legacy of communism combined with the arrival of Western-style social libertarianism to produce a devastating effect on their family structures. Since 1990, divorce rates have soared, marriage rates have fallen sharply, birth rates have plummeted. Indeed, in 2005, the list of the ten nations with the world’s lowest fertility rates included Latvia, Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania.
In response, Christian Democratic parliamentarians from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia met in 2004 and issued their “Family First Declaration.” They pledged that:
We will coordinate our efforts on behalf of the traditional family, marriage and the intrinsic value of each human life so that the future Europe is not associated . . . with the culture of death, institutionalized egoism and population decline, but with the preservation of religious, ethical and cultural values that enhance virtuous life in all relevant aspects. Healthy family life enhances true and ordered liberty and limits the power of the state.
This document also endorsed other principles central to the Christian Democratic worldview:
• “Procreation is the key to the survival of the human race.”
•“Parents possess the primary authority and responsibility to direct the upbringing and education of their children.”
•“Good government protects and supports the family and does not usurp the vital roles it plays in society.”
•“Sexuality exists for the expression of love between husband and wife and for the procreation of children in the covenant of marriage.”
Autumn 2005 saw Lech Kaczynski of the Law and Justice Party win election as the new President of Poland. The party’s economic principles closely adhere to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, and its social policies are aggressively pro-family. In December, Latvian Christian Democrats defied the spirit dominating the European Union and successfully amended the nation’s constitution to specify that marriage could only occur between a man and a woman.
Are these the death throes of an exhausted civilization? Or are they sparks of moral and political renewal? We should know in about a decade.
Lessons for America
There has never been a serious Christian Democratic party in America. Our single-district electoral structure strongly favors a two-party system, with each party in turn serving as an ad hoc coalition of interest groups. With their more coherent and defined worldview, Christian Democratic parties thrive best in places that use proportional representation.
Americans also have had a more complex, or perhaps more confused, relationship with the legacy of the French Revolution. During the 1790s, Americans were more likely to sympathize with the revolution’s repudiation of royal and feudal power and its appeals to democracy than to worry about the suppression of the Catholic Church. Since then, relatively few Americans have shared Abraham Kuyper’s nightmarish view of “the catastrophe of 1789.”
Still, Europe’s experiment in Christian Democracy offers several broad lessons for all Christians engaged in modern politics:
First, the movement has had the most success when it has held true to the “full” gospel, particularly to Christ’s radical command that we love our neighbors as ourselves. Issues of social welfare and social justice lie near the heart of true Christian Democracy.
Second, this movement successfully pioneered ways to funnel public health, welfare, and education programs through churches and church-related agencies, models that should be of interest to a nation now experimenting with faith-based initiatives.
Third, Christian Democracy has, at its best, carved out a “third way” of social-economic policy, independent of both the liberal-capitalist and socialist mindsets, by giving priority to family life and the health of local communities.
And fourth, this movement succeeded only so long as it found animation in authentic Christian faith and enthusiasm. When those diminished, so did the coherence and effectiveness of Christian Democracy, and of the modern European nations as a whole.
Information on a mature Christian Democracy can be found at www.cdu.de, and information on a new British party at www.christiandemocraticparty.org.uk. Among the books the author recommends are Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (1998), edited by James D. Bratt; Mario Einandi and Francois Goguel’s Christian Democracy in Italy and France (1952); Christian Democracy in Europe, edited by David Hauley (1994); R. E. M. Irving’s The Christian Democratic Parties of Western Europe (1973); and Christian Democracy in the European Union, 1945–1995, edited by Emiel Lamberts (1997). Rerum Novarum can be found at www.osjspm.org/cst/rn.htm, and Graves de Communi Re at www.ewtn.com/library/encyc/l13grcom.htm.
Allan Carlson is President of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society in Rockford, Illinois (www.profam.org). His books include Conjugal America: On The Public Purposes of Marriage and The Natural Family: Bulwark of Liberty. He is married and has four children and is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He is a senior editor for Touchstone.
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