The End of Christian Democracy

What the Movement's Decline Means for Europe

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Winnenden, Germany, March 2009. (Johannes Eisele / Courtesy Reuters)

The Europe of today is a creation of Christian Democrats. They were the architects of European integration and of postwar Atlanticism. And they were crucial in shaping the form of constitutional democracy that prevailed in the Western half of the continent after 1945 and has steadily been extended east since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Europe’s most powerful politician, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is a Christian Democrat, as are the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and his designated successor, Jean-Claude Juncker. In last May’s European Parliamentary elections, the continental association of Christian Democratic parties -- the European People’s Party (EPP) -- won the most seats. 

Yet both as a set of ideas and as a political movement, Christian democracy has become less influential and less coherent in recent years. This decline is due not only to the continent’s secular turn. At least as important are the facts that nationalism -- one of Christian Democrats’ prime ideological enemies -- is on the rise and that the movement’s core electoral constituency, a coalition of middle-class and rural voters, is shrinking. As the larger project of European integration faces new risks, then, its most important backer may soon prove incapable of defending it. 

OLD TIME RELIGION

“Christian Democrat” is a designation that sounds peculiar to anyone accustomed to a strict separation of church and state. The term first appeared in the wake of the French Revolution and in the midst of fierce battles about the fate of the Catholic Church in a democracy. For most of the nineteenth century, the Vatican viewed modern political ideas -- including liberal democracy -- as a direct threat to its core doctrines. But there were also Catholic thinkers who agreed with the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville’s insight that, like it or not, democracy’s triumph in the modern world was inevitable. So-called Catholic liberals sought to make democracy safe for religion by properly Christianizing the masses: after all, the reasoning went, a democracy of God-fearing citizens would have a much better chance of succeeding than one whose subjects were secular. Other Catholic intellectuals hoped to keep the people in line through Christian institutions, especially the papacy, which the French thinker Joseph de Maistre envisaged as part of a Europe-wide system of checks and balances.

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