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

The End of Christian Democracy

What the Movement's Decline Means for Europe

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.

Most important, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Vatican itself eventually came to see the benefits of playing the democratic game and fostering parties that would defend the concerns of the church. Initially, they did so in bad faith -- Christian democratic parties essentially functioned as interest groups within a system whose legitimacy the church continued to reject. By using the term “democrat,” they were not signaling their acceptance of representative democracy but, rather, their ambition to work with ordinary people. To this day, that approach is evident in the prominence of such terms as “popular” or “people” in the official names of Christian Democratic parties.

The parties grew strongest in countries where church and state were evenly matched. There was no need for Christian democracy in a deeply Catholic country such as Ireland, for example, but it also failed to take root in France, where Catholics, in the face of onslaughts from anti-clerical republican governments, put their efforts into complete regime change. By contrast, where culture wars between secular forces and the church were fierce but eventually resulted in a stalemate, as in Germany and the so-called Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), Catholics invested in party-building. 

As the political scientist Stathis Kalyvas has shown, Christian Democratic party leaders eventually developed their own interests. Playing the democratic game brought rewards and resources -- and Christian Democrats eventually accepted political participation as legitimate. After World War I, when democracy swept Europe, the Vatican also relented somewhat: having completely rejected an Italian nation-state and prohibiting Catholics from playing any part in it (even banning voting), the pope threw his support behind a new party called Popolari. By uniting peasants and the lower middle classes, the Popolari became the country’s second-largest after the socialists.

During the interwar years, relations between Christian Democrats and the Holy See cooled across Europe. The Vatican saw parties that it could control as useful, but it sidelined those that were unwilling to follow instructions from Rome and instead dealt with states directly. To that end, the Vatican abandoned parties such as the Popolari and concluded a number of diplomatic agreements designed to protect Catholic interests -- the most infamous of which was the so-called Reichskonkordat between Hitler and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII, in July 1933. 

It wasn’t until after World War II that Christian Democratic parties fully freed themselves from the Vatican and took a leading role in constructing the postwar European order. The circumstances could hardly have been more propitious. Fascism and the war had discredited competing movements on the right. And Christian Democrats were seen as the quintessentially Atlanticist and anticommunist parties in countries such as Italy, West Germany, and other frontline states of the Cold War. Moreover, they now endorsed democracy, though with a caveat: to avoid drifting into totalitarianism, they argued, democratic governments needed to have spiritual underpinnings -- something best supplied by the church. In this sense, the Christian Democrats rejected both communism and liberalism as forms of materialism. This stance did not prevent them from eventually making peace with capitalism -- while insisting that religion was also needed to hold the evils of the market in check.

Parties such as the German Christian Democratic Union went out of their way to include Protestants -- thereby ending centuries of religious conflict. In fact, they sought to become as inclusive as possible, rather than appearing as sectarian representatives. Their hallmark was a centrist politics of consensus and accommodation, based on a Catholic image of a harmonious society, in which even capital and labor could cooperate and the church could play a crucial role in the provision of social services. Still, at the time, observers said the kinds of things about Catholicism that many Europeans say about Islam today: that it was inherently illiberal and, as a kind of monarchy with a king in Rome, incapable of genuinely accepting democracy. The Harvard historian H. Stuart Hughes, for instance, wrote, in 1958, “A Christian Democrat is a Christian primarily, and a democrat only in a subordinate capacity. The adjective is more important than the noun.”

Yet Christian Democrats kept confounding their critics. In Germany, Italy, and -- to a lesser extent -- France, they created genuine democracies. At the same time, however, they governed with a good deal of distrust of popular sovereignty. They essentially sought to constrain the people through institutions such as constitutional courts, make them moral through the teachings of the church, and subject them to a new supranational order: the European Convention of Human Rights, for instance, was the creation of British Tories and continental Christian Democrats. And it was the latter who also became the architects of what today is known as the European Union. After all, Christian Democrats -- like Catholics, internationalists by nature -- placed little value on the nation-state. In fact, in the nineteenth century, it had been newly unified nation-states such as Germany and Italy that had waged so-called culture wars (what came to be known as Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf) against Catholics, who were suspected of putting devotion to the Vatican above loyalty to the state. But the Christian Democrats were also pluralists: they were content with a federalist, legally fragmented European community that resembled a medieval empire more than a modern sovereign state. 

PARTY CRASHERS

After decades as Europe’s dominant political force, the Christian Democrats are now facing the prospect of decline. Some observers have blamed secularization for weakening popular support. It is true that, since the early 1960s, churches have been emptying across the continent. But the parties themselves had already started to insist that one simply had to subscribe to humanist ideals in order to be a good Christian Democrat. The real problem arose with the triumph of the very political model that they had been promoting since the 1950s. 

Most central and eastern European countries adopted this model after 1989, but virtually none of them developed Christian Democratic parties in the mold of Germany’s Christlich Demokratische Union or Italy’s Democrazia Cristiana. In some countries, such as Catholic Poland, Christian Democratic groups seemed unnecessary; in others, they turned out to be radically different from their Western European counterparts in two respects: they were vehemently nationalist, and thus unwilling to concede much of the national sovereignty wrested back from the Soviet Union; and they were much more populist, seeing no reason to distrust the simple folk who had managed to survive state socialist dictatorships with their morals seemingly intact.

Meanwhile, further west, Christian Democrats lost their greatest enemy -- communism -- and with it much of the ideological glue that had held often fractious political coalitions together. In Italy, the Christian Democrats had participated in every single government since World War II -- the rationale being that the Communist Party, Western Europe’s largest, had to be kept out. In the early 1990s, the hugely corrupt Democrazia Cristiana collapsed. Then Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi -- not a man known for strict adherence to Catholic morals -- in effect inherited the party’s votes. 

To be sure, Christian democracy, as evidenced by the recent success of the EPP, remains the continent’s strongest political force on paper. Yet the party is also deeply dysfunctional. The squabbles over its top candidate for president of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, are a case in point. During the campaign, some EPP leaders tried to benefit from anti-EU sentiments. Berlusconi also attempted to ride anti-German resentment and appeal to Italians fed up with austerity. Immediately after the elections, Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister and a former vice president of the EPP, attacked Juncker for being an old-style promoter of European unity, one who failed to respect nation-states and their traditions. In recent years, Orbán had already raised eyebrows when he declared a “war of independence” -- whose aim was to make Hungarians independent from the EPP’s very own political project, European integration. 

Part of the problem, some observers say, is that the EPP -- encompassing no fewer than 73 member parties from 39 countries -- is simply overstretched. In the early 1990s, as Helmut Kohl, then German chancellor, and Wilfried Martens, former Belgian prime minister and then president of the EPP, recruited politicians throughout Europe, they maintained relatively low standards, with little regard to the new adherents’ real commitment to party ideals. Kohl was adamant that Christian Democrats had not built Europe just to surrender it to socialists, and that the EPP needed to retain continent’s largest political grouping no matter what. 

The deeper issue, however, concerns the movement’s ideological distinctiveness. Leaders such as Kohl were willing to take risks for Europe. Today, one is hard-pressed to find any true believers who would put their career on the line for European integration, least of all the current German chancellor. On questions of markets and morality, the Christian Democrats had a prime opportunity to reinvent themselves after the financial crisis: they might have brought back their old ideals of an economy, for example, in which the morally relevant unit is a societal group with legitimate interests, not a profit-maximizing individual. Instead, Juncker and Merkel have fully embraced conventional austerity policies, and it is largely forgotten that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi -- the great hope of the European left -- actually started out as a member of a reconstituted Popolari (and, even earlier, as a Catholic boy scout). 

Europe’s Christian Democrats could also take a page out of the playbook of American conservatives, refocusing on social issues and waging a Kulturkampf of their own against secularism. Some have already tried: during the last decade, the Spanish Popular Party mobilized the Catholic vote against socialist Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, who had introduced same-sex marriage. Contrary to the cliché of religious America and irreligious Europe, there remains considerable potential for such campaigns in some southern and eastern European countries. It is telling, however, that Spanish voters ultimately parted with Zapatero for his handling of the eurocrisis.

POPULARITY CONTEST

Christian Democrats face a difficult dilemma. Their policy goals are only marginally different from those of Social Democratic parties on economic questions. Kulturkampf is risky, but becoming too mainstream on social matters creates political space for groups that present themselves as genuinely conservative. Political parties such as Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, which is mostly focused on opposing the EU but increasingly defends traditional morality, and France’s Front National are the beneficiaries.

Most important, Christian Democrats are under intense pressure from right-wing nationalists and populists. And since they no longer dare to defend ambitious plans for European integration, the erstwhile architects of continental unity are more or less defenseless. Their politics of accommodation does not work as a response to the populists, who thrive on polarization and identity politics. The old class coalition that supported European integration at the polls and benefited from it economically -- the middle class and farmers -- has diminished virtually everywhere. This longer-term transformation makes it unlikely that Christian democracy will ever regain the dominant position it had in the postwar years. That leaves the EU a hollow shell: the ideals that once animated integration have seemingly been forgotten, defended only by small parties such as the Greens.

The European Union will not collapse as a result. The real problem is the half-finished eurozone. As Europeans have learned at great cost in recent years, the eurozone as it exists today is incomplete and incoherent: it is a monetary union that does not allow for the proper coordination of fiscal policies or a real convergence of the participating economies. A flood of cheap money from the European Central Bank -- the current solution to the euro crisis -- has failed to address the underlying structural problems of individual states and of the eurozone as a whole. Making the euro work in the long run will require a willingness to take political risks and material sacrifices. And the days when Christian Democratic idealism was capable of generating both are over.

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