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Lessons for America from Europe’s Christian Democracy

The religious right that arose in the United States since the 1970s did so in almost studied neglect of the religiously based governing parties in Europe, the Christian Democrats. Part of this neglect reflects the mixed legacy of Christian Democracy by the 1970s and after; part reflects the nature of Evangelicalism in the United States. In the current issue of First Things, Michel Gurfinkiel provides a welcomed, albeit brief and wide-ranging, introduction to the rise and fall of Christian Democracy as a distinctly religious political movement in Europe.

Americans, both religious and non-religious, can draw sundry lessons for the U.S. from Europe’s Christian Democratic experience.

Religious Establishments with Religious Free Exercise

First, the European experience with Christian Democracy spikes the widespread belief in America that religious establishments necessarily impinge on religious free exercise. In the U.S., we routinely hear that the First Amendment has “a” religion clause because prohibitions of any form of religious establishment is the necessary concomitant to a guarantee of religious free exercise. Yet while the religious identity of today’s Christian Democratic parties in Europe is weak, it was not always so. These parties both fostered and participated in governments that legally established religions in those countries. Despite robust forms of religious establishment, however, these very same countries provided robust protections for religious free exercise.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution articulates two religion clauses, not one. One clause forbids Congressional establishment of a national religion, the other forbids impositions on the free exercise of religion. While some forms of religious establishment impose on religious free exercise, some forms of religious establishment are entirely consistent with religious free exercise.

Fully consistent with a fundamental commitment to America’s constitutional system, including incorporation of much of the Bill of Rights via the Fourteenth Amendment, is the recognition that a robust commitment to religious free exercise is not in the least imperiled by recognition that the reserve power of state governments continues to include authority to create some robust forms of religious establishment.

The European experience with Christian Democracy compellingly demonstrates that it is not purely formalistic to recognize a distinction between allowing religious establishments and protecting religious free exercise.

Liberalism and Christian Democracy

Even more broadly, the Christian Democratic experience in Europe proves that Christian political parties (and religious establishments) are fully consistent with the development and flourishing of liberal political systems.

To be sure, for many modern liberals, the essential core of liberalism is the rejection of the political need for any foundational metaphysics, particularly any religiously-informed metaphysics. This rejection is, for example, what forms the basis for John Rawls’ efforts in both his A Theory of Justice and in Political Liberalism.

So, too, we could make a Deneen-like argument that a necessary, if implicit, rejection of religious metaphysics in Europe’s liberal governmental systems is what hollowed out any distinctly “Christian” identity to Europe’s Christian Democratic Parties. These parties now reflect a Christianity without Christ, indeed, a Christianity without all that many Christians.

Yet whatever is driving modern Europe’s secularization, the rise of Christian Democratic Parties in Europe occurred during a time of relatively robust belief among Europe’s Christians. And these religious commitments continued for decades prior to modern-day secularization.

Contrary to the common liberal conceit, however, not only is serious (and orthodox) religious belief consistent with robust forms of liberal polity, one can argue that liberal polities can flourish only in societies that embrace Christian absolutes. Conversely, a liberalism that rejects metaphysical absolutes has rejected the very grounds that sustain liberalism.

At the very least, it is spurious to claim that commitment to religious tolerance, and liberty more generally, can derive only from anti-foundationalism or some pragmatic modus vivendi between conflicting religious parties.

For example, there is a widespread notion that belief in deep, inherent human depravity—an Augustinian anthropology—augurs for the creation of authoritarian government. Yet just the opposite is the case, for at least two reasons.

The first reason is that human depravity invites authoritarian power only if one holds that human depravity does not extend to human rulers as well as to the polity’s citizens. James Madison’s oft-quoted observation in Federalist 51 perfectly expresses the double application of an Augustinian anthropology to rulers as well as to the ruled, “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” That government rulers are no less fallen than the rest of us requires controls on their behavior as well as ours.

Secondly, it is because the dark and forbidding Augustinian anthropology inheres in our very natures that it gives birth to limited government. After all, millennial ideologies, such as Marxism, necessarily require the possibility that human effort can change human nature. The government can not wither after the revolution unless human nature is malleable.

Yet consider Paul’s argument in 2 Timothy in which slavery to Satan entails not harshness, but gentleness and patience: “The Lord’s bondservant must . . . with gentleness correct those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.”

Note that it is because the remedy is beyond human hands—Augustine’s divine monergism—that Paul commends patience and gentleness. Similarly, even non-Yahwist aliens were welcomed in the Old Testament Israeli theocracy, not as a concession to relativism, but because of Israel’s central redemptive experience: “[God] shows his love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10.18-19). The more zealous the religious belief, the more zealous the commitment to respect those different than ourselves.

Paedobaptist practice generates a more organic, communal understanding of consent and entry into community. One’s identity is irreducibly both corporate and individual.

The irony is that it is the very fact of humanity’s spiritual slavery that creates the conceptual ground for political freedom. And it is the ostensible spiritual freedom of the Pelagian “freedom of the will” that sets the ground for political despotism, because, if true, human coercion could then effect a real change in the soul.

It is not the vigor of Christian Democracy’s Christian identity that is leading to the eclipse of liberalism in Europe, but the loss of Christian Democracy’s distinctive Christian identity that casts a shadow over liberty in Europe.

Can American Evangelical Culture Sustain a Christian Democratic Movement?

Finally, the central political feature of Christian Democracy is its recognition that both freedom and solidarity are essential to human flourishing. This recognition in turns derives from Christianity’s essential sacramental core. It derives from the both/and of individual identity and corporate identity created by and reflected in baptism and the Eucharist. Without this sacramental and ecclesial center, there is no image for the polity to reflect, and ideologies resolve into the one or the other: the anomie of individualism or the despotism of collectivism.

It is here that we can account for the continuing absence of a significant Christian Democratic movement in the U.S.

One might be forgiven for thinking that today’s Republican Party is an American Christian Democratic party in everything but name only. It receives overwhelming support from (white) Evangelicals in America (with hefty support from Catholics as well, although not to the same degree).

Yet the animating spirit of Evangelical support for the Republican Party derives from fundamentally different sources than the sacramental wellspring of European Christian Democracy. First, because there is no serious sacramental life in most American Evangelical churches. The distinctive, culture-forming emphasis of Baptist and baptistic churches in the U.S. is that only mature individuals can receive the baptismal rite of initiation into the Body of Christ (i.e., the Church). The theology is little more than an ecclesiastical social contract theory baptized in Christian verbiage. And the Eucharist is almost universally understood in the most reductionistic of Zwinglian terms: whatever grace it confers derives from an individual Christian thinking about Jesus while swallowing the square of bread and sipping the wine (er . . . the grape juice). It is enacted as a thoroughly internalized and individualized experience.

In contrast, the Christianity that generated the Christian Democratic movement in Europe, whether Protestant or Catholic, centrally included infants in the administration of the sacrament of baptism. This may seem like a small, internecine distinction, but the ramifications are immense when the sacramental life of the Church informs the image in which the polity is created. (See, for example, Holly Brewer’s book, By Birth or Consent, which I discuss here and here.)

The Christian’s understanding and—just as important—the practice of the sacraments plays an oversized role in the development of the Christian’s semiotic universe. While Catholic social thought naturally carries much of the conceptual weight in the development of Christian Democratic thought, there were strong Protestant currents as well. Think, for example, of Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper’s Calvinist and Anti-Revolutionary thought in the Netherlands, or Lutheran contributions in Germany, as represented, for example, in the work of Wilhelm Röpke.

Of critical significance, however, is that all of the currents in European Christian Democracy, both Protestant and Catholic, derive from paedobaptist theologies. Paedobaptist practice generates a more organic, communal understanding of consent and entry into community. One’s identity is irreducibly both corporate and individual. This rich semiotic source of the Christian Democratic orientation is consequently inaccessible by the vast majority of American Evangelicals.

That said, there is no reason to be triumphalistic about modern-day European Christian Democracy. Its current manifestation has almost everywhere strayed from its Christian roots. Nonetheless, for both the faithful and for the secularist, its history and experience holds numerous lessons that could be fruitfully engaged for U.S. law, policy, and politics.

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