Lessons from the Christian Democrats

American conservatism has been in disarray since Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. The long-dominant fusionist approach, which mixed conservative and classical liberal convictions into a form of free-market, limited-government conservatism, has decayed into a “dead consensus”—at least that has been the argument of those who have since attempted to build a coherent worldview behind the often confusing ideological pronouncements of President Trump.

Of the new ideas emerging from the fusionists’ supposed downfall, national conservatism and integralism dominate most conversations. Whereas Catholic integralism hopes to achieve a confessional state through which the government actively promotes religious beliefs—potentially even penalizing those who do not follow the prescribed faith—national conservatism has risen to prominence with a reorientation away from global capitalism and towards more national and local approaches, including industrial policy and protectionism under the banner of the national interest. The idea that connects these emerging factions is a greater reliance on strategy and intervention from the central government.

Both groups make accurate observations. Local communities, social institutions such as the family and Church, and Tocquevillian associations that make up the social fabric have been severely weakened. To some extent, globalization and technology have played roles in the unraveling of society (although we should not underestimate the destruction government policy has wrought). A loss of a more profound understanding of the human person, dignity, and freedom has left our modern societies often with strictly materialistic, progressive, and relativistic worldviews that lack a greater appreciation for what a good and free life actually is. One does not need to be an ultra-traditionalist to believe that modern society is coming apart on several fronts.

Conservatives should not, however, resort to the false promise of centralized political decision-making to fulfill their hopes by brute force. A rich tradition from Europe which has infrequently caught the attention of Americans may offer an alternative path: Christian Democracy.

Faith, Freedom, and Subsidiarity

The idea of Christian Democracy slowly developed in the latter half of the 19th century as a response to both the liberalizing forces of modernity, which Christians looked at skeptically, but also to the anti-modernist ragings of others. Whereas Pope Pius IX fought liberalism tooth and nail and attacked modernism through his Syllabus of Errors, Christian Democrats strived for a confident Christian community within liberal, pluralistic societies.

Even in extreme cases like Prussia, where Otto von Bismarck tried to subordinate the Church through his anti-Catholic Kulturkampf, Christian Democrats arose not as a counter-force for a confessional state regulating religion, but as a counter-force defending religious liberty. In countries like the Netherlands and Belgium, Christians of different denominations worked together to set up pluralistic societies. Indeed, while the social climate for Catholics in particular was often much more hostile than it is today (and went far beyond Obergefell v. Hodges), Christian Democrats did not find free political systems a threat—rather, they saw them as the most effective way to protect their religious liberties in societies in which they were minorities.

The Christian Democrats’ defense of religious liberty was not bland, like the one often made by more libertine-minded defenders of “freedom” today in which all religions are the same—all equally correct (or equally wrong). Rather, Christianity formed the core of Christian Democracy’s political vision. As the Program of the Young Christian Democrats in 1899 argued, “Christian Democracy means the wholehearted application of Christianity . . . to the whole of modern public and private life, and to all its forms of progress.” Indeed, Christian Democrats like Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi, Robert Schuman, or Jean Monnet were devout and brought their beliefs into the public square. For example, Pope Benedict XVI to this day calls himself an “Adenauerian” for the Christian Democratic Chancellor’s commitment to rebuilding Germany on its Christian heritage.

But it should not be the task of Christian Democratic politicians to build the Garden of Eden on earth. Indeed, as a statesman, one should be overly careful and humble, so as not to overrate what one can actually achieve. Government should merely set the framework for organic society to function—not direct that society to what one thinks would be best.

Unlike national conservatism, which has responded to globalism and technological gains with increasingly protectionist and mercantile policies, Christian Democracy most often advocated for a free enterprise system. Relatively unhampered free markets through which entrepreneurs and businesses can act freely would be backed by a social safety net composed of voluntary associations, civil society institutions, and some government assistance. Rather than coddling or protecting domestic industries from foreign competition, it promotes creativity in developing comparative advantages.

Indeed, the economic system that Christian Democrats have envisioned can be best described by what the Germans have called a soziale Marktwirtschaft (“social market economy”). Political leaders such as Ludwig Erhard and Adenauer in Germany and Italy’s De Gasperi advocated for an ordered free enterprise system and free society that promoted individual liberty but emphasized the need for social and community responsibility. The “social” in “social market economy” would not refer to a need for social and welfare policies whenever the market economy fails. Rather, as Erhard argued, “the market economy in itself is social, it is not that it needs to be made social.” The resulting economic miracles across Europe speak for themselves.

It is important to remember, however, that unlike other pro-market advocates, economic freedom and its resulting prosperity are not the ultimate ends of Christian Democracy. Instead, the justification for a free and liberal society is not based on mere utilitarian calculus, but on the belief that every human being is born with an inviolable dignity from God.

Christian Democrats showed that Christians can perform, thrive, and contribute confidently in pluralistic societies—and that those wanting to defend the traditional family, the Church, and civil society need not give up on the market economy in favor of central planning.

Thus, Christian Democracy put a special emphasis on social institutions to solve problems that markets can’t. The market system would be bolstered by strong voluntary institutions such as universities, families, churches, and other organizations. These institutions, rather than large, faceless federal governments, are capable of responding to people’s needs more directly and with greater tacit knowledge. They are composed of voluntary individuals and families who believe in their personal freedom but understand that there are social and community responsibilities as well. This attitude originates from civic and personal virtues fostered within social institutions. It is essential, therefore, for institutions, such as the university, to recognize and intentionally fulfill this formative role.

Of course, the government plays an important role as the “referee” in the economy and society. But an ordered society does not necessitate central planning or big government. On the contrary, Christian Democracy has traditionally been skeptical and critical of centralized planning without checks and balances or the rule of law, instead promoting decentralization under the principle of subsidiarity. This means that smaller localities—and often families and individuals themselves—take charge of their own problems because they are closest to the issue at hand. In this spirit, Christian Democrats have historically built voluntary organizations and new movements, such as charities, schools, new media outlets, youth clubs, and trade unions, instead of using government force to engineer society.

Thus, while there are sometimes problems that may require a stronger response from the central government, it is expected to remain on the sidelines as long as there is no sufficient reason for it to do otherwise. And if it does act, the government should assist lower levels of social authority rather than impose its own agenda, leaving the “spheres” of society fully sovereign, as Abraham Kuyper, another prominent Christian Democrat, put it.    

Lessons from Christian Democracy

So what can conservatives learn from Christian Democrats today?

For integralists and religious traditionalists, the primary lesson might be to not give up hope on liberal democracy: Christians had lived through much greater intrusions on religious liberty and strife before the Great Wars than we do today. Nevertheless, they became defenders of liberal democracy, free speech, and the “marketplace of ideas.” They did not despair when society—and the political elite—turned against their beliefs. Rather, a truly liberal system could actually be the strongest safeguard to one’s rights and liberties. And with confidence, Christians should step into the public square and contribute to modern debates with Christianity’s rich traditions that approach the most pressing questions with sophistication, complexity, and respect for human dignity.

Of course, in a society that is increasingly hostile towards religion, Christians and religious conservatives will find it more difficult to make their voices heard in the public square. However, conservatives should recognize that they have something to contribute to modern debates over non-economic issues, an area in which they have often been on the defensive. Christian Democrats knew the value of their ideas and presented them, not as subjective and easily interchangeable religious and social commentary, but rather as definitive views of the human condition and how to meet personal and community needs through living the gospel in all aspects of life.

For national conservatives, the lessons are economic: Christian Democrats stood in the ashes of ruined economies after 1945. Nevertheless, they became economic reformers by embracing the market economy, free enterprise, and free trade as the engines of prosperity for all. If problems arose, decision-making predominantly resided with self-responsible individuals, families, and civil society groups rather than centralized governments and protectionism.

As for the fusionist “dead consensus,” Christian Democrats considered new policy options whenever new challenges arose. Indeed, Christian Democracy is built upon a set of core principles rather than strict adherence to specific policies, thus leaving the door open to a variety of dynamic and malleable solutions—perhaps, skeptics might argue, too much, when looking at today’s European self-proclaimed “Christian Democrats,” from Angela Merkel to Viktor Orbán, that have abandoned what their forefathers preached. In a more positive sense, they did not shy away from thinking of novel policy tools to tackle the problems of the age. For instance, limited government intervention has always been considered in antitrust legislation—for Big Business can become as intrusive as Big Government—or in the promotion of the family and fertility rates.    

This is not to say that there couldn’t be pro-market or bottom-up solutions in these areas. But it does mean that Christian Democracy, while largely pro-market, seeks to use the best tools available—whether it be market-based, government-run, or a combination—when approaching any economic, social, or political exigency. This may teach us important lessons in how to respond to today’s wretched state of the family and a proto-oligarchical Big Tech industry, which persistently silences political opinions that don’t fit the allowable discussions of “cancel culture.” It may involve holding tech companies accountable when they seek the benefits and protections of being a platform while consistently acting like publishers.

It may also necessitate an intentional awareness of the importance of family structure—that having fathers and mothers is important to childhood development. Pro-family policy has been a controversial topic among U.S. conservatives. And yet, Christian Democrats would argue that the protection of the family as the most fundamental social unit is one of the most important conservative goals and should not be controversial at all. What would require debate is deciding the best policy to strengthen it. Political leaders in the Christian Democratic tradition have used many different strategies, ranging from direct payments and tax credits for every child to more long-term perspectives, such as the creation of associations to spur cultural change and help family life.

Thus, Christian Democrats have potential lessons for American conservatives across the board who struggle to respond to modern demands. Overall, they showed that Christians can perform, thrive, and contribute confidently in pluralistic societies—and that those wanting to defend the traditional family, the Church, and civil society need not give up on the market economy in favor of central planning. Perhaps, they would argue, we should rather give up on pipe dreams that government officials in a capital city hundreds of miles from our communities could solve our problems. They challenge us instead to take on our society’s deepest issues without abandoning either the competitive market or the social and moral foundations of freedom.