The Christian Democratic Moment?

Early in November, in the wake of the GOP electoral defeat, Howard Center head Allan Carlson reflected in an interview [1] on the message that many Republicans were taking from the election.

“GOP leaders,” claimed Carlson, “don’t like social conservatives, except that they want their professionals are going to blame social conservatives for their own failures.” This is indeed what has been happening, at least among the commentariat of the center-right. In a recent episode of the American Enterprise Institute’s “Banter” podcast [2], Stuart James and Andrew Rugg began offhandedly discussing what is apparently standard overheard AEI break-room chatter about how the GOP needs to finally rid itself of its embarrassingly retrograde socially conservative elements, in its quest to become a nice, sensible center-right party that will focus on economic issues and national defense. Social conservatives, in this view, are strange, flamboyantly out-of-step appendages who don’t know how not to say inappropriate things at the dinner table, to be jettisoned at Steve Forbes’ earliest convenience.

Carlson thinks this would be a strategic disaster. “The mistake they made was not grasping onto the social issues and running on them,” he claims: that would have been a way to have made inroads among socially conservative Hispanics and African Americans.

What then does matter to GOP leadership? “First and foremost,” says Carlson, “they are the party of the business sector…and particularly of the large business sector...the needs of the great corporations are always first and foremost....Way down the list, just there mainly to ‘rally the base,’ as they would say, are the social-conservative issues.”

This reflects the history of the Republican Party, in the years before the uneasy truce of Fusionism emerged just before the Reagan era began. Prior to that, explains Carlson, “the Republican Party, for decades, had been the party of Planned Parenthood, it had been the party that had been most supportive and conducive to the eugenics movement....This marriage…that was forced on the Republican Party....Deep down inside, the Republican establishment doesn’t like these people, and they don’t really fit in.”

What then is the solution for social conservatives? Carlson made a surprising pitch for what is in America a virtually unknown political tradition: Christian democracy.

“What would [a Christian Democratic party] look like?” he asks. “It would be pro-life, it would be pro-family....It would be Christian, in all the best senses of the word....We see examples of the Christian Democratic parties in Europe after World War Two, the parties that put Europe back together after the terrible wars of the first half of the twentieth century. They were genuine Christians, and they understood how to reconcile the marketplace with families, and with churches and small communities. That’s what you’d see...I’d love to see such a party emerge….”

Christian democracy—in the sense of advocating a place for a Christian Democratic party in the national conversation—is one of those things, like five weeks of vacation time and nude bathing and automatically getting a small glass of tepid water as a sort of side dish every time you order an espresso, which we tend to associate with Europe. It’s not our tradition; we don’t quite know what to make of the concept or even the words, juxtaposed like that. What, distinctively, could a Christian Democratic party, or a Christian democratic voice, offer? Could it be something more than just redoubt for social conservatives, a place to flee from the market fundamentalists in the GOP who no longer welcome their association with social conservatives?

Well, yes, it could. Such a movement—such a party—would be in a position to offer a set of ideas, and, eventually, practices based on those ideas, which are otherwise distorted or unarticulated in the public sphere—spoken too loudly, spoken to softly, spoken alone or with strange bedfellows or in nasty tones of voice; in some cases not spoken at all. These ideas are frankly theological, and in tacking between them a Christian democratic movement would end up making statements that would sound decidedly out of step with both standard Left and standard Right political discourse.

In a different lecture [3], after giving a brief history of Europe’s own experience with Christian democracy, Carlson draws out these points, positing four lessons for any American Christian Democratic movement, drawn from the European experience:

“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, education, and welfare 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 being respectful toward 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 European nations as a whole.”
These are practical points, but they are founded—as Christian democracy itself must be founded —on principles that are philosophical, and at base theological. These principles form a kind of network, a web of truth in which to ground our political action and expectations; they counterbalance each other and serve as correctives to our all-to-human tendency to grasp hold of one truth and establish it at the expense of all others.

And what are these principles? On the one hand, we know that with sinful humans— “in a Genesis 3 world,” as the Evangelicals say—politics cannot deliver utopia, and the more that politicians try to do so, the more likely they are to accidentally find themselves voting funding for the gulag. This is the standard “conservative” recognition; when conservatives sit too long in one position, looking at their tax bills, they often start to think that therefore any attempt to be political or even to make laws to shape behavior is a one-way ticket to Siberia and frostbite, and then they become libertarians.
But on the other hand, it’s not the case, as libertarians or anarchists (of the left or right) believe, that politics is inherently evil.  It is not.  For one thing, the forceful restraint of evil—gun control laws, perhaps; a defense force, certainly; a police force, obviously—is an appropriate role for the state. 
But it’s more than that: even if there were no need for restraint by force—in a Genesis 2 world, as you might say—Man would still be by nature a political animal. Politics is in our bones, and to deny this—to say as the followers of, for example, Murray Rothbard say, that the market and not the state is the only legitimate place for human interaction—is to make a profound mistake about human nature. We are made to be citizens and subjects, not just shoppers and traders. When conservatives sit too long in a different position, while looking at crime statistics, they forget this truth, and start to talk as though it is only because we are wicked that politics exists at all; in that case they become Hobbesians and develop gout. 

These then are among the collection of truths that a Christian democratic movement has got to bring to the fore: that we are sinful and need laws on that account; that these laws cannot perfect our natures, and that if we expect them to do so we’ll become horrible utopians; and that, though we cannot reach the perfection of politics under our own efforts, still politics is in itself no evil and does have its own perfection, its own telos. It is the course mapped out by this whole collection of truths taken together that Christian democracy ought to chart.

A couple of points remain: First: the line between good and evil, we must always remember, runs through every human heart, not between political parties, and not between ideologies which can become idols. The battle we’re engaged in is a spiritual one, and other human beings are not our enemies, but comrades and potential casualties to be rescued. And second: though political leadership is a good and legitimate thing, still, putting our whole trust in a leader is foolish, just as much as putting our whole trust in a political process is. The only one who can ultimately bring justice and healing and peace is Christ; the only process that will get us there is God’s plan working through history, and not the mechanism of constitutional democracy, however provisionally and comparatively good that might be. 

But that doesn't mean that we have no responsibility to make things incrementally better now, if we can. We have got, after all, a kind of sub-sovereignty in the world, and we have got to be faithful in the little things. A Christian democratic movement, at this moment in American history, might well be one avenue for such fidelity. With God’s blessing—and only with His blessing—we can move forward in this hope.

Susannah Black