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The political philosophy embraced by Germany’s leading party helped reunite Europe after World War II. Can it guide us safely away from today’s populism—or did it cause it?
In November 2016, as the world was still reeling from the shock over Donald Trump’s victory, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel prepared a public statement addressed to the president-elect. The two countries’ “close cooperation” could continue, she asserted with thinly veiled disdain, but only if both remained committed to “democracy, freedom, and respect for the law and the dignity of man.” Such statements, alongside Merkel’s general adherence to decorum and rhetorical moderation, have made her an icon for many liberals, who have come to see Germany’s leader as democracy’s chief defender against the surge of Islamophobic authoritarianism. “One of the most remarkable Western leaders of our time,” gushed the New York Times’ editorial board; “the leader of the free world” mused Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Benjamin Rhodes.
Born in response to fascism and communism, Christian Democracy claimed that human “dignity”—a quality ordained by God—was best realized through a blend of pluralist politics and Christian social teachings.
Yet this celebration of Merkel’s liberal credentials, claims political scientist Carlo Invernizzi Accetti in his new book What Is Christian Democracy?, in fact misses the true nature of her vision. For it was not her letter’s focus on “democracy,” he argues, but its invocation of “the dignity of man” that best revealed Merkel’s anti-populist worldview. According to Invernizzi Accetti, Merkel’s word choice reflects her indebtedness not to liberalism, but to the unique political and intellectual movement called Christian Democracy. Born in the 1930s in response to fascism and communism, this movement claimed that human “dignity”—a unique quality ordained by God—was best realized through a blend of pluralist politics and Christian social teachings. It then came to power across Western Europe and ushered the continent’s remarkable reconstruction after World War II. For Invernizzi Accetti, Christian Democracy’s track record suggests that it could once more provide an antidote for xenophobic nationalism: Trump’s defeat might come not at the hands of liberal dogma or progressive policies, but by reminding religious conservatives—among populism’s key electoral blocs—of the promise of this forgotten legacy.
And indeed, Christian Democracy has much to recommend it over populism. Most importantly, leaders of the movement have been committed to democratic politics, and view their political opponents as legitimate rivals. Merkel in fact has thrice formed coalitions with the Social Democrats, traditionally her party’s main competitors, a far cry from Trump and his followers boast that they alone represent the “true” people. Christian Democrats are also believers in the rule of law, and steer clear from the populists’ violent or conspirational language. When Merkel’s predecessor as the German Christian Democracts’ leader, Helmut Kohl, admitted to corruption, his colleagues did not rail against an alleged “deep state” collusion that had to be smashed, but summarily forced him out of political life.
What if populists and their Islamophobia are not Christian Democrats’ opponents but their indirect heirs?
All the same, what if Christian Democracy is not the solution but part of the problem? What if populists and their Islamophobia are not Christian Democrats’ opponents but their indirect heirs? After all, long before Trump shot to prominence, Merkel drew on the wells of Christian Democracy not just to celebrate freedom and dignity, but also to deride immigrants and religious minorities. In 2010 she famously declared the project of multicultural society (what Germans call multikulti) a “failure” that needed to be replaced with a more homogenous culture, while in 2016 she followed her statement to Trump by calling for a legal ban on Muslim veils, to the cheers of right-wing hardlines. Populists, in fact, like to highlight these ideological similarities. Europe’s most prominent xenophobe, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, recently proclaimed that his mission was to establish an “old-school Christian Democracy.” Invernizzi Accetti is right that Christian thinkers and organizations could play a major role in forging a new democratic future. But what his historical study unintentionally shows is that those would likely come from different political traditions, and that fighting populism would require a radically different approach.
• • •
If few today think of Christian Democracy as a robust political philosophy—rather than just the name of Germany’s leading party—it’s in part because its heyday in the two decades following World War II has not been the source of public fascination. Compared to Hitler and Stalin’s brutality, after all, the drafting of postwar democratic constitutions and rebuilding hospitals does not seem the stuff of legends. But even though this movement did not lead vast armies to apocalyptic wars, its imprint on modern history was astounding. Led by Christian politicians and thinkers, it spawned multiple parties (such as the Christian Democratic Union in Germany, the Christian Democratic Party in Italy, and the Popular Republican Movement in France), triumphed in elections, and presided over Europe’s political and economic rebuilding. Perhaps most consequentially, Christian Democrats accomplished the unthinkable by shepherding Europe’s unruly right into the democratic fold. After supporting a plethora of authoritarian and fascist movements for decades, Europe’s middle classes converged around these new party platforms, which celebrated the rule of law and accepted parliamentary structures. Nowhere was this achievement more pronounced than in this movement’s ability to offer political homes to self-identified Christians, who before the 1940s often found little good to say on political pluralism but now embraced a more peaceful kind of politics. Alongside stabilizing Europe, this remaking of the right also proved spectacularly successful: Konrad Adenauer, who helped found Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, won election after election, and served as the country’s prime minister for fifteen years.
After World War II, Christian Democrats accomplished the unthinkable by shepherding Europe’s unruly right into the democratic fold.
By exploring this movement’s key ideological tenets, Invernizzi Accetti highlights three key principles behind Christian Democracy’s success. The first was the principle of “subsidiarity.” Drawing on the writing of Thomas Aquinas, Christian Democrats believed in a “natural” social order that was ordained by divine law. It was made of layered traditional associations, such as families, the professions, and the parish, which complemented each other. For this universe to properly function, humans had to celebrate their multiple and simultaneous solidarities to those many communities. They had to see themselves as what Christian Democratic writers called “the human person,” a social entity who rejected both individualism (with its disregard for traditional bonds) and collectivism (which subjects one’s identity to one group, such as nation, race, or class). What is more, Christian Democrats maintained that the purpose of modern politics was to secure this social order. States had to protect traditional communities (for example, by defending familial authority over children’s education) and to secure their citizens’ autonomy from collectivist demands (especially by defending the rule of law). Postwar Christian Democrats therefore often claimed that pluralist democracy, especially one that distributed power among multiple centers and authorities, was especially well equipped to sustain their values. Adenauer went so far to say that they were synonymous: “Democracy is not exhausted in the parliamentary form of government,” he explained in a 1946 speech, but is “a way of organizing the entirety of society, which has its roots in . . . the Christian faith.”
This social vision smoothly flowed into the second key principle, which was the belief in natural inequality. While Christian Democrats defended legal parity to all, they also believed that a Christian order required economic and social hierarchies. Socioeconomic distinction, in fact, was a necessary dam against modernity’s relentless pressure to impose sameness and to instill in everyone the same desires. Pope Pius XII, whose writings Christian Democrats often cited, articulated this logic when he claimed that “inequalities of social standing, culture and possessions . . . do not constitute any obstacle to the existence and the prevalence of a true spirit of union and brotherhood. . . . Far from impairing civil equality in any way,” he explained, “they give it its true meaning.” In practice, this meant that Christian Democrats accepted the sanctity of private property and largely (with some variations on specifics) leaned toward the free market. Even though they were not proponents of laissez-faire and established substantial welfare programs, they fiercely opposed more radical distributionist schemes propagated by their socialist opponents, such as a jobs guarantee, nationalization of key industries, or government-provided health care.
Finally, Christian Democrats were animated by virulent hatred of atheism, which they sought to counter with massive investment in Christian education and the breathless celebration of Christianity in public. Europeans, Christian Democrat writers and politicians routinely bemoaned, had replaced the worship of God with a celebration of earthly matters. They had hubristically embraced “materialism,” a Christian Democratic moniker for many non-Christian ideologies, whether individualist liberalism, Nazism, or, worst of all, communism. Indeed, Christian Democrats saw communism, with its open embrace of atheism, as the era’s most urgent threat to the “human person.” Brimming with anti-clericalism and hell-bent on demolishing traditional inequalities, the Soviet Union and its allies epitomized everything that Adenauer and others detested. Christian Democrats were therefore at the forefront of the flaring Cold War in Europe. They aligned themselves with the United States, armed their countries to the teeth, and engaged in relentless anti-communist propaganda campaigns. For some, this was the movement’s most important engine. As the German politician and diplomat Hans Schlange-Schöningen explained in 1946, “what we understand as Christian [today] is a great declaration of war against materialism.”
While Christian Democrats defended legal parity to all, they also believed that a Christian order required economic and social hierarchies.
With the exception of Germany, where the Christian Democratic Union remains in power, Christian Democratic parties began to decline in the 1960s and ’70s. Nonetheless, Christian Democrats continued to exert outsize influence on European institutions throughout the close of the century. Nothing demonstrates this better than the European Union, which in Invernizzi Accetti’s telling should be understood as the ultimate Christian Democratic animal. Since its foundation in Maastricht in 1992, EU documents routinely explain that its purpose is not to replace national sovereignty, but to forge a system of layered and decentralized authority. Echoing Christian Democratic rhetoric, they instead promise to defend “organic” communities against overbearing states and invoke the “human person’s” quest to find its “natural” role. The 2007 Treaty on European Union, which articulated this organ’s basic principles, did so explicitly as it resolved to create “an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” that remained “in accordance with principle of subsidiarity.”
What is more, the EU’s leaders also follow their Christian Democratic forebears to promote a free-market model while balancing it with some moderate transfer of wealth (between rich and less fortunate member states). Rather than being a tool of unrestrained neoliberalism or welfare distribution (as its opponents on left and right deride it for being), it is best understood as a moderate, if decisively center-right, organization. And even though its leading figures are no longer concerned with “materialist” communism, they still instinctively elevate Christianity to a privileged position in public life. The European Court of Human Rights, after all, memorably approved the display of crucifixes in public schools in Italy under the logic that it is part of the country’s “heritage.” Europeans’ church attendance and adherence to church dogmas may have declined over the last few decades, Invernizzi Accetti concludes, but Christian Democracy did not go away. The institutions it helped create continue to shape the lives of millions, and still define European politics.
• • •
This history is fascinating in its own right, but can Christian Democracy tell us something about the present? For Invernizzi Accetti, the answer is a resounding yes: if this movement once saved democracy in Europe, perhaps it could do so for us. In Invernizzi Accetti’s telling, our current surge of xenophobic authoritarianism is very much analogous to the moment in which Christian Democracy was born in 1930s Europe. This is not because Trump and Marine Le Pen are Mussolini and Hitler come again, but because they, like those figures, rely on a broad coalition that includes both the nationalist right and socially conservative Christians (evangelicals in the United States, Catholics in France). Invernizzi Accetti therefore thinks that the key to democracy’s health is breaking this alliance. Those two groups’ cooperation, after all, should not overshadow their difference: while populists are concerned with protecting the “pure” and unified people against “foreign” immigrants and “cosmopolitan” elites, conservative Christians are mostly interested, according to Invernizzi Accetti, in preserving Christian privileges against the allegedly secular left. Reviving the tradition of Christian Democracy in this telling could be the necessary wedge. A new Adenauer could remind conservatives of Christianity’s historical support for pluralist and democratic politics, and once again usher a period of stability.
The cooperation between populists and Christian conservatives is not a fragile marriage of convenience but the product of a substantial ideological overlap.
But as conservative pundits of the never-Trump universe found out the hard way, chiding Christian conservatives for abandoning their “real” values is a futile undertaking. This is because the cooperation between populists and Christian conservatives is not a fragile marriage of convenience, as Invernizzi Accetti would have it, but a product of a more substantial ideological overlap. Indeed, despite the ubiquity of the never-ending comparisons to fascism, some (though certainly not all) of populism’s content could in fact be traced to Christian Democrats. Perhaps the most obvious overlap is in the field of sexuality, a topic which What Is Christian Democracy? mentions only in passing. Christian Democrats spent tremendous energy promoting what they understood as “proper” Christian sexuality. They tirelessly labored to enshrine the heterosexual family as the basic social unit (especially through marriage and inheritance laws) and harshly opposed same-sex relationships. Adenaeur, in contrast with the government of East Germany, kept a law criminalizing homosexuality that Hitler had used to secure 50,000 convictions—a number Adenauer’s government would equal. This is a tradition that many of their heirs today continue to preserve, even if in softer form. Merkel, for example, voted against marriage equality in 2017. It is also a priority that populists often pursue with a deep sense of urgency. While they embrace some tenets of feminism and often have women figureheads (Le Pen in France or Pia Kjærsgaard in Denmark), they are usually vocal opponents of sexual nonconformity: Trump—the epitome of patriarchy and rape culture—rushed to ban transgender people from the military, while his Hungarian counterpart Orbán unilaterally disaccredited university gender studies programs. The two camps’ sexual visions, of course, are not always identical, and there are variations inside each group. But the similarities are not cosmetic either, and they sometimes outweigh the differences.
The same is true for the treatment of minorities, whose marginalization is at the center of the populist revolt. With a few notable exceptions (such as French philosopher Jacques Maritain), most Christian Democratic figures were hardly the paragon of deep tolerance. Under Adenauer, the CDU depicted communism and the Soviet Union as an invasion of Asian rapists and his government in 1956 outlawed the German communist party. Christian Democrat leaders also rarely took a firm stance on anti-Semitism. Scrambling for voters who previously aligned with the Nazis, Christian Democrats mostly avoided the topic altogether. And as Invernizzi Accetti himself notes, Christian Democrats more recently have often been at the forefront of articulating anxieties about Muslims’ “alien” cultural commitments, which allegedly undermined the continent’s character. Few exemplified this logic better than Wilfried Mertens, the Belgian former chairman of the Christian Democratic alliance in the European parliament, when he explained in 2003 his opposition to Turkey’s bid to become an EU member. “The European project is a civilizational project,” he thundered, so the inclusion of a large Muslim-majority country “is unacceptable.” This rigid equation of Europe with Christianity has always been an important component of the movement’s vision. Its difference from contemporary populism is a matter of degree and intensity, not substance.
To compare is not to equate, and Invernizzi Accetti is of course right that Christian Democracy is a dozen times preferable to populism. There are substantial differences between the two movements on important matters that cannot be overlooked. Christian Democratic leaders from Adenauer onward, for example, rarely resorted to Trump-style disparaging of the free press, and did not seek to replace mainstream media with purely partisan news organ. They also did not engage in Orbán-like trafficking in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and did not talk from both sides of their mouths when condemning violence against minorities. And as the unfolding of the recently refugee crisis in Europe has shown, some Christian Democrats today are occasionally capable of pushing their dislike of Muslims to the back burner when other priorities loom. When a wave of refugees hit Europe in 2015, Angela Merkel ignored her party’s hardliners and sided with Germany’s leading industrialists, who called for expanded migration to replenish Germany’s aging workforce.
Overcoming populism with require adopting some of the very policies that Christian Democrats thwarted decades ago.
But Invernizzi Accetti does not fully acknowledge that there’s a good reason for the flocking of many right-wing voters to the populist camp. It’s not necessarily their ideological agenda that has dramatically changed but their patience: they recognize the ability of Trump and his ilk to fulfill their hopes without spending so much time on tiring negotiations with opponents and stale talk of moderation. This is why, as the experience of the last few years has so cruelly shown, appeals to decency or dignity have so little traction. Rapt with their leaders’ confrontational panache, populist voters know what they want and there is a reason they are uninterested in alternatives, Christian or not.
Indeed, despite what Invernizzi Accetti and other liberal commentators (think Mark Lilla and Adam Gopnik) claim, it is evident that neither soaring rhetoric nor ideological education will slay the populist beast. Hilary Clinton played that game with her “we are great because we are good” mantra, to devastating results. Rather than awaiting a pluralist or democratic awakening among the right, as Merkel in Europe and Joe Biden in the United States propose, it is probably more productive to try and remake the social order that led to populism’s rise in the first place. This will entail imposing economic redistribution, doubling down on feminism and anti-racism, and a bold challenge to entrenched social hierarchies. It will, in short, adopt the very policies and projects that Christian Democrats successfully thwarted decades ago and continue to resist today, namely, anti-statist subsidiarity, inequality, and anti-“materialism.”
The success of this effort will depend on the participation of Christians, who have often been central to struggles for egalitarianism. Churches, after all, have been at the forefront of the sanctuary movement, and provide crucial infrastructure for social mobilization. As What Is Christian Democracy? rightly points out, this means that some ardent secularists may need to overcome ingrained anti-clerical suspicion. The project of upending inequalities and securing democracy is far more important than debates over the limits of public funding to religious schools or charities. Who the icons of such progressive coalition would be is still to be seen. But one thing is clear: it will not be Angela Merkel.
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