By David Hoggard
Christian Democracy, in its mainstream form, is a weird thing. It is fairly ubiquitous in Western countries, and yet it isn’t quite clear whether or not it is actually an ideology in its own right. How exactly does it distinguish itself from the Conservatism(s) that occupy the centre-right ground in most Anglophone countries? To find out, it is useful to consider how traditional Christian Democracy is distinguished from more specific forms, such as those promoted by Protestant-dominated political parties. We will put these into the category ‘Protestant Democracy’.
In the 19th century, the authority of the Catholic Church began to look a bit shaky in continental Europe – on one flank, Liberals rejected their moral teachings on the basis of Reason, and on another flank, an increasingly educated and class-conscious proletariat found that these moral teachings were insufficient to answer their questions about power relationships in society. Suddenly, the Church had to come up with a theory of society – a political statement beyond the simple demand that believers do what they were told. Fortunately for the Catholics, their hierarchical structure meant that the Pope could simply write an open letter and this would be taken as read by a huge swathe of the Church.
This letter was entitled Rerum Novarum, which translates as ‘of the new things’, and attempted to drive a consensus within a cross-class religious organisation: while rejecting Socialism and state ownership, it promotes trade unionism and the idea that the first concern of employers should be the security of their employees and the poor in general. Rerum Novarum rejects class conflict and suggests as an alternative the corporatist, tripartite structure explored by Fascist governments and by the post-war consensus. Germany, whose politics have been dominated by the Christian Democrats, is noted for the worker shareholding that characterises its business world – while a recent suggestion of a similar model by the British Labour Party was derided as ludicrous Socialism.
Rerum Novarum, and later Papal encyclicals on the same theme, made the Church seem more relevant and a more effective bulwark against Socialism than the existing Conservative tendencies in continental Europe – especially after those tendencies got large proportions of the continent’s population killed in the First World War. In addition, the Catholic social teaching was manifested in tangible ways (beyond mere Latin verbiage) by the actions of the existing Church organisation. It was already one of the main avenues of social interaction and control in pre-televisual Europe – now the Bishops gave the lay people busy-work to do in Catholic Action side-organisations such as the Young Christian Workers, whose charitable work seemed to be an effective means of diffusing class conflict.
After the Second World War, the political vacuums of Europe were filled by the most effective groups on offer, whether those were Communists or, as in Germany and Italy, Christian Democrats. These parties were backed by the Catholic hierarchy and underpinned by two generations of social teaching and action. And from a Marxist point of view, they were rearguard actions by the Establishment to save the family silver from the Red Menace. The problem being, of course, that once Capital and the Bourgeoisie got their hands on an idea, it became much less distinctive, and over the next few decades, the Christian Democrats devolved into mere power-seeking parties – to an almost ridiculous extent in Italy, where as soon as the Red Menace stopped being a menace, the Christian Democrats utterly fell apart.
We can, of course, point to the post-war Conservative Government in the UK as a similar phenomenon: it was only barely ideological, it was a marriage of convenience between right-wing tendencies with the sole objective of keeping Labour at bay, and it decided that the best means of doing this was to give them major concessions. While the German Christian Democrats chose Ordoliberalism, the British Conservatives went with Keynesian ‘Butskellism’ as their method of retaining power.
Was Rab Butler a Christian Democrat, then? He probably would have been, if he’d grown up in a country where the Catholic Church still had institutional power. But he didn’t.
Explicitly Protestant political parties in the UK have tended to be extremist in nature: even leaving aside the different flavours of Unionism in Northern Ireland, we still have to consider the Liverpool Protestant Party (which opposed Irish immigration for predictable reasons), the Protestant Action Society (a quasi-Fascist group which rioted against Catholic worshippers in Edinburgh in 1931, but on the other hand also attacked the British Union of Fascists over their support for a United Ireland), and the Scottish Protestant League, whose leader went on to be a Fascist.
The current crop includes the Christian Party and Christian Peoples Alliance, both of which – although much less radical than the aforementioned – seem to be under the impression that the Christian message starts with opposing abortion and ends with opposing homosexuality. The CPA used to have Councillors in Canning Town, the home of a major Pentecostal church which caters to ethnic minority Christians, while the Christian Party – which routinely saves its deposit in the Western Isles, where the locals tie up the swings on Sundays – is led by George Hargreaves, who wrote the song ‘So Macho’ for Sinitta.
Similarly intense parties exist across Protestant Europe: Germany has several, including Alliance C and the Party of Bible-abiding Christians. However, Scandinavia introduces a wrinkle into Protestant Democracy. Each Scandinavian country, along with Finland, has a minor Christian Democratic party in its legislature. Although there are significant variations between them, it will be enough for this article to say that while they take their social conservatism seriously, they frame themselves as being Northern, Protestant versions of the German CDU, and their politics have some similarities to Rerum Novarum – for instance, the Swedish KD supports the welfare state inasmuch as it delivers healthcare to older people. Naturally, the Scandinavian wannabe CDUs have smaller electoral bases, because they came on the scene relatively recently and are not backed by major church organisations which dominate the lives of their members – only minor ones.
It seems that the likelihood that people will define their politics in reference to their religion increases with the extent to which their religion defines every aspect of their daily life – this is why, of course, most Christian Democrats are Catholics. An Anglican will usually be happy to define themselves as a Conservative, Liberal or Labour supporter without feeling the need to justify their political faith as an outgrowth of their religious faith. Catholics are at the other end of the scale, and Methodists were historically somewhere in the middle: Methodism used to be more demanding of its adherents and still emphasises Good Works as a central aspect of its praxis, so 19th and 20th century Methodists made up sizeable and vocal minorities within the Liberal and Labour parties in the UK. Of course, Methodists were less socially exclusive than historical Catholics and present-day Pentecostals, so they were happier to participate in secular parties rather than forming the Methodist Democratic Union.
It therefore follows that Protestant Democratic parties will do best when rooted in denominations which are socially exclusive and demanding of believers. And this is exactly what we find: so-called ‘pillarised’ societies are likely to have religious parties, and where one of those pillars is Protestant in some form, a Protestant Christian Democratic party or five is likely. The Netherlands are the Ur-example of this. Up until a few decades ago, your religious affiliation dictated which schools you attended, which hospitals you went to, which trade unions you joined and which social football team you played with.
Hey, presto, at around the same time as the Catholics were coming up with Rerum Novarum, a Dutch Calvinist theologian named Abraham Kuyper was thinking along similar lines and founding the Anti-Revolutionary Party. Kuyper, like the Papacy, saw the potential in using religious organisations as a means of combatting Socialism while making tactical retreats on certain issues. The main difference was that Kuyper came up with an idea called Sphere Sovereignty, under which Church and State would be separate, but the Church would have sovereignty over moral issues. By comparison, the Catholics believed in Subsidiarity, in which decisions would be taken at the lowest appropriate level – so moral decisions would be taken by the (patriarchal) Family under the direction of the local priest. While Sphere Sovereignty envisages a horizontal division of labour, Subsidiarity proffers a vertical division.
If you’re looking for a theoretical distinction between Kuyper’s version of Christian Democracy and the mainstream Catholic version of it, that’s about it. There’s much more difference between the Christian Democracy of Kuyper and his followers (now united with the Catholics in the Christian Democratic Appeal party) and other Dutch parties which have come out of pillarisation. The Reformed Political Party (SGP) only allowed women to join the party when the courts forced them to, and shuts its website down on Sundays, while the Political Party of Radicals was a splinter from the Anti-Revolutionaries who became one of Europe’s early Green parties.
Where else do we see conditions which mimic Dutch pillarisation? Well, I would offer the USA as a possibly provocative example: they have a situation where hardcore religious people try to form their own little ecosystems; where people who identify with political parties are increasingly polarised and siloised; and where people justify their political beliefs with remarks about, say, their “God-given Constitution”. It might not be too far off the mark to describe large parts of the Republican Party as being Protestant Democratic, while the Democrats also have a Catholic Christian Democratic nature which occasionally comes to the fore.
And America pushes Protestant Democracy onto other countries, being a major exporter of American Values to the Third World. Last year, Costa Rica had an interesting Presidential election, in which the Pentecostal churches planted by the USA in the last few decades had become so strong that their members were almost able to elect Fabricio Alvarado of the National Restoration Party to the top job. There are quite a few other examples in South America, including the Nicaraguan Party of the Christian Path (four seats in 1996) and the Evangelical movements which helped elect Jair Bolsonaro (who is Catholic, married to a Baptist) as President of Brazil.
Elsewhere in the post-colonial world, Australia plays host to a few Christian parties. The country’s large Catholic population once formed the backbone of the Democratic Labor Party, but the Protestants got their own back with the rise of Family First in the 2000s, while the Christian Democratic Party of Congregational pastor Fred Nile has been in the New South Wales upper house since the days of the Apostles. Similar efforts in New Zealand have been less successful, although there has been a nice cross-section of the Protestant Democrat typology: Christian Heritage was an SGP-style fundie Calvinist effort; United Future was a rootless, occasionally progressive, attempt at a CDU analogue reminiscent of the Scandinavian Christian Democrats; Destiny was a megachurch project like many of the South American parties; and the New Conservative Party, like most of the small Protestant parties in Western Europe, is boringly fixated on sex.
As you can see, it’s quite a broad array. But I think you’ll agree that it’s sufficiently distinct from Catholic-style Christian Democracy to be worth writing an article about. Where the latter seeks to entrench the power of an existing elite with a strong organisation, the Protestant version largely holds hard to ideological principles – nasty as those principles may often be – and lacks the kind of institutional power that would make them a pole around which the conservative half of a political system might unite around. As the Protestant Democrats don’t have to act as the keystone in an anti-Socialist bulwark, they have less incentive to adopt centrist economic policies, although they sometimes do so out of Christian concern for the disadvantaged – compare the American GOP and the Dutch Christian Union.
The Protestant flavour of Christian Democracy is stronger and more alienating than the German and Italian type, which was always intended to be a consensual fudge. However, the existence of Christian Democracy which is not entirely a convenient label for ordinary Conservatives is proof that, despite being decidedly mushy even before being diluted by post-war growth, those forms of Christian Democracy were rooted in a distinctive attitude – an argument that the things people believed about the world they lived in were integral to how they wanted that world to operate.
David Hoggard is the co-author, with Bob Mumby, of Many a Hero Untold, published by SLP