The Perils of No Christian Democratic Tradition
I don’t really fit into any neat political categories, but if asked to come down on one side or other, I would probably choose Christian Democracy, particularly as it has evolved in Europe. After numerous false starts, the post-war Christian Democracy movement was an attempt to heal the rift between the Catholic Church and the modern liberal state. It did so by leaning heavily on Catholic social teaching, twinning solidarity – with its emphasis on the “social market” and the proper role of the state in economic life – and subsidiarity, with its support of the family, unions and other mediating institutions, and the supranational enterprise of European integration. And indeed, this support went beyond mere lip service – in many countries, unions themselves became aligned with the various political traditions, including Christian Democracy, and the pro-family stance was reflected in actual economic policies (including fair wages and ample leave time) – this stands in stark contrast to their American “pro-family” counterparts.
There was never been a Christian Democracy movement in the United States. Part of this reflects the very American history of Church-state relations. Christian Democracy is proud to embrace Christianity, the Christian past, and Christian culture. It will support the state funding of religious schools, the use of religious symbols in the everyday life, and will question whether a predominantly Islamic state like Turkey has a future in the European Union. The United States has a very different history in this regard. Not only is the separation more ironclad, but Catholics have been viewed historically as suspicious outsiders in a dominant Protestant culture. Hence Catholic culture developed in parallel to mainstream culture. We all know the history.
What does this mean for political alignment? With the risk of simplifying, most European countries have political blocs centered on Christian Democracy and its secular counterpart, Social Democracy. There is often a minority liberal party whose fortunes tend to ebb and flow over time. In the United States, it is very different. Here, at least since the 1960s, two dominant parties have coalesced around a Social Democratic movement (the Democrats) and a liberal movement (the Republicans). Catholics were traditionally aligned with the Democrats, the party of immigrants, workers, and minorities. And remember, the area of overlap between Christian Democracy and Social Democracy in the economic sphere is broad (Pope Benedict has made this very point in the past). But in the 1960s, the Democrats shifted dramatically in a secular direction, and this shift was exploited by people like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
And so we have a very peculiar situation of the liberal free-market party trying to become a party where Christians could find a home. But a square peg cannot fit in a round hole. And yet, the dominant strand of American Protestantism – which has become increasingly at odds with Protestantism (and indeed Christianity) as practised elsewhere in the world – does seem to fit snugly into this hole. A little too snugly. For just as American liberalism represents an undistilled form of Enlightenment-era individualism, so does American Protestantism represent a unique brand of cultural Calvinism/ Gnosticism that elevates individual virtue over the common good and promotes a notion of American exceptionalism in the world.
For Catholics, this is ultimately a dead end. When Catholics and evangelicals join together in support of common positions, it is almost always the case that the narrow set of evangelical concerns dominates the wider spectrum of Catholic concerns. Today those issues are abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty. These issues are important, but – for Catholics at least – cannot be treated in isolation. Played down are notions of economic justice, war and peace, the right to health care, environmental stewardship etc. It is not really surprising that the issues that gave the Catholic Church in the United States such a powerful voice in the recent past (think of the peace and economic justice pastorals) have faded in importance as more and more Catholics link arms with their brothers and sisters on the evangelical right.
But it is not just a matter of broadening the issues that form part of the all-encompassing culture of life. It is about cobbling together a Catholic culture in a hostile country, hemmed in by secular humanists on one side and adherents of the American religion on the other. Or of reclaiming such a culture. For as Catholics have become increasingly integrated in the broader culture over the years, they adopt the mindset of American liberalism, and their concerns blend into the concerns of their evangelical peers.
As more and more American Catholics adopt the attitude and concerns of the political evangelicals, so do these attitudes and concerns increasingly diverge from the global Catholic mainstream. And so we see European Catholics scratching their heads over American Catholic reaction to Obama. We see abortion elevated to a level above all other issues, often swamping the right to universal healthcare. We see calls for a subsidiarity that is divorced from solidarity, and a liberal free market approach to economic life. We see a neglect of Catholic social teaching, or an attempt to blend it with free-market liberalism. We see a glorification of the American military, and the misguided belief in the ability of war to fix the world’s problems. These are all errors inherent in American liberalism and the American religion. And while it is easy to blame people like Richard Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Michael Novak, we also need to be honest and lay some of the blame on John Courtney Murray for his excessively optimistic attempt to align Catholic teaching with the tenets of American liberalism.
There is no Christian Democratic tradition in the United States, and such a tradition is unlikely to develop any time soon. So what should Catholics do? A first step would be to take up the challenge laid down by Cardinal George and try to build (re-build?) a Catholic culture that is at once part of American public life and removed from it, one that is more aligned with global Catholicism. Of course, entry into the public sphere means some kind of accommodation with the dominant political forces – secular humanism and Calvinist-tinged liberalism. To seek some goals, alliances will have to be formed and compromises made. But let’s always try to act as Catholics first, united in common purpose around shared goals, rather than be enticed by these alien philosophical traditions.