Can Christian democracy save America from Trump?
Christian democracy demonstrates that religious conservatism need not be linked with nationalist populism. American evangelicals can learn from this tradition, one that has influenced American Catholic thought, instead of becoming pawns of the far right.
Since Donald Trump’s election, the American left has asked itself tough questions about what it must do to respond to his rise. An equally important conversation needs to happen over the future of the American right. In a democratic system based on alternation in power, the left has an interest in the kind of opponent it is confronted with. When the other side is captured by far-right populism, the damage to democracy can be great.
From that point of view, Christian voters are a constituency that can play a key role in moving the right away from the likes of Trump. Their overwhelming support for him at the polls was essential to his success, but it seems to be at odds with fundamental Christian principles. This suggests there is scope for a different kind of conservative movement in this country.
Christian democracy, a political ideology embodied by figures like Germany’s Angela Merkel, contributed to establishing stable democracies in Europe in the aftermath of the second world war. The US was often deeply supportive of this process, yet never cultivated an analogous political movement at home. Now that it is facing a serious institutional threat of its own, it can perhaps learn from what it has long preached abroad.
Christian democracy is just what its label says: a form of democratic politics inspired by Christian values.
More specifically, Christian democracy has historically been based on three core principles. The first is that the Christian tradition of natural law implies a commitment to the idea of the inherent dignity of the human person, which in turn sustains certain fundamental moral commitments – for instance, to the sanctity of human life, the importance of the traditional family and, more generally, moral authorities to guide human conduct.
The second is a moral critique of capitalism based on the assumption that Christianity is incompatible with materialism and commands a duty of charity towards the poor and needy. Contrary to a widespread misconception, it was precisely on these premises that redistributive “welfare” regimes were built in most European countries after the second world war. For, barring a few exceptions in northern Europe, it was primarily Christian democratic – not social democratic – parties that came to power in continental Europe.
Finally, the third core principle of the Christian democratic ideology is a resolute internationalism, which translates into a commitment to both supranational cooperation amongst established powers and a duty of solidarity with respect to less fortunate peoples and countries. The role of Christian democratic parties and agents in the creation of the United Nations, the European Union and the international human rights regime was decisive.
Given how different all this is from the direction taken by the American right of late, is there any chance that something of the sort might actually take hold in the US? Far from a fanciful speculation, there is a clear constituency for a political movement founded on such premises in this country. As George W Bush’s former speechwriter Michael Gerson notes in the Atlantic’s latest cover piece: “One of the most extraordinary things about current politics … is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump.” It’s so extraordinary, in fact, that it is hard to imagine Christian voters remaining loyal to Trump if faced with a better alternative.
There are several reasons why a political project blending conservative social values, a moral critique of capitalism and internationalism might be more appealing to the religious right in America than Donald Trump’s brand of nationalist populism.
To start with, Trump seems an unlikely champion of conservative social values. As a former pro-choicer who is currently embroiled in a legal dispute over hush-money he allegedly paid to cover up an extra-marital affair, he is hardly a model of Christian character or behavior.
It is true that many religious conservatives have for now been willing to abstract from the president’s character in exchange for direct policy favors – such as the nomination of a supreme court justice opposed to abortion rights. There are, however, a number of key policy areas in which Trump’s goals run directly counter to the religious right’s long-held political commitments and orientations.
For instance, the president’s dogged determination to curb socially redistributive policies – like taxes for the rich and healthcare coverage for vulnerable groups – jar with the Christian values of solidarity and neighborly love, which previously found expression in the commitment to a form of “compassionate” conservatism.
Similarly, Trump’s exclusivist nationalism is in tension with Christianity’s inherent universalism, which traditionally found expression in the fact that American evangelicals have been the backbone of this country’s extensive foreign aid missions. To put it bluntly (as Pope Francis has also recently noted): it seems unlikely that Jesus would have turned away people at the border on the grounds that they aren’t fit to be part of “us”.
Christian democracy demonstrates that religious conservatism need not be linked with nationalist populism. American evangelicals can learn from this tradition, one that has influenced American Catholic thought, instead of becoming pawns of the far right. As the Yale historian Samuel Moyn reminded us in a recent article, this is a mistake the religious right already committed, in Europe in the 1920s and 30s: hoping they could get more protection for religious values out of an alliance with secular authoritarianism than an alliance with liberal democracy.
The strategy quickly came back to bite them, as the likes of Mussolini and Hitler turned on their religious supporters in pursuit of their own political projects. Of course, we are not arguing that Trump is Hitler or Mussolini. Times have changed and secular authoritarianism has taken different forms. However, it is interesting to note that the way in which fascism and national socialism were finally defeated in Europe (not just militarily, but also politically) was through what Moyn calls an “epoch-making re-invention of conservatism” known as Christian democracy.
Perhaps it will be named differently and surely it will take different forms. However, it seems unlikely that the US will succeed in moving beyond the present political moment without a renewed form of political conservatism capable of liberating the religious right from its Faustian pact with secular authoritarianism.
• Carlo Invernizzi-Accetti is assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York. His book What is Christian Democracy? Politics, Religion and Ideology is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a lecturer in religious studies at Yale University and author of the forthcoming Columbia University Press title The Crisis of Secularism since 1989: A Global Perspective
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