09 April 2018

No, Christian democracy can’t save America

A CiF op-ed has been going around of late, that has been promoting Christian democracy as a possible antidote to America’s political-cultural woes under Trumpism. Sadly, though I can’t help but admire the intentions of the authors, I fear that their thesis is deeply naïve. Our cultural problems are far too deeply-ingrained for a political import of debased specie like that of Western European Christian democracy to have any salutary effect.

The following may seem an odd topic to broach for Bright Week – and certainly the tone of what will follow will be drastically out of keeping with the otherworldly joy of the season. For that I can only offer my sincere and contrite apologies, which I do now: I am indeed sorry. But I was put in mind of this by the Gospel reading today: the ‘short ending’ of the Gospel of Mark, upon which Ched Myers placed such literary-political importance. The direction of the young man in the white robe to the myrrh-bearing women was to tell the disciples where Jesus was going: ‘before you into Galilee’. Back to the source, in other words: to the beginning of the Gospel. In short, the women were commanded to gather up all the disciples – who had fled, who had denied Christ, who had gone to their own homes in fear of the authorities – and tell them this strange and unearthly commandment ad fontes, which left them ‘alarmed’, ‘amazed’, ‘afraid’ and literally speechless.

Another thing: I am reminded, in an odd way, of the anonymous French editorialist writing for the newspaper La Liberté in 1932, who wagged famously that ‘Americans are the only race which passed directly from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilisation’. Though I would argue that the French of that era are probably the very last people fit to lecture others on the topics of barbarism, decadence or civilisation, when it comes to us Americans, this particular Frenchman might have a point.

Not coincidentally, France of that same interwar period was also the home to a number of thinkers and activists of disparate strands (Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier, Simone Weil, Gilbert Dru, Stephen Borne, and also a few of the philosophical Russian émigrés like Nikolai Berdyaev, Mother St Maria of Paris and her collaborator, the saintly revolutionary Il’ya Bunakov), whose ideas would gradually coalesce, after the Second World War, into the theory that would come to be called ‘Christian democracy’. To be sure, the ideas that would inform Christian democracy had been kicking around Europe since the French Revolution – but the impetus that would fashion an intellectual and social movement out of them came out of the high-pressure intellectual crucible of Western Europe between the wars, where communism and fascism fought tooth-and-nail for the soul of the West.

It is necessary to note that the movement for Christian democracy – based in France, but effective also in the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, West Germany – was a revolutionary movement. It did not only militate against communism and fascism. It was also anti-capitalist. It saw the same dehumanisation at work within private corporations, that it did within mass-movement political ideologies of the extreme left and right. It therefore rejected homo œconomicus. It favoured equal political and œconomic rights for men and women. (That’s another thing: it had none of the squeamishness the modern right has over the topic of ‘œconomic rights’!) It sought to refashion society along lines suggested by, in the words of Swiss Christian-democratic œconomist Wilhelm Röpke, the ‘natural solidarity of small groups’, first among which was the natural nuclear family.

There was, for one brief moment in the human, physical and intellectual wasteland of the Second World War (on which topic, gentle readers, please do yourselves a solid favour and refer to the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr), a brilliantly-flickering spark of the civilised. This movement fashioned by Mounier and Borne truly did hold out for a humane third option, for a very brief time. But the Christian democratic movement turned out to be better at contending with the dying ‘ideologies of the extremes’ than they were at resisting the golden straitjacket of American finance capital and the neoliberal ideology that came with it. Whatever the other (and considerable) benefits of the Marshall Plan were, one side effect was the strengthening of links between European states and transatlantic multinational corporations. Political formations in the affected nations could either bankroll themselves with the funds of these ‘rebuilt’ (but heavily-dependent) industries, or they could find themselves relegated to oblivion.

Long story short: the Christian democracy of Western Europe lost its soul this way. They adapted themselves to postwar political landscape, both by becoming less politically radical and less insistent on the integrity of the family. Both transformations were meant to render them harmless and tame in the eyes of a transatlantic capitalist structure that had been wizarded back into being by American ‘aid’. Instead of being a righteous protest against the dehumanisation of mass politics, the Christian democratic movements morphed into mass parties of the centre-right themselves. I’ve used this quote from ‘third way’ theorist and author Allan Carlson on this topic before, but I will use it again here:
As early as the 1950s, Christian democracy as a vital worldview entered another period of crisis. The youthful excitement, energy and sense of positive Christian revolution evident in the 1940s dissipated… In Italy and West Germany, Christian democratic parties consolidated their hold on power at the price of their vision. By the early 1960s, they were increasingly pragmatic and bureaucratic, self-satisfied defenders of the status quo. Ambitious office-seekers, rather than Christian idealists, came to dominate the parties. Movements for ‘moral and spiritual renewal’ became simply mass parties of the right-of-centre. When a new ‘crisis of values’ hit Europe with particular force in the 1960s, the Christian democrats were unprepared to respond. They appeared by then to be old and discredited guardians of a new kind of materialism, the very opposite of what the movement’s visionaries had intended.
How else, indeed, are we to explain the sadism (there is truly no other word for it) with which the Christian democrats of Western Europe have treated the indebted, and increasingly unemployed, drug-addicted and suicidal, Greeks? How else are we to explain their idiotic insistence on austerity policies that beggar the poor and struggling in their own backyards? How else to explain their general indifference to the dissolution of the family in European countries, particularly those most deeply afflicted by debt and unemployment? How else to explain their craven, supine capitulation to a war agenda that has destroyed – in succession – Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Yemen and Syria, and condemned some of the world’s poorest people to slavery, starvation and cholera?

Consider every single one of the principles that Invernizzi-Accetti and Steinmetz-Jenkins cite in their op-ed – the principles of Mounier and Borne: anti-capitalism; radical insistence on the family; solidarity with ‘less fortunate’ peoples and countries. Consider how deeply and how thoroughly the European centre-right parties bearing the banner of ‘Christian democracy’, and the self-interested politicos and bureaucrats who run them, have betrayed each and every one of those principles! Make no mistake: far-right ‘populist’ parties like Lega Nord, Front National and Alternative für Deutschland are every bit as horrible as advertised, and old-school European conservatives should be the first ones to say so. But it’s difficult to escape the conclusion, once one accounts for the contempt and instrumental manoeuvres with which the ‘Christian democrats’ in their respective countries have treated the poor and oppressed these past five decades, that they amount to a divine judgement upon Europe’s ‘good Christians’.

Back to that old saw from La Liberté I mentioned earlier, though. Allan Carlson himself said that ‘there has never been a serious Christian democratic party in America’, and, sad to say, he’s still right. I was a supporter, for a brief time, of the only party in the United States to attempt to lay hold of the Christian democratic mantle. I resigned both my state post and my membership in December of last year. The inter-party divisions that tore through the party last year resulted in a number of resignations from the socially-conservative ‘right’, but I may hold the dubious distinction of being one of the few people who has left the party because it was leaning too far to the right on œconomics. Why is this? Long story short: I watched, in real time, as the very same mutation that destroyed the soul of the European ‘Christian democrats’ took hold of the party leadership here, with similar effects… but without the excuse that significant material or electoral gains were at stake.

The divisions within the party, tellingly, are a microcosm of the divisions now regnant within American society as a whole. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but here are the broad strokes. Each ‘faction’ can lay claim to some of the vision of Mounier and Borne, Weil and Berdyaev, but clearly not all of it. The party leadership, which is overwhelmingly based in the Acela corridor, is noticeably more ‘liberal’ on cultural and pelvic issues (inclusive of homosexuals and transgender; eager to claim continuity with the civil rights movement; mistrustful of countercultural or ‘crunchy’ tendencies), while also being sneeringly dismissive of anything stronger than a casual critique of capitalism. On the other hand, the functionaries of the state parties in middle America tend, on the whole, to be less liberal on the pelvic issues, and more open to ‘populist’ critiques of American capitalism (but also more nationalistic in a Jacksonian sense). Regardless of which side carries the day, the result will be a shadow movement to one of the major parties.

And here it should become plain why the ‘Christian democracy’ of Invernizzi-Accetti and Steinmetz-Jenkins can’t really help us, any more than the insipid psychobabble of Žižek can. The ease with which Invernizzi-Accetti and Steinmetz-Jenkins can, with such a stunning lack of historical irony or self-awareness, indict the ‘Faustian pact’ that Christians have made with sæcular authoritarianism in America while overlooking entirely the similarly Faustian bargain ‘Christian democracy’ made with transatlantic capitalism in postwar Europe, shows that they don’t even know who they are. (How dare you presume to help us? You can’t even help yourselves.) The conditions within which Christianity and democracy could be taken seriously in Europe – when the atrocities of fascism and total war had stunned us all into a state of self-awareness at the horrors we had wrought, rendered intelligible the ‘death of God’ and opened a window for a social call to repentance – didn’t obtain for very long. And here, well – did our transition between barbarism and decadence ever last long enough for those conditions to have obtained at all?

Having posed the problem as starkly as I have, though, I think it only fair to point out that many of the early advocates, particularly the Russian-French ones, of ideas that went into the Christian-democratic project diverged onto their own paths. They weren’t necessarily wrong in doing so. Through their dramatic spiritual transformations and their shared martyrific witness against fascism, Mother Maria and Saint Ilya never truly forsook their (pardon the expression) agrarian socialist roots. Berdyaev, for all his Solovyov-influenced doubts, shows through his later works that he was an anarchist to the end.

Confronted with the empty tomb, with the fearsome rupture of reality that the Resurrection had wrought, once we are shown the empty tomb and the defeat of death we are then tasked with going back to Galilee: as Myers would have it, back to the beginning of the Gospel. It should be obvious by now that I’m no myrrh-bearer. I’m not a good democrat. I’m not a good socialist. I’m not even a good Christian, Orthodox or otherwise. I’m also not interested in condemning the people of good will who are, understandably, drawn to the ideals of Mounier and Borne, of Christian democracy. But I will continue to insist as I have done, that for Christianity or democracy to be taken seriously, a more radical leaven (or perhaps a more reactionary one), one for which the Resurrection remains reality, is needed. I would not be surprised, were that to be a leaven which no single coherent ideological label can adequately describe.


  1. While in saying this, I am simplifying radically, I am doing so purposefully, cognizant of the vast bloodshed that that American-led postwar liberal internationalist order has perpetrated, from the open veins of Latin America to the irradiated deserts of the Middle East - probably between 20-30 million since WWII, and between 3 and 5 since 2001: any political movement, of any character, of any ideological valence, anywhere in the world, which makes any compromise, alliance with, or allegiance to, the American Empire, is either already corrupted or will be corrupted in time by that association. Contemporary case in point: the Kurds, so desperate for independence, or even regional autonomy, that they allied with the US, Israel, and the Gulfies, and - yes - fought ISIS quite valiantly, but ultimately took territory that was never Kurdish, and antagonized - and were being used to antagonize - most of their neighbours.

    Whatever one might say about any power with which the US has grievances, about any faction which in a given theater opposes a faction backed by the US, everything and everyone touched by the Empire has communicated to it/them some of the Empire's corruption, malice, treachery, and vileness. This is not altered in the slightest by the fact that the US readily - with alacrity, even - betrays its allies and associates whenever such betrayal becomes advantageous.

    I am far from being a good Christian. My political thought, whatever ambitions I might once have had towards a systematic articulation, is anything but. Of this one thing I am confident, though: that the American-led liberal internationalist order, the Washington Consensus, the End of History - whatever one chooses to call it - ought to be rejected as a totality. If that means that I will forever lack a comprehensively articulated alternative, so be it: better no answer than any corrupting complicity with this rough beast that, from its foundation in 1945, has done nothing but shed innocent blood and practice every form of depredation and rapine, forever working the lusts of the father of lies.

    - Jeff Martin

  2. Wish there opportunity to sit and hear you at length on (as I gather) putting these doubts somewhat aside and becoming active in the ASP, as far as endurance allowed you — seeing that something like the possibility of a conservative turn like the Guardian writers call for there is precisely what the ASP appears to aim at fostering.

    Hadn’t seen the Guardian thing before reading you here, interestingly. Very much with you in reaction to it, I think, and appreciate your giving it a fairly thorough response (I mean, for a popular paper op-ed). But I believe what I’d like to hold on to in it is just the idea that so many Americans who regard themselves with perfect sincerity as Christians concerned for public good — the kind of people I come from — need showing, as a basic step, that coherent alternatives sans market-libertarian-absolutist conclusions aren’t merely hypotheses but developed, working multi-generation projects in societies not much removed from our own, and need not be ignored just because, e.g., ‘This is America, we’re different.’ Terrible to think that we need such a first step, yes. But we really do.