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Christian Democracy or Illiberal Democracy?

In considering whether to expel the increasingly illiberal Fidesz party, the European People's Party must not allow Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to hold himself out as a representative of Christian Democracy. True Christian Democrats reject chauvinistic nationalism and have been indispensable to European integration.

PRINCETON – For years, a conflict has been brewing between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the European People’s Party, the supranational organization of Christian Democratic and center-right parties in European Union member states. After much hesitation, the EPP suspended Orbán’s party, Fidesz, last March, and is now deciding whether to expel it.

It has plenty of good reasons for doing so. Fidesz has not only dismantled democracy and the rule of law in Hungary, but also demonized the EU as a tyrannical institution that is supposedly robbing Europeans of their freedom. Since Fidesz’s suspension, Orbán has hit back by arguing that he alone is the real defender of Christian Democracy, and that his EPP critics are sellouts to liberalism. Orbán’s posturing has seduced conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic. But the image he is projecting is false advertising.

It would be a mistake to think that the Fidesz-EPP conflict is mainly about political principles; it is about power, plain and simple. Still, the question of who will claim the legacy of Christian Democracy matters a great deal to Europe. Historically, Christian Democracy has been the most important political force behind the project of European integration.

Yet, despite its enormous historical significance, Christian Democracy – its ideas and institutions – are not well understood. The ideology has no obvious founders or canonical thinkers, and, unlike liberalism, it lacks a conceptual anchor that distinguishes it clearly from other strands of political thought.

Christian Democracy was born in the nineteenth century as a means of reconciling Christianity – particularly Catholicism – with modern democracy. Its protagonists accepted French aristocrat (and Catholic) Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal insight that democracy was an unstoppable world-historical force. The question, then, was how to make it safe for religion.

One answer was through political parties committed to defending Christian (and, again, particularly Catholic) interests. But the creation of such parties did not signal a full acceptance of pluralist representative democracy. A religion that claims universal validity could not allow itself to become just another interest group among many. That is why, for a long time, the Vatican openly criticized Catholic politicians’ efforts to play the parliamentary game.

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But things changed after World War II. Christians who had trusted fascists to save them from godless communism had learned the hard way that allying with the forces of the extreme, anti-democratic right was a disastrous mistake. They would go on to embrace democracy and human rights wholeheartedly, as the Catholic Church eventually did at the Second Vatican Council in 1962.

During the Cold War, Christian Democrats came to be known as the quintessential anti-communists; but they also had an ambitious social agenda. In Germany, Italy, and elsewhere, they established welfare states designed to strengthen families and reward behavior informed by traditional values. It is not particularly surprising that some of these policies would qualify as “illiberal.” After all, some leading Christian Democratic thinkers remained explicitly opposed to liberalism, which they identified with secularism, materialism, and selfish individualism.

But, unlike today’s far-right populists such as Orbán and League party leader Matteo Salvini in Italy, these earlier Christian Democrats relentlessly criticized the idea of the nation-state, too. Owing to their religious perspective, they regarded nation- or state-based claims of sovereignty as a form of hubris. As Giorgio La Pira, one of the founders of Italian Christian Democracy, put it in 1945, the Catholic conception of society is “opposed to every nationalist, racial, or class-based conception of the political order.” Moreover, German and Italian Catholics still remembered how newly unified nation-states had oppressed religious minorities in the late nineteenth century.

Given this suspicion of nation-state sovereignty, it is no accident that Christian Democrats played a critical role in advancing European integration. They endorsed both pluralism and federalism for the sake of dispersing power across the continent, and they were instrumental in creating the European Convention on Human Rights, which was designed to provide a check on the power of nation-states. They saw society as a pluralistic community of communities (not least the family). And they understood that minority rights and civil society – including, of course, religious institutions – must be protected.

It is thus a travesty for today’s self-declared “national conservatives” and far-right populists to claim the mantle of Christian Democracy. Unlike true Christian Democrats, Orbán and other aspiring authoritarians pretend to be the only authentic representatives of a homogeneous people. In pursuit of power, they do not hesitate to reject pluralism and trample on minority rights. To their mind, notes the social scientist Olivier Roy, Christianity is purely about belonging to a tribe, not belief, let alone ethical conduct. As the Orbán-aligned bishop of Szeged put it, “In Europe, even an atheist is a ‘Christian.’” The concern is not with Christianity but with Christendom, understood as a civilization inherently hostile to Islam.

The sad, sordid truth is that Orbán and his ilk are trying to wage an EU-wide culture war because they have found this to be an effective way to distract domestic and international attention from the kleptocratic autocracies they have created. By portraying their critics as crazed progressives pushing for same-sex marriage and ever-more scurrilous forms of identity politics, they avoid any discussion of their cronyism, politicization of the judiciary, and stifling control of the media.

For its part, the EPP has, one hopes, finally understood that “protecting the family” hardly matters if it means giving a regime a license to destroy democracy. Whether one cares about the fate of Christian Democracy in particular, or about democracy in general, it is important to call Orbán and his confederates what they are: exponents of a far-right politics that has never cared about Christianity or democracy.

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