Christan Democracy and the New Christian Left

by Elias Blum

Christian Democracy’ was a twentieth century ideological synthesis that sought to apply the policies of Catholic Social Teaching in matters of social and economic relations within the context of a liberal-democratic state. Just as Thomas Aquinas had sought to reconcile Christ with Aristotle, so Christian Democracy sought to reconcile Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the democratic constitutional form of government, and to present that package in an electorally attractive party platform.

Christian Democrats were the dominant (or a dominant) ideological stream in many European democracies in the twentieth century – including in Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Italy. Christian Democracy did at least as much as Social Democracy to create the welfare state, to bring about universal healthcare, to protect labour rights, and to restrain the abuses of capitalism in the centrist model of the ‘Social Market’ economy. In other words, although the party was just the political manifestation of a much broader social movement that included direct social action as well as political engagement, there was an explicitly Christian party, which sought to present and to implement a specific governing programme based on a Christian-inspired ideology.

In contrast, what might be called the ‘New Christian Left’ seems not to want to coalesce into one party or even one coherent movement. Rather than seeking the synthesis of a distinctly Christian ideology with a democratic mass movement (incarnated in the corruptible flesh of a Christian party), the New Christian Left seems to return to Abraham Kuyper’s antithesis – an inevitable and irreconcilable tension between Christian ideals and the realities of mundane existence. The political activism of the New Christian Left aims not to form a party that can win elections and govern, but to hold the light and mirror of gospel values up so that all parties and all governments, of whatever hue, can be seen in it and judged by it. It seeks less to hold power, and more to hold power to account. It doesn’t try to form a party, but tries to influence the agenda of all parties.

I wonder if the difference in approach and technique lies in the fact that Christian Democracy was largely a Roman Catholic phenomenon, whereas the New Christian Left is largely a product of post-evangelicalism, with its ideological and spiritual roots in the radical reformation. Christian Democrats were used to the idea of the Christian ethos and values being embodied in one large, centralised, power-wielding, politically influential institution.The New Christian Left folks are more used to the idea of church being ten people meeting in a living room with an open bible, a tray of homemade biscuits and slightly out of tune guitar. As such, they are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of binding themselves to an institution that will have to make difficult compromises. Moreover, they realise that they, as a group, are too small to accomplish much, but that each member of the group, as an individual, can be a witness to the light and a force for good in the context of different secular campaigns – so one joins Amnesty International, another Greenpeace, one works campaigning for debt relief with Jubilee, another works on nuclear disarmament with Trident Ploughshares – and yet all things work together for good.