Christian democracy in the 21st century

Senior International Analyst

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's annual speech at the Bálványos Summer University has long served as the most outspoken articulation of the Hungarian government’s political worldview. This year, he built his speech around a concept that has caused a major upheaval among the mainstream media and the Western political elite:

“The upcoming [European Parliament] elections are therefore of the utmost importance. In these elections we must demonstrate that there is an alternative to liberal democracy: it is called Christian democracy. And we must show that the liberal elite can be replaced with a Christian democratic elite...Christian democratic politics means that the ways of life springing from Christian culture must be protected. Our duty is not to defend the articles of faith, but the forms of being that have grown from them. These include human dignity, the family and the nation – because Christianity does not seek to attain universality through the abolition of nations, but through the preservation of nations.”

Last May, at his fourth inauguration as Prime Minister of Hungary, Orbán announced the “Building [of] 21st Century Christian Democracy” in Hungary. The notion of modern Christian democracy was mainly directed at the international political arena, not the domestic political field. Christian democracy as a political ideology is well understood in the German political sphere, and to this day Christian democrats are a symbol of the moral and economic recovery of West Germany following World War II. The political weight of the Western Christian Democratic parties became very significant after 1945 as they remained largely intact through the political and economic turmoil of the interwar period, and they contributed to the ideological renewal of the European continent.

Christian democracy as an ideology has its sources in the Holy Bible, the Papal encyclicals, Christian humanism and Protestant social ethics and philosophy. As a political movement, it is closely associated with Roman Catholicism and its philosophy of social and economic justice. It incorporates both traditional church and family values and modern values such as social welfare. It rejects the individualist worldview that underlies both political liberalism and laissez-faire economics, and it recognizes the need for the state to intervene in the economy to support communities and defend human dignity.

After World War II, a number of Christian democratic parties appeared in Europe, including the Italian Christian Democratic Party (later the Italian Popular Party), the French Popular Republican Movement, and the German Christian Democratic Union, which became the most successful. They offered a program of moderate reform inspired by Roman Catholic social teachings, representing the middle of the political spectrum. Christian democratic parties were a major political force during the Cold War and led coalition governments in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, and the Netherlands. It is worth emphasizing that the “Founding Fathers” of modern Europe were Catholics: the French Prime Minister and later Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, the Chancellor of West Germany Konrad Adenauer and Italian Prime Minister Alcide de Gasperi all were inspired by their faith to get involved in the debate about the future of Europe, and helped to shape a Europe built on Christian values.

While Christian democratic ideology and political parties had a significant impact on state and society during the second half of the 20th century, the end of the Cold War and the left-oriented social movements and political parties significantly weakened Christian democratic parties by the end of the twentieth century. Many parties have adopted over time a more “leftist” discourse, and have yielded to neoliberal politics which privilege progressive cultural policies over traditional conservative values. As a result, many sympathizers of the Christian-social tradition felt deserted, as did many truly value-oriented conservatives.

In his speech, Orbán stated that “Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal.” In Hungary, the term “liberal” is used to refer to what in much of Europe is known as “liberal-democratic” or “progressive”, and not to the classic liberalism of thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Hobbes or Charles de Montesquieu. The Hungarian PM contrasted liberal democracy, which has become a system and a way of looking at the world that undermines nations and traditions and leads to elitism, political correctness and rising social inequalities, with Christian democracy. In practice, the Orbán government gives priority to the Christian family model, the traditional institution of marriage and the strengthening of the role of the Church. Unlike the pro-immigration and multiculturalist liberal elites, the current government’s aim is to turn the demographic tide with a wide range of social policies promoting families that may be unprecedented in European history.

In the changing European political sphere, socially sensitive and conservative modern Christian democracy has deep roots and a great foothold in Central Europe. In next year’s European Parliament elections, the European People's Party should also consider returning to a successful Christian democratic platform.