The Peril, and Possibilities, of Christian Political Parties

Lessons from nineteenth-century Christians on political catechesis.

August 30 th 2018

A Partisan Review

Ludwig Windthorst found himself in quite the pickle. It was 1887, and as the leader of Germany’s Catholic Center Party, Windthorst had spent the last number of years battling Chancellor Bismarck’s culture war—the original kulturkampf—designed to bring Germany’s Catholics to heel by putting their bishops, priests, and social organizations under the thumb of the state. Windthorst and his party had at least partially frustrated the Iron Chancellor’s schemes through a mixture of electioneering, rhetorical wizardry, and parliamentary manoeuvres as they sought to both represent Germany’s Catholics and defend the church’s institutions. In the midst of negotiations with the Vatican, Bismarck played what he quite likely thought was a death blow to the party. He leaked a letter that Pope Leo XIII had written to Windthorst and other party leaders in which the Vatican insisted that they vote for Bismarck’s militarist budget in response for some promised easing of the kulturkampf’s most onerous measures. It was a brilliant move, truth be told. If the party followed the pope’s instructions and relented in this particular budget fight, they would be acting directly against the material interests of the great bulk of their supporters. They might limp along as a collection of Catholic representatives, but their days as a mass political party would likely be over. Alternatively, if they refused the pope’s instructions, they would be disobeying the pope, hardly the thing for a group of staunchly faithful Catholics to be doing.

Even to the degree that liberalism does aspire to be as totalizing and comprehensive as the integralists suggest, it is implausible to suppose that it can ever actually do so.

Strange as it may sound, Bismarck (and the Vatican insiders who had leaked the letter to him) had rather brilliantly exposed the Center’s weak spot, namely, its identity as a distinctively Catholic political party, caught betwixt the demands of participating in the ordinary, sometimes grubby arena of electoral and parliamentary politics and the obligations attendant to belonging to a distinct community of religious believers. In this, the party was not alone. The Center was just one of a number of religious parties (and party-like movements) that emerged in places like Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and elsewhere in the latter part of the nineteenth century as Christians grappled with rapid social, economic, and political change. They all had to find new ways to think about how to engage their liberalizing and democratizing political orders in ways that remained faithful to their confessions and communities and also politically effective in giving voice to those confessions and communities. Their successes, failures, and—maybe most importantly—their intractable dilemmas might be of real use to us, who perhaps similarly find ourselves grappling with our own rapid social, economic, and political change and also perhaps need to think anew about what it means to engage faithfully and productively.

In this, at least, Windthorst’s dilemma is our dilemma; and if we are to discover anew what it might mean to have our politics marked by integrity and coherence, we could do worse than repairing to these parties’ histories. They will not by any means answer all of our questions. Indeed, what these histories suggest is that while our participation in the world of politics can and should be of a piece with the rest of our confessional and community lives, there are always tensions, limits, even tragic compromises inherent to that world. Politics is always and everywhere the art of “muddling through,” and while we should (especially these days) look to do it better, even the most faithful and wise efforts will all too often come up short. It is tempting on that account to withdraw and eschew the world of politics or perhaps deny politics’ limits and contradictions in the service of a cleaner, more cohesive and consistent Christian life. But we need not, for we can do politics as Christians and help secure, so far as is possible, space within which we—and others—can live lives of peaceable faithfulness. But we can only do so if we are properly formed, or catechized, both in our lives as members of the church and as Christian citizens participating in a state in which pluralism is inescapable.

Politics Is Always Incoherent

Liberal democratic political orders are marked by a number of features: the protection of individual liberties, constitutionalism, market economies, and so on. Seemingly inherent to those orders as well is the growth and protection of social, religious, moral, and political pluralism. This means at least a couple of things. First, in liberal democratic societies, we will always run up against people whose way of life or fundamental beliefs are different, odd, or even noxious to us. And, second, it is extremely unlikely—near impossible, really—that we can ever win enough political or legal battles to make that social and political order reflect the full truth of things as we see them. Pluralism is, it seems, our permanent condition short of the eschaton, and no political strategy or configuration will plausibly make things otherwise.

For many, perhaps most, this can be at times a rather discomfiting position to find ourselves in. This is perhaps especially true if you believe, as many Christians in the United States seemingly do, that this wide pluralism—and its political correlatives—represents a profound threat to the nature of the political order and the possibility of living their lives as they see fit, a threat to be redressed via sometimes rather strident political rhetoric and action. For many Christians in nineteenth-century Europe, bewildering might be a better word to describe how they perceived their situation. Urbanization, industrialization, secularization, and the rise of explicitly anti-Christian intellectual and social movements left them feeling both bewildered and threatened. And it wasn’t just a feeling. Bismarck’s kulturkampf was but the most extreme example of a more general phenomena. All across Europe, ascendant elites, committed to the construction of liberal, nationalist orders, were employing their increasingly powerful states to reshape their citizens, perhaps most crucially their citizens’ religious identities. The particulars, of course, differed from country to country, but the theme was pretty consistent: obscurantist and retrograde religious beliefs divided citizens, impeded progress, and (in the case of Roman Catholics) betrayed political loyalties beyond the state (and nation). If the nation—and, of course, the state—was to succeed, those beliefs had to go. It was, as one observer put it, a battle between “miracles and ecstasy [and] Kant with a cudgel.”

We might think it surprising that these liberal nationalists would, in some ways, be so illiberal. But we probably shouldn’t be either surprised or unsympathetic. Liberal political orders are not that different from their competitors in at least this respect: pluralist social orders are really quite challenging, both personally and politically. It can be hard to live with or even be around people whose life choices or core beliefs you find distasteful or even morally offensive. It’s no surprise, then, that some affluent societies have become increasingly “sorted” not just according to class but perhaps more importantly according to moral and religious commitments. Who wants to live near people you think are terrible? It can be hard as well to hold a political community together, never mind have it flourish, when its citizens disagree deeply about matters trivial and profound. Even things as relatively innocuous as public holidays can become points of significant contention, never mind more substantive disputes around, say, the definition of marriage or school curricula. Liberalism is ostensibly disposed to protecting a wider range of pluralisms, but liberals of all sorts should acknowledge that it is difficult, perhaps near impossible, to not desire and even sometimes work toward a flattening out society’s “irregularities.” Pluralism is for almost everyone, I think, an ideal circumscribed by a more or less limited sense of what gets described as “reasonable” or “normal” or “natural” or some other phrase that in practice just functions as a way to point out those who need to be reined in or even reshaped as necessary.

Of course what makes this surprising is that liberalism claims for itself the mantle of doing something quite different. Namely, it promises to accommodate, protect, even at times promote pluralism. It is, on its own account, the tradition of freedom and toleration. Certainly the tradition of Locke, Kant, and Mill can broadly claim to be more tolerant and protective of individual freedoms than its competitors. But of late what seems like an increasingly prominent and influential set of critics have rather pointedly argued otherwise, suggesting liberalism’s toleration is at least in part a facade, and that it, like most every political tradition, has ambitions to remake society according to its own designs. For writers like political theorist Patrick Deneen, law professor Adrian Vermeule, and the like, the problem is not, as some previous generations of critics had alleged, that liberalism was wishy-washy and unwilling to take its own side in a fight, or even that liberalism misunderstood itself and could be reminded of its own limits or internal capaciousness. Rather, these contemporary integralist critics suggest that it is all too committed to enforcing a particular view of the human good, one centered on individuality and autonomy, and it is all too willing to enforce that view on us all, moral and religious objections notwithstanding. On these thinkers’ view, the difficulties Christians have begun to feel more acutely of late are not merely the almost natural result of living in a more pluralistic society or even the result of losing political and social power, but rather because they are faced with a state and political culture committed to making it difficult for Christians to practice their faith with any integrity at all. Liberalism is willing to countenance a wide range of human lives just so long as they square with the ideal of an autonomous subject, and if certain religious or moral traditions run afoul of that ideal, well so much the worse for them.

This contemporary integralist critique and correlative response represent something of a resuscitation of how some of Europe’s Christians reacted to the changes in the nineteenth century. For these earlier integralists, the problem was largely modernity itself, and the only solution was to look for a retrenchment of the ancien régime. Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors perhaps most famously exemplifies this approach, but it had its adherents elsewhere in Europe as well. We should acknowledge that this line of critique and response has its virtues. It’s right in pointing out how there are indeed strains of liberalism that do in fact want the whole of human life remade according to some highly individualistic, autonomous model of human flourishing. The point of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, to take one example, is not so much to defend free expression or limits on social or political power (though of course it does do both those things) but to commend “individuality” as the best human life and to condemn those whose “ape-like” views would tell against that vision. In our own day, some liberals’ enthusiasm for their own values inclines them to use the power of the state to marginalize, reform, or simply try and destroy institutions or associations that do not match up with those values. But are we overestimating both liberalism’s practical and theoretical comprehensiveness?

Our contemporary integralists—and some of our more ambitious liberals as well—sometimes ascribe to modern liberalism a completeness that, on closer examination, doesn’t quite hold up. It’s true, of course, that liberal orders look to encourage and protect individuals and their diverse ways of life more than other social and political orders, but there is no reason to think that there is some kind of “iron law” of liberalism, either historical or philosophical, that is bound to remake all our social institutions according to some radically individualist model. Jacob Levy has of late, in his excellent Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, reminded us of the persistent strain within liberalism that refuses just that sort of reductionism and, indeed, persistently recognizes the importance of distinctively non-liberal institutions and practices. Decent and free societies need not aim at a comprehensive and totalizing individualistic reconstruction. And even to the degree that liberalism does aspire to be as totalizing and comprehensive as the integralists suggest, it is implausible to suppose that it can ever actually do so. As Deneen himself has (quite rightly) pointed out, in no way could we ever actually inhabit the radical individualism of, say, a Lockean state of nature, nor would we actually even want to try.

But of course that doesn’t mean there isn’t something distinctive about living in a liberal society—and to the degree that the contemporary integralist critique reminds us how such an order should be an uncomfortable fit for Christians, to put things mildly, we all ought to listen carefully. Christians ought to be uncomfortable with the liberal conception of the person, with the inattention we give to place, with the marginalization of natural forms of family and community, and with the way Hobbes’s putatively non-teleological “commodious living” seems to act as our own society’s telos. We need not think of the liberal political order as our enemy, but we also need not think of it as the manifestation of Christian political reflection either.

These Christian political parties were democratic political expressions created by citizens catechetically formed within the church and its associated community.

The Need for Political Catechesis

And so Christians who live in liberal orders like ours have the sometimes difficult task of parsing out just how we might negotiate our way forward in a social world that is neither simply incompatible with our commitments nor simply reflective of them. Windthorst and the other architects of Europe’s nineteenth-century Christian parties help us see something of a different, and possibly better, way forward than our current choices. Though there were certainly new philosophical and theological ideas in the air, the parties emerged mostly as a practical response to the pressures brought to bear by their respective newly ascendant—and mostly secularized—elites. The parties were but a part of a broader effort to construct distinctive subcultures organized around common religious identities that included churches, devotional associations, trade unions, youth leagues, newspapers, and the like. The idea was, as both Catholics and Calvinists argued, to give effect to the idea that the dogmatics of the faith mattered to all the parts of their increasingly complex modern societies.

This view was of a piece with its earlier nineteenth-century integralist forebears. They both rejected the modernist conceit that the faith had to be reconstructed top to bottom on account of “science” or “reason” or whatever other totem liberalized Christians had occasion to elevate. And they both affirmed the notion that individuals left to fend for themselves in a society bent toward “disenchantment” would not flourish in the faith—and likely much worse. For in a world where what one confessed as faith became irrelevant to business, politics, and leisure—the “differentiation” of society—it seemed reasonable to suppose that the faith would eventually become irrelevant entirely. Christian formation—or catechesis—does not come about just on account of correct doctrine or good instruction but also, and maybe more importantly, through the ordinary, daily instruction that happens through our participation in families, neighbourhoods, associations, and, yes, politics.

These parties’ efforts were distinct from those of their forebears, though, precisely in that while these Christians were profoundly committed to organizing all the aspects of their lives in light of their faith confession, the line from that confession to social and political action was neither quite so direct nor quite so suspicious of the newly developing forms of politics, economics, and the like. These Christian political parties were democratic political expressions created by citizens catechetically formed within the church and its associated community. Perhaps it is the case—and no doubt some of our contemporary integralists think it is the case—that they were merely accommodating themselves to their relative social and political powerlessness. But insofar as it’s right to say that Christians are bound to regard most any set of social and political institutions as at least partially uncomfortable, we might also see nonetheless how even a partially positive engagement with those forms can help discern better how we ought to think and act in relation to them. These parties took seriously the idea not only that political efforts ought to reflect and be integrally tied to one’s confessional and community commitments but also that such ties are inevitably accommodating of the limits imposed both by the extant pluralism and political structures. We should do likewise.

Politically, these new integralists relied on the parties both to represent their material interests and to press the broader political order to reflect their distinctive politico-theological approach without demanding—as the price of participation—that the order itself simply reflect that approach without remainder. Belgium’s Catholic Party emerged, like others, in response to liberal efforts to secularize education in the 1870s. The party won a majority in the 1884 elections and reversed a number of the offending educational initiatives, but they refused to upend Belgium’s liberal constitution, even though it was, in Leo XII’s words, a “hypothesis” as over against the “thesis” of a confessional state. Similarly, while both the Center Party and the Netherlands’ Anti-Revolutionary Party pushed hard—and succeeded in doing so—to make their respective political orders more accommodating and in their view more just, they were committed, as it were, to their own limits.

C.S. Lewis once wrote an essay on the third commandment wherein he suggested that the idea of a Christian political party was an impossibility precisely because of the incommensurability of just this kind of position. And, indeed, when Windthorst responded to Leo XIII’s leaked letter, he suggested that while of course the pope was supreme in matters of faith, in “secular” matters—which he left largely undefined but obviously covered some aspects of politics—there was more room for disagreement. That is, what it meant to be a faithful Catholic in politics was different from, though not unconnected to, what it meant to be a faithful Catholic in the church proper.

Committed to Muddling Along

This artful muddle—and it was something of a muddle theologically and philosophically—helps illuminate what might be most helpful to us today about these  new integralists’ experiences. They were successful both politically and morally when they were embedded in networks of like-minded Christians committed to a common confession and bringing that confession to bear across the full range of social, economic, and political life. But what kept those networks and their political engagement viable was their recognition that bringing that confession to bear inevitably involved difficult and contentious discernment—rooted in both moral-theological reflection and practical experience—on how to apply the implications of those confessions prudently with a clear eye toward their more practical consequences. That is, they succeeded, such as they did, by holding in tension the very sort of thing Lewis said was impossible, by being both Christian (in faithfully attempting to think and act in accordance with their confessional commitments) and political (in being willing to be part of a constitutional order that was always less than ideal).

It perhaps goes without saying that doing this well was (and is) quite difficult, and these parties made all sorts of mistakes, some politically rather catastrophic. But in a weird way that’s sort of the point. If liberalism is not as comprehensive as it purports to be, and if a serious and faithful Christian political engagement within the liberal order is at least possible, we shouldn’t then expect that such an engagement could be relatively seamless or as cohesive as we might expect. Figuring just when to stand fast on moral principle and when to compromise, whom to include in your networks, whom to cooperate with, and whom to oppose are all difficult, disputable, prudential questions that can really only be worked out in the midst of that engagement. More importantly, it is only in the midst of that sort of organized engagement that we can come to grasp reasonably well just how to negotiate this conundrum for ourselves. That is, only by constructing and participating in networks of associational, civic, and political organizations bound together by common confessions can we come to understand and be formed by that understanding of what it means to be faithful Christians in our own time and place.

We, like our forebears, face philosophical, political, and legal forces deeply suspicious of traditional Christian teachings, and we shouldn’t be surprised that discerning how to respond is difficult and contentious. We inhabit a Christianity that is far more divided confessionally than Catholics or Dutch Calvinists ever were, and we inhabit a society in which individuality in all its forms is all that much more powerful. So building common confessional, associational, economic, and political communities will be that much more challenging, if not well-nigh impossible. We shouldn’t expect a rerun of Germany’s Center Party or its contemporary equivalents. But if we are to be faithful in our politics, both in the sense of bringing our commitments to bear fully and with real integrity and in the sense of recognizing those efforts’ inevitable limits, we should be willing to join with one another in common projects of political engagement. In an era where it feels as though the shine has come off of liberalism’s more audacious and ambitious claims, there is, perhaps ironically, more of an opening to forging efforts appropriate to our own time than we might imagine. If only we have the faith and courage to try.


Bryan T. McGraw is chair and an Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL. He earned his Ph.D. in political science at Harvard University and has taught at the University of Georgia, Notre Dame University, and Pepperdine University.  His first book, Faith in Politics: Religion and Liberal Democracy, was published in 2010 by Cambridge University Press.  He is the co-editor of Natural Law and Evangelical Political Thought and has published work in Perspectives on Political Science, Critical Review of Social and Political Philosophy, Political Studies, and several other places. His research interests focus on the intersection between religion and liberal political thought, Christian political thought, just war theory, and other topics too many and varied to be healthy.  He teaches regularly classes on classical and medieval political thought, modern political thought, church and state, political ethics, and film and political theory.  His wife, Martha, is a neurologist at Central DuPage Hospital and they have three children.