[From the March/April, 2020 issue of Touchstone; reproduced here with permission. – Ed.]
As the catastrophic Second World War drew to a close in 1945, Christian politicians looked for ways to rebuild Western Christian civilization on the material and moral ruins of Europe. Except for Great Britain, Switzerland, and Sweden, all of the West and Central European states had been ruled by fascist or Nazi governments or conquerors during the prior ten years. Sometimes by election, sometimes by military defeat, democracy had been repudiated. So, too, had the economic regime of classical liberalism resting on notions of contracts and unfettered competition, which had contributed to the disorders of the early twentieth century. And now, the Red Army was pouring into Eastern Europe—and perhaps beyond.
How might things be put back together? How might the extreme inequalities, recurrent depressions, and social disruptions seemingly inherent to liberal capitalism be tempered? How might the retreat from marriage and rapidly falling fertility be countered? How might democracy be rebuilt within a compelling moral framework?
An answer would be found in Christian Democracy. Its origins reached back, among Roman Catholics, to the Center Party of old Germany, launched in 1858. Under the influence of Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, the bishop of Mainz, this vision of social Catholicism rejected a “capitalist absolutism” that threatened family life. It endorsed Christian labor associations that would shorten work days, deliver family-sustaining wages to fathers, and prohibit the labor of mothers and children in factories and mines. Such ideas would help to frame the great Catholic social encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno.
Among Protestants, similar goals animated the Anti-Revolutionary Party of the Netherlands, founded by Reformed pastor Abraham Kuyper in 1879. The group’s name reflected a fierce opposition to what Kuyper called the “anti-Christian world power” of the French Revolution and its curious spawn: both socialism and atomistic capitalism, which shared a hostility toward Christian family life. Accordingly, like the Roman Catholics, these Dutch Protestants emphasized the protection of Christian marriages and homes from the anti-family incentives inherent in both forms of industrialism. For example, in a diatribe from exactly 150 years ago, Pastor Kuyper denounced the “gigantic merchants,” the Walmarts or Amazon.coms of his day:
[In the industrial order] no longer should each baby drink warm milk from the breast of its own mother; we should have some tepid mixture prepared for all babies collectively. No longer should each child have a place to play at home by its mother; all should go to a common nursery school.
Coming closer to our time: during the early 1940s, Christian Democratic writers such as Emmanuel Mour-nier, Etienne Gilson, and Etienne Bourne found new language to energize a radical Christian party to battle the inequalities and corruptions infecting modern European life, a “hard” party, a party worthy of Christ. They denounced Communism for its materialism, its collectivization of all property, and its hostility toward revealed religion. They also rejected the atomism of “bourgeois liberalism” for its “indifference toward basic institutions such as the family.” Writing in Switzerland, economist Wilhelm Roepke urged that a rebuilt Europe should rest on “the natural solidarity of small groups, above all, the family.”
And so it happened . . . for about twenty years. Christian Democratic parties came to power in France, the Netherlands, Italy, and West Germany. These governments laid out the spiritual and political conditions that enabled a rapid, indeed, almost miraculous, economic recovery in Europe. They also shaped welfare states that were broadly supportive of traditional families—ones with fathers earning a “family wage,” mothers able to be at home full-time, and a relative abundance of children. Favored policies included child allowances, tax breaks for married couples, subsidies for family housing, and the mandatory training of schoolchildren in home economics: for the girls, sewing, cooking, and childcare; for the boys, carpentry, metal work, and simple mechanics. And after 70 years of steady fertility decline, Western European nations had marriage-booms and baby-booms of their own.
Western Entropy, Eastern Energy
So, what happened? Why did the Christian Democratic vision falter after 1965? In secular language: moral entropy. In Christian terms: original sin. The youthful energy and sense of positive Christian policy activism—dominant in the 1940s and 1950s—dissipated. Recent achievements, resting on religious belief and discipline, were taken for granted. Corruption crept in, most notably in Italy. By the late 1960s, the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe were—at best—pragmatic, bureaucratic, self-satisfied defenders of the status quo. They might have found ways to convey the excitement and heroism of their project to the next generation, but did not.
Principled Christian criticisms of the excesses of atomistic liberalism and capitalism disappeared. So when a new crisis of values hit the European lands in the late 1960s—often called there “The Spirit of ’68″—the Christian Democrats were stodgy, having become the prematurely old and discredited guardians of a new materialism. As a surging sexual-left then challenged the Christian family, the Christian Democratic parties caved in—first on contraception, then on abortion, and finally on marriage itself. By the key year 2000, the so-called “Swedish model” had come to dominate the social policies of the European Union: the full deconstruction of marriage; the criminalization of the “family wage” principle; state-financed attacks on one-flesh unions and natural human fertility; and the indoctrination of children into a new sexual paganism. Family dissolution and fertility decline returned—with a vengeance.
However, as Christian Democracy in Western Europe lost its focus and its motivating faith, it would find new energy in the East, among the nations that had shaken off the Communist tyranny in 1989–1991. At first, liberal parties did especially well in their elections, as Eastern Europeans yearned to obtain the liberties long denied them. Within a few years, though, they learned that the liberalism they had just imported from the West was not one of tolerance, harmony, and moral order. Instead, it was the twisted version derived from the sexual revolution of the late 1960s: the liberalism of hedonism and self-actualization. It had quickly produced devastating effects on family life: soaring divorce rates; tumbling marriage rates; and record low fertility.
So East Europeans eventually turned to Christian Democracy for policy responses—in a harder version, though, one conditioned by sustained conflict with the partisans of the sexual revolution, both regionally and globally. Accordingly, the focus this time has been much more directly on the family. For example, Christian Democratic parliamentarians from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia met in 2005 and issued their “Family First Declaration,” pledging:
We will coordinate our efforts on behalf of the natural family, marriage, and the intrinsic value of each human life so that the future Europe is not associated any longer with the culture of death, institutionalized egoism, and population decline, but with the preservation of religious, ethical, and cultural values that enhance virtuous life.
Fidesz in Hungary
The most successful of these political movements, though, have not used the “Christian Democratic” label, partly, it seems, to avoid confusion with the compromised parties of the West. In Hungary, for example, the Christian, pro-family party is called Fidesz. Led by Viktor Orbán, a convert to Calvinism, this party has advanced a Christian family policy, designed to support more and earlier marriages and to enable a rise in the nation’s birthrate. With this vision front and center, Fidesz won huge electoral victories in 2010, 2014, and again in 2018, including constitutional supermajorities. The party has since turned Hungary and the European Union upside down—to the consternation of the moral and sexual revolutionaries in Brussels.
Indeed, in a recent speech, one of Orbán’s colleagues—Katalin Novak, Minister for State for Family and Youth—opened with a PowerPoint image showing the then-current prime ministers of Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Sweden. They shared one trait: all were without children. She then showed an image of the ministers (or cabinet members) serving in Hungary’s current Fidesz government: all were married and all had children, an average of over three. She concluded: “This is the principle difference between Hungary and the rest of the European Union.”
Orbán is commonly denounced in the Western media for his response to Europe’s refugee crisis of 2015: he successfully put up a fence—and offered a reason. Orbán reported that while Brussels has looked to Islamic immigrants as a solution to Europe’s population decline, Hungary has taken a different course: by shaping “a family policy which encourages the birth of children” so that playgrounds will “echo with the happy cries of children” rather than with police sirens, and by “renewing ourselves spiritually.” He continued: “Hungary will . . . protect its families at all costs, regardless of the opposition that may come from Brussels.” This restoration of what he calls “natural fertility” is not just one national cause, but rather “the national cause. . . . And it is also a European cause; not just one European cause among many, but the European cause.”
Specifically, over the last decade, the Fidesz government in Hungary has implemented an amazing array of policies to encourage marriage and fertility: massive tax relief (most recently, stipulating that mothers of four or more children are exempted from income taxes for life); the forgiveness of student loan debt through the birth of children; large subsidies for the purchase of a family home; generous support for early childcare, including allowances for full-time parental care; and marriage and birth bonuses. These new programs represent a hefty four percent of Hungary’s gross domestic product. (The American equivalent would be a new expenditure each year of a staggering $800 billion in direct support of natural marriage and children—more than the Pentagon receives!)
This is the new language and the fresh policy agenda of a social conservatism emerging in Europe within the social and moral vacuum left by the failure of both Communism and self-actualizing liberalism.
Law & Justice in Poland
A similar transformation has begun in Poland, where the Law and Justice Party is also pursuing a genuine Christian family policy. Founded nearly two decades ago by the twin brothers Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński, Law and Justice ruled the country in the early 2000s, with Lech elected president in 2005. Following his death in an air crash in 2010, his brother guided the party back into power in 2015. Law and Justice favors moral limits on private corporations (some call it “Polish capitalism”), subsidies for family farmers, and fixing “nation and family” as its guiding economic, social, and cultural values. The party favors strict prohibitions on abortion and opposes euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, and the whole LGBT agenda, including civil partnerships. As Kaczyński explained in a recent speech, “This danger is an attack on the family, and an attack conducted in the worst possible way, because it’s essentially an attack on children.”
The party’s flagship social program is called “500 Plus.” Launched in 2016, this policy grants 500 złotys ($130) per month in cash support for a second and each subsequent child, without an income test. It has proven to be hugely popular. Poland’s Liberal party hates “500 Plus,” arguing that it is backward-looking and would wreck -Poland’s economy by encouraging mothers to drop out of the labor market. In fact, Poland’s economy is booming, just as Hungary’s is.
To discourage young Polish adults from emigrating to other parts of the European Union but instead to stay at home and start families there, Law and Justice has alsorecently proposed eliminating income taxes for all persons under age 26.
Trending in the Right Direction
Are these family policies in Hungary and Poland throwbacks to the Communist past? Indeed, no. They are better seen as fresh, twenty-first-century expressions of the Distributist spirit, the political and economic program crafted through Christian inspiration by Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton about a century ago. Its ideas—the wide distribution of productive property among families; protections for family-scale agriculture, retail shops, and manufacturing; and tax policies that favor marriage, strong home economies, and many children—will be familiar to any reader of the old G. K.’s Weekly.
Are such policies having an effect? Have larger and stronger families emerged? In some ways, it is too soon to tell, since “completed fertility”—as demographers call it—takes years to manifest itself. Still, in both lands, the marital fertility rate—the key number here—has risen; in Hungary, by over 20 percent. The trend, at least, is now in the right direction. Christian family and sexual ethics—including their economic component—have been written back into law and policy again, and they may be working. Certainly, as even critics will admit, Hungarian and Polish families are living better.
Something else is happening in Eastern Europe, as well: Orthodox churches are emerging as active pro-family, pro-life ecumenical actors. Here you must indulge me in what might be seen as shameless self-promotion. For the two pro-family governments that I have discussed—the ruling Fidesz Party in Hungary and the ruling Law and Justice Party in Poland—have another thing in common: both were hosts to major World Congress of Families events. Specifically, Polish President Lech Kaczyński was the Honorary Chairman of the World Congress of Families IV, held in Warsaw in 2007, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was the host and keynote speaker for the World Congress of Families XI, held in Budapest in 2017.
To explain further, and to be objective, I will draw several quotations and references from an academic essay appearing earlier this year in the Russian-language journal State, Religion & Church. The essay is written by Dr. Kristina Stoeckl, director of the project on Postconciliar Conflicts at the University of Innsbruck, in Austria. I note that she is, in her personal political and religious views, not “one of us”; however, she is that rarest of modern academics: an honest scholar.
Professor Stoeckl writes: “I start this article with a narrative exposition of the Russian founding moment of the WCF [World Congress of Families], based on first-hand archival material and interviews with the protagonists.” The year was 1995; the location was Moscow; the key protagonists were Anatoly Antonov, professor of sociology and demography at Moscow Lomonosov State University, and yours truly, Allan Carlson.
Stoeckl continues: “The WCF promotes a traditional, patriarchal family model built around husband and wife united in a marriage and their biological offspring. In the terminology of the WCF, this ‘natural family’ is ‘part of the created order’ and ‘ingrained in human nature.'”
She writes later on: “I conclude that the American founders of the WCF have contributed to the emergence of moral conservative milieus in the former communist countries . . . [so that] the battle for traditional family values has spread from the United States into Russia and into Eastern and Western Europe. . . . [T]he dynamics of the diffusion of ideas was one of mutual interest and reciprocity.” Meaning: No coercion in this collusion!
Professor Stoeckl then notes that “Carlson, a Lutheran, was (and still is) involved in the conservative Christian journal Touchstone, which has supported and covered the WCF since its beginning and actively promotes the cooperation and ‘fellowship’ of Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox.”
And she then refers to one James Kushiner, who describes how conservative Christians from the three great Christian traditions have come together for mutual encouragement. Quoting Mr. Kushiner: “The movement came to be known as ‘the new ecumenism’ and ‘the ecumenism of the trenches’ . . . a movement distinct from and in crucial ways far more effective than the official ecumenical efforts.”
Professor Stoeckl argues that this new ecumenism represented by the WCF “has been especially effective in bringing several of the Eastern Orthodox communions out of their long quietism and ethnic ghettos into the global struggle over the family. This has been especially . . . and directly . . . true for the Orthodox churches of the Republic of Georgia, Moldova, and Russia . . . encouraged by World Congress of Family events in each land.”
And she concludes: “In a time [when] conservative Christians in the United States affirm that they have ‘lost the culture war’ [and here she cites Rod Dreher’s book], Europe seems to have become the new site of the culture wars between progressives and social conservatives. European and in particular Russian social conservatives do not seem to think of themselves as having lost the culture wars; they have only just started their battles. And they feel rather emboldened as right-wing populist parties across Europe have re-discovered Christianity.”
Culture Wars Heating Up
To choose just one more prominent example: the former Northern League party of Italy received a mere 4 percent of the vote in the 2012 election, in which they ran primarily on an anti-immigrant platform. By 2018, however, the party had adopted a pro-family policy agenda that drew heavily on the Hungarian experience, and its vote total shot up to 18 percent and included, for the first time, many traditional Catholics. In an election for representatives to the European Parliament held last June, the now relabeled League won 36 percent of the ballots, making it by far the largest party in Italy.
And the World Congress of Families, again, was there: the 13th congress was held just a few months earlier—in March 2019—in the City of Verona, the home of Romeo and Juliet. The mayor of Verona and the governor of the province—both League members—were our formal hosts; Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the party, was a keynote speaker. The event attracted 25 European television networks and 500 other journalists. On Saturday of the event, about 20,000 “trans feminists” and other LGBT activists marched in protest, with occasional outbursts of violence. On the next day, a Sunday, over 30,000 defenders of the natural family marched peacefully through the ancient streets of Verona.
So, even within the center of the European Union, the culture wars over family law and family policy are actually heating up . . . and maybe, just maybe, in some places, the Christians are pulling ahead!