The GOP's Time for Choosing

Vice President and
Director of the National Research Initiative
Henry Olsen
Mike Huckabee's stunning victory in Thursday's Iowa caucuses does more than change the GOP nomination race. With a platform explicitly grounded in his Christian faith and a populist economic message, Mr. Huckabee offers the Republican Party a new political narrative, light years removed from the limited government principles governing the GOP in the Reagan and post-Reagan era.

This pro-faith, pro-government message may sound strange to American ears--but it is a staple of conservative political parties on the European continent. Mr. Huckabee, in other words, essentially gives Republicans a choice: Does the GOP want to become a Christian Democratic party? To answer that question, Republicans should look carefully at Christian Democracy to see if it is a model worth emulating.

Is a faith-based, pro-government party necessary for political success?

Christian Democracy is a reaction to the classical liberalism and socialism that came of age in late 19th century Europe. Both of these movements threatened the faithful with their secularism and economic theories. Classical liberal emphasis on unfettered markets evoked fears of untrammeled greed and exploitation of workers; socialism made many fear for the future of private property.

Christian Democrat parties have always distinguished themselves from liberals and socialists, favoring private property and traditional values while supporting government regulation and taxation to ameliorate what they perceive to be capitalism's defects. The German Christian Democratic Union (CDU), for example, is quite explicit about this, claiming it is the "party of the political center."

These parties uphold marriage and the traditional family as the bedrocks of society. They also advocate economic policies typified by the CDU's ideal of a "social market economy," which emphasizes the need for both government-provided welfare and capitalism. Contemporary Christian Democratic parties are also some of the staunchest supporters of rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. They reach this conclusion from the principle of "Christian stewardship," which the Norwegian Christian Democrats say "implies that the resources of the Earth should be taken care of for the best of present and future generations."

Christian Democracy is a different beast than Reagan-era conservatism, which drew upon the traditions of the Founding Fathers--which are extremely suspicious of government power, regulation and redistribution. It is virtually impossible to imagine a Christian Democratic leader inveighing against government intervention in the economy as Ronald Reagan did in his first inaugural address. ("In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.")

American conservatism also differs from Christian Democracy in its attitude toward faith. Reagan conservatism is faith-friendly, supporting the free exercise of religion and traditional morality. But it does not define its political principles with reference to its faith; in this view, Christianity is consistent with proper political principles, but is not the primary wellspring of those principles.

While virtually no one on the American right explicitly calls for the adoption of Christian Democracy, others besides Mr. Huckabee admire and advocate similar principles. For example, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's book, "It Takes a Family," echoed the Christian Democratic emphasis on placing the health of the family ahead of the health of the economy as a political principle.

Perhaps the most prominent contemporary apostle for these views is former White House speechwriter Michael Gerson. In his recent book, Heroic Conservatism, he argues that a conservatism which fails to embrace the energetic use of government power for good will be both immoral and unsuccessful.

Immoral losers: That's quite a charge to levy against Reagan conservatives. But perhaps Mr. Gerson is correct: Perhaps a more European approach to governing from the right is better. So let's look at the record.

Every country which has been primarily governed by Christian Democrats since World War II (Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands) is poorer than the United States, with substantially higher unemployment rates and slower economic growth. The differences aren't even close.

The per capita, purchasing-power-adjusted GDP of the richest of these countries--Holland--is 15% lower than that of the U.S. The GDP of every other country is at least 20% lower. The U.S. unemployment rate in 2006 was 4.6%; the average of the Christian Democratic four was over 7%, and it was that low only because the Netherlands diverts many of its unemployed to a disability program that enrolls nearly 10% of the workforce.

Incomes are more equally distributed: America's Gini coefficient, a widely used measure of income inequality, is much higher than in any of these countries. But that is simply the flip side of the other statistics. Christian Democratic countries choose lower incomes and higher unemployment as the price for their commitment to social welfare.

But these countries also fare worse on common measures of family well-being. German and Belgian divorce rates are higher than those in America, and the Netherlands' rate is roughly comparable. The 2005 out-of-wedlock birth rate was slightly lower in Germany (29%) than the U.S. (37%), but it was higher in Belgium (49%) and about the same in the Netherlands (35%). The overall birth rate in the U.S. is about 2.1 children per woman in her lifetime, about the level needed to keep the population stable. None of the Christian Democrat countries come close to that; Italy's is a meager 1.2.

It is not the case that Christian Democrat-led countries fare better at sustaining faith. According to a 2006 Harris poll, 73% of Americans believe in God. Similar polls taken in 2005 and 2006 show only 62% of Italians, 43% of Belgians, 41% of Germans and 34% of Dutch believe. A 2003 Harris poll found that 44% of Americans attend religious services at least once a week. According to the 2004 European Social Survey, fewer than 15% of Dutch and Belgians, and 10% of Germans, attend services that frequently.

Is a faith-based, pro-government party necessary for political success? It is hard to draw inspiration from Christian Democratic victories, which are largely due to Europe's proportional-representation electoral systems. The most successful parties win between 25% and 40% of the vote and form a government because a majority coalition cannot be formed without them.

But America's first-past-the-post system encourages factions to combine into a single party so that they are likelier to get over 50% of the vote, a level of support that an American Christian Democratic party is unlikely to attain. The 2004 exit poll showed that only 42% of American voters attend religious services at least weekly, and that includes African-Americans, Jews and other minorities very unlikely for historical reasons to support a party of the right. Getting to 50% would require a Christian Democratic party to make compromises with non-religious voters, something that would weaken the very impetus animating the party.

The political debate for the last decade has been between a Democratic Party which essentially argues America should be more like Europe--more statist, more secular, more pacifist--and a Reagan-influenced GOP which argues America should be more like its historical self. The Mike Huckabee/Christian Democratic movement is an attempt to break this logjam by looking to a different European model, one that says we can be more statist without being more secular or pacifist. In deciding how to react to the Huckabee challenge, Reagan's GOP descendants now face their own time for choosing.

Henry Olsen is a vice president of AEI and director of the National Research Initiative.

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About the Author

 

Henry
Olsen
  • Henry Olsen, a lawyer by training, is the director of AEI's National Research Initiative. In that capacity, he identifies leading academics and public intellectuals who work in an aspect of domestic public policy and recruits them to visit or write for AEI. Mr. Olsen studies and writes about the policy and political implications of long-term trends in social, economic, and political thought.

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