Throughout the past century or so, there has been at least seemingly an almost indisputable trend towards the decline of religion, particularly when viewed in the background of modernization. Although the question of whether a worldwide secularization is actually taking place has been open to much debate (Fox 2013:30), there are many quite obvious developments that appear to support these claims. Modernization has provoked a number of social as well as political processes that together have given rise to more secular societies. In these modern societies, religious institutions are becoming gradually less important and this tendency is also accompanied by decrease in personal religiosity. While the former trend should have a more significant effect on political processes in general, personal religiosity is expected to alter party politics in particular. Clearly, all this is not true for every state in the world. Just as modernization has not reshaped every society and brought about secular trends everywhere, there is no reason to expect worldwide changes in party systems either. Therefore, these changes in political arena should be most clearly observable in states that have achieved a high level of modernization. For various reasons, Europe is probably the most relevant case here, primarily because the secularization of the continent has arguably become a common knowledge and it seems to be constantly becoming even more secular (van der Brug et al 2009:1266). Thus, it should be safe to assume that especially in terms of voting behavior, religious values and sentiments do not play a very crucial role in deciding what kind of parties are electorally more successful anymore. This, in turn, means that religious parties, in the case of Europe usually Christian democrats, are forced to reconsider their political agendas or face an extinction (Hien 2013:443) and it is most likely that the first of these options is usually preferred. While both of these developments can be witnessed in Europe, trends towards greater modernization quite apparently suggest that the main religious political force in the continent, Christian democracy in its authentic form, is increasingly becoming less relevant in European party systems as a result of secularization.

This paper seeks to provide an evaluation on this theory and examine whether this is actually the case. It begins with a more detailed examination of arguments and evidence that support the theory. This is followed by introduction of critical views and finally more subjective arguments on this issue will be presented.

Decline of Christian democracy

The apparent downturn that has struck Christian democratic (CD) parties during the previous decades can not only be observed speculatively as above, but there is also empirical evidence that upholds the claims that this party family is losing supporters. While during the decade that followed Second World War there were strong and successful CD parties in all the three larger European states that had multiparty systems (Granieri 2009:5), today only one of these, i.e. CDU in Germany, has managed to uphold its position. This trend is well demonstrated by the DC in Italy, once very powerful CD party, which fell victim to an especially sudden collapse about two decades ago. Leaving aside the Northern European states and those without multiparty systems, even smallest of European countries had once relatively successful CD parties. Whereas in the immediate postwar era, countries such as Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria, all had parties from this family with vote shares over 40 per cent, now out of all these only CDU in Germany is able to gain over 30 per cent of electoral support (Bale, Krouwel 2013:16). As further demonstrated by Bale and Krouwel (2013), the decline of Christian democracy in the aforementioned five countries is evident not only in the case of declining vote share, but it’s notable in several other aspects as well. Concerning electoral support, these parties have lost voters who identify themselves with Christian democrats while the party identification has almost constantly been falling and CD parties have also been losing members (Bale, Krouwel 2013:26, 31). This corresponds well to the notions that personal religiosity is in the downturn. These developments are probably also responsible for the fact that in all five states, excluding Germany, Christian democrats are decreasingly represented in national governments (Bale, Krouwel 2013:30). This illustrates quite well the drastic situation that CD parties face and demonstrate the necessity for a change if Christian democrats wish to be politically successful.

It has often been suggested that in reaction to an ever changing environment, CD parties have, indeed been constantly revising their political agendas and even basic values in pursuit of pleasing the dynamic electorate (Hien 2013:443, Hornig 2013:94). According to secularization theory, these parties should have disappeared a long time ago. The sole reason why Christian democracy was proven to be successful in Europe in the first place, lies in the postwar context that these political groupings emerged in. The devastation that the war had brought upon the continent and that was still very much evident, turned people towards religion and especially in Germany there were strong initiatives to re-Christianize the country (Mitchell 2012:86). Thus, just as the emergence of Christian democracy was a result of arising religious sentiment on some level, so it should collapse along with the decline of religious beliefs.

Yet, this has not occurred and for a reason. Although Christian democrats still constitute major political party in Germany and the very opposite turn of events to their decline has been surprisingly unfolding in some Northern European states (Madeley 2000:27-28), this can be explained by changes in their ideological stance. The reason why CD parties have not vanished altogether, while in essence the levels of personal religiosity in Europe have been constantly decreasing, is that they have moved away from religious appeal (Hien 2013:443). Since in modern societies people are decreasingly identifying themselves with traditional and local religions, focusing on Christian values no longer brings electoral success to parties and they are inclined to conform to societies’ demands. This would also explain why in many states CD parties have been losing votes or in some cases have vanished altogether: they have been unable to adapt to an altered electorate. One of the reasons could be purely organizational. There might be a necessity to include more professional administrative personnel as well as politicians. For instance, the still successful CDU/CSU in Germany has a notably higher number of professional staff compared to such parties in some other states (Bale, Krouwel 2013:35). However, there is also an ideological dimension to these changes. A necessity for a programmatic change may lie among other factors in the patriarchal nature of Christianity. For instance, Christian democrats in Germany have lost a great majority of its female voters from 1960s onwards (Hien 2013:447). Because one of the features of modernization and secularization is the emancipation of women, some changes to CD party agenda are necessary to secure their vote under such developments. However, this is only one of many issues that would need revision.

In a broader sense, it is possible to observe a much wider, ideological shift in the agendas of CD parties. As a distinctive party family, these parties are usually considered to belong in the center on a left-right scale. On the one hand, Christian democrats are opposed to the cultural liberty of the social left, but on the other, they also counter the economic freedom of liberal right (Mandeley 2000:34). Most importantly, however, Christian democracy is very hostile to the moral relativism of both and this is what it has in common with conservatism. Indeed, in states where there are no significant CD parties, conservative parties often represent religious values and address respective issues. It has been demonstrated that people who attend to religious services are also more likely vote for a conservative rather than for a socialist or liberal party (van der Brug et al 2009:1276). Thus, it can be argued that as CD parties have evolved and refined their political agendas, but also lost their former position, they have at the same time become more similar to conservative parties and therefore more right-wing. Examination of some CD parties also suggests that from around the millennia, Christian democrats have been abandoning the center and become more right, although not particularly more progressive or liberal (Bale, Krouwel 2013:36-37). There have also been many instances of collaboration with the left, but this is not a recent phenomenon (Granieri 2009:22-25) and does not refer to an ideological shift, but it has been rather a political need. So, essentially, CD parties have become more similar to conservatives, at least in terms of a left-right political spectrum.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Christian democrats still constitute a significant political force in some European states. This can be explained by several developments that are not necessarily related to secularization. One phenomenon that countries with strong CD parties, i.e. Germany and Northern European states, seem to have common is the presence of large foreigner communities. Religion may be “making a comeback” because of the ever more evident problems that are associated with the arrival of immigrants (van der Brug et al 2009:1268). Even though opposition to foreigners is not something intrinsically Christian, there are instances when anti-immigration sentiments have been used by CD parties (Madeley 2000:31) and this could also be regarded as an opposition to foreign religions. Moreover, the significance of Christian democracy might be just a historical residual. The Lipset and Rokkan theory on parties as reflections societal cleavages is quite relevant here as also demonstrated by how often it is referred to in the context of Christian democracy (Kalyvas 1998:293; van der Brug et al 2009:1266; Hornig 2013:83; Hien 2013:441). According to this theory, CD parties once emerged to represent the secular-religious cleavage and have suspended such situation. Perhaps these cleavages have now disappeared, but the party systems have remained unchanged. Furthermore, the presence of CD parties could, indeed, be explained simply by historical-institutional developments as the Eastern European case demonstrates. Although there are instances of Christian democratic legacy and quite high levels of personal religiosity, the lack of any noteworthy such parties may be the result of party competition in the immediate post-communist era (Grzymala-Busse 2011:11). The existence of significant CD parties in Germany and some other states is irrelevant to secularization, because their success is not directly linked to developments in religiousness. Thus, these cases can be considered as exceptions that prove the rule: in political systems where Christian democracy once prevailed, it is now in decline.

Shortcomings of predicting the decline of Christian democracy

Despite the fact that Germany could be only an exception to the rule, it should not be completely neglected. It still is one of the largest and most important of European countries, but also in a way representative of at least the western and northern part of the continent. As the case of Germany illustrates, religion may still matter very much in politics. Even though church attendance in the country has significantly decreased, religion is still more important as a vote predictor than economic indicators and especially Catholics vote very likely for CD parties (Hien 2013:444). Also noteworthy is the fact that the religious cleavage as such does not imply a secular-religious dichotomy as noted previously, but rather an unfolding of a denominational cleavage between Catholics and Protestants can be witnessed (Hien 2013:445, 453). Instead of a disappearance of the traditional cleavage and prevailing of secularization, there is now in religious terms an even more relevant cleavage in Germany. The fact that the religion is an important predictor of vote can be observed in other European states as well. Even though in the long run there has been a decrease in the effect that religious denomination has on party choice, in the recent decade this trend has been reversing (van der Brug et al 2009:1275, 1278). Religion is actually becoming more important as a vote predictor and this is also true for younger generations and not only in countries with a strong legacy or tradition of Christian democracy. Therefore, on the contrary to what the proponents of secularization would predict, CD parties are not losing their relevance, but perhaps becoming even more relevant in political systems where such parties might not even exist.

The reason behind such development is not necessarily that CD parties have modified their political agenda, but quite the opposite may be true. The attitudes of voters are constantly evolving and new political issues arise, but not always in a direction that is unfavorable to Christian democracy. Religious values can be considered as inherently human and reflecting the ideals that people aspire to (van der Brug et al 2009:1268). If modernization is assumed to conform societies to human needs, then as such religious values should be more relevant than ever before. Although moral issues are thought to be more relative than in previous decades, when such questions arise in a society, they are often of critical importance. For instance, the issue of abortion has provided CD parties in North Europe with substantial electoral credit (Mandeley 2000:34). Furthermore, the fact that Christian democrats have revised their goals, structure or agendas does not inevitably imply that they have abandoned Christian beliefs. A wide range of dimensions of party change can be distinguished and ideological aspect of it is only one of many (Hornig 2013:84), so not all changes involve a change of values. To some extent the revision of Christian democratic ideological agenda has been inevitable, however. Appearing often as single-issue parties and being commonly described as such, they have been coerced to formulate stances in many policy areas that are not related to Christianity at all, especially when they are successful. The inclusion of such non-religious issues to political agenda does not definitely imply a change in original political positions. Christian democracy has perhaps been recently as successful as it has not because of revising its core values, but on the contrary, as a result of remaining faithful to its original ideals.

In the same vein, there is also reason to believe that a wider ideological adjustment of Christian democracy on a left-right scale is not the case. These parties may still occupy the center of such scale. This is well demonstrated by the fact that Christian democrats are opposed to the two extremes and hence often to the whole political arrangement that allows them to take advantage of political protest. This explains their success in Northern Europe (Mandeley 2000:34), which shows how important it still is for CD parties to pursue the centrist political position. Centrist stance also corresponds to the non-political nature of Lutheranism, although somewhat paradoxically so (Mandeley 2000:38). If Christian democrats wish to remain true to their beliefs, they need to avoid any strong political statements that are not related to religion. Thus, CD parties are in a way still inclined not to verge towards political extremes.

There have been some substantial implications that support the decline of Christian democracy in Europe that cannot be overlooked, but these do not automatically confirm the secularization hypothesis. One factor that may be responsible for this is the collapse of communist regimes in Europe. Since communism was an antithesis of any religion and posed a real threat in the postwar period, Christian democrats could appeal to widespread anti-communist attitudes (Bale, Krouwel 2013:20). Since such threat has disappeared, many voters have lost the reason to vote for CD parties. Another area where Christian democracy has lost its advantage is the integration of Europe. At least in continental states they have for a long time been standing for a more united Europe (Granieri 2009:6; Mandeley 2000:36; Bale, Krouwel 2013:20). Now that this process has faced serious setbacks and gathered significant opposition, so has the support for CD agenda as well as incentive to vote for CD parties diminished. These two are only a few, but highly important changes that have undermined the success of Christian democracy in Europe. On that account, the decline of CD parties is not necessarily the outcome of secularization.

Is Christian democracy actually Christian?

In addition to previous points, there are also a few more subjective arguments that challenge the secularization theory in terms of the nature of Christian democracy. These call into question its authenticity in two ways. First, it’s not that CD parties are becoming more secular, but they never even were religious to begin with. Such parties did not emerge from social cleavages and with the opposition to secularization, but they are rather an “unanticipated and unwanted consequences of rational political action” in which Catholic mass organizations became secular once transformed into parties (Kalyvas 1998:307). The latter occurred mainly because it proved to be difficult to pursue an entirely religious agenda, as previously noted. The agenda of CD parties was rather conservative than religious and the use of a Catholic image was only symbolic and strategic with the aim of attracting voters. Second, and by the same token, even when CD parties were actually religious, this was never their core appeal. These parties have rather a distinct catch-all nature. This is very obvious when the emergence of Christian democracy is examined: unlike most other party families, CD parties never represented a single social class, but their appeal to religion means an attempt to speak for the whole society (Kalyvas 1998:295). It was thus the origin of Christian democracy that predisposed such parties to adopt “catch-all” strategies (Hornig 2013:94). Similar conclusion can be drawn when exploring the CD centrist ideology in general which again seeks to avoid extremes and please the society at large. Therefore, it may be the case that there never was real Christian democracy and even when CD parties had a religious appeal, it was never in the center of their program, but they have always been intrinsically predisposed to adopt “catch-all” agenda.


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