In the summer of 2008, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) narrowly escaped being banned by the country’s constitutional court. State prosecutors had alleged that the party which is officially committed to economic modernization, conservative moral values, and Turkey’s admission to the European Union was trying to breach the country’s notoriously strict separation of religion and politics, slowly Islamicize the state, and ultimately introduce theocracy.

Many local supporters of the AKP breathed a sigh of relief after the decision, as did non-Muslims who see the AKP as the prototype of a Muslim Democratic party that can appeal to believers while being fully committed to the rules (and values) of the democratic game.

At the same time, loud voices proclaiming that Islam and democracy are incompatible remain in Turkey, and, of course, are not limited to it. Their pronouncements are reminiscent of what many secular liberals in nineteenth-century Europe had to say about democracy and religion, though with an important and instructive twist: back then, Catholicism was deemed an insurmountable obstacle to liberal democracy. Leading French Republican Léon Gambetta famously exclaimed “Le cléricalisme, voilà l’ennemi!” in 1877. In fact, far into the twentieth century prominent politicians and social scientists asserted that Catholicism explained the persistence of dictatorship in Latin America and on the Iberian Peninsula. Catholicism, in the words of Seymour Martin Lipset, appeared “antithetical to democracy”; Pierre Trudeau claimed that Catholic countries

are authoritarian in spiritual matters; and since the dividing line between the spiritual and the temporal may be very fine or even confused, they are often disinclined to seek solutions in temporal affairs through the mere counting of heads.

And as with Muslims today, Catholic citizens were suspected of maintaining transnational ties and ultimate loyalties to spiritual institutions elsewhere—a suspicion that still mattered in John F. Kennedy’s election campaigns.

Yet during the second half of the twentieth century, Christian—which mainly meant Catholic—Democratic parties emerged and flourished in Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. These were—and in some degree remain—moderately religious parties. They advance political programs infused with select doctrinal values while firmly upholding democratic structures and respecting the separation of state and church.

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This suggestive analogy between Christian and Muslim Democracy is not lost on Western politicians and intellectuals, but many of them have been at pains to reject it. One line of dismissal, pessimistic in its conclusions, argues that European Catholics only turned to democracy under instruction from the Vatican. Because Muslims do not have anything resembling a hierarchy or central institution of faith, the Christian Democratic example is, according to these critics, irrelevant.

A second line of argument is more optimistic about the “liberalization” of Islam but holds that the Christian character of Christian Democracy is irrelevant to its eventual political inclusion. There is no place for a specifically Muslim style of democracy because it is the structure of democratic inclusion, not the distinctive ideas that inform it, that leads to moderation. In this vein, the political scientist Sheri Berman has argued that when political parties repeatedly contest elections, they tend to become more ideologically flexible, since they seek to attract a diverse group of voters. Radical ideas, religious or secular, come to matter less and less when a party enters power and has to fix concrete problems—the “pothole theory” of moderation and democratization. Governing parties also develop oligarchies (and bureaucracies) interested in perpetuating their own power.

Despite their important disagreements, then, the pessimists and optimists do agree that institutional structures are what matters, not political ideas or programs. Thus both assert that calls for liberalizing Islam and arcane disputes about the Qur’an’s compatibility with democracy are largely beside the point. Programmatic moderation, if it happens at all, will be a result of democratic political practice, not its precondition.

The pope’s hostility to the liberal nation-state was so strong that he forbade the participation of Catholics in national political life altogether.

But are ideas and doctrinal development as marginal as the pessimists and optimists both confidently assert? Can the trajectory of Christian Democracy be explained by the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church, or as a response to political inclusion? In other words, is the historical analogy between Christian and potential Muslim democracy really false, irrelevant; or does it perhaps suggest promising alternatives to the authoritarian rule that dominates the Middle East?

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Christian Democratic parties first emerged in continental Western Europe toward the end of the nineteenth century. Though only some of them were founded with the help of national churches, all were narrowly focused Catholic interest groups. As the political scientist Stathis Kalyvas has pointed out, their goal was not to integrate Catholics into modern democracies but, particularly in Germany and the Benelux, to counter the anticlerical measures of secular-liberal or republican states. Of greatest concern were interventions in areas traditionally important to the Church: the family and education. Tellingly, where the regime was not perceived as a threat to the Church’s agenda, Christian Democracy never materialized. France, with its seemingly constant back-and-forth between republicanism and church-friendly monarchism, is a prime example. Christian Democratic parties also never formed in homogeneously Catholic countries, such as Ireland, where the great clerical-anticlerical cleavage was absent.

Where they did form, Christian Democratic parties did not necessarily come out in favor of modern democracy. “Democratic” meant something more like “popular”, or being from and among the people. It was no accident that volk and popolari became key words in the names and rhetoric of Catholic parties in Western Europe.

Despite the parties’ Catholic roots and hesitations about democracy, the Vatican initially regarded them with suspicion and viewed their participation in elections and parliamentary horse-trading as signs of undesirable modernism. In Italy the Vatican’s hostility to the liberal nation-state was so strong that the pope forbade the participation of Catholics in national political life altogether. The Church was understandably wary of pluralism’s impact on its universalist aspirations—it could not abide being one option among many. The Vatican and national churches also worried that they would lose control of the parties and actually preferred to deal directly with states, even if these were aggressively secular.

And, indeed, Christian Democratic parties, even those formed directly by the church and conservative elites, soon charted their own course and developed their independent political agendas. Italy provides a case in point. In 1919 Pope Benedict XV lifted the ban on political participation, and a Catholic party, the Partito Popolare Italiano (whose members were known as the Popolari), was formed. Its leader, Don Luigi Sturzo, wanted it to appeal to tutti i liberi e forti : all free and strong men. The Popolari were committed to land reform and pushed a political agenda benefiting peasants and the middle class. The party was the second-strongest electoral force in Italy, trailing only the socialists. The Popolare also was significantly farther to the left than the Vatican would have liked, and, as the historian John Pollard has pointed out, the Holy See supported it only as the “least bad party.” With the rise of Mussolini, however, the Vatican abandoned the party and backed conservative Catholics willing to do business with il Duce. In 1924 Sturzo went into exile in London, and Popolare was dissolved in 1926. Alcide De Gasperi, the party’s last general secretary and eventually the first prime minister of the Italian Republic, spent the years of fascism in the Vatican library, effectively in internal exile.

After the war, Christian Democratic parties across Western Europe—with Germany, Austria, and Italy in the lead—turned themselves into mass political movements, following the model of the social democrats. Christian Democrats incorporated existing Catholic associations such as trade unions and farmers’ groups, while also broadening their electoral appeal (for instance, in the German case, by explicitly reaching out to Protestants through a new emphasis on a shared Christian and “occidental” heritage in direct opposition to communism). They fashioned themselves into what political scientists came to describe as “catch-all parties” or “people’s parties.”

De Gasperi reentered Italian public life and became leader of Popolare’s successor party, the Democrazia Cristiana (DC). He refused to shape a party around an exclusively Catholic identity (or, more strictly, as the political arm of the Vatican); rather, he wanted the DC to become a genuine partito nazionale that would cut across classes and regions and help both industrial workers in the North and peasants in the South. The Vatican tried hard to counter De Gasperi and to shift the DC in a clearly Catholic direction, but De Gasperi prevailed, making the DC into arguably the most successful postwar political machine in Europe, a bulwark against the Communist Party and continuously in government until the early 1990s.

The Church attempted to offer a distinctly Catholic solution to the social question of the immiseration of the industrial working class.

There is little evidence, then, that the Vatican consistently steered the development of Christian Democracy, or that the ultimate accommodation of Christian Democratic parties to democratic politics was driven by the Vatican’s decisions. These parties developed in ways that were not intended by the Vatican, their leaderships could not be controlled from above, and their programs often veered more to the left than the Church desired, especially under Pius XII. Christian Democracy, particularly after 1945, was the creation of political entrepreneurs such as Don Sturzo and savvy strategists such as West Germany’s first postwar Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. To the extent that churchmen were directly involved, they were members of the lower clergy or of what in Italy was often called the proletariato di chiesa (“proletariat of the church”) .

The Vatican would eventually endorse democracy unequivocally, but only after decades of Christian Democratic practice and only after renouncing its transparent sympathies for authoritarian Catholic leaders such as António Salazar in Portugal and Francisco Franco in Spain.

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If the Vatican did not move Christian Democrats significantly, what did? Was it only the mechanisms of electoral competition, or did developments in Christian doctrine play a role? The influence of ideas in party politics is notoriously hard to demonstrate, but a strong case can be made that the Christian Democratic parties’ turn toward moderation and their eventual embrace of modern party politics is related to theological and philosophical notions about the compatibility of Catholicism and Democracy. While there was no single cause of accommodation, ideas were indispensable to the process.

Arguably the most influential figure in generating the intellectual grounds for Christian Democracy’s emergence in party politics was the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. Beginning in the 1930s, Maritain developed a range of arguments on behalf of a Christian embrace of democracy and human rights. He was not the only Catholic thinker to do so, but tracing his thought and influence suggests how important new ideas were in the liberalization of Christian Democracy.

Maritain, born into a prominent republican family, started his intellectual life as a philosophy student at the Sorbonne. As a young man, he flirted with socialism and supported Colonel Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, against an unjust accusation of treason and the forces of reaction. In 1901 he met fellow student Raïssa Oumansoff, daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, and the two began a lifelong romantic, intellectual, and spiritual collaboration with few parallels in the twentieth century. On a sunny summer day in 1903, in the Jardin des Plantes, the lovers vowed to commit suicide together within a year if they could not find answers to life’s apparent meaninglessness. Just in time, they found some: first the philosophy of Henri Bergson, then Catholicism, and finally the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, to which Maritain was introduced by Raïssa. Within an astonishingly short period, Maritain became one of the leading neo-Thomist philosophers in all of Europe.

From the mid-nineteenth century onward, the Vatican had promoted Thomism as the main alternative to modern, supposedly secular, philosophy. Thomism combined the ideas of Aristotle (whom St. Thomas had rediscovered in the thirteenth century) with Catholicism and a strong notion of natural law, which is derived from divine law, but is knowable by reason and allows humanity to attain its proper end: moral and spiritual perfection. Thomism denied that reason and faith had to be in conflict.

Neo-Thomism played a role in the Church’s attempt to offer a distinctly Catholic solution to the social question—the emergence and immiseration of the industrial working class. In the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII condemned socialism for its materialism and called for an end to class struggle. Instead, he suggested via Thomist reasoning that employers and workers should cooperate, with the employers clearly acknowledging the legitimate interests of the workers. Families and associations in civil society—not the state—should alleviate social problems so that all members of society could attain their proper ends.

But the social doctrines and the Thomism of Leo XIII did not encourage Catholics to become democrats. And, at least at first, neither did Maritain’s. In the 1920s Maritain, under the influence of his priest, became close to the proto-fascist Action Française (AF), an association of ultra-nationalist, pro-Catholic monarchists. In 1926 the movement was condemned by the Vatican, which accused it of using Catholicism as a smokescreen for what was in fact atheistic nationalism. Maritain tried to mediate between the Vatican and the movement’s leader; then he abandoned the AF for good. But even so, he remained, like the members of the AF, highly critical of political aspects of the modern world—Protestantism and liberalism in particular. The latter, for Maritain, implied secularism and the atomization of society.

Maritain came to believe that the person flourished only within community and when open to god. These beliefs, derived from Thomist natural law, crucially shaped the emerging philosophy of personalism, which sought to chart a path between communism and liberalism and, much later, deeply influenced Pope John Paul II’s outlook. Personalism, its advocates insisted, was not the same as individualism, which allegedly treated human beings as isolated, self-interested agents, instead of understanding their embeddedness in groups. Communism, on the other hand, entirely absorbed people into the state.

Maritain was inspired by the example of the United States—a democratic system that seemed to flourish on the basis of values that he associated with Christianity.

Personalism was thus simultaneously anti-liberal and anticommunist; its proponents held that liberalism and communism, for all their apparent differences, were forms of materialism, whereas personalism did justice to the spiritual dimension of human life. Human beings were simultaneously related to a social order and possessed of individual dignity and capacity for transcendence. They should contribute to the common good, but the spirituality of persons was above and untouchable by any earthly community, in particular a potentially totalitarian communist one.

In the 1930s personalism began to take off. For a time Maritain was a mentor to Emmanuel Mounier, editor of the premier personalist magazine, Esprit, which sought a communitarian alternative to liberal parliamentarianism. But Maritain worried that his disciple’s search for alternatives to liberal democracy would end in a form of authoritarianism, and, indeed, Mounier flirted with both the Vichy regime, and, after the war, Soviet Communism. Unlike many European Catholics, Maritain refused to endorse Franco or to portray the Spanish Civil War as a kind of modern crusade. He began to work out a philosophical rapprochement between Catholicism and modern conceptions of human rights and democracy, and in 1938 he published Integral Humanism, which advocated the place of Christianity in an increasingly ideologically diverse world. The book, with its clear endorsement of pluralism in the temporal sphere, became an early touchstone in Christian Democratic political theory.

When the war broke out, Maritain was traveling in the United States and Canada for a lecture series. He decided to stay; the Gestapo searched his house outside Paris in vain. He taught at Princeton and Columbia and contributed to Voice of America. Partly inspired by the example of the United States—a democratic system that, unlike France, not only tolerated religion, but seemed to flourish on the basis of values that he associated with Christianity, such as equality—Maritain began to propagate more openly what he saw as the inner connections between democracy and Christianity. In 1942 he authored Christianity and Democracy, a pamphlet dropped by Allied planes over France. In it he affirms that “democracy is linked to Christianity and that the democratic impulse has arisen in human history as a temporal manifestation of the inspiration of the Gospel.” In 1951’s Man and the State, Maritain declares boldly, “democracy is the only way of bringing about a moral rationalization of politics. Because democracy is a rational organization of freedoms founded upon law ”(emphasis original). On an even more emphatic note, he announced, “democracy carries in a fragile vessel the terrestrial hope, I would say the biological hope, of humanity.”

To be sure, Maritain’s intellectual-political aggiornamento was selective and based on a particular interpretation of modernity: it retained core elements of late nineteenth-century Catholic political thought. Thus Maritain remained skeptical of the notion of sovereignty, which he viewed as threatening to voluntary collaborations in civil society. He also was no anything-goes liberal. For Maritain, freedom meant not license, but the full realization of one’s ends. Against this teleological background, Maritain insisted on the importance not just of electoral democracy, but also of workers’ rights and general rights of subsistence. His ideas, therefore, could provide the foundations of a conservative, family- and community-oriented welfare state, such as were eventually constructed in many European countries outside Britain and Scandinavia.

While Maritain’s views could reasonably be put to a variety of ends (he was a close friend of Saul Alinsky’s, for instance), there is no question that his project was a liberalizing one that sought a role for Christianity in democratic politics, including the politics of those who believed differently. Maritain was involved in drafting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and even the Holy See itself would eventually ratify many of his ideas. At the closing of the Second Vatican Council—the major 1960s gathering of the Catholic hierarchy, during which the Church officially affirmed human rights and religious tolerance—Pope Paul VI presented to Maritain the “Message to Men of Thought and Science,” leaving no uncertainty about whose thinking steered whom when it came to the modernization and moderation of Catholic political convictions. Unrepentant rightwing Catholics such as Carl Schmitt denounced him as Cauche-Maritain (“Nightmare-Maritain”), while more civil conservatives such as the Hungarian philosopher Aurel Kolnai never found credible his efforts to “[dress up] poor Thomas Aquinas in the rags of a laicist apostle of democracy.” But such voices were marginal.

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Although Maritain had not been in favor of explicitly Christian parties, his thought was an important reference point for the newly formed Christian Democratic parties of postwar Western Europe, especially in Italy. As he wrote in a letter to De Gasperi, the founder of Democrazia Cristiana, Christianity should be the “yeast” of political life, making the liberation from pagan fascism the first step to a new political culture based on moral and, to some degree, religious argument.

Maritain’s philosophy and personalism proved especially important for a group of left-leaning Christian Democratic thinkers involved in drafting the Italian Constitution, in particular the young intellectuals Giorgio La Pira (who was to become the mayor of Florence) and Giuseppe Dossetti of the Catholic University in Milan. Avid readers of both Maritain and Mounier, they criticized individualistic liberalism and saw the person as always embedded in community, or, as La Pira put it: “The human personal unfolds through organic belonging to the successive social communities in which it is contained and via which it steadily develops and perfects itself.”

Ideas made democracy attractive for believers while reassuring nonbelievers that those of faith had accepted pluralism.

Dossetti, an expert in ecclesiastical law, had fought in the Resistance and served on the Committee of National Liberation. In 1945 he was made vice-secretary of the DC and tried to open the party to personalist, pacifist, and even socialist ideas. Dossetti and his colleagues studied William Beveridge, the Liberal architect of the British welfare state, and John Maynard Keynes (both of whom they wrongly believed to have been Labour politicians). The left-wing Italian Catholics were hoping for a personalist, labor-based “substantial democracy,” which realized Christian solidarity throughout the state, society, and the economy. Their central beliefs about the economic reordering of postwar Italy were summed up in their slogan “First the person and then the market,” which was supposed to translate into an extensive welfare state and workers’ rights, just as Maritain had envisaged.

Dossetti, La Pira, and the left of the DC managed to have their version of the first article of the Italian constitution passed: the personalist-sounding “Italy is a democratic Republic founded upon work” prevailed over “Italy is a democratic republic of workers,” which Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti had proposed. Article Three states, in strong personalist language, “it is the Republic’s duty to remove obstacles of an economic or social order physically constricting the freedom and equality of citizens and thus impeding the full development of the human person.”

Such language of natural law and individual dignity was pervasive after the war; it seemed to provide a secure foundation for human rights and representative democracy in a way that liberal legal positivism—with its insistence that law is a product of changeable human design—could not. Liberalism was blamed for being “atomistic,” “materialistic,” and for having somehow been complicit in the failings of interwar democracy. Therefore, as the Italian scholar Paolo Pombeni has pointed out, many Christian Democrats explicitly sought a “post-liberal democracy,” with distinct spiritual foundations.

Undoubtedly, the development of Christian Democracy—and its astounding electoral successes—was not due only to the attractiveness of its language and programs. Its strong anticommunism during the Cold War won it many votes. In the case of Italy, Christian Democracy also benefited from machine politics and, sometimes, corruption. Moreover, a postwar alliance between peasantry and the middle classes was instrumental in keeping Christian Democrats in power for unusually long stretches of time in Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries.

Still, Christian Democrats required some body of thought to make democracy attractive for believers, while reassuring nonbelievers that those of faith had accepted pluralism. Unlike traditional regimes, modern democracies need public justifications for exercising coercion. And while many of these justifications might be disingenuous, they need to at least be plausible.

In the case of Christian Democracy, believers needed to be convinced that the party had not sold out to secularism (of which liberal democracy seemed merely one symptom); nonbelievers needed assurance that religiously inspired parties would not abandon state neutrality in religious affairs once in power, and that the pronouncements of a Maritain did not constitute a kind of “double discourse,” with different messages for believers and nonbelievers. It was a delicate balancing act. Maritain managed it, partly because the rather vague philosophy of personalism suggested a third path not only between individualism and communism, but also between religion and secularism.

Thus did Christian Democrats create a unique set of principles that both believers and nonbelievers could follow. The moderation of Christian Democracy was not just the result of day-to-day politics. Rather, a long-term process of scholarship and debate helped create a group of parties that appealed to voters not by being arbitrarily centrist, but by making widely agreeable proposals based on Christian values.

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Whether such a philosophical-theological path—or bridge, perhaps, is a more appropriate metaphor—exists for Islam is an open question. What is certain, however, is that the formation of some liberalized Islam by self-consciously moderate and democratic Muslim intellectuals should not be seen as a sideshow to the hard-nosed politics of interests. The debates about the meaning of sharia for state law, the possible political implications of the Islamic institution of shura (“consultation”) on parliamentary procedure, and concepts such as theodemocracy are important. Thinkers such as Abdolkarim Soroush, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Khaled Abou El Fadl (see for instance his “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy” in Boston Review, April/May 2003), the late Nasr Abu Zayd, or more controversially Rashid Al-Ghannushi, and even more controversially Tariq Ramadan cannot bring about moderation, let alone liberal Democracy, single-handedly. But they may offer a body of thought—structured by moral values central to the Qur’an, such as justice—that can provide public justification.

The story of Christian Democracy yields a further conclusion: as Kalyvas, the political scientist, in particular has stressed, the political mobilization of believers does not necessarily result in a one-to-one translation of private religious identities into public political identities. Entering the Democratic arena always involves a certain reconstruction of religious identities, largely due to pressures to adapt to an inherently pluralist arena, where there is a premium on compromise and coalition building in order to secure power. Selectiveness and creative re-appropriation of religious precepts and traditions are almost always possible, as with Maritain’;s interpretation of Thomism as a foundation for universal human rights. Thus blanket condemnations of Islam as incompatible with Democracy overlook the fact that religious doctrines do not strictly determine politics.

There is no guarantee that Muslim democracy can emerge in the coming years and be sustained permanently; the rule of the AKP in Turkey is an ongoing experiment, and only time will tell if it strengthens the quality of Turkish democracy. But the history—including the intellectual history—of Christian Democracy provides both reasons for optimism and lessons for the future.