"The Political Languages of Christian Democracy: Historical Aspects -- and Lessons for the Present?"

A Workshop under the Auspices of the History of Political Thought Project,
University Center for Human Values, Princeton University

December 7-8, 2012 - 301 Marx Hall
Provisional Schedule and Papers

'Christian Democracy' is arguably one of the most under-studied traditions of modern political thought, not least because many historians and theorists think of Christian Democracy as primarily a party-political movement with little by way of political languages that might be worth studying (let alone hold any lessons of the present). The author of the chapter on Christian Democracy in the Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought, for instance, writes that 'the true tradition of Christian democratic thought…is found less in classic texts by a few key authors, and more in the constant debates resulting from its being a political movement' - only to then add that Christian Democrats were unable to develop an 'original political theory'.

We want to probe the validity of such perceptions, but also ask - on a more normative plane - what lessons might still be learnt from the history of Christian Democracy. As is well known, some scholars have claimed that it can teach us much about processes of political moderation and conversions to liberal democracy; others have argued that because of the peculiar nature of Catholicism - for shorthand, the existence of the Vatican as a centralized institution that can issue binding doctrinal decisions - the history of Christian Democracy is essentially of no use in understanding the ways in which Islam might relate to politics.

Against this background, the workshop aims to engage with questions such as the following:

  • How should one understand the development of Christian Democrat political thought? As a coherent tradition (as some rather teleological accounts might seem to suggest), or as a story of sometimes quite dramatic ruptures? And: just how important was Rome?
  • Is there something peculiar to Christian democracy as an ideology (in a non-pejorative sense)? For instance, is it purely reactive? Has it always absorbed other belief systems? Does it indeed lack an 'original political theory'?
  • How has Christian Democratic thought been transmitted into and within different cultural contexts?
  • Is it a mistake to draw lessons from Christian Democracy for the creation of 'Muslim democracy'?
  • More generally: how should we understand and talk about processes of political (and moral) conversion?