Last weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), along with their allies the Free Democrats (FDP), won 48.4% of the vote in parliamentary elections. Although the CDU lost part of its vote share from the last elections, the FDP won a larger share of the votes than it ever has. This means that the CDU and the FDP can now form a center-right coalition, a departure from the grand coalition between the CDU and the Social Democrats that led the country since Merkel’s first election win in 2005.
For the first time since 1998, the German right-wing will lead its own coalition government. The CDU, with over twice as many parliamentary seats as the FDP, will set the agenda, but will have to give some room at the table to their increasingly-powerful partners. Like other Christian Democratic parties in Europe, the CDU has traditionally combined a support for national sovereignty and social conservatism with a defense of the welfare state. The FDP, on the other hand, is of a more classical-liberal bent, campaigning for a reduction of taxes across the board, privatization of public services, and deregulation of the economy. The coming months will tell whether the parties can find common ground and agree on an agenda that is pro-business, without alienating Christian conservatives who want to help the poor, and whether Merkel can strike the fine balance between traditional religious values and cosmopolitan capitalism.
If she needs examples of how to build a successful coalition, she would do well to look across the Atlantic to the United States.
In most of Europe, the Right is a fragile compromise between two politically-connected groups, the believers and the businesspeople. In America, it is more of a marriage. There is give and take on both sides, as in any marriage, and there are some cases of blatant hypocrisy and sacrificing principles for political expediency. Still, the relationship between free markets and Christian values in America is a unique intellectual contribution to the world, and one that Merkel and other right-wing leaders around the world would do well to emulate.
What are the hallmarks of the Christian-capitalist brand of the Right in America? There is a strong infusion of values into economics and of market practices into the good intentions of believers. The late Rep. Jack Kemp, for example, described himself as a “bleeding-heart conservative.” As the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under the first President Bush, he championed the creation of economic empowerment zones in inner cities, subject to fewer taxes than other businesses, and tenant-ownership of public housing. Kemp married a sincere desire to ease the plight of the poor to market-friendly ideals. So do tens of millions of conservative Christian voters, who see no opposition between cutting taxes and helping the poor, between shrinking government and protecting the weak.
This desire to integrate morals and free markets goes beyond America’s borders. In 2001, speaking before the Council of the Americas, President Bush framed the argument for free trade in deeply moral terms: “Open trade is not just an economic opportunity, it is a moral imperative. Trade creates jobs for the unemployed. When we negotiate for open markets, we are providing new hope for the world’s poor. And when we promote open trade, we are promoting political freedom.” Unlike in Europe, where religious conservatives tend to support a large state bureaucracy to support the poor, along with protectionist measures to keep domestic workers safe, American Christians on the Right have reconciled themselves to many of the ideas of free market economics.
This combination of free market practices instituted in the context of pursuing moral ideals has yielded great fruit: America has considerably lower unemployment rates than Europe, particularly among youth and minority communities. America’s welfare system also does a great job of supporting the poor. In 1996, following reform, welfare began focusing most of its resources on helping the poor to get education and jobs, so that they can become self-sufficient and have responsibility over their families. The notion of delegating authority to families and empowering individuals, rather than simply throwing money at the needy, is deeply in line with Christian principles and free market, limited government practice. It is not in line, however, with the welfare states in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, which foster dependency on the state by subsidizing everything from child birth to unemployment to public health administrations.
Chancellor Merkel’s CDU and the FDU may traditionally have differences over the finer points of economic, tax, and welfare policy, but these should not be seen to be insurmountable. As the American Right has shown, Christian Democratic and free market values can coincide. By seeing pro-market reforms as ways to help the poor to get jobs, expand trade to the needy areas of the world, and foster family responsibility among the marginalized people in society, Christians and other moral conservatives have found good ways to make good intentions reality.
A free and Christian democracy, a goal with which both German parties should theoretically agree, can achieve great things. As Wilhelm Röpke, father of the Christian Democracy which fostered Germany’s renewal after World War II, acknowledged: “The market economy, and with social and political freedom… implies the existence of a society in which certain fundamentals are respected… individual effort and responsibility, absolute norms and values, independence based on ownership, prudence and daring, calculating and saving, responsibility for planning one’s own life, proper coherence with the community, family feeling, a sense of tradition and the succession of generations combined with an open-minded view of the present and the future, proper tension between individual and community, firm moral discipline, respect for the value of money, the courage to grapple on one’s own with life and its uncertainties, a sense of the natural order of things, and a firm scale of values.”
Merkel’s CDU-FDU coalition would do well to set that morally-founded freedom as Germany’s political standard once more.