In May, a group of pro-democracy thinkers and activists issued “The Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal.” It was a call for religious revival: an invitation for uncertain citizens to renew their faith at the altar of democracy.
“Backsliding democracies” are falling into illiberal apostasy, warn the signers, who include Francis Fukuyama, George Weigel, Sohrab Ahmari, and James Kirchick. “Faith in democratic institutions has been declining,” because young people “who have no memory of the struggles against totalitarianism” have failed to take up the faith of their fathers.
Against this “erosion of belief,” the signers seek to “revive faith in the efficacy of democratic institutions.” They praise “the market economy that is free of corruption,” and declare democracy “a precondition for decent, inclusive societies.” We must profess the faith that hath broken every barrier down.
Not everyone is heeding the call. Last week, European conservatives issued “The Paris Statement,” a declaration that takes a much darker view of democracy and freedom.
Like the signers of the Prague Appeal, the men behind the Paris Statement—who include Roger Scruton, Ryszard Legutko, and Rémi Brague—see democracy in religious terms. But they are skeptics rather than believers. They decry a “faux Christendom of universal human rights.” They reject the “utopian, pseudo-religious crusade for a borderless world.” They seek to resist this “ersatz religious enterprise, complete with strong creedal commitments—and anathemas.” The main threat we face is “neither Russian adventurism nor Muslim immigration,” but the fanatical insistence on values of openness and tolerance embodied by the European Union.
According to the Paris Statement, the illiberal turn among young people comes not from a loss of memory, but from hard-earned historical experience. Growing up in the wake of the ’68 cultural revolution has made them hate the word “freedom.” ’68ers thought they were delivering liberties for which the whole world should be grateful—but “a liberty that frustrates our heart’s deepest longings becomes a curse.” Young people today have experienced chaos; now they want authority and structure.
The signers of the Paris Statement urge a more humble view of liberalism. They view it as a matter of “humane decencies” rather than an ideology capable of dictating policies or firing imaginations. They insist that “economic growth, while beneficial, is not the highest good.” They cast doubt on one of the fundamental axioms of democratic faith, stating that political assent “has not always taken the form of representative democracy.”
The signers of the Paris Statement commend an alternate faith—what they call “A Europe We Can Believe In.” This is a Europe based on “Christian roots,” shared experiences, and beloved terrain. It is a modest faith of history and locality, more akin to Shinto than to the universal claims of the Roman Catholic Church. Against a quasi-sacred bureaucratic imperium, they assert local loyalties in anti-colonial terms. Coming after the stinging denunciations of the false democratic faith, the Paris Statement’s affirmation seems strikingly modest.
After reading the two declarations, I picked up Jacques Maritain’s Integral Humanism, a book that influenced both the founders of the European Union and the fathers of the Second Vatican Council. Maritain envisioned a Christendom in which good citizens need not be Christian. Against integralists who hoped to preserve a “sacred empire” in which the visible church was linked to the state, Maritain urged a “holy freedom.” A shared humanist commitment—drawn, of course, from Christian sources—could substitute for explicit profession and enforcement of Catholic faith. In Maritain’s view, anyone could possess those “merits which properly merit . . . the name of Christian virtues,” even if he “does not know or fails to recognize the Christian profession.” Anonymous Christians could build an anonymous Christendom.
The two manifestos seem to reflect two directions taken by Maritain’s heirs. With a few admirable exceptions, those who are most committed to democratic values speak less than ever about those values’ Christian roots, and those who are committed to the Christian roots are more skeptical than ever of democratic values. According to the signers of the Prague Appeal, we should return to faith in a system that has “intrinsic value.” According to the signers of the Paris Statement, we must secularize politics, retreating from the quasi-religious declarations that stud the Prague Appeal.
An English friend of mine who agrees with many of the criticisms offered by the Paris Statement’s signers told me that the document nonetheless left him cold. Matthew Walther, writing on the Paris Statement for The Week, is similarly unenthused. These cool reactions strike me as telling. Manifestos typically seek to inspire. But the Paris Statement—for all its stinging critiques of the current order and fond recollection of shared memory and terrain—fails to offer a vision as universal and bracing as the one contained in the Prague Appeal.
Augustine knew that false loves give way only to true loves. Perhaps we need to return to the democratic faith of our fathers. But if the faux Christendom of democracy and human rights is as dangerous as the signers of the Paris Statement suggest, we will need more than local patriotism and recollection of Christian roots to get beyond it. Only an authentic Christendom can overcome a counterfeit. Only humane integralism can supplant integral humanism. Our choice is between an anonymous Christendom and one that looks to the body of Christ.
If we choose the latter, more than raising border walls, we will have to exalt Mary, the Tower of David. Veneration of her secures worship of the incarnate Christ, who secures the equal dignity of all.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.