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The Protestant work ethic and Catholic subsidiarity shaped Switzerland: SVP

By design, the Swiss Confederation (or Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft) routinely escapes the attention of political analysts. Having maintained such resolute neutrality that it did not join the United Nations until 2002, Swiss non-alignment in large measure preserved her from the jackboot of Berlin and from the red flag of Moscow. Yet one unfortunate result has been the fact that the rest of the world has taken no theoretical inspiration from one of the most fascinating political organisms in the democratic sphere. This article shall call attention to the majority Swiss People’s Party (SVP) as primarily an affirmation, but in some respects also as a challenge to the main presuppositions of Anglo-American political thought on questions of limited government and religious freedom.

Translatable as the Swiss People’s Party or the Folk Party of Switzerland, the SVP is heir to Huldreich Zwingli’s reformation of German-speaking Switzerland and to the subsequent Protestant jurisprudence of Johannes Althusius. The party currently occupies the most seats in the National Council or parliament (63 of 200), and in its English-language 2015-2019 party program systematically expounds numerous concepts of limited government and Christian liberty with remarkable authority and intelligence.

Switzerland dates from anti-Habsburg communal alliances of the late Middle Ages. The present constitution unites 26 cantons, or states, into a Federal Assembly composed of the lower house, the National Council, and the upper house, the Council of States. Instead of having a single president or prime minister, the Federal Assembly elects a plural executive known as the Federal Council, made up of seven members, and the presidency of the Swiss confederation rotates amongst its members. The system creates an interlocking political machine evocative of a Swiss clock.

The primary ideological contention of the SVP is that the numerous organs of confederal government must strictly adhere to their enumerated powers in the constitution of 1999. “Independence, direct democracy, neutrality, and federalism,” the party states, “make Switzerland a unique and special case. They are the guarantee for freedom and welfare.” These closely linked concepts are intended above all to ensure that the confederation is not slowly, surreptitiously, and then irrevocably made captive to European or international laws in the absence of the full democratic assent of the citizenry. The constitution itself requires a popular and cantonal plebiscite on accession to any collective security or international organization (Article 140); and in December 1992, the people and cantons narrowly voted down accession to the European Economic Area designed to comprehend the other non-EU holdouts Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein. All of them would have been subjected to the Court in Luxembourg, a defiant act which has preserved Switzerland as the only Western European nation over which the European Union has no legal authority at all.

The SVP, for its part, continues to champion this state of affairs. “The SVP advocates the preservation of an independent and neutral Switzerland. The sale of Swiss sovereignty and self-determination by the political elite must be stopped. Therefore, our country must no longer be insidiously integrated into international structures such as the EU.” The party likewise opposes Swiss membership in the Schengen/Dublin regimes, further erosion of banking confidentiality, and any military integration with NATO.

The party is secondarily concerned with preserving domestic free enterprise as guarantor of economic justice. Considered as a unit within international politics, Switzerland holds to numerous mercantilist practices unfamiliar to mainstream economic theory, like meticulous licensing of producers, high tariffs and import quotas, and extreme caution in the conclusion of free trade agreements. Although the SVP betrays no intention of challenging such cultural norms, it is resolved upon defending the middle classes especially from the tax-and-spend depredations of the groupe socialiste (which holds 43 seats) and their allies. “No one is more materialistic and self-serving than the leftists who seek to solve every problem using other people’s money,” the SVP argues. “This will lead to socialism, under which the state confiscates the property of its citizens for the purposes defined by it.” The party, therefore, opposes all tax increases, seeks a reduction in Swiss foreign aid, and would stop the shadow taxation through a fining system that increased from 300 million francs in 1997 to 630 million by 2009. The state-controlled SRG media monopoly should also be broken up and that space opened to private competition.

“[T]he Protestant work ethic is the foundation for an entrepreneurial and also performance-driven society … [and] the Catholic principle of subsidiarity and the stressing of the value of the individual within Creation, had and continues to have a substantial influence on Switzerland and Swiss federalism.”

Above all, the SVP demands that Switzerland, with a population of 7.5 million – one-fourth of whom are of foreign origin, and with a net migration of 80,000 annually – must reduce immigration, both as a means of securing prosperity to the existing inhabitants more entitled to it, and in a larger sense as a means of preserving an internationally envied quality of life. “Integration is primarily the responsibility of the migrants and must be required of them. Anyone who refuses to learn one of Switzerland’s national languages, flouts Swiss laws, or does not earn their own living must leave Switzerland.”

The immigration issue quickly evolves into the more vital question of identity, which both sides of the Atlantic currently confront with renewed intensity. With regard to worldview and fundamental values, the Swiss Folk Party is emphatic. “The SVP is committed to upholding Switzerland’s Western Christian culture. It forms the basis of our identity and our coexistence. It is not a coincidence that our country’s national emblem contains a cross and that our national anthem is a prayer.” Both Catholic and Reformed Christianity are by law established in the majority of the Swiss cantons, and the SVP – although majority Protestant – is determined to honor and uphold this interconfessional inheritance.

“The image of society and people shaped by the Christian faith is of major importance for Switzerland’s culture and political landscape,” the party continues. “[T]he Protestant work ethic is the foundation for an entrepreneurial and also performance-driven society … [and] the Catholic principle of subsidiarity and the stressing of the value of the individual within Creation, had and continues to have a substantial influence on Switzerland and Swiss federalism.” With the possible exception of the Democratic Unionists of Northern Ireland, no mainstream political party in the entire Protestant world – not even the Republican Party – publicly professes Christianity in this manner in its official documentation.

The SVP likewise firmly, but politely, insists upon the exclusivity of this worldview. The party helped organize the 2009 plebiscite banning minarets in Switzerland, and in its platform also opposes the veiling of public employees, exemption from swimming lessons, the formation of madrasa schools, and other Islamic encroachments upon Christian society. At the other extreme, it rejects adoption by gay couples and the “absolute equating of same-sex partnerships with marriage,” conscientiously balancing duty to God with equality before the law.

The Federal Assembly reconvenes September 10, when it shall once more take up questions ranging from pollution control to the stabilization of Syria. Although Swiss politics seldom captivates the outside world, it may furnish some consolation that an admittedly small nation is led by a many committed to such principles and convictions. Henceforth, let wine, chocolates, watches, and toys serve no longer as the sole exports from that Christian confederation.

(Photo credit: Artur Straszewski. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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Mark R. Royce, Ph.D., is assistant professor of international relations at NOVA-Annandale and author of The Political Theology of European Integration: Comparing the Influence of Religious Histories on European Policies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). His research interests include EU studies, British politics, and realism in international relations.