This week, Peer Steinbrück, the prospective challenger of Chancellor Angela Merkel, announced that he had re-joined the Lutheran Church he had quit at the age of 18 years. So let’s take this as an opportunity to look at the influence of established religion in Germany on its leading politicians.
The two state churches and the two major parties
Some background first: Germany has basically two state churches, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church. They are accorded special privileges by the constitution and a bunch of treaties, in the case of the Catholic Church this treaty is famously known as Reichskonkordat. Some of the privileges include the right for any church-owned entity, including hospitals and kindergartens, to discriminate against employees on religious/dogmatic grounds, to supervise the hiring and teaching of religious education and theology instructors on state schools and state universities, military chaplains and bishops with their salaries paid for by the state, and the levying of the church tax by the state tax authorities. The exact details vary a bit, especially since the Lutheran Church is organised in 20 independent entities known as synods (but unlike in the US, the German Lutheran Churches do not overlap geographically). Also, certain privileges can also be enjoyed by other denominations, both Christian and not.
There are two major parties, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which in Bavaria is known as Christian Social Union (CSU). This is a typical representative of the political movement known as Christian Democracy, and the support of the state church system. Before the Second World War, there had been a Catholic Party in Germany known as Centre Party, the CDU/CSU parties were founded after the Second World War and achieved a denominational unity of religious Conservativsm in Germany. Until Merkel’s chancellorship though, all chancellors from the CDU were men from the Catholic south. Predictably enough, the conservative party is still opposed to marriage equality, though it has to be said that in most social issues the party in part has been pushed to modernity, especially as Merkel is said to be very pragmatic about these issues. Merkel has been regarded with some suspicion as she is a Protestant woman from the eastern part of the country, but by stressing the fact that she is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor (who by the way moved from West Germany to the east for a posting), and speaking often about her Christian faith, she tries to alleviate the suspicions she is facing within her party. (See for example here.)
The other major party is the oldest German party still in existence, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), founded in 1863. As it came from the workers’ movement, it started out with a decidedly anti-clerical bent, as the clergy were seen as part of the establishment the party was fighting against. But one principle of Social Democracy is to change society through democratic reform, not revolution, so as it came to rule at the national level (the first time in 1918), political compromise meant also that it slowly became part of the mainstream. Nowadays, after it has had many years of leading the national government, the last time under Schröder who ruled from 1998-2005, it has reversed its anti-clerical stance. Even though Schröder famously declared religion to be a private matter and despite being a Lutheran explicitly did not swear his oath “so help me god”, many of the current party leadership are openly religious. A group called “Laicist Social Democrats” was rejected by the party board as laicism had come to be seen as too “antagonistic” to the current constitutional arrangement of entanglement of state and church. (See more background info here).
To recap, a short overview of the government coalitions in the Bundestag from 1998-2012 (the parliament elected by the people by proportionate vote, in turn elects the chancellor and his or her government):
- 1998-2005: Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD), in the coalition with the Green Party. The Green Party’s main themes are the environment and pacificism, but there is also a strong religious undercurrent in some parts of the party.
- 2005-2009: Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), in a so-called Grand Coalition with the SPD.
- 2009-2013: Chancelor Angela Merkel (CDU), in a coalition with the neoliberal party FDP. The FDP has a status quo stance in religious matters.
With that in mind, let us first look at the troubles that had engulfed Germany’s largely ceremonial presidency at the end of last year. The then president Christian Wulff, from the CDU, had come under fire for accepting generous gifts in various form from wealthy friends. He had to resign over this in February, and it was quite telling what kind of people were under consideration. Christian Wulff, as a former state premier, had been a politician’s politician, and after the debacle many were looking for someone with a moral compass, decidedly un-politician-like. The president is elected by something called the Federal Assembly, which is made up of the Bundestag members and an equal number of electors nominated by the state parliaments, so often the presidency is negotiated among the major parties. And to my chagrin back then, many candidates were proposed with a strong religious background.
- former Lutheran bishop of Berlin, Wolfgang Huber
- former Lutheran bishop of Hanover and head of the German Lutheran church, Margot Kässmann
- Lutheran pastor and former head of the Stasi documentation agency, Joachim Gauck (Rostock)
- current president of the synod of the German Lutheran Church, Katrin Göring-Eckardt. Also current vice-president of parliament, for the Green Party. Would be a theologian too if reunification hadn’t jumpstarted her political career in 1989 (she’s from Thuringia).
Those who have followed German politics may have noted that all major parties had come to an agreement to elect Joachim Gauck, which happened on March 18th. So since March, Germany has had a pastor for president. Still we can console ourselves that at least none of the candidates above was from the Roman Catholic Church. The Lutheran Church indeed can be quite liberal, blessing same-sex civil unions, they have female bishops like Kässmann. Gauck famously has been living in cohabitation with his girlfriend for 12 years, as he did not get a divorce from his wife, from whom he separated in 1990. This did not cause a ruckus even in the CDU/CSU, except for the most conservative party members. Gauck’s overall political stances however are what Germans call “value conservative”, and above all he has a neo-liberal streak. Rumours had it that the bishop Huber was a more typically liberal Lutheran, who had the backing of the SPD, but due to several reasons Gauck became the all party unity candidate.
I remember watching a talk show whose host, Günther Jauch, is known as openly religious, with a bunch of Catholic politicians in there, asking the inane question if they should be concerned that now with the two most important offices in the hand of Lutherans, that of chancellor and president, Catholics should be worried. I wanted to yell at the TV set, what about the NONES, 1/3 of the population! Fortunately, there was one famous ex-news anchor by the name of Ulrich Wickert, who carried the torch for the non-religious and atheists by declaring in that same talk show that faith and reason were not compatible. At least one person trying break the dominance of established religion on political discourse.
Peer Steinbrück, the challenger of Angela Merkel
Now let’s get back to Peer Steinbrück. Merkel has ruled the country since 2005, and as the other main party (though there are smaller parties that can form coalitions with the bigger ones) the challenger has usually been nominated by the SPD. In 2009, former foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had lost his bid against Merkel in a crushing defeat. All year, one of the most important topics in German politics has been who would challenger Merkel in 2013. Four candidates had been under discussion:
- Sigmar Gabriel, the party chairman and former governor of Lower Saxony (he lost against Christian Wulff in 2003, yes the guy who had to resign in disgrace as president this year)
- Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the former foreign minister, who is now the party group leader (something akin to minority leader) in the Bundestag and had a go already in 2009
- Peer Steinbrück, former governor oft he most populous state, Northrhine-Westphalia, which he lost in 2005, later finance minister under Merkel in a so-called Grand Coalition
- Hannelore Kraft, who had won back Northrhine-Westphalia for the SPD in 2010, and who had just won early elections convincingly in May.
Kraft was the only woman of the four, and had ruled out running for chancellor next year due to her promise to stay governor, so the three remaining men had been collectively known as “the Troika”. All three had their pros and cons, but one of the biggest cons was that they all had lost important elections before. Wary of the media echo, the plan had been to wait until January until Lower Saxony had gone to the polls, but a couple of weeks ago, this arrangement fell flat after it was leaked that the three had reached an agreement who should run, namely Peer Steinbrück. As former finance minister he is believed to project the compentency in financial matters the electorate expects of a chancellor facing the European crisis, and his charm and personality are widely popular with the populace. He is less beloved by the left wing of the party, as he clearly belongs to the Schröder wing of the party. He knows that he has one shot at the chancellery.
So it was no surprise that he announced that he had rejoined the Lutheran church. In a similar move, Kraft renewed her vows with her husband in a church ceremony, something which they had not done when they got married in 1990. But back to Steinbrück. Brought up as a Lutheran in Hamburg, he had left the church when he was 18 years old under the influence of Karlheinz Deschner‘s work, a researcher very critical of Christianity. Steinbrück got the impression that churches had always been on the side of the powerful, a typical stance historically for Social Democrats, and left. So how does he justify rejoining? He told Günther Jauch, the same talk show host I’ve mentioned above, that he had a private conversation with a “leading church representative” and came to the impression that religion has a deeply stabilising function in society, which prompted him to take this step. So unlike Schröder, who declined to use a religious oath, he would even be willing to use “so help me God” should he be elected. He further said, that he would call himself a believer, if one would define “God as a principle of peaceful co-existence”.
Right, if that was what god is about, most atheists would be believers too. By stressing the communal aspect of the faith, Steinbrück is clearly trying to appeal to the cultural Christians who despite no longer going regularly to church still identify with their nominal faith. He knows that a story how he suddenly found religion would not only be unbelievable, but also not impress many people in Germany, which after all is a thoroughly secularised society. According to what the Laicists in the SPD are saying on the internet, while some are disappointed at him for pandering to established religion, most see it as a transparent maneuvre to get votes, and still hope that he will be less susceptible to religion than his more openly religious colleagues from the party leadership