Influence of established religion still going strong in Germany

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.

The presidency

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

Posted in Catholicism, Germany, Lutheranism, Politics, Religious privileges | Leave a comment

German court rules church tax opt-out ruled equivalent to leaving

In Germany religious communities which have been recognised as statutory corporations by the state can have the state’s tax authorities collect a religious tax from their members, which is usually an amount equivalent to 8-9% of the income tax owed by the individual members. This is one of the religious privileges the two big churches (Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran Church) enjoy, but also smaller religious communities such as Free Churches and also Jewish communities. The state is compensated to the tune of 2-4% of the tax collected, but it is controversial whether this actually covers all the costs the state incurs.

This privilege has two important consequences: first, it reduces the pressure of Sunday services to be interesting enough to get the parishioners to come to church, as the churches get their money either way. It goes without saying that attendance figures have been in decline for years. Second, it means a high degree of entanglement of state and church administration in coordinating the levying of the tax. In Germany, every citizen needs to register with the civil registry of the municipality within which they reside, and also declare their religion. In turn, churches also transmit their records to the state, so every citizen from the moment they are baptised will be entered into the registry as a member of the respective religion, and later when they start earning money get the church tax deducted automatically by the state.

A retired professor of Catholic canon law one day had an idea. According to his understanding of canon law, declaring your resignation from the church at a government office as many people do in order to stop paying the church tax – was not a valid resignation with respect to canon law. That is, he argued that you could leave the church as far as the government was concerned and thus be spared the church tax, but remain a member of good standing in the eyes of the church and receive all sacraments etc. He even asked the clerk to specify that he was leaving the “Roman Catholic Church (Statutory Corporation)”.

Understandably, the church was not amused, and the archdiocese of Freiburg sued the city of Staufen in administrative court. The lower court had agreed with the professor’s position, but the court of appeals, the Federal Administrative Court announced on  September 26 that you cannot just opt out of the church tax. If you leave the church, it means you leave completely. The verdict is not available yet,  but there is a press release.

On September 24, shortly before the verdict was announced, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference decreed that members who opt out of the church tax would be excluded from sacraments and religious burials (also see this post on Dispatches). Interesting enough though the bishops did explicitly state that such a resignation would not lead to an automatic excommunication.

Posted in Catholicism, Germany, Religious privileges | Leave a comment

Call the angel hotline – for 80 Euro cents

The Catholic Cathedral of Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, is known for its quirky angel statues. In April 2011, it installed a statue of an angel talking on a cellphone (photo by ackbar 2). A Dutch couple living near the cathedral then opened a Twitter account for the angel, and finally set up a phone line so people could call the angel. The New York Times reported on this three days ago, but it seems the story now has taken an all too familiar twist.

The Dutch couple were not charging extra for people calling the angel, and personally answered the calls, shall we say in lieu of the angel. The Catholic Church was not happy about strangers “profiting” from its angel statue, so what do they do? Naturally, they set up their own call line, this one however charges you 80 Euro cents for every call, and no live person answers the calls, just a tape recording.

We would have expected no less from the Roman Catholic Church.

(SourceHat tip)

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Civil union partnerships now equal to marriages in Germany

German civil union partnerships are now de facto equal to marriages.

The biggest complaint of the German LGBT movement about the civil union partnerships was that it didn’t have the same tax rules as for married couples, not allowing for a joint tax return for instance, with the effect that many civil union couples ended up paying more taxes than married couples of a comparable socio-economic situation.

While the conservative party leading the federal government has resisted efforts by its smaller liberal coalition partner to amend the tax law, the tax agencies of all the states (in Germany the states are tasked with the execution of federal law, including tax law) have agreed on treating civil union couples the same way they do married couples. There had been some tax court cases that were pointing in that directions already.

This is a major step!

(I’m surprised though that no newspaper seemed to have reported on this, except for a conservative newspaper. It’s a shame these issues don’t get more attention)

EDIT: Not to give the wrong impression though: income tax equality is a major step, but there are still two major areas, in which civil union partners are not equal to married couples:

  • inheritance law: the amount that is exempted from the inheritance tax varies.
  • adoption law: effectively, civil union partners are treated as singles by the adoption agencies and hence almost always end up at the bottom of the list of acceptable adoptive parents.
Posted in Germany, Marriage equality | Leave a comment

Anonymous declares war on religion, targets Vatican and other religious websites

The internet group Anonymous has declared a “war on religion”, according to some websites, and targeted a number of religious websites, among them the Vatican’s. Other websites include those of Bethel Outreach International ChurchCharlotte International Church, and Crossfire Ministries (see here and here for more, as well as here). While the attack on the Vatican website was claimed to be the work of an Italian group calling itself Anonyomous Italia, the defacement of the American websites was accompanied with the following declaration:

Greetings fellow pirates,

Let us be clear from the start: any kind of religion is a sickness to this world. A sickness that creates hate and intolerance, a sickness that brings people to wage war on their fellow people, a sickness that has come to this world long time ago, when mankind wasn’t educated, a sickness that brought false hope and suppression to those who believed and often even more terror and suppression to those who dared not to believe.

Religions are authoritarian hierarchies, designed to dominate your free will. Religions are mind control.They’re power structures that aim to convince you to give away your power for the benefit of those who enjoy dominating people. When you subscribe to a religion, you enroll in a mindless minion training program. Religions don’t market themselves as such, but this is essentially how they operate. In case you ever wondered why religious teachings are invariably mysterious, confusing, and incongruent? This is no accident — it’s intentional.

We see religion pretty much the same way as we see many governments. Fear mongering and making lots of money,so a small group of ppl will become insanely rich, while the believing masses can eat dirt. As long as they are afraid that “omgomg god will come and strike great vengeance upon me” all is good.

To quote Encyclopedia Dramatica (bringing you answers to life, the universe and everything since last Thursday) on this issue:

»Religion is a severe mental illness created over 9000 years ago, at the same time as the Earth. Since then, religion has been one of the biggest sources of drama, f—-try, and unwarranted self-importance in the world today, secondary only to the internet. It is responsible for such insanity as Christf-gs believing that beating someone half to death with a 2,000 year old book will heal them and Muslims believing that if they blow themselves up they will get 72 virgins. Even atheists are not immune to the psychotomimetic effects of religion; the mere mention of religion is enough to send any atheist into hours of butthurt sh-tfits.«

So people of the world, don’t let religion control your life. Don’t fight against each other for contrary beliefs.This world and our life can be a wonderful adventure, where you have the unique chance to help mankind and your fellow citizens. Where we can all work together to make this earth a better place for ourselves,our children and all those generations who will come after us. ^(;,;)^

(See here for the official statement of Anonymous Italia in the original Italian)

While I can’t condone illegal acts, of course, I can’t deny their stance against religion does resonate with me.

Posted in Internet, Italy, United States | Leave a comment

German Lutheran Church monies paid out to Congolese militia accused of genocide

The German Lutheran Church is up in arms about a press report by a left-leaning newspaper, citing a UN report that $5,000 ended up in the hands of the Hutu militia FDLR currently operating in Congo. The FDLR includes members accused of being involved in the Rwandan genocide, and its political leadership is facing trial in Germany.

The German Lutheran Church denied the allegations claiming that the money was only intended to be used in a project for the “peaceful demobilisation of FDLR members”. The money was handled by its Congolese sister church, the Église du Christ au Congo (ECC). However, a Norwegian missionary, Kare Lode, involved in a joint project by a Norwegian and Congolese Pentecostal parish testified that most of the money was paid out to the FDLR for what appear to be highly dubious claims, such as transportation costs and meals for 150 members, which just don’t add up to $5,000. Thus, it can be assumed that the money was pocketed by FDLR commanders, who also have made it clear that they were not interested in the demobilisation of their fighters.

According to the UN report, the Congolese government paid $60,000 to the FDLR commander Mudacumura to provide an incentive for him to come to the bargaining table, an endeavour which ultimately failed.

Posted in Congo, Germany, Lutheranism, Missionaries, Norway, Politics | Leave a comment

Faith schools in UK found not to be inclusive

Like many European nations without a separation of state and church, the UK has so-called  faith schools, i.e. schools that teach a national curriculum but are otherwise affiliated with a particular religion and often include acts of religious worship and the teaching of a particular religion in their daily classroom activities (prior to 1990, they used to be called “church schools”). In many such schools, the religious organisation also has a say in who may attend the schools, thus effectively introducing a religion based selection for often highly competitive schools.

The Guardian has now done a study comparing faith schools against nondenominational schools in England. There are 19,534 state schools in England, out of which 10,603 schools have no religious affiliation, while the rest are mostly Church of England or Roman Catholic, the table from the Guardian’s study:

  • Church of England: 4,386 schools
  • Roman Catholic: 1,699 schools
  • Church of England/Methodist: 32 schools
  • Jewish: 27 schools
  • Methodist: 26 schools
  • Christian: 12 schools
  • Muslim: 6 schools
  • Roman Catholic/Church of England: 4 schools
  • Church of England/Roman Catholic: 3 schools
  • Methodist/Church of England: 3 schools
  • Sikh: 3 schools

From the 4,386 Church of England (CoE) schools, 53% are voluntary-controlled and thus receive all of their funding from the state, while 47% are voluntary-aided and receive some funding (usually 10%) from the CoE (source). It is at these voluntary-aided schools, where the clergy can have a say in who may attend, despite the vast majority of the funding still coming from state. All Roman Catholic schools count as voluntary-aided.

The CoE claims that despite the pupil selection on the basis of religion, they are still socially inclusive:

Are Church of England schools socially divisive?

No, most church schools simply reflect the areas in which they are located. All CofE Voluntary Controlled schools (around 2,500) have 100 per cent local admissions, and fully reflect the community within which they are set. CofE Voluntary Aided schools (around 2,100) usually admit children of Church of England and other Christian families first, but the vast majority also admit local children including children from families of other faith traditions.

This myth about schools merely reflecting the demographics of their area has long been accepted as an excuse for why faith-based schools seem to have lower percentages of economically disadvantaged pupils than secular schools. However, the Guardian’s study shows otherwise:

In St John’s Church of England primary in Croydon, south London, just 7% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, compared with 29% across the postcode and 24% across the local authority.

Meanwhile, at St James’s Catholic primary school in Richmond, south-west London, only 1% of pupils are eligible for free school meals, compared with 10% across the postcode and local authority.

So we have schools largely funded by the government, where the religious organisation affiliated with the school is allowed to discriminate in matter of student admission along the lines of religion, which at the same time also excludes socio-economically disadvantaged students. This has to stop (though as Guardian editor Andrew Brown points out, the very elitist character of faith schools will probably make those schools even more attractive for middle class parents).

Posted in Anglicanism, Catholicism, Education, Religious privileges, United Kingdom | Leave a comment