Religion in the German Federal Election
Aaron Langenfeld
13 Sep 2017
Institut für Katholische Theologie, Fakultät für Kulturwissenschaften, Universität Paderborn

Aaron Langenfeld/ Lukas Wiesenhütter
Paderborn, Germany

For many Germans, religion has become a strange subject to deal with. Even though a majority of the German population formally still belongs to a faith community, the space for religious interpretations of the world in the public sphere is increasingly marginalized. Religions seem to be old-fashioned, ideological, somehow irrational, intolerant and even the frequently invoked moral authority has been deconstructed by numerous scandals of the past. Above all, religion is a matter of personal belief that, whenever entering the public sphere, is faced with skepticism. Especially the role of Muslims in society and Islamic religiosity in the public sphere in general have been highly contested topics ever since former President Wulff’s famous statement that “Islam belongs to Germany”. With the increasing number of refugees arriving in Germany from Muslim majority countries in 2015, anti-immigrant as well as anti-Islamic sentiment were frequently articulated in demonstrations and – meanwhile – successful political organizations. Even though many consider the future of the education system and the consequences of digitalization among the most important topics ahead of the upcoming elections, the discourse is often predominated by debates about migration and the future role of Islam.

It is particularly interesting that, on the one hand, within that discourse there is a clear tendency to ban visible religious influences – or even symbols – from the public sphere. The Burka, hardly ever worn in German cities, has made it to election posters to symbolize the alleged upcoming clash of civilizations. On the other hand, reference to the “Jewish-Christian tradition” has become a rhetorical tool for justifying the rejection of Islamic influence. One of the most striking examples is that participants of the anti-Islamic PEGIDA-movement (Patriot Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident) were carrying crosses in the colors of the German national flag on demonstrations. The term “Christian” - as well as the reference to the “Jewish-Christian heritage” or the “values of enlightenment” – is thus in danger of being deprived of its content and being turned into an artificial construction of the German “us” against a foreign “them” – often identified with Islam.

From a theological point of view, this rhetoric is worrying. If terms like “Christian tradition” are increasingly becoming meaningless or are arbitrarily used to counter the faith of others, theologians are called to publically resist this shift in meaning. Moreover, if religious references are turned into mere identity markers, religious claims are not taken seriously in their moral and philosophical normativity. This is why attempts to limit Islamic influences can also be seen as attempts to restrict religious freedom in general and to question the plausibility of religious belief altogether. As a matter of fact, the relation between the Christian churches and the far-right party AfD (Alternative for Germany) is very tensed because of disagreements concerning the dogmatic teaching. Ahead of the elections, Christian theologians should not be mislead by the claim that the Christian roots of the country need to be defended. Rather, the task seems to be to argue for the rationality of religious belief (and for the role of theology as an academic discipline, for that matter) and to publically oppose the attempt of arguing against religious belief by using religious vocabulary. Nothing less is at stake than the interpretational sovereignty of the Jewish-Christian heritage and – obviously – its future. At the same time, the election race can be rationalized and focused on the real tasks the movements of migration have evoked, for example education.