The return of religious politics


Religion is back on the political agenda, with various religious issues the subject of intensive political debate. We spoke with Dr Ellen Ueberschär, co-president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, on Islam in Europe, the role of churches in refugee policy, churches’ relationship to the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party in Germany, and the extent to which they should be involved in politics.

Ellen Ueberschär

Green European Journal: A number of religious policy issues – ranging from Islamic religious education to the introduction of a new law requiring crosses to be hung in Bavarian public buildings – are presently the subject of quite some controversy in Germany. What is your take on the current situation and its challenges?

Ellen Ueberschär: It would be absurd to suggest that religion had returned to the political sphere simply because of the Bavarian cross decree. This was simply a ‘hook’ addressed at a specific political milieu.

The key question is how to integrate Islam and other religious communities within the context of liberalism and religious pluralism. Germany’s constitutional law is unique. Unlike in secular states, the constitution does not provide for the strict separation of state and religion. The neutrality that it promotes has something of a subduing effect on religion.

There are discussions being held about whether Islam could be integrated in such a system, following in the footsteps of the Jewish communities and the Bahà’i, while knowing full well that there is no single ‘Islam’. The ongoing discussions, the diverging views, and the fears and the projections expressed show that this is a significant challenge.

A focus of current debate is the possibility of introducing a ‘mosque tax’. This would be similar to the German church tax system, in which members of certain religious congregations pay a percentage of their income. How do you see this working out?

The background to this debate is the question of foreign funding. The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), one of the largest Islamic organisations in Germany, has been completely discredited by its dependence on the Turkish religious authorities. For many people, including myself, it is intolerable that [Turkish President] Erdoğan’s authoritarian politics determine life in German mosques, for instance content requirements for Friday prayers, the exchange of community leaders, or the posting of Turkish imams.

The idea behind the mosque tax is that the congregations themselves – whose biggest problem is always financial – have their own sources of income that allow them to be independent of foreign influence. Sounds easy, but it’s actually rather complicated. A prerequisite for benefitting from such a tax is recognition as a statutory body under public law. However, the majority of Muslim congregations do not currently meet the requirements for this. I am very much in favour of the German state making every effort to support those Muslim congregations that have a positive impact on the community through their work, and also give them formal recognition for their work.

And we’re not starting from zero. There are a handful of centres for Islamic studies in Germany, there is Muslim religious education in schools, and there are regulations for burial and pastoral care. Among all of the frantic reform proposals, it is important to remember that everyday practical arrangements create more trust and better support integration than the larger issues dogged by all sorts of legal uncertainties.

Does the issue of immigration also not pose a challenge for Christians? A recent study by American fact tank the Pew Research Center found that more Christians than non-Christians expressed negativity towards immigrants and religious minorities.

Of course! Many traditionally oriented Christians feel threatened by the fact that the churches are empty and the mosques are full. This is their real, lived experience, and it cannot simply be dismissed. Many studies show that Islamophobia among Protestant Christians is higher than among the average population, and that’s a problem.

In my time as Secretary General of the German Protestant Church Assembly (Kirchentag), this great Protestant public forum, we worked intensively to counteract these tendencies: we promoted interfaith dialogue, created opportunities for representatives of different local communities to meet, and organised major forums on issues such as religion and violence, religion and the state, and coexistence in a religiously pluralist society.

A key issue is the need for encounters between people, as feelings of resentment towards Muslims are often not rationally explicable but rather feed on prejudice and a deep-seated disposition that are not so easy to address. The word religion is derived from ligare, to bind. And the more reflective and transparent this bond is, the lower the susceptibility to fundamentalist ideas.

Religion is played out in the public sphere, not just in private. This means that churches have an obligation to get involved in public discourse, as do many others.

A matter currently under discussion within German Protestantism is whether the growing number of people leaving the church is due to its clear positioning in favour of refugee reception. The church has stood firm in its support of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision not to close Germany’s borders in 2015. And it hasn’t merely paid lip service to this principle. The use of church asylum has intensified, partnerships with persecuted Christians in the Middle East have been strengthened, and church agencies such as Caritas and Diakonie are very strongly engaged in refugee reception and integration, both institutionally and financially.

However, there are clearly also Christians who criticise the admission of refugees, and the churches’ clear stance on this issue. I cannot personally think of any biblical justification for arguments against refugee reception. No subject is as clearly spelled out in the Bible, in which almost nothing is clear, as the reception of strangers as an expression of godliness. 

Some think that right-wing populists could be infiltrating the church.

Yes, that is Liane Bednarz’s thesis. Her new book gives a good overview of the different currents in the two main churches. But we must be careful not to overstate this idea. I do not see any infiltration of the churches by right-wing populists. It is simply not the case that the number of people within churches holding extreme right-wing views has increased. It is still the same old faces who have been peddling the same views for the past 20 or 30 years – polemics against gender issues, homophobia, and Islamophobia.

What has changed is that the AfD has created a political platform in which these isolated currents are able to come together. As a result, they suddenly belong to a political movement, are better connected and are more present – and of course they are assisted in this by the amplifying power of social media.

How should we react to this?

With arguments, with open discussions. In this, churches and individual congregations in Germany are facing the same problems as everyone else – should they include right-wing authoritarian and right-wing populist voices, and by so doing provide them with a platform? Or exclude them and thereby confirm their feeling of victimisation? Whatever the answer to this question, it is clear we need to talk, both within and outside of churches.

Church influence on AfD voters is limited, however. In Saxony, for example, the electoral potential of the AfD is very high, but the majority never come to church. It’s therefore not possible to make a connection between AfD strongholds and the Protestant church in Saxony. In Baden-Württemberg, however, the situation is somewhat different. There, fundamentalist Christianity has various different manifestations and is relatively present outside the official regional church.

What is the situation like at a European level? Are there big differences between the various churches on migration issues?

It’s difficult to say. In Italy, for example, the Waldensian Church and the Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio have launched a major project, Mediterranean Hope, which includes sea rescue operations, resettlement, and refugee reception programmes. In Brussels, the ecumenical Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe coordinates migration and integration policy issues at a European level on behalf of 28 member churches. Of course, churches and voices within churches have a hard time in countries that pursue anti-immigrant policies such as Hungary. 

What can the Christian faith contribute to the European project?

A considerable amount! The history of Europe is inconceivable without Christianity; it is an integral part of its cultural heritage. Take the story of the Good Samaritan, who does not pass by the injured man but rather lays him on his donkey, tends to his wounds, takes him to an inn and pays the landlord to take further care of him. This is the complete antithesis of turning away from the dying person and letting them bleed to death as practised in Late Antiquity. That was part of the ancient image of man.

The Christian conception of humanity, characterised by charity, solidarity, and social cohesion: this is the fundamental idea behind Europe. This connects Europe, it brings it together – even if you don’t have to look far to find historical examples of violence and war.

But can Europe be defined as a Christian project?

It is also a Christian project. Robert Schuman and Charles De Gaulle, for example, key figures in the founding of the European Union, were practising Catholics. The creation of the European peace project was religiously motivated. Behind the economic and political arguments in favour of Europe stood the idea that there is something worth defending: the positive side of Europe’s Christian heritage.

In fact, this is not a uniquely Christian heritage but rather a religious heritage, because Islam has also had a decisive influence on European development. This has, of course, been sidelined. There is, however, a sense of European cohesion between Christians which could be built upon.

An example of this is the proposed European Christian Convention (European Kirchentag). The idea is fascinating: that participants from different Christian denominations and from all over Europe can come together to organise a pan-European meeting, exchange ideas, and by so doing represent European cohesion. This also helps to create the European public sphere that we so desperately need.

The word religion is derived from ligare, to bind. And the more reflective and transparent this bond is, the lower the susceptibility to fundamentalist ideas.

The European elections will take place in May 2019. What role should the church play in this?

None at all. I hope the days of churches making recommendations on which political party to vote for are long gone. I strongly believe that the churches should not exert any party political influence. This is outside of their scope. But they nevertheless have an important role to play in raising Europe as a subject of discussion and strengthening European cohesion through their ecumenical work.

Should the church not get involved in politics?

Not in party politics. Aside from that, it is very important that churches exercise political responsibility. We’ve already seen an example of this in the highly political refugee issue. You can’t take the name of the founder of your religion, someone who pursued a radical path of peace and justice, and then claim that “today’s public affairs are none of our business”. One thing is clear to me – religion is played out in the public sphere, not just in private.

This means that churches have an obligation to get involved in public discourse, as do many others. Of course, they have to accept the pluralist nature of discourse, and opinions that are different to their own. And I myself have experience of the church in a country that had stifled political discourse, when its political function was to create a space in which justice, peace, and the integrity of creation could be talked about. This was during the 1980s in the German Democratic Republic.

As a member of the German Green Party, how do you see the relationship the party has to religion?

The Green Party is the only party that has drafted a position paper on religious issues. We are clear pioneers in this field. A commission of Green Christians, Muslims, Jews and those with no religious affiliation met for in-depth discussions on religious policy issues and this led to a resolution being put before the Green Party Congress. This clear positioning is not shared by the other political parties. Of course, not all questions have been resolved, but we have a good fundamental approach to how religion can be lived in a free and pluralist society.

For me, human rights, peace, and justice are part of my Christian identity and these values led me, almost naturally, to the Green Party.

First published in the Green European Journal