The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's 95 theses reveals how faith still matters in German public life—and, crucially, in the nation's politicsby Phoebe Cooke / September 19, 2017 / Leave a comment
In the days ahead of the election a small east German town is brimming with anticipation. Crowds fill the streets, chattering excitedly as they follow signs on vast billboard posters. No, it is not Chancellor Angela Merkel or challenger Martin Schulz who are causing such a stir, but the significant anniversary of the Reformation ringleader.
Whether it’s ten years of nationwide celebrations or the advent of Playmobil’s best-selling bowl-cut figurine, it’s been hard to ignore the fact that October marks 500 years since Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, splitting the Catholic church. But not all are so enamoured with the brainy dissident. Across a poster advertising a Luther summer school, one resident has scrawled: “Enough! What does any of this have to do with me?”
The question is apt in a society which officially operates as a secular state. Despite the prevailing atheism in former east Germany after years of socialist rule—around 52 per cent are registered as non-believers—Christianity is still very present in German life as a whole.
Indeed, nearly 60 per cent of the 82.2m population shell out hundreds of pounds a year in church tax to register as Catholics, Protestants and other Christian denominations. (Just one Islamic organisation collects church tax, making it more difficult to give an accurate estimate of practising Muslims, while there are around 100,000 registered Jews.)
Dr Marcus Obrecht, an associate professor of political sciences at the University of Freiburg, thinks believers of any faith still have an advantage in the German political arena.
“When someone says they belong to a religion, whether it’s Islam or Christianity or any faith, there is definitely an unspoken admiration from the public for a person who so clearly stands by their values,” he reflected.
“People may not believe in anything themselves, but they’re impressed that there are people who do.”
Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and herself a staunch Protestant, is typical of the understated but constant faith that appears common in Germany. The Chancellor doesn’t talk much about her religious beliefs, but they emerge on occasion.
Her public statement after triggering a vote on gay marriage but then voting against it—“For me marriage is between a man and a woman”—showed voters her ability to register her own personal beliefs while allowing a different political direction.
Dr Obrecht maintains that even in Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the role of religion plays a secondary role to politics and is no longer essential to succeeding in the party. But he believes Merkel radiates a Protestant ethos that resonates with a large portion of the population—even those who are not religious.
“Her personality has a lot to do with religion—her strength, her stillness—you could definitely say there’s a great deal of Protestant in her character,” he said.
“Particularly abroad but also at home this image has become iconic: this coolness Merkel has in her personality, how she weighs things up and hesitates to make decisions—I’d say these are all Protestant traits.”
Luther’s own character and accomplishments have been explored endlessly in the decade of anniversary events. But despite the radical nature of his actions, the celebrations around the man once dubbed a “heretic” have been largely apolitical, focusing on the man himself and the Reformation without making probing links to the present. Concerts, conferences, vigils and exhibitions abound, but few have explored the character of religious life in Germany today with any critical eye.
This failure of discourse is also playing out in the debate around the election’s most divisive issue—immigration—in which faith appears to be more the issue than the number. Since the arrival of more than 1.3m refugees into Germany since 2015, the country’s Muslim population has grown by 1.2m to between 4,4 and 4.7m.
The fact that this makes up only 5.4-5.7 per cent of the population—compared to the 58 per cent share of those in Christian denominations—has done nothing to calm the inflammatory language of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose election poster slogans range from “Stop Islamisation” to “Burka? We’d rather have bikinis”.
Instead of exerting a negative influence, Dr Obrecht believes Christianity could actually take lessons from Islam.
“I don’t see the increase in Mulims as a dangerous development,” he said. “Muslim immigration is leading to a strong increase in the presence of religion in society, which could actually lead to the population in general becoming more religious.
“Religion can’t be that wrong when it plays an important part in the life of so many people. It could even give Christianity a certain momentum.”
Rather than Islamisation, AfD perhaps should be more concerned about what German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller describes in an interview to the Italian newspaperIl Foglio as a “process of accelerated de-Christianisation, which extends far beyond just secularisation.” According to the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), 340,000 members died last year, while 190,000 actively left the church. The Catholic church body (DBK) also reported 160,000 departures.
When Germans focus on the achievements of Luther, they are also celebrating the peaceful co-existence of the Catholic and Protestant churches after years of dissent. This, as thirty years of bloody conflict in Northern Ireland and a strong denominational divide in Scotland demonstrate, is not to be taken for granted.
Half a millennia after Luther scandalised the Catholic church, his devotees could do well to look not only at the challenges of the past, but to address the rising religious tensions that this century presents.