Being devout means being political: Churches become civil society through the refugee crisis


Sarah Albrecht and Rupert Strachwitz


Wir schaffen das!’ – ‘We can do it!’ Chancellor Angela Merkel made this statement in the summer of 2015 – long before the peak in numbers of people seeking refuge in Germany was reached. The statement has become iconic, a token of reliability and strong ethical values underlying her leadership to her supporters, proof of her stubbornly maintaining an erroneous position to her many political opponents, who argue she is putting Germany’s political, social and economic stability at risk.

A new distance between politics and churches
Interestingly enough, some of the most persistent and audible opponents of Merkel’s liberal refugee policy hail from her own political camp, the Christian-Democratic-Union and its Bavarian sister organization, the Christian-Social-Union (CSU). Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer has openly contradicted Merkel’s position more than once, clamouring for much more restrictive measures, ranging from official limitations to the total closing of Germany’s southeastern borders.

In all this, a noteworthy point is that the CSU draws on a religious electorate and traditionally considers the Catholic Church to be a natural supporter of its policies. The crisis has led to an unprecedented estrangement. From an organisation that habitually shied away from political interventions, the Church, not least encouraged by the Pope, has become a staunch supporter of the refugees’ cause against Bavarian government policy.

Arguably the first sign was an open letter written by a large group of religious superiors urging Mr. Seehofer to refrain from using stigmatising and fear stoking terms when speaking about refugees. High ranking church officials like Cardinal Marx of Munich and Bishop Bedford-Strohm, head of the German Protestant Church, have since strongly voiced their concerns about the current handling of the refugee crisis in a number of statements and interviews. Both the Cardinal and the Bishop are strikingly media-savvy and – equally important – both have an academic background in the field of social ethics. Are they on the forefront of a change in self-perception that German churches are currently undergoing?

Churches as civil society organisations
The Churches in Germany as in many other countries are constitutionally intertwined with the State in many ways. This complicated relationship led the churches not to perceive themselves as independent organisations, and to continue to act as a legitimising force for governments, as had been customary for many centuries. Pope John Paul II., when famously asked by Ralph Darendorf, whether the Church was part of civil society, answered: ‘Oh no! The Church is Sacred Society’. The Pontiff may well have failed to understand the meaning and implications of Civil Society in a modern sense. The refugee crisis seems to have struck a different chord, in that the inclusion and protection of the poor, the weak and the marginalised is fundamental to Christian identity. Realpolitik as executed by conservative politicians to the detriment of refugees has shown the divide that has become more and more noticeable over the past generation or so.

For many centuries, the Christian Churches had indeed been pillars of the political order everywhere in Europe. Conflicts with governments arising from their adherence to their founder’s intentions were rare. The same may be said for the Muslim communities in countries that were predominantly Muslim.

As Civil Society has moved on from being ‘charity’ to becoming a force in shaping and determining policy, the Churches have increasingly shown a critical attitude that sits well with what civil society organisations are out to achieve. Not unlike other NGOs, foundations and many others, they aspire to be advocates for the disadvantaged sectors of society. Their position is increasingly perceived as independent, based on a particular set of values rather than on loyalty to a given political order, let alone to a particular political camp. Church leaders who do not content themselves with abstract moral appeals, but support political demands do not go unnoticed. They have become an asset to civil society in clamouring for social justice.

This development has its critics. German Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble is said to have commented that the churches’ prime responsibilities were pastoral care, prayer and liturgy. Faith and not politics should constitute the bond between people who turn to the churches for guidance. Bishop Bedford-Strohm vehemently disagrees. Being politically engaged and a religious person does not constitute a contradiction, he recently stated in a radio interview. On the contrary: ‘Being devout means being political!

Sarah Albrecht is a research assistant at the Maecenata Foundation.
Rupert Strachwitz is the managaing director of the Maecenata Foundation.

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