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Daniel Bogner {*}

Interpreters or Lobbyists?

Freedom of Religion Is No Exclusive Right of the Churches


From: Herder-Korrespondenz, 1/2007, P. 44-48
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    How can the two large churches in Germany convincingly represent their message in view of the title to freedom of religion and new religious communities? When the social acceptance for co-operation between state and church disappears it is important to sharpen the own profile as regards content.


What changes for the traditional religious actors when in Germany's society new religious communities, above all the Islam arise? How should the state deal with their claims? Which contribution can be expected from the churches in moulding the changed situation? These questions arise with special explosiveness, if any acting is to be measured by the internationally and nationally obligatory legal rule of freedom of religion. With the Declaration on Freedom of Religion of the Second Vatican Council "Dignitatis Humanae" also the Catholic Church declared its belief in religious freedom and set it as guideline for its own working.

In the officially structured Catholic Church the German Commission Justitia et Pax gives for some time its special attention to questions of freedom of religion. With a discussion that took place before Christmas in the Catholic Office in Berlin, experts in the topic 'freedom of religion' met with representatives of the Catholic Church at the Federal Governments and the governments of the Lands of the Federal Republic. Together one wanted to fulfil this task - to count to oneself for the current changes and to adjust anew the compass for appropriate behaviour.

At the beginning Karl Jüsten, representative of the bishops at the Federal Government, stated that freedom of religion were not at all an "exclusive right for the two large churches in Germany". Just the current international challenges required a new ascertainment of this topic. On the other hand one can also state: To deal with religions and religious affairs is no optional additional task for the state but an obligation that follows from its task to secure liberty and peace. Hence both, state and religious communities, have inevitably to do with one another. They are challenged to arrange this togetherness not in an authoritarian or spoon-feeding way but according to the criterion of greatest possible religious freedom.

The director of the German Institute for Human Rights, Heiner Bielefeldt, came up with a suggestion: The state's attitude toward religions should be moulded by the criterion of "respectful non-identification" (see HK, February 2006, 65ff.). The state may not identify itself with any of the individual religious communities. It must remain neutral. But this must happen with strict respect for man's religious and ideological freedom. The various religious communities should be able to exercise the individual and corporative civil rights resulting from the freedom of religion in consequence of a non-discriminating guarantee.



Since the state is obliged to grant freedoms, the freedom of religion goes far beyond an older model of religious tolerance. The principle of national neutrality, i.e. the same distance to the various religious and ideological groups, is in this view a direct consequence from the consistent observance of freedom of religion.

Bielefeldt stated further that the excessive semantics of separation were inadequate, since it places all formal relations of co-operation between state and religious communities under the suspicion of hostility against freedom. Actors as the 'Humanistische Union' and others raise time and again such reproaches. They appear groundless, if one follows the understanding of freedom of religion suggested here. Of course, there remains a challenge, since some religious communities appear naturally more "state-compatible" than others. It is crucial to derive from this no systematic consequences, and just not to regard such groups, among which probably also the two main-stream churches rank, from the beginning as privileged partners of the state. They are it de facto in many places. But it remains the obligating standard to help also all other religious / ideological groups that strive to become partners of the state to find possibilities to achieve their aim.

But one cannot speak of serious infringements of the freedom of religion in Germany. Perhaps rather of an impending going too far - if the state itself, in order to be able to offer Muslim religious education should get ready to form the necessary contact after its own discretion; if religion degenerates more and more to a cultural factor, and if from the Christian faith some time is only left the "Christian character of our country"; if state and authorities are not aware of the fact that religious doings are - in contrast to cultural manifestations - to be judged by different criteria.


A New Sense for the Deeply by Christianity Moulded European Culture

But is such a severe purity regulation of non-interference really correct? Does any national forming of a so far much too amorphous religious vis-à-vis directly infringe the neutrality obligation? Is the state not allowed to "bake" a little bit its partners, just if - as in the case of Islamic group - otherwise no vis-à-vis were recognizable, and far smaller possibilities of participation were attainable for Muslims?

The questions formulated by the Trier constitutional jurist Gerhard Robbers are so far correct as of course also the Catholic Church existed not always already in its present form, but got it among other things by the state. Who would maintain that the church's status as public corporation was put into its cradle?

Also with regard to the much conjured up Christian culture, so Robbers, a positive effect can be made out. Just the intensified occurrence of Islam in the German society awoke a sense for the deeply by Christianity moulded European culture - also in people who counted themselves so far rather among the secular majority of this country.

To the critics of the German model of an intensive co-operation between state and church, as for instance with the national religious education, one could reply: Just the religious education is a successful realization of freedom of religion. Each side, state and church, do thereby exactly the things to which they are entitled and which they have to do from their task - to guarantee a school subject as regulated compulsory classes with academically trained teaching staff from the side of the state, and from the side of the church the guarantee on an instruction the contents of which take measure of the self understanding and tradition of the religious community.


The Religion-political Situation in Germany is Not Uniform

An important question was raised again by Karl Jüsten: Is the church, are Catholics obligated to improve Islam's position in Germany? As in politics one party does not simply canvass for another one, so one cannot expect from the Christian churches that they become the loudest advocates for an influential Islam in Germany.

The latter is correct, but the churches had nevertheless a function, so Matthias Crone of the archiepiscopal office Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in Schwerin: They should have a legitimate interest to stand up for a correct observance of the regulations and criteria according to which religious communities and state are to associate with each other. On the one hand it can be prevented thereby that suddenly individual groups are favoured by the state, because it appears politically opportune - if for instance in a Land of the Federal Republic a partner for the implementation of Islamic religious classes is finally to be found, and the demands that are to be made are perhaps lessened a bit.

The churches should anyway not all too much put their trust in opportunity; already now they had no longer enough weight everywhere in Germany in order to impress politicians by their mere size. The religion-political situation in Germany is not uniform, and this affects the question how the Catholic Church too positions itself.



What could be the special task of the historical churches in a situation that is moulded by large religion-sociological revolutions and, following from it, needs to be controlled religion-politically? The term 'interpreter' was mentioned time and again. It means the task to translate matters that originally had been understood theologically and religiously, so that the state is able to fulfil its task to organize legal and political structures. Since the state is obligated to ideological neutrality, how much has it ultimately to rely on being informed what real religious doing is, and where the only religiously shaped culture or folklore begins? How could the state on its own initiative understand which doings are essential for a religion?


There is no reasonable interpretation of freedom of religion without the knowledge of the religious communities

Many things work still so well in Germany yet because Christianity has a long tradition and can live on general acceptance. Hence social activities, but also pilgrimages and processions are a matter of course. They belong to the performance of the religion and deserve public protection. But this can soon become fragile, and representatives of the churches from the East German dioceses can tell a lot about it. Also the debate about the headscarf borne by Muslim women shows the deep ambivalence of symbols: it cannot always be told clearly whether they are understood rather culturally or religiously.

Without knowledge of the religious communities even the state cannot guarantee on a long-term basis a reasonable interpretation of the freedom of religion guaranteed by it. Following a logic that is founded on the rule of law it will always endeavour to guarantee areas of freedom and to separate different spheres of freedom from each other if they come into conflict with each other. But how could it do this appropriately without knowledge of the characteristic of freedom of religion? Not for nothing the right to freedom of religion, in its positive and negative variant as well as in its individual and corporative shape is differentiated from the other titles to freedom. The claims of freedom of religion cannot be determined simply in a technical manner, ascertained by the administrative machine and then issued. Freedom of religion must be filled with a sense that the state can and should not draw from itself.

Because nothing would be more fatal than when theology was done now on the part of the state and religions were judged by this foreign theology. Hence there is needed a co-operation orientated towards contents, in which the religious communities offer their translation services against a trivialization of religion. Do the churches, which with their long and proven theological traditions - differently to many others - had the preconditions for it, still understand this as a genuine task? Have they ready enough theologically and politico-legally trained personnel, in order to cope with the increasing need for this theological translation?

The German national church law developed from the relationship of the state to the Christian churches. Muslim and other religious communities were still out of view when one fixed the basic data of the legal status of religions. But as correct as this is as little seems by it defined that not also other religious communities could profit from this law. Something else seems to have priority: Muslims should better profile what they want to do in the German society. It should become clear which wishes for concrete co-operation they have, and how these wishes are connected with the religious core of Islam.

It is dubious when Muslim groupings refer always only to the status of the Christian churches, demand analogous things, and articulate less their own interests and requests. As soon as Muslims could indicate in quite different but above all justified way how they as religious group want to live in this state, and in which place they want to cooperate, the state would also be obliged to deal adequately with their requests. The religion-constitutional order of the Basic Law - like the German legal order in general - is probably more permeable and of greater integrative power as often assumed.

Thematic formation of one's profile is the keyword contributed by the Bamberg social moral philosopher Marianne Heimbach-Steins - also as challenge for the Christian churches: In a situation of decreasing social acceptance for the inherited co-operations between state and church it is necessary to sharpen one's own profile by means of own contents. Theology gets thereby new tasks which it has to represent also outside and in close dialogue with other subjects and faculties. While reducing the number of theological faculties, state and church - so can be concluded - are well advised when they lose not sight of this social need.



The secular society depends on authentic, linguistically creative and intellectually demanding mediators of Christian substance. And the bishops do well to keep looking at this general social task of theology, apart from the training of priests.


Freedom of Religion and Mission of the Church

The credibility of the church in politics is decided also by the fact whether its official statements are made understandable out of the core of its message or follow only the rules of practical-political wisdom. For that reason a memory of the foundation appeared necessary here, on which the church determines its role in public and for the interplay with other religions and world views.

Katja Heidemanns from the Papal Mission Work 'Missio' in Aachen illustrated the necessary interrelation between the claim to religious freedom and the mission of the church: Anyway, genuine conversion is only possible under the conditions of inner and outer freedom. If the church is sent to spread its message, then it must at the same time take the greatest interest that the basic conditions under which people hear this message are free of any direct or indirect obligation.

Such obligation can manifest itself variously - in situations of objective slavery, when humans are forced to accept a religion because otherwise they were isolated socially or culturally. Then religion becomes the condition of life, but in a functional way that must internally be foreign to the Christian faith. This thought is of importance for the church development aid. It may under no circumstances give the impression as if it - by means of social development - also demands the conversation to the Christian faith.

Obligation is sometimes also indirectly exerted without being necessarily noticed by the involved people - if one for example refers in such a clear manner to Europe's Christian coinage and to a Christian leading culture, allegedly following from it. Thus many people who are not moulded by the Christian faith but at bottom open for the topics of the Christian message are blinkered, and defensive reflexes are activated from the beginning. Too strong is the impression that the claims to the inheritance of the Christian churches from European history make the individual and free decision for faith unnecessary.

If thus freedom of religion, to which the Catholic Church in the Declaration on Religious Freedom "Dignitatis humanae" professed so impressively its belief, is not only a datum of the institutional framework but affects the question about the truth of religion resp. the true religion, further questions arise: Is the church then also obliged to stand up actively for the negative freedom of religion, hence for the liberty from religion? Are there certain contexts in which this could be necessary, for instance when interreligious controversies flare up, when members of different religions fight each other by violence, or when people are obviously suppressed by other religions? Or would this be an inadequate interference into the affairs of others as well as a tribute that may not be asked of a religious community?


The Church as Lobby Group?

With many of the specified topics a question returned and caused conflicting emotions: Can one call it lobbying when the church stands up for certain goals in the political area? Heiner Lendermann from the Catholic Office in Berlin contradicted violently. No, the church's acting is not lobby in the sense of the pursuit of egoistic interests, but participation in the public interest, "under the premises that it is sensible and reasonable". The church represents not so much institutional interests, but rather thematic ones.

But what is so bad in lobbying? Is it not just its concern to gain listeners for certain matters that are represented summarily and in a carefully considered form? And isn't such purposeful acting bitterly necessary just under the new conditions of the decreasing churches in West Germany and the anyway already small church groups in East Germany? Perhaps also the appearances are deceptive - their status as public corporations - and the churches shirk a little to say 'Good bye' to the image of the privileged partner of the state and to compete instead of this with the claim of various ideologies to give meaning to human life.

The churches had to collaborate on the common good anyway - their own program obliges them to do it. The centre of this question is: towards which criteria is this co-operation oriented? Can there be such a thing as a "catholic argument", in order to justify certain political goals, as for instance: the protection of holidays, store opening-times, or the protection of refugees? At any rate, to resort to one's confession seems enticing in a time when Consulting enterprises recommend any diocese or church institution to mould a stronger catholic profile.

But is not a lot more at stake than a label - even if it is a religious one? The dignity of man would be a matter that needs a church lobby - and also gets it at many places. When one checks for the time being the argumentative core of "catholic arguments", one ends up mostly at a basic term of human dignity.



To translate it into political practice is demanding enough and requires much social effort. But perhaps such engagement makes the church on a long-term basis more reliable. For even if thereby the fast moulding of a confessional profile is avoided, it becomes visibly then that the church is primarily concerned with human beings, and not so much with its own institutional surviving.

Certainly, with the social changes in the last decades the equally automated identification of church interest and public interest lost at least partly its balance. It must be adjusted again. On the one side the culturally and ideologically differentiated society with its various options of life that have to be social-ethically and politically still reflected and familiarized. On the other side the increase of ideological and cultural options means a parting for the formerly influential main-stream churches - they are relegated to an only limited place in the midst of many other perspectives and actors.

If the churches represent now more clearly than before also their organizational interests, this is soon noticed in public - and sometimes rightfully - as clientele politics. Hence the structural conditions under which the public interest can be obtained through legal actions became more complicated. There is no longer as in former times a broad consensus on the answer to the question 'What is good for all?'. One has again to begin from the beginning and think over again the nature of human dignity and how it is to be protected. Can it be that many people regard this task for settled?

At the end of the debates an impression became firmly established: freedom of religion is an ambiguous matter. It depends on a substantial understanding of freedom - a freedom that is based on truth, as just the human rights activist Heiner Bielefeldt stated in his final words. There were no other possibility at all to substantiate resp. characterize the claims of freedom of religion as "inalienable".

Perhaps it is characteristic that lawyers have just with this aspect of the human rights their interpretation problems. As legal claim freedom of religion belongs completely to the field of the secular right. But it marks at the same time the passage into the range that lies before for the modern constitutional state and to which it is referred. In this respect freedom of religion is comparable to a relay between the two: firstly the attempt to bring their necessary connection into an understandable form and secondly to keep passable the crossing between the constitutional state and its sources.


    {*} Daniel Bogner (born in 1972) attained a doctorate on theology. Up to the end of 2006 he was adviser at the German Commission Justitia et Pax for human right questions. Since then he is working at the Max-Weber-College in Erfurt at a project about the history of violence and human rights in Algeria. In the near future will be published: "Ausverkauf der Menschenrechte? Warum wir gefordert sind", publishing house Herder, Freiburg 2007.


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