Conference Report: “Understanding Religious Freedom in Germany, Poland and the United States”

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 15, No. 1, March 2010

Conference Report: “Understanding Religious Freedom in Germany, Poland and the United States,” German Studies Association Conference, Washington, DC, October 11, 2009.

By Robert P. Ericksen, Pacific Lutheran University

This session, organized by Professor Gerhard Besier, Director of the Institute for European Studies at the Technical University of Dresden, included his paper on Germany; a paper on Poland by Katarzyna Stoklosa, also from the TU Dresden; and a paper on the United Statesby Derek Davis of Baylor University. Rebecca Bennette of Middlebury College moderated, and Robert Ericksen of Pacific Lutheran University provided commentary.

Besier began with a brief overview of church and state relations throughout Europe, noting the state church model to be found in places such as Great Britain, Denmark, Greece and Finland; the cooperative model of church and state to be found in Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Austria and Portugal; and the separation model to be found in France. He then focused on Germany, noting that the nominal principle of religious freedom appeared in the Weimar Constitution and again in the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany. Despite that, however, the two main churches in Germany, Catholic and Protestant (EKD), have managed to secure their position of dominance. For example, in the FRG these two churches are “statutory corporations.” This grants them legal rights normally reserved to the state, such as raising taxes from their members, and privileges, such as filling positions on bodies created to monitor radio and television. Free churches (Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers, for example) have also received recognition as statutory corporations, assuring them some rights, though not certain privileges reserved for Catholics and EKD Protestants, such as the right to be appointed to a theological faculty in public universities. Beneath the Free Churches, one finds a scale of reduced privilege and respect, running from “sects,” such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists, through “New Age” groups, Hare Krishna, and, at the very bottom, “psycho-organizations,” such as Scientology. Besier then focused his attention on the effort of Jehovah’s Witnesses to be designated a statutory corporation. As is well known, this group suffered heavy persecution within the Nazi state. They have also faced considerable difficulties in postwar Germany, including various obstacles to their protracted effort from 1995-2009 to secure official status. This effort seemed to culminate in 2000, with a Federal Constitutional Court victory. However, since the individual German states have the right to administer their own cultural affairs, the battle had to be fought again and again, culminating in apparent victory in the spring of 2009. Throughout the process, the two main churches and their political allies fought against this development, arguing that a religious community which rejects blood transfusions, for example, “cannot be regarded as being loyal to the constitution.” Besier described religious liberty in Germany as simply the right for members of minority groups to worship as they choose. However, they will struggle to attain official recognition and they are likely to suffer social stigmatization. Legal privilege and political power reside primarily in the two mainstream churches.

Katarzyna Stoklosa described a very different situation in Poland. By the late 19th century, Catholic faith had become a vital component of rising Polish nationalism. By the 1930s, a nationalist slogan described (with approval) a “new middle ages” to be found in the “Catholic State of the Polish Nation.” After 1945 this homogeneity tightened further, with the deportation of most non-Polish ethnic groups (Germans, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, etc.) and, of course, with the disappearance of three million murdered Jews. Non-Catholic religious groups gradually attained some rights in the 1970s and 1980s–for example, access to radio stations in 1982 and a legal status for Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1989. During the communist era, the Catholic Church nurtured its reputation as an opponent of the regime, especially in the 1980s. It thus emerged as a powerful force in Poland post-1989. The new constitution has a formal statement in support of religious freedom, and the rights of religious minorities have improved somewhat. But there is also a formal place for the Catholic Church built into the constitution and it plays a powerful political role. For example, in the political campaign of 2005, the right wing Catholic “Radio Maria” openly endorsed Lech Kaczynski’s “Law and Justice” party—and also attracted attention for making antisemitic statements. Given the powerful place of the Catholic Church, religious minorities in Poland continue to be marginalized. Stoklosa concluded that the practice of religious freedom in Poland simply does not match the ideal advocated in the West.

Derek Davis presented a paper on “the interplay of law, religion and politics in the United States,” describing four interconnected aspects: “separation of church and state, cooperation between sacred and secular, integration of religion and politics, and accommodation of civil religion.” This four-part scheme represents his attempt to explain what otherwise seems inconsistent in the American experience, for example, the refusal to allow organized prayer in public schools alongside the public prayers which open daily sessions of Congress, or the alleged “wall of separation” between church and state alongside the slogan, “In God we Trust,” printed on American money. Davis argued that separation of church and state is indeed an important part of the American system and a phrase taken seriously by the Supreme Court, but he added that it represents a “colossal overstatement” of the actual, complicated circumstances. For example, the Court assumes that children are impressionable, making it important to avoid any form of state-sanctioned religious expression in public schools. Presumably this means that members of Congress are considered old enough to ignore religious rituals in their chamber, if they so choose. He described court cases involving questions of tuition support to attend private (mostly religious) schools, whether to provide bus service, computers, or books, and whether religious charitable organizations can receive state contracts or support. He also described the pervasive rituals of civil religion practiced in America and the widespread belief that membership in and support for the nation has a divine component. In all of these matters, Davis endorsed the complexity found in practice and his belief that apparent contradictions and vigorous arguments are part of the healthy democratic experience in the questions of church and state.

Ericksen noted that one conclusion to be drawn from these three diverse examples is that churches are loath to give up power and influence. This seems most obvious with the Catholic Church in Poland and the two major churches in Germany. It also can be seen in the United States, however. For example, the banning of prayer and Bible reading in public schools has been widely resented by many churches. Even the principle of separation of church and state, which goes back more than two centuries, can perhaps be best understood as a pragmatic necessity, rather than expression of an ideal. The multiplicity of religious denominations in the Thirteen Colonies would have made the prospect of a state church quite contentious. On the other hand, is not freedom of religion an essential element of real democracy? We can see this historically in the gradual increase of voting rights and other legal rights granted to religious minorities as the idea of democracy progressed. It seems hard to imagine that the political or legal privileging of one religion over others can be consistent with equal political rights. Is this okay with churches? Can religious groups with the power to enforce their place of privilege accept the democratic implications of pluralism? A related question involves the development of secularization. If we note the trajectory from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, we see a general pattern of more religious liberty and less church attendance. Will a similar trajectory mark the twenty-first century? If so, will that be a good thing? Alternatively, can religion retain its vigor and still contribute to the “good life” in a pluralistic and democratic society, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “world come of age?” How do we expect Poland,Germany, and the United States will understand these issues fifty years from now?