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The Churches as a Political Force in
Religious associations represent a third major group of organized interests
in the German policy process. The experience of the Third Reich had a
profound influence on the postwar development of Protestant and Roman
Catholic churches in the Federal Republic. Both espoused the view that
moral responsibility extends to political responsibility and that passivity
toward the political process is inappropriate. Both also desired greater
ecumenism in German society. The establishment of the CDU perhaps best
illustrates this last point. The CDU sought to include both Roman Catholics
and Protestants in a catchall party that was committed to Christian values.
The two churches maintain distinct identities, but the major cleavage
in German society is no longer between religious denominations, but between
religious and secular interests.
In postwar West Germany, many people felt that organized religion was
an important element in the country's newly forming political ethos. Unlike
the United States, West Germany acknowledged no separation of church and
state. The state formally recognized the political role of the churches,
establishing a special legal status for them as public law corporations.
Under a German system developed in the nineteenth century, unless church
members formally leave the denomination into which they were baptized,
they must pay an annual church surtax equal to 8 or 9 percent of their
income tax. The federal government collects this surcharge and remits
the proceeds to the churches to finance their activities. In 1992 the
figure totaled about US$10 billion for Protestant and Catholic churches
combined. Churches are included on government commissions and supervisory
bodies that influence social and family policy, education, and related
Not surprisingly, the relationship between church and state in East Germany
was markedly different. The communist regime wanted control over all aspects
of society, and the existence of autonomous churches was unacceptable.
In the 1950s, the regime sought to limit the role of the churches to the
religious sphere, keeping them out of politics or education. The state
proved unable to suppress the churches fully, however, and by the 1970s
the SED had resigned itself to accommodating them.
Roman Catholics constituted only 7 percent of the population in the east;
thus, it was the Protestant church, with broad backing among East Germans,
that played an important social and political role. The Protestant church
retained some autonomy from the state, and by the late 1980s the church
had become gathering places for dissidents. In 1989 weekly peace services
at churches in big cities, such as East Berlin and Leipzig, became hotbeds
of opposition to the regime and led to the mass demonstrations that ultimately
brought down the communist regime.
The Evangelical Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland--EKD),
the peak association for the seventeen autonomous provincial churches
in West Germany, was established in 1948. The structural unity of the
German Protestant church officially ended in 1969, when the eight provincial
churches in East Germany withdrew from the EKD and formed the Federation
of the Evangelical Churches (Bund der Evangelischen Kirchen--BEK). German
unity ushered in the reunification of these two federations in 1991, under
the auspices of the EKD. As the formal political representative of German
Protestant churches, the EKD represents its member congregations in all
formal agreements with the government on church-state affairs. On religious
and social matters, however, the EKD serves only as a coordinating agent
for its largely independent member churches.
The principal organizational forum for the German Roman Catholic Church
is the Bishops' Conference, at which all German bishops convene semiannually.
Since unification, the eastern bishops also have attended these meetings.
As elsewhere in the Catholic world, all decisions on theological matters
and general policy emanate from the Vatican; the annual Bishops' Conference
addresses current pastoral and religious issues within Germany.
In West Germany, the Roman Catholic Church was traditionally much more
active politically on a day-to-day basis than the Protestant denominations.
The Bishops' Conference maintains a permanent secretariat in Bonn to monitor
activity in parliament and in the federal ministries. Catholic leaders
regularly lobby the government on pending legislation relating to social
or moral issues. The EKD participates less actively in the political process,
but it is more inclined than its Catholic counterpart to speak out on
controversial political issues that have spiritual implications. Examples
include the Protestant church's strong stance against the remilitarization
of West Germany in the 1950s and its continued activism in the areas of
peace and nuclear nonproliferation.
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