Religions and the State, Address to the German General Consulate in Istanbul
Bishop Dr. Wolfgang Huber, Chairperson of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD)
March 14, 2009
The relationship between religion and state, between religion and politics has again become a topical issue for debate in our time. For religion has returned to the public arena. However, in this day and age we have to acknowledge the plurality of religion. We can no longer speak of "religion and the state" or "the church and the state", but our topic needs to be "the religions and the state".
Every religion comes with comprehensive claims. Every religion entails consequences for its followers' conduct of life. Every religion provides or rather, develops values. And every religion expects people to live according to these values.
Thus, every religion also has a political dimension. It affects not only people's private conduct of life, but also public life. And it affects people's life style not only with regard to their relationship with God, but also with regard to their relationship with themselves and other people.
In every modern state, the way of life adopted by the people must be in harmony with the plurality in society. Especially Western style open society is founded on a variety of ideas, world views and religions, which coexist legitimately within society. Thus, diversity is generally regarded as positive. There is no particular social norm in comparison with which every deviation is considered alien. The exclusion or non-admittance of a particular way of life requires a well-grounded explanation.
The interrelation of diverse ideas and ways of life must be developed on the basis of mutual tolerance in a public process of dialogue in society. In a long and rather painful historical learning process, European societies understood that tolerance needs to be the complementary principle to religious freedom. The confessional wars of the early modern era were as much a part of this process as the transition to internal religious plurality within a state in the 18th century. Here, tolerance does not mean believing every position to be correct and agreeing with everybody. Tolerance is not indifference.
Religious tolerance in a true sense means putting up and dealing with differences while recognising the binding nature of religious convictions. A liberal society, in which religious convictions are taken seriously, requires alert, self-confident tolerance actively seeking dialogue, in order to find solutions together for all issues of general importance.
I will outline these essential traits with the example of the situation in Germany. In German society, social co-existence is based on the free and democratic constitution of the state. Living together in this society requires all its members to accept the fundamental principles this society is built upon. In a democratic state under the rule of law, citizens have the right to be different, but they are not subject to different laws. The ensuing problems became apparent in the emergence of a society marked by religious pluralism. A liberal state relies on the support given by its citizens, who are aware of their freedom and make use of it in a responsible manner. However, human beings are not born with the will to use this freedom responsibly, but they need to learn it. For in spite of all social plurality, a person's attitude to the very community which constitutes the state, is mainly determined by their parents, nursery and school education, and the religious communities parents and children belong to. All these agents of socialisation have a much more difficult job today than in the past; they simultaneously have to compete with "secret educators", amongst which the mass media are most influential. It is not helpful to capitulate in the face of this situation, but rather we need to actively accept it.
The Evangelical Church in Germany published a memorandum in 1985 with the title Evangelical Church and Liberal Democracy. The Constitutional State as Opportunity and Obligation ("Evangelische Kirche und freiheitliche Demokratie. Der Staat des Grundgesetzes als Angebot und Aufgabe"), which discussed the Evangelical churches' attitude towards and relations with the democratic constitutional state in detail. It arrived at the accurate conclusion that a democratic constitution on the basis of a clear distinction between state and religion is most likely to safeguard human dignity. The churches are thus not hoping for a Christian theocratical state. They are committed to a distinction between the Church and the state of which the civil legal system is a part.
So also the churches hold that only a religiously neutral state can constitutionally ensure religious freedom. A state that is religiously bound, which considers itself under a special obligation to a particular religion, runs the risk of privileging this religion over against other religions in its national territory. The experience of oppression for reasons of religious conviction is still today part of political reality in many countries. Today, it is especially Christians who are affected by restrictions to their religious freedom. If a state recognises that every human is free and vested with inviolable rights, it cannot use state authority to assign the people to a particular religion. However, it should also not push religion into the private sphere.
The modern, free and democratic state does not turn to God for its authorisation, but to the people who live together in this community. This is quite consistent with a reference to those essentials this community cannot produce by itself, but on which it is still dependent. The preamble of the German Basic Law included this reference in the phrase "responsibility before God and Men". Of course, such a phrase in no way contains a claim or even a justification for the state's preference for a particular religion, thus declaring this religion the obligatory basis for its citizens' social existence. Religious neutrality requires a clear institutional separation of the state and the religious communities. But the concept of a state's religious neutrality would be misunderstood if one were to infer a state's indifference towards the work of religious communities.
Rather, the state has the obligation to be aware of religion as a determining influence on the lives of many of its citizens, and to promote them without bias or partisanship.
The German Federal Constitutional Court expressed this most accurately, in my view, with the phrase supportive neutrality ("fördernde Neutralität"). Supportive neutrality is geared towards the objective that churches and other religious communities are able to contribute to social co-existence. They bring their specific faith convictions to bear in society's process of orientation and the development of values. In this way, they contribute to the renewal and further development of basic positions and attitudes, which every political community, and especially every democratic polity needs to exist. This happens for example in church nurseries and in schools, and in the many providers of social services in church responsibility. But also the churches' creative contributions to the media play a part in the development and communication of values.
The mutual independence of the state and church in the German constitutional order does not necessarily lead to the banishing of the religious from the public arena. Rather, the free democratic state recognises religion's great significance for the development of values and convictions. The state is not determined by religion, but it has a social ethical foundation in spite of its religious neutrality. A society will only have inner stability, if it has a system of values individual citizens are committed to. According to the constitutional order, religious communities are expected to contribute to the necessary social discourse. The free democratic basic order relies on an open exchange of views.
The voice of the churches needs to be heard in this, but also the voice of the other religions. In this day and age, it is of paramount importance that the Federal Republic of Germany becomes aware of the diversity of religious communities. However, maintaining an attitude of supportive neutrality towards all religions proves a challenge to our society precisely because the diversity of religions is evolving in Germany, too.
Christians find that their faith provides them with powerful reasons to affirm the order described in the German example. For it implements a trait of the Christian idea of the state which follows Jesus' words in Matthew 22:21 "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." (NRSV). This attitude appreciates the autonomy of the state's order as much as its limitations. Such an order shows its respect for human dignity even by considering it independent of its approval by the state. By respecting human freedom as unconditional and essentially independent of the state, the state complies with its commission to protect human dignity. This view has been implemented in particular in European legal systems developed since the Enlightenment. It has also proved advantageous for the freedom of religion itself, an aspect all too often ignored by some Christian critics of the Enlightenment today, some of whom are found in the highest ranks. The achievement of liberal democracy has done away with the state's tutelage of its citizens. Human beings are not granted their freedom by their ruler. Rather, a human being is born with a freedom which is essentially independent of the state. The state is also not the only power determining the public sphere. Rather, religion contributes to the public sphere, too; it can therefore not be limited to the private sphere and thus isolated from society.
Commitment to religious freedom as a special human right is based on the Christian assurance of faith, for the sake of which every person's decision of conscience is respected, a fellow human being is appreciated as a neighbour and thus also respected in their different type of faith. Especially but not exclusively in its Reformation interpretation, the Christian faith is based on the affirmation of the individual person by God, which is independent of a person's actions and thus also of their convictions. This is why granting human dignity, human rights and thus religious freedom even to people of other faith convictions corresponds with the very core of the Christian faith. Therefore, Christian churches respect the other religions' right to exist, including their right to work in the public sphere.
The realisation of religious freedom as a human right on a global scale is an indispensable demand and a matter of concern for the Christian churches today. The affirmation of individual as well as collective, of negative as well as positive religious freedom is a result of a process in the history of ideas especially since the Reformation. Human rights have become a main focus of Christian ethics. Today more than ever, religious communities are expected to actively support the creation of basic structures for the protection of the principles of society in those countries in which the human rights have not been realised. In order to achieve this, the churches hope for cooperation with other religious communities, in particular with Islam. They expect other religions in countries with a Christian minority to defend the Christian churches' right to freely practise their religion against all state impediments, just as these religions take advantage of religious freedom in the states of the European Union. For the churches, this is an essential topic and an important touchstone also in the context of the European Union's accession negotiations with Turkey.
These are also the predominant considerations in the inter-faith dialogue between the Christian churches and Islam. The Evangelical Church in Germany emphasised in Guidelines produced in 2006, that this dialogue is characterised by the guiding principles of "clarity and good neighbourly relations". Religious freedom is one of the difficult topics in this dialogue. For it has so far not been recognised as an individual human right in the sense described above by all of Islam. Although there clearly are diverse approaches to religious freedom in Islam, it can only be guaranteed on the basis of the secular character of a state's legal system, as explained above. For human rights are an essential part of a legal system which ensures that the state's citizens with their different religions and worldviews enjoy the same civil rights. This step towards the mutual independence of religion and a state's legal system has in many instances not been taken by Islam.
Rather, in many areas the state is organised religion in Islam. This basic position has gained much ground in Iran since the Islamic Revolution. In an Islamic state, all law is religious law. But also Muslims who live in non-Islamic countries follow the principle that their religion is the source of law. For Muslims, the law given in divine revelation is conclusive and obligatory. It is regarded as the ideal which contains all aspects of life practice, the confession of faith, the order of service and ritual commands as well as basic principles of family and criminal law, and finally laws for life in community per se. It is true that some countries with a strong Islamic influence have integrated traditional elements of European legal thought into their constitutional order. But many Muslims are very conscious of the fact that their whole lives and the life of their national community must be ordered according to the guidance God provided through divine law, and thus according to the regulations of Sharia law, as was the case in the ideal Islamic community, the Umma. The unity of society includes the political and religious community. Usually, there are no provisions made for diversity. Accordingly, there is a lack of equal treatment and equal rights for other religions in Islamic states.
It is true that Islam has become increasingly involved in the discussion of human rights since the seventies of the previous century. But in particular the topic of religious freedom is merely touched on in the relevant documents, and only in the sense that the citizens are free to convert to Islam, while at the same time prohibited from converting to any other religion than Islam or to turn to atheism. Thus, Muslims and Christians may be speaking about very different conceptions of religious freedom in their conversations. Religious freedom therefore constitutes an important topic in conversations between religious communities, conversations which are now more urgent and carry more weight than ever in our countries.
On the other side, Turkey has implemented a different model of the relationship between state and religion. As it follows the French concept of laicism, state and religion are meant to be strictly separated in Turkey. In spite of its Islamic history with formative influence on its culture, Turkey has explicitly renounced the introduction of Sharia law as legal basis for its system of government. The Turkish state does not consider itself part of the Islamic Umma.
However, since religion cannot be pushed into the private sphere completely, but forces its way into society, even Turkey needs to regulate the relationship between religion and the state. In this area, Turkey has not followed through the concept of the two spheres' separation. Rather, in Turkey the principle is realised that the state organises religion. This is particularly clear in the government's establishment of a directorate of religious affairs.
Turkey has also not been consistent in implementing the concept of neutrality. Rights of religious freedom are graded between Islam on the one side, and other religions including Christianity on the other. This is evident for example in the training of young theologians. While appropriate departments were established in state universities for Islam, no equivalent provisions have been made for Christians. In addition, the work of Christian theological seminaries is restricted or intercepted, so that these are unable to provide an alternative.
Against this background, Turkey must allow the question how it understands the phenomenon of diversity. Does the Turkish state apply a general norm, and declare all divergence as wrong or at least foreign? Or does it consider non-Muslim religious communities and also national minorities as integral parts of society which enrich community life?
With regard to the development in Germany described earlier, I would like to add the question whether the principle of the state's supportive neutrality towards all religions may be a helpful concept for Turkey? Could an involvement of the religions in the value debate in wider society prove beneficial for the future development of the Turkish state? Is it not possible that by openly endorsing the values advocated by the religions, Turkey, too, could gain new potential for a constructive debate and an advantageous development of attitudes and life-styles?
Involving the religions in the value debate and the formation of public will in the state seems to me to be of great significance for Turkey also with regard to its relationship with the European Union. For Turkey will have to take the fact into consideration that in European states, the religions in their diversity contribute to social discourse. Thus, the question arises whether Turkey's present model of state and religion is still appropriate for current social challenges, and whether it will prove helpful in its dialogue with states that consciously decided to adopt a different system.
Today more than ever, we are also faced with a great fear of religion. People feel disconcerted with the appearance of all kinds of sects, spiritism, psycho groups, youth religions, and violent religious fundamentalism. This presents a challenge to the state as well as to the religious communities. The credibility of religion per se depends upon them to great extent. As part of their public work, they need to discuss essential questions of our human existence in such a way that enmity and violence are not given a chance. If in particular the monotheistic religions accept responsibility for peace, reconciliation and non-violence as a common obligation, then this would be the religions' most important contribution to social harmony. The meaning of tolerance would then become instantly recognisable.
At the same time, a free and democratic society requires a public discourse which highlights also the differences between diverse religious communities and groups of shared convictions, and which seeks to establish widely shared convictions, values and rules of conduct. All religious communities - and not only the churches - are challenged to contribute to this formation of public will and to take on their responsibility for the whole community and not only for their members. Religious communities are challenged to be a public conscience, by arousing and promoting a sense of personal responsibility through their teaching, preaching and public declarations, and thus to seek "the welfare of the city" (Jeremiah 29:7; NRSV), as the prophet Jeremiah phrased it. Therefore, there is an elementary interest in knowledge about other religious communities, together with an elementary interest in transparency. All of this reflects our commitment to the formation of a society which, the more plural it becomes, requires all the more public spirit.
Istanbul, 14th March 2009