Angela Merkel’s Misunderstood Christian Mission

The German leader isn't just fighting for the future of the EU – she's trying to shape the future of the continent's biggest religion.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) is welcome by Archbishop Georg Ganswein upon her arrival at the Vatican for a private audience with the Pope on February 21, 2015. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI        (Photo credit should read )
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) is welcome by Archbishop Georg Ganswein upon her arrival at the Vatican for a private audience with the Pope on February 21, 2015. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI (Photo credit should read )

Angela Merkel is in the curious position of having become one of Europe’s moral leaders without ever clearly articulating the real moral dimensions of her decisions. Her emphatic “We can do this” (Wir schaffen das) in response to the arrival in Germany of hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers has attained the status of a sort of proverb in that country. But she has never otherwise been one for rousing speeches that set out political visions. The sordid details of the deal that she helped seal on Friday with an increasingly repressive Turkey to help control the flow of migrants to the continent has also done little to burnish her reputation as a moral visionary.

But Merkel’s negotiations with Turkey can only be properly considered in the context of the broader moral campaign that she has been waging. It has not always been easy to perceive the distinctly religious aspect of her political agenda, but that does not mean it hasn’t been there. Like few others on the continent, Merkel seems to understand this is a decisive moment not just for Germany, and for the EU, but also for Christian Democracy, one of Europe’s leading governing ideologies of the post-war era.

Germany is the last major country where a Christian Democratic party, the CDU, is predominant. And while Merkel has often been accused of draining the “Christian” in Christian Democracy of all significance, making the CDU an anodyne catch-all party that happens to have a very popular leader, her uncompromising stance in the refugee crisis can also be read as an attempt to reinvigorate a Christian Democratic understanding of politics on the continent.

Contrary to what is often claimed in the American media, religion continues to matter in Europe – and in European politics. Merkel is effectively forcing believers in Europe to choose between her own brand of “compassionate conservatism” and the “Christian, national” vision of a Fortress Europe propounded by leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński.

“Christian Democracy” is a puzzling term for Americans. It does not refer to a democracy for Christians only or a state in which churches automatically enjoy privileges. Rather, from the mid-19th century onward, it designated European political parties that defended specifically Catholic interests. In particular, they sought to protect Catholics against secular states hostile to religion in general, such as the French Third Republic, and governments that suspected Catholics of putting loyalty to Rome above the duties of citizenship — the classic case being the Kulturkampf that Chancellor Otto von Bismarck waged against Catholics in the newly unified German Reich during the 1870s.

Even when these parties called themselves “democratic” or “popular,” they did not necessarily accept modern representative democracy wholeheartedly. As with virtually all religious actors who on some level consider themselves in possession of a universal truth, they found it difficult to reconcile with the pluralism inherent in parliamentary politics: pluralism appeared to equate to relativism. It was hence not an accident that at least until the 1950s many European Catholics – and the Vatican itself – preferred authoritarian regimes clearly committed to the faith, such as Franco’s dictatorship in Spain.

Christian Democracy became only unambiguously democratic after 1945. It was also then that these parties took a dominant role in Europe’s Cold War frontier states. Christian Democrats presented themselves as the anti-communist option par excellence: Communism was godless and materialistic, Christian Democracy was spiritual. Communism subordinated everyone and everything to the collective; Christian Democracy reconciled the individual person and community. And, unlike the ideology of 19th-century European liberalism, Christian Democracy didn’t come across as callous; it always included a strong concern for the poor. (Though these progressive elements weakened as the Cold War went on and Christian Democrats sought to distinguish themselves more clearly from Social Democrats in Germany and from Communists in Italy.)

With the end of the Cold War, Christian Democracy virtually disappeared in Italy, where the party had been continuously in power and proved increasingly corrupt. In Germany, it steadily lost ground until 2013, when Merkel’s image as the only leader capable of mastering the euro crisis helped the CDU to get over 40 percent of the vote in national elections. Even with (or perhaps because of) this impressive result, Merkel kept being criticized for having made the Christian Democrats into an anodyne Kanzlerwahlverein – an association with no purpose other than to keep the Chancellor in power. She had moved the party ever more leftward by making concessions on everything ranging from compulsory military service to the abolition of nuclear power, and, in the eyes of right-wingers, failed to present a clear conservative profile on moral questions such as same-sex marriage.

Hence political space was opening up for a genuine alternative — namely the very “Alternative for Germany,” which initially had been a loose grouping of disaffected conservative intellectuals (in particular, right-leaning economics professors who rejected Merkel’s approach to the Eurocrisis). No wonder that inside the CDU conservative politicians, on the national and regional level, were also forming what in effect were anti-Merkel cliques (such as the so-called Berliner Kreis). They opposed the chancellor’s supposed “relativism” and “running after the Zeitgeist,” which, in the words of the magazine Der Spiegel, had left the CDU nothing more than “a green-liberal-social democratic amalgam.” Merkel simply ignored her conservative critics, just as she generally proved averse to journalists’ demands for a clear articulation of her convictions and her “vision” for Germany in the 21st century. Vagueness and a politics of small, carefully calculated steps became her trademark, even globally.

And then everything changed. When Merkel opened the borders for the refugees who were being mistreated in Hungary, she took a clear stance – and has stuck with it even in the face of ever more personal criticisms from within her own party. Observers have been debating what exactly her motives might have been for her momentous decision at the beginning of September. A belief in freedom of movement and a rejection of all fences, based on her upbringing in East Germany? A calculation that the only way to save Europe’s Schengen zone of borderless movement was for Germany to make additional, and unilateral, sacrifices? Or, in fact, a high-risk gamble intended to truly put the “C” back into CDU — a reminder, not dissimilar to Pope Francis’, that Christianity has to mean, first and foremost, action for those most in need?

Merkel, herself the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, has explicitly countered the growing fear of Islam in Germany with the argument that, rather than fretting about other religions, Christian Germans should return to their roots and take their own faith more seriously. Rather than suspect Muslims of fanaticism for knowing the Koran by heart, they should take some inspiration from the example and firm up on the Bible. Merkel sees both Islam and Christianity as having a place in Germany and as springs of moral conduct. As some observers have put it, it is almost as if, after years of tranquilizing citizens through a carefully calculated politics of consensus, she has thrown down a moral challenge to her own people – and, in particular, for the 61 percent of Germans who identify as Christians actually to live their faith.

Germany’s Catholic and Protestant churches – still of considerable political importance in the country – have tried to heed the call. The archbishop of Cologne has celebrated Merkel as a “Christian politician with a heart” and offered unconditional support of her policies. But some in Merkel’s own party have opposed her Willkommenskultur (culture of welcome): the chair of the “Working Group of Engaged Catholics in the CDU” has declared that an “uncontrolled influx of refugees” was “not Christian.”

Such voices can easily find an echo among conservative leaders farther east: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who in 2014 announced his plan to create an “illiberal state,” was the first to shut the border to refugees in the name of defending a “Christian Europe.” For him, as well as Poland’s de facto leader Jarosław Kaczyński, Christianity designates a national culture closed in on itself, as opposed to a set of universal precepts. In their rhetoric, “openness” means unfettered capitalism and unlimited individual choices (including in marriage partners). For Orbán, Christianity serves as a convenient instrument to conduct identity politics; for Merkel, it is a way to talk about Europe’s moral integrity.

One of German Christian Democracy’s most important historical achievements was that the party managed to unite Catholics and Protestants, after centuries of often violent conflict. It is noticeable how some old divisions now appear to open up again. Merkel has been most harshly criticized by Catholics (and it was Catholics who, in the recent state elections, opted for internal CDU critics of Merkel’s course, whereas Protestants tended to give their vote to Greens and Social Democrats, who support her). Some Protestants, meanwhile, think Merkel might be renewing Christian Democracy on the basis of a specifically Protestant sensibility. The theologian Rainer Bucher has credited her with a “sober Christian realism” that takes on the challenges of violent global conflict and exploitative global capitalism.

As Bucher puts it, she is presenting European Christians with a stark choice: Orbán or Francis? In other words, will they opt for an exclusionary, defensive, nationalist Christianity, or heed a call to comprehensive compassion? The seemingly conviction-less Merkel has indeed raised the moral stakes and, for the first time, in effect poses the question to Christian Democrats whether they define themselves primarily as conservative who observe Konrad Adenauer’s categorical imperative “No experiments!,” or as Christians who are willing to engage in forms of compassion that might at least temporarily unsettle an inherited political order.

Jan-Werner Mueller is a professor of politics at Princeton University and also a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna. His latest book is What Is Populism?

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