Merkel cites Christian roots as Berlin resumes Muslim dialogue
Chancellor Angela Merkel has told Germany’s Ecumenical Church Congress (Kirchentag) in Munich that Christianity is a main foundation of the country’s values system. This is not a surprising statement in Germany, especially for the leader of a party called the Christian Democratic Union. But it’s not one that’s heard much in some other European countries, either because of a strict separation of church and state (like France with its laïcité) or some multicultural model (as in Britain) that plays down the majority religious heritage of European societies.
One concern about stressing the historical contribution of Christianity to European values is that this could amount to slighting other faiths, especially Islam. But Kirchentag comments by Merkel and her interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, point in a different direction.
“Our society lives on premises that it cannot create by itself. Without a doubt, one of these very important premises is Christianity. Christianity has shaped our country … I’m not saying we could not have arrived where we are in any other way, but here in Germany it’s very clear that we came to our values system through Christianity. That means we know that freedom does not mean freedom from something, but it means freedom given by God through His Creation to commit oneself to help others and stand up for causes. This may be the most important source of social cohesion.”
This argument — especially its first sentence — is based on a quote from the German legal philosopher Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde: “The liberal secular state lives on premises that it cannot itself guarantee.” This view played a central role in the unexpectedly harmonious 2004 dialogue between then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, where both the future pope and the former leftist agreed that religion created an ethical basis that modern societies — even secular societies — depended on to operate.
This does not mean Merkel’s government takes a narrow and exclusive view of religion. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière wrote a guest column for Bild am Sonntag after participating in the Kirchentag himself. Starting with praise for the dialogue over confessional boundaries he saw there, de Maizière said:
“During these days in Munich, I asked myself how long we still need before we can arrange an event like this with Islam? Following Martin Luther King’s motto ‘I have a dream,’ I wish we could have joint festivals, controversial debates and engaging discussions with Islam and within Islam.”
The interior minister said this was the aim of the German Islam Conference, a dialogue between the government and the country’s seven main Muslim organisations begun in 2006. But one of those groups, the Central Council of Muslims, is boycotting the meeting today, which de Maizière said would discuss “Islamic religious education, training of religion teachers and the border between welcome Islam and the unwelcome Islamism.”
It will be interesting to see whether de Maizière can eventually come to some kind of understanding with Muslims similar to what Merkel showed with Christians. The Ratzinger-Habermas dialogue could point to ways to reach it.