To what extent is Germany a “secular state”?

In response to the claim that Germany is a “secular state,” we may nonetheless call attention to several facts which, at the very least, call for a more precise statement:

  • The Preamble to the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany begins with the words: “Aware of its responsibility before God and humankind…” The Constitution thereby attributes an awareness of God to the German people as a whole. With regard to approximately one-third of the population, which is not affiliated with any religious community, this is a bold statement. Moreover, the question of which God is meant – the God of the Protestants, the Orthodox, the Catholics, the Jews, the Muslims, the Buddhists – must remain unanswered.
  • In the articles dealing with education of the regional constitutions of North Rhineland-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Rhineland-Palatinate, “education to revere God” is mentioned as one of the supreme educational objectives. This means that agnostically- or even atheistically-minded teachers are required to respect this objective in their teaching. 
  • In both the German Basic Law and the regional constitutions, God is called upon in the swearing-in of the respective governments. The official oath of the members of government ends with the affirmation “So help me God!”. While every member of government is admittedly free to leave this phrase out, the majority of the population will be both aware and critical of this omission.

Moreover, in certain cases where the phrase “So help me God!” is used – for example, when Aygül Özkan, the Minister of Social Affairs, Women, Families, Health and Integration in the State of Lower Saxony, ended her official oath with that phrase in 2010 – many voices were raised in protest against the swearing of that oath by a Muslim. Apparently, Christian citizens, as a general rule, believed that the God referred to in the regional constitutions was none other than the Christian God.

While that belief may be historically accurate, the “preamble God,” from the perspective of the present-day religious and political system, is not the God of a specific faith, but rather, a “God of civil religion”. The phrase “civil religion” is to be understood as the religious dimension to be found in any politically organized community. Every nation is an imagined society. Without a narrative of origin, constitution and purpose for this social structure – one which, in time of war, even requires its members to sacrifice their lives to its defense – it cannot guarantee the cohesion necessary for its survival.     

We may therefore assume that even a secular state has civil-religious needs – an assumption that gives rise to a question regarding the ways in which states satisfy those needs. Basically, we can distinguish between states that define their legitimacy in terms of civil religion, irrespective of the religious and cultural variants that prevail within their borders (including all totalitarian regimes), and those whose civil-religious legitimacy depends upon the respective religious beliefs and practices of its citizens.

This is the path embarked upon by the Federal Republic of Germany. It is a secular state, inasmuch as it (1) is not founded on a specific religious ideology of its own, and (2) also does not identify with any of the prevailing religious societies. By simultaneously refraining from identification with a specific religion or world view and avoiding the official propagation of any civil-religious self-definition, the Federal Republic of Germany reveals itself as a secular state.

From the standpoint of religious ideology, a secular state, in a way, is “naked” – like the emperor in the Hans Christian Andersen tale. As we may recall, that emperor was visited by two clever tailors, who sold him a suit of clothes that could ostensibly be seen only by persons with a certain measure of intelligence. Because no one wanted to be considered stupid, however, everyone admired the emperor (who, in fact, was wearing nothing at all) for his garments – which, in fact, existed only in their imagination. In the same way, a liberal-democratic constitutional state can only wear the civil-religious “clothes” that its citizens, with their respective religious beliefs and ideologies, are prepared to give to it. The God of the Basic Law and the regional constitutions, then, will be only as visible and as clear as the citizens, through their own religious cultures, allow it to be. What this means, in fact, is that the God whose help German ministers seek upon assuming office may be a Christian, an Islamic, or even a Jewish God.

At the time of the establishment of the Federal Republic, the German legislators deemed it important to make the State dependent upon the consent of its citizens, for religious reasons as well. For this reason, in Article 7 of the German Basic Law, they granted religious education an important role in civic education. The institution and maintenance of Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish and Islamic chairs in its state universities represent another way in which the Federal Republic demonstrates that, as a secular state, it does not seek to drive religions out of public life, but rather, hopes for their civic involvement. This hope, even after the reunification of Germany, has not been disappointed. The political and civic involvement of religious persons in the eastern regions of Germany exceeds the national average.

Accordingly, a secular state presumes a religiously active, pluralistically constructed civic society.