How does religion affect democracy?

How much religion can democracy take?

A completely secular state would have to deal with debates that would save it from the banality of the economic.

The democratic constitutional state not only tolerates religion, its norms and values ​​are also partly based on religious values. The liberal, secularized state lives from conditions that it cannot guarantee itself, as the legal philosopher and former judge at the Federal Constitutional Court, Ernst Wolfgang Böckenförde, has prominently expressed on several occasions.

Today the Evangelical Church stands for tolerance and promotes it

Many of the achievements of our democratic state are already embedded in the knowledge of the Reformation. And there are downsides that should and must not be denied. Martin Luther's statements about the Roman Catholic Church of his time and especially about the Jews are extremely ambivalent and anything but tolerant. With all of his great discoveries about freedom in faith, Martin Luther also obviously had enemy images that he worked his way through. An irreversible path began with him, but it took time until the treasure of freedom, which is deeply rooted in the Christian image of man, could be raised anew in the wake of the Reformation. Ultimately, this original Reformation thought of the freedom of a Christian had to be fought for even against church doctrine. But because the church went through the Reformation painfully and thereby gave up its claim to sole representation in favor of the recognition of plurality, the Evangelical Church today stands for tolerance and campaigns for it - also for the freedom of those who think differently and who believe differently and also for freedom from religion .

The Reformation is central to the prehistory of our modern democracy. While the posting of the theses in Wittenberg almost 500 years ago was still an academic opening for discussion, Martin Luther was the first demonstrator before the emperor and empire and the Reformation was the first social movement that was supported by a broad base. Above all, the Reformation was a kind of primal scene for the development of civil society in Germany and Europe in the centuries that followed.

"Priesthood of all baptized" breaks with hierarchy

The "priesthood of all baptized" which Luther proclaimed and which became one of the core messages of the Reformation, breaks radically with the hierarchy between so-called lay people and clergy, centuries before the class system was abolished. The value of a person is therefore based solely on their recognition by God, regardless of social status, individual wealth and religious or other achievement.

Since the Enlightenment, this belief has increasingly been extended to all citizens of the state, with both Jews and women having to wait a very long time before they too were granted the same rights. This conviction has also become secularized and democratized in the Basic Law. Today the fundamental rights are immovably written down in Articles 1 to 19 of the Constitution; Article 3 of the Basic Law says: "All people are equal before the law."

All people should become mature readers of the Bible

Access to language - a point that plays an important role in the debates about integration today - was viewed by the reformers as a condition for religious and social participation. With the translation of the Bible into German, Luther gave the so-called "little people" instruments of participation. With the demand for education for all, the clergy's claim to sole representation could be called into question. Luther and the reformers wanted everyone to become mature readers of the Bible. Compulsory schooling grew out of this Reformation idea - which was first introduced in Protestant areas and then became part of the common good of the occidental world, a basic requirement for all democratic participation rights today.

That is why the Reformation belongs to the prehistory of German democracy. Through the Reformation orientation towards scripture, the believers were able to learn criticism and doubts, today one would say: They could become responsible and contentious citizens. According to the motto: “Here I am. I can't help it. "

Thought of solidarity with one another

The Reformation marks the beginning of the cultural and religious pluralization of Europe. The democratic constitutional state is based on religion and its values, but does not merge with it. The appeals that the democratic state must free itself completely from religion and everything ecclesiastical, although only occasionally, but all the more effective, fail to recognize the positive power that lies in this legacy and the enrichment that society experiences from it: the idea of ​​solidarity To this day, each other has lost none of its topicality or its democratic content.

It is a characteristic of totalitarian states either to incorporate religion and use it for their own purposes, or to want to free themselves from any religion. Religion is discredited as superfluous, counterproductive or as complete nonsense and no critical counterpart is tolerated.

Churches keep the "window to heaven" open

The fact that totalitarian systems fear competition and rivalry with the religions can be seen well in the peaceful revolution in Germany of 1989: The rulers' fear of the church opposition was so great because the people in the shelter of the churches were less sensitive to threats and oppression were. They dared to act more freely and courageously than many others and were less afraid to express their opinions and criticism publicly.

The democratic state does not distance itself from religion, but understands it more explicitly than a counterpart. In a democracy, among other things, the churches and religions have the task of helping to shape the state on the one hand and holding a mirror up to it on the other hand, in a field of tension between proximity and critical distance. They are important discussion partners who can bring special aspects into the public discourse - for example, when it comes to the question of how values ​​such as diversity, tolerance and togetherness can be shaped. And last but not least, churches and religions are an important corrective in societies whose creation of meaning threatens to become more and more economical: They keep the "window to heaven" open.

Protection from the banality of the purely economic

In this respect, the rule of law benefits from the religions; their institutions can perceive opinions, especially on ethical issues, that do not obey the logic and practical constraints of the political. A completely secular state, which privatizes all religious practice and forbids any public representation, not only pushes religion into the backyards of society and makes religions so invisible, but it also brings about debates that can protect it from the banality of the purely economic.


The text “How much religion can democracy tolerate” was published in “Shadow of the Reformation”. The magazine (DIN A4, 79 pages) is available as a PDF download.