08 July, 2014

Separation of Church and State

Most Americans by now will have heard about the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case (at least I hope so). If you haven't heard about it, please Google "hobby lobby supreme court" and educate yourself. If you're too lazy or pressed for time to do that, here's a synopsis:

Hobby Lobby is a chain store in the United States which sells mainly craft supplies. It's owners are a religious (Christian) family with objections to certain types of birth control, such as IUDs and the morning-after pill, which they (incorrectly) believe to cause abortions. Because of this belief, they want to be exempt from offering some of the approved forms of birth control required by Obamacare on their employee's health insurance plans, so they took their case all the way to the Supreme Court. And, in a move that has me once again mourning the direction in which America is headed, the conservative male-dominated Court sided with Hobby Lobby. This means that now any closely-held business (meaning a business which is controlled by 5 or fewer individuals) can pick and choose, based the religious views of the owners, which types of birth control their employees are allowed to access through their health insurance plan, even when there is no scientific reason to oppose their use. As my friend Benny so aptly put it, "it sounds like the court does not think that birth control is important enough to be mandatory." He hit the nail on the head with that sentence. Despite the fact that BY LAW women have the right to birth control coverage, "religious freedom" is being used to trump those rights.

I'm bringing up this case because it's a current example of a phenomenon that I've been wanting to write about for a while: the role of religion in German vs American society. In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion without interference or prohibition by the government, and the United States has long honored the practice of "separation of Church and State," a concept advocated by Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers. As such, the United States does not have an official state religion and laws are not (supposed to be) based on any religious doctrine. Germany has a similar system: there is no official state religion on which laws are based and German residents are allowed to freely practice their chosen religion. However, the Church and the State have a closer, more official relationship in Germany than in the United States. When you move to Germany and register as a resident (something that you have to do every time you move into or within Germany) you are asked to state your religion for the official record. If you register as Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, you are required to pay a religious tax to the government which is then given to the corresponding church. One would think, given this government-religious partnership, that religion would play a more prominent role in day-to-day life and policy in Germany than in the United States, but paradoxically I've found it to be the opposite.


The United States has a very high religious, specifically Christian, population. According to a Gallup poll, 77% of Americans identify with a Christian religion, while a very small percentage identify with a non-Christian religion and 18% do not identify with any religion. This 18% is potentially misleading, however; not identifying with a particular religion does not equal a disbelief in God, as evidenced by another Gallup poll showing that 92% of Americans believe in God while only 7% do not. If you dig down even further to how many Americans openly identify as atheist, that number drops to below 2%.


Cathedral in Munich, April 2013.
In contrast, fully 27% of Germans do not believe in God or a higher power. Only 44% believe in God, and a further 25% believe in a "life force." Atheism is particularly strong in the eastern part of Germany (the part which was formerly communist): a poll conducted among residents of eastern Germany in 2012 did not find a single respondent under the age of 28 who believed in a god. Given that statistic, it's not surprising that eastern Germany is arguably the least religious region in the world. (Just for the record, I live in western Germany.) As a whole, however, Germany is a predominantly Christian country with many Christian traditions, much like the United States. Interestingly, despite the above-mentioned statistic showing that only 44% of Germans believe in God, 62% of the population is affiliated with a Christian church (although many people are not actively involved in church life).

The differences between the United States and Germany are not just demographic but also cultural. In the United States, God is viewed by many as an important part of their daily lives, especially in the South (the south-eastern part of the US), where religious participation is particularly high. It is common to hear those with strong Christian beliefs bring God into casual conversation. Since the majority of the country is moderately to strongly Christian, politicians are very unlikely to be elected if they don't express a belief in God during their campaign, and as such there is currently only one openly atheist member of Congress. However, serious religious topics are almost never openly and frankly discussed due to worries about political correctness. And while the freedom to practice your religion and express your religious beliefs is strong among Christians, there is a fair amount of social stigma against, and ignorance about, atheism and non-Christian religions, particularly Islam. 

In comparison, Germans tend not to bring up religion or God in everyday conversation at all, and generally religion is kept to the private sphere with little influence on social life or politics (although I have the feeling that most Germans would be perfectly happy to get into a good-spirited debate about religion if the opportunity arose). There is no social stigma against atheism as far as I'm aware, and in everyday life religion is basically a non-issue.


Typical American church
Generally speaking, there isn't the same fervor surrounding religion in Germany as there often is in the United States; it seems that in the US there is always someone claiming that someone else is infringing on their religious beliefs, and the strongest opposition to important social issues of the day such as gay marriage and abortion is often grounded in religious reasoning. These days, it seems that individuals' religious views, specifically those of conservative Christians, are being used to influence government policies in ways that the Founding Fathers never could have imagined. This is not the case in Germany.

A good, currently relevant example of the differing approaches to religion in everyday life is professional sports (currently relevant because of the World Cup, which I will write more about in a later post). In the US, it is common and completely accepted to see professional or college athletes praying before a game or thanking God after a goal or a win (think of Tim Tebow). You never see that from German athletes. Even if the players are religious themselves, these outward displays are incredibly rare to non-existant, and it seems that the players' mentality is one of self-reliance and cooperation with their teammates rather than reliance on or faith in a god to help them win.

In my day-to-day life in Germany I never encounter talk about religion or God, and I'm perfectly comfortable with that. The right to exercise religion is there, and I think it's an important right to protect, but no one feels the need to discuss their religion or display it for everyone else to see. Things are calmer here, and I like it that way. (When I watch American TV shows now, specifically reality TV, it's a bit shocking to hear people so blatantly reference God, since that's something I'm just not used to here.) Religious freedom is not put on a pedestal as if it's the most important freedom that exists, and despite the fact that one of the most powerful political parties in Germany is the Christlich Demokratische Union (Christian Democratic Union), there isn't a strong religious influence on politics. (The CDU bases its platform on Christian views, but their rhetoric and campaigns do not contain blatantly religious language or symbols, and the party consists of people with a variety of religious beliefs.) I highly doubt that a case like Hobby Lobby would have even made it to court in Germany, for a variety of reasons, and even if it did the decision would almost certainly have gone the other way.

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