Lead-in by Karsten D. Voigt, Coordinator of German-American Cooperation, at the 18th Forum Global Issues “Religion as a global power: religion and globalization

08.11.2007 - Speech


Religious convictions along with values and conduct shaped by such convictions are a factor to be reckoned with in international relations and inter-societal relations in particular. Any foreign policy that ignores this fact will have a gaping hole – and be useless for the real world. So even if they subscribe to a secular world-view, foreign policy practitioners would do well to develop an ear for religious tones. That is true not just since George W. Bush, and it will still be true once he steps down. Such sensitivity to religion is important not only vis-à-vis the United States. I am often astonished by the assertion made in many studies I read that religious attitudes and traditions are only relevant outside Europe.

A closer look at the Federal Republic of Germany should help clear up this misperception. If you compared the election results for the CDU/CSU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany/Christian Social Union) and the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) in the “old” Federal Republic of the 50s and 60s with the religious status quo at the end of the Thirty Years War, you would find that by and large the areas with a strong CDU/CSU vote were “Catholic” and the areas with a strong SPD vote were “Protestant and secular”. It is only in this decade that the SPD has had mostly Catholic party presidents and the CDU a Protestant president – although admittedly there are still more Protestant theologians in the SPD than in the CDU/CSU Bundestag parliamentary group. In Adenauer's day parity between Catholics and Protestants in the Cabinet was still a principle that mattered. By the same token, if the Federal Chancellor was a Catholic, the Federal President had to be a Protestant.

While the Churches in Germany have been losing members for some time – albeit now at a slower rate –, members of our political elite are increasingly willing to acknowledge their religious affiliations. Of the Bundestag Members elected in 1998, 37.7% gave no information on their religious or other views and 0.4% stated they were atheists. Some 29.4% gave their religion as Catholic and 32.2% as Protestant. The figures for 2005 indicated a significant shift: only 23.8% gave no information, 0.2% were atheists, 0.2% Muslims, and 35% were Catholics and 40.8% Protestants. A similar trend could be observed at the swearing-in ceremony for Cabinet members. When the first Red-Green Cabinet was sworn in, half the members took the religious form of the oath; when the Grand Coalition ministers were sworn in, all but Brigitte Zypries took the religious form of the oath. Particularly striking is the high degree of religious affiliation among the political elite of East Germany. Although only just over 20% of the East German population belong to a church, over half the East German Bundestag Members do.

Under these circumstances the pressure on German foreign policy to be more proactive in defending freedom of religion in other parts of the world is, in my view, likely to increase. That goes also for the Christians denied this freedom in much of the Islamic world and also in China. If German foreign policy seeks not only to help Christians but also to promote freedom of religion as a universal principle (Leggewie) – in other words, the freedom to practice a religion as well as not to practice a religion –, this is value-oriented policy as it should be.


Of the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the latter two – Christianity and Islam – have always seen themselves as having a world mission and calling. Their followers represent an expanding proportion of the world population. Generally speaking, Islam is expanding more as a result of higher population growth in the Islamic world and Christianity more as a result of missionary activity. Christianity and Islam are both globalization actors and drivers. Our foreign policy practitioners would be well advised to analyze in-depth how these transnational actors operate, focusing not just on Islam but also on certain Protestant groups in Latin America, Africa and China.

Another new factor is that, due to globalization, we now see an increasing number of diaspora communities in regions that used to be fairly homogeneous in religious terms (Muslim, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist diasporas). This new religious pluralism poses new cultural and political challenges, which may either enrich political culture or generate new conflicts and developments that could even lead to violent extremism. For when religious fundamentalisms are at loggerheads, violence tends to follow.

The Abrahamic religions have always been political as well. Given the over 1000-year-old religious and political history of these three faiths, the fact that over the past 100-200 years the Jewish and Christian communities learned for the most part to take a positive view of the Enlightenment is of considerable relevance to our topic today. The majority that internalized Enlightenment principles offered a sound basis for the development of secular, democratic states. In the Islamic world this process has yet to reach the same depth and breadth. That is one of our problems. Another is that in recent decades some very active, proselytizing Protestant sects as well as certain currents in Catholicism have intensified efforts to promote a pre-Enlightenment brand of piety.


As Claus Leggewie rightly points out, any tendency to make religion – or anything else – the sole dimension of identity is dangerous. Any ideology that reduces the myriad facets of human existence to just one identifying label – religion, nation, ethnic group, race, political creed or whatever – is dangerous.

So as I see it, the politically relevant distinction today is not so much whether policies are faith-based or shaped by atheist or agnostic views, but whether policies, including the ideological or religious justification for them, reflect Enlightenment principles and are pro-tolerance – and that means political, ideological and religious tolerance. When it comes to tolerance, German policy cannot be value-free either at home or in the wider world. It defends these values with all due vigour.

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