To believe or not to believe: The quest for religion’s role in our times

05.05.2017 - Interview

Article by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in the “Tagesspiegel” supplement of 5 May 2017 marking the 37th Evangelischer Kirchentag in Berlin and Wittenberg


Pope Leo X had been warned. In 1516, one of his envoys, Girolamo Andrea, returned from a longer sojourn in Germany and the Netherlands to report on growing discontent north of the Alps.

He told the Pope that in Germany especially, people were just waiting for the right opportunity. It was high time, he said, to take action to prevent a tempest arising against Rome.

As we all know, events took their course. Luther’s opposition to the “alternative facts” broadcast by Rome concerning letters of indulgence earning their buyers time off from purgatory just happened to be the trigger. In 1517, the movement – for which the groundwork had been laid in many parts of Europe –suddenly spread like wildfire. Change came breathtakingly fast, even from today’s perspective. Initially, it was cities who adopted Protestantism – Wittenberg, Nuremberg, Augsburg, and Brunswick; Riga on the Baltic Sea coast. The states of Hesse and Saxony soon followed. Other movements arose in Switzerland; Calvinism took hold in parts of France, the Netherlands and Scotland.

It was not long before the conflagration spread beyond the borders of the Holy Roman Empire. Advised by Wittenberg theologians, various monarchs adopted the new teachings – in Sweden and Finland in 1527, in Denmark and Norway in 1536. In 1534, Henry VIII of England broke with Rome. The Prince’s right to choose his religion (ius reformandi) soon gave rise to its pendant, his subject’s right to emigrate should he refuse to convert (ius emigrandi). This right to emigrate became one of the first fundamental rights granted to individuals.

This was the start of the first major globalisation, a religious globalisation which spread in a series of ever higher waves, pulsating out from Europe’s shores to be felt all over the world, especially in what was to become the United States of America. It was ultimately President Woodrow Wilson, the product of a Presbyterian upbringing, who made democracy, human rights and the right of all peoples to self‑determination universal values of US foreign policy.

In 1904, Max Weber published the now classic description of a religiously driven business ethic as an “iron cage” which humanity had erected around itself. This idea raises questions about the economisation of life and the fair distribution of revenues, questions that continue to preoccupy us now.

Today, 500 years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, it is obvious that the Reformation he set in motion has had and continues to have far‑reaching theological, cultural and political consequences far beyond Germany’s borders. That is why this year’s anniversary of the Reformation is not just a Church event, but a happening with foreign policy dimensions.

The Reformation played a crucial role in shaping our modern understanding of what constitutes freedom, and what is important with respect to education and social coexistence. At a time when the world is being redefined, when traditional categories have ceased to apply and authoritarianism seems more popular than ever, we therefore have to take a fresh look at the questions of religion and order, of informed choice and individual responsibility which are inseparably linked to the Reformation.

We do this by talking about the fruits of the Reformation with the world and putting them up for debate. In the USA, the non‑European heartland of the Reformation, we have collaborated with renowned German museums to organise two top‑rate touring exhibitions, which have attracted huge numbers of visitors.

In addition, countless activities are taking place at German embassies and consulates around the world. The Federal Foreign Office is providing funding for overseas participants in the 37th Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag in Berlin and Wittenberg.

The London Economist recently tried, tongue‑in‑cheek British style, to highlight the fruits of the Reformation as they can be seen in the present day. They can be seen, it was claimed, in the allegedly modest dress and office decor of some German politicians, in our religious separation of rubbish, and the lasting success of a furniture business from – of course – Lutheran Sweden. They can be seen in the fact that Germany has the second‑largest book market in the world and in our dislike of running up. All of these tendencies stem, it suggested, from Luther and Calvin. As a son of the Lutheran and once Free Imperial City of Goslar, I can well understand that – in my home town the words “ora et labora” (pray and work) are inscribed on the door of the “Siemenshaus”, built for an earlier member of the great industrialist family.

But the half a millennium which now separates us from Luther is enough to guard us from the naive belief that European intellectual history progressed along a neatly linear course. Traces of the Reformation, which started as a theological dispute and became a canonical conflict, can nonetheless still be found in the socio‑political realm.

The Reformers were in it for the long haul. Their repeated calls for cities and villages to establish schools is just one example. Education for all as a foundation for living self‑determined lives and as a prerequisite for the lasting success of democracy has been on the political agenda ever since and there it will remain. Now, as then, access to information and the skills needed to use the new media are crucial.

Luther made deft use of the media revolution of his time, above all the printing of books, pamphlets and images. He responded without delay and in writing to accusations from Rome, and had his own writings and those of his opponents printed and reprinted. But to complete the picture it must be noted that Luther and his defenders, as well as his Roman Catholic opponents, differed little from some of today’s users of social media in their fondness for polemic tirades and images to match. We have no cause to venerate Luther as a saint, especially in view of his dark side – his anti‑Semitism.

What will remain with us after this anniversary year? There are two things that I personally view as the legacy of the Reformation. Firstly, the attitude postulated by the Reformers that everyone should exercise their own faculty of reason without outside guidance (to use the words of the later philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was brought up a Pietist) and to trust in one’s own conscience. The fact that Luther dared to set out his own divergent views in a letter to the Pope, and refused to recant in Worms, “unless [he was] convinced by Scripture and plain reason”, marks a turning point in European history as regards freedom, not least freedom of opinion. The entire European Enlightenment owes much to Luther and the other Reformers – critical debate with tradition and the public competition of ideas have since been a keystone of political discourse in Europe. Without them, there would be no science, no functioning democracy and no open societies.

Secondly, participation in society and the assumption of responsibility for the greater common good. Luther’s own path led him out of the monastery and into the world. His house, his home town of Wittenberg became a hub of European thought, visited by travellers from all over. He communicated with scholars, with city officials and with princes about relief funds for the poor, about converting monastery buildings into schools and about holding services in the German vernacular.

Our joined‑up way of thinking about society as a whole, and this schooling of our own conscience, are the result of a very long development which was given a significant jolt by the events of 1517. As well as bequeathing us with an obviously conspicuous delight in separating our rubbish, it has endowed us above all with a vibrant civic spirit, a public education system and a natural sense of consideration for those who are weaker and more in need than ourselves.

One question remains. It concerns the role religion plays in our times. To believe or not to believe – we have that freedom. But secularisation has not led to the disappearance of religion. Religion has great political influence and this is still growing, especially outside Europe. 80% of the world population belongs to one religion or another. In my opinion, the religions thus bear a great responsibility for peace and for the cohesion of our societies.

They are non‑state actors with whom we, as secular governments, would like to work more closely.

As a first step in that direction, I have invited one hundred religious representatives from around the world to Berlin at the end of May in order to talk about the responsibility the religions bear for peace.

500 years after the Reformation the world is once again in turmoil and pseudo‑religious ideologies drive many of the world’s conflicts. It is thus more important than ever to stand firm and argue for what we are firmly convinced is right.

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