Grades of Separation – Church and State in Germany

Grades of Separation – Church and State in Germany
© Pixabay

The Situation of Church and State in Germany

In times of religiously legitimized fundamental terrorism, religion is obviously still playing a big role in the ways of the world. Though it’s easy to think the world would be quite secularized, the great religions are in fact gaining in numbers. And despite every society usually viewing itself as the norm, Germany is indeed one of the exceptions when it comes to its religious make-up. Taking into consideration that having a denomination doesn’t necessarily mean you are a particularly religious or faithful person, still more than half of the German population is a member of either the Catholic or the Protestant churches. In addition, circa 5,5 % of Germans is part of another confession, such as the Islam or Judaism. The rest of the population is undenominational, that means roughly 30 Million of 80 Million people. What makes Germany one of the exceptions is that above all the two large Christian churches have continuously been losing members, and are going on to do so. In any case, the churches are still of utmost importance in Germany. So, let us take a look at the relationship of church and state in the country.

Bound by Contract

In Germany, the relationship between the state and the two major churches is defined by a contract. The foundation of this contract is the separation of church and state, which in turn can be traced back to the French Revolution and the development of laicism. The term laicism is derived from the French word “laïc”, which originally meant anyone who was not part of the clergy. A laical state is thus one that bases its values not or at least not only on religious commandments and that ultimately places religion in the private life of its citizens. Germany is almost a laical state, in that there is an official separation of church and state. Churches should not have a say in state matters. As it usually goes with us humans, things are, of course, not quite so clear. For one, the Bundesrepublik is collecting a special church tax (though only from those who actually are church members) for the churches. In return, churches compensate the tax authorities for their efforts. Additionally, Christian holidays are statutory in Germany. But, Churches, respectively organizations that have equal contracts with the state, profit, even more, form German law. They legally are charitable organizations, which has an impact on the taxes they have to pay. Further, the salaries of bishops and religion teachers (who are not allowed to teach without the consent of their respective church) are being paid by the state, not through church taxes but out of the budget that pays civil servants. At the same time, the churches are able to dictate the rules of the working environments. The maintenance of buildings owned by the church is also financed by all taxpayers. In numbers, that’s a sum of about 450 Million Euro each year (not including the church tax). Thus, the Christian churches in Germany are definitely privileged in comparison to other religious organizations.

As mentioned before, the details of these issues are defined in state contracts, the so-called concordats with the Vatican and the Church-State Treaties with the Protestant Church. A very few other representative religious organizations, such as the Central Council of Jews in Germany, have coherent contracts with the Bundesrepublik. As there are many smaller religious organizations that do not have equivalent contracts with the state and merely count as e.g. non-profit associations, it is noteworthy, that these kinds of contracts are very special. As you see, we can’t really speak of a complete separation of church and state.    

The most common Religions in Germany

The most common Religions in Germany - religion in Germany
© Pixabay

Since the early medieval period and the formation of what became the Holy Roman Empire, Christianity has been strong in the lands we now know as Germany. However, even with trade, politics, and other considerations shaping its history, religion in Germany is still an interesting subject.

Religion in the Constitution

The Basic Law solidifies the right to freedom of religion in modern Germany. This takes two aspects: both the negative freedom of religion (the right to not have to confess your faith, or any lack thereof, unless legally required to do so; also, the freedom not to be exposed to religion while in a state of subordination, for example) and positive freedom of religion. There is also no state church in Germany, though there is a thing called a church tax. More on this in the next section.

The two major Churches

Due to historical and cultural reasons, the largest religious organizations in modern Germany are the Protestant Evangelical Church in Germany and the Roman Catholic Church (both Christian movements). These churches are organized into legal corporations under public law, and enjoy certain benefits such as being able to provide religious education in state schools – for example, one denomination gives a lesson for members registered under their own denomination (Catholics would go to the Catholic-organized class, and so on). For smaller denominations or religious minorities, they may cooperate with these denominations or conduct classes outside school. Those who do not wish to participate in religious education at all must attend an alternative class called “ethics”. So the practice is a bit different from other countries, in this regard.

The Church Tax…

The church tax comes from a longstanding practice of a ruler maintaining churches, graveyards, and so on throughout history. Because of this, while Germany has no formal state religion, it devolved the church tax onto religious organizations – the tax goes towards upkeep of religious buildings, gravesites/cemeteries, salaries for clergy, and so on. Only people registered under the denominations (which are registered as legal corporations under public law) have to pay church tax, with the idea that Catholics would then help to pay for the maintenance of their own (Catholic) churches, and so on. The Jewish faith is also considered a taxable faith, depending on the German state, due to the large population of Jewish people there (third-largest Jewish population in Europe). However, this also means that smaller denominations or those without a strong organizational system (such as Muslims) may not be included in this system of taxation and maintenance, as the system favors large well-structured religious organizations.

…and how to avoid it.

If someone does not wish to pay church tax, they can make an official declaration that they are “leaving the church” – in this case, leaving the religious organization. It may be that the number of people in Germany who do not self-identify as religious may be partly due to this church tax, as more people over time have filed to not be considered members. (You can see what it would cost, and how to file, at this website (German langua only). However,  Catholic and Protestant clergy may refuse to bury someone who has formally left the faith, even if the person in question is still a believer. Currently, the issues revolving around church tax – who can administer it, who can distribute it, who has to pay it and why – are hot issues when it comes to matters of religion and the state in Germany. But as more people within Germany no longer identify with religious organizations, the religious organizations and churches in question are facing dilemmas about how to maintain themselves and how to change.

Islam and Juadism

Islam is notably the largest non-Christian religion in the country. Historically this was because of trade relations with the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century; nowadays, because of the postwar period and the inviting of foreign workers into Germany (notably from Turkey), German Muslims are not too uncommon, but find themselves in the midst of a tide of political debates in Germany, in Europe, and worldwide.

Many Jewish people also returned to Germany, notably after German unity, due to seeing German cities such as Berlin as more welcoming post-war than cities in ex-Soviet bloc countries.

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