Reformation Day and Islam in Germany

A chorus of convictions

Five hundred years after the posting of Martin Luther's theses, Germany remains a predominantly Christian nation. But Islam is also part of the fabric of Germany – if for no other reason than the three-and-a-half-million Muslims who live here and have the right, thanks to the constitution, to practise their faith freely. By Alexander Goerlach

In the 2003 film release "Luther", in which Joseph Fiennes plays the role of the reformer, the Augustinian monk attends a meeting with Cardinal Cajetan from Rome, charged with the task of persuading Luther to seek forgiveness and withdraw his new, radical teachings.

One point in the conversation between these two men of the cloth aptly illustrates the era in which the Reformation would take place: in the West, the Cardinal says, a new world has been discovered, "that doesn't know the name of Christ" – this is a reference to the "discovery" of the Americas in 1492. In the East, Cajetan continues, Turks are besieging the Christian Occident. In such a situation, he goes on, cohesion is paramount, this is no time for antics and solo theological efforts that deviate from the teachings of the Church. Luther remains unimpressed – and the rest is history.

Martin Luther may have disagreed with much of what Thomas Cardinal Cajetan told him during their three-day interview in Augsburg. But as far as their assessment of the Muslim Turks was concerned, both men were definitely on the same page.

Hostility to Muslims: a historical by-product

Luther never made any attempt to conceal his hostility towards the Muslim Turks. Christianity and Islam had nothing in common, the reformer said, other than a belief in the Last Judgement. Although the Reformation triggered centuries of un-Christian hatred between Protestants and Catholics, rejection of a common Islamic enemy, destined to appear repeatedly appear at the gates of Vienna, united the otherwise discordant brethren.

So how do things look now? These days, an accusing finger is still all too often pointed at the Muslims. Europe remains fearful of Islam, anxious that the well-nurtured conquest fantasies of yore are virulent and still very much alive. However, it is not the Church that perceives Islam and the Muslims as a threat to the continued existence of the European cultural world. The outpouring of support for refugees, most of whom are Muslim, and the Pope's call for people to help refugees from Syria, also Muslim – these are gestures that speak another language.

Portrait of Martin Luther (source: ZDF)
Luther never made any attempt to conceal his hostility towards the Muslim Turks. Christianity and Islam had nothing in common, the reformer said, other than a belief in the Last Judgement

Instead, it is political movements across the Old World that persist in peddling the perception that the Christian Occident, free Europe, is under threat from Islam. Certainly, popular subjugation fantasies do exist in both the Arab and Turkish cultural domain – ideas that culminate in the grotesque IS video animations announcing the demise of the city of Rome and thereby the end of Christianity. No doubt, even the most pious will find it hard to live in peace if their neighbours decide otherwise. Yet, in the end, buying into such dramatic exaggerations only plays into the hands of the hardliners on all sides.

An obstinate product of European history

The short episode from the Luther film alone shows that it is not so easy to claim that Islam has always belonged to Europe. Even today, 500 years after Martin Luther posted his theses, Europe remains a predominantly Christian continent. It is an obstinate product of European history, a dialectic, if one will, that in the end, from the religious overzealousness and the murder and manslaughter of the Thirty Years' War, a secular and also enlightened-liberal Europe emerged that no longer takes to the battlefield in the name of religious mania.

This year for the first time, Reformation Day is a national holiday. This too proves the unique connection between the Christian religion and modern-day Europe, not to mention contemporary German society. Nor did two godless ideologies – National Socialism and Communism – manage to wipe out Christianity in the east of Germany either

Alexander Goerlach (photo: David Elmes/Harvard University)
Alexander Goerlach is an ′in defence of democracy′ affiliate professor of the F.D. Roosevelt Foundation at Harvard. The theologian and linguist is also a senior fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and publisher of the online magazine A Catholic, Goerlach completed his secondary schooling in the Lutheran city of Worms

These days the Wartburg, where Martin Luther translated the Bible into the German vernacular, thereby laying the foundations for the language as we know it today, is a world cultural heritage site. Worms Cathedral, in the shadow of which the reformer defended his theses in the presence of Emperor Charles V., is due to celebrate its millennial jubilee in the coming years. There is no Islamic structure in Europe that can recall such history.

Another strange fact in the interwoven religious history of Germany is that throughout its working life as the seat of a bishop, Worms Cathedral remained Catholic. This despite the fact that the population of the city of Worms unanimously converted to the new teachings and built their new spiritual home, Holy Trinity Church, opposite the old cathedral and the Imperial palace.

When the bells rang out on Reformation Day in Worms, they resounded from the very same towers that stood in Luther's time, Christian buildings that survived both the destruction of the city during the Nine Years' War in 1689 and the nocturnal bombing raids of World War Two.

Bible and Koran are not above the constitution

Is Islam part of the fabric of Germany? Undoubtedly, if for no other reason than the existence of the three-and-a-half-million Muslims who live here and have the right, thanks to the constitution, to practise their faith freely. Incidentally, Christianity only remains part of Germany today because it also subscribes to this modern-libertarian order and develops its religious life within it.

Neither the Bible nor the Koran are above the constitution. And herein lies the contemporary equidistance of the religions from the secular libertarian order of the German state.

Observed historically, the picture is naturally a different one: the complex interdependence of Christianity and state rule ensures a de facto precedence of the Christian over other religions. This remains, however, a cultural precedence. Nowhere does the German state assert that the Christian faith is truer than any other religion.

For the future, the only decisive factor will be whether those who practise religion in Europe, in Germany, can make their convictions productive for the whole, for the community – having the courage to look beyond themselves and their affiliation to a particular religious culture.

Germany needs image-confident faiths for its chorus of convictions, capable of creating identity without demonising or disparaging others in the process. Those creeds that are unwilling to accept and play this role – the one assigned to them by the German legal system – do not belong here, whatever the religion.

Alexander Goerlach

© 2017

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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