Anthroposophists on the other side of the ocean


From: golden3000997
Date: Sat Feb 28, 2004 11:52 am
Subject: Anthroposophists on the other side of the ocean

and of the religion in schools controversy!

(end of Christine's editorializing)

Church/state separation in Germany - for now this wall staysup.

Free Inquiry; 9/22/1995; Cohen, Edmund D.

The German Federal Constitutional Court recently became the subject of controversy when it ruled against a Bavarian law requiring the display of crucifixes in public school classrooms. Many had protested the ruling, saying that it was incomprehensible and contrary to German values, with some even comparing it to a 1942 Nazi decree. On the otherhand, there are also those who believe that the court's decision is correct.

In a period when church/state separation in the United States is being eroded, it is heartening to read of a landmark church and state case in another country where the highest court acts on principle and hands down an unpopular decision. On August 10, 1995, the German Federal Constitutional Court made public its ruling striking down a provision of the Bavarian State Educational Code that called for the display of a crucifix in every public school classroom. In a country written off by American Christian fundamentalist missionaries as hopelessly post-Christian, this decision caused a furor.

In 1987, six-year-old Elina Seler was enrolled by her parents for her first day of school in Schwandorf, northern Bavaria. The Selers are adherents of Rudolf Steiner's spiritualistic philosophy, "Anthroposophy," and Elina had not been raised on Catholic lore as Bavarian children normally are. Mr. Seler described Elina's first day of school this way: "My daughter was forced to look up at an eighty centimeter high naked, blood encrusted dead man that hung right in her face."

Having never become desensitized to the gory imagery of the Crucifixion, little Elina was terrified. Mr. Seler complained about the crucifix, as twenty or so other Bavarian parents have done every year. Instead of issuing the usual flat refusal, the school offered to substitute a plain, Protestant-style cross with no corpus for the crucifix in Elina's classroom. The Selers took all three of their children out of school in protest, relenting only when the authorities threatened to prosecute them for truancy. Their legal complaint challenging the crucifix was decided against them in the Bavarian state courts in 1991. They appealed to the Federal Constitutional Court.

The Federal Constitutional Court held that "the introduction of a cross or crucifix into the classrooms of a compulsory-attendance nonparochial school violates Article 4 Section 1 of the Basic Law."(1) The court went on to explain that the essence of the violation consists of forcing an individual to have contact with the devotional paraphernalia of another religion, and implied that all the crucifixes in public school classrooms in Bavaria would have to be taken down. The decision also spoke of protection of minorities.

The decision prompted a torrent of extravagant rhetoric - a veritable field day for political posturing - on the part of conservative political leaders. They seemed unable to understand how the crucifix could signify something banefully different to some people than it signifies to them. Chancellor Helmut Kohl - also chairman of the ruling Christian Democratic Party - described the decision as "incomprehensible." According to him, the decision calls upon society to dispense with a symbol standing for all the positive "values of our western civilization."

Others complained that for dissidents and freethinkers to resort to the courts to force the crucifixes to be taken down amounts to failure by them to appreciate and reciprocate the tolerance accorded them in Germany. These critics point out the folkloric connotation that Catholic paraphernalia has in Bavaria. Crucifixes are widely displayed in a purely decorative way there. It seems that Catholic conservatives in Germany hold the crucifixes to be vitally important, even while criticizing their antagonists for taking a strong stand on such a trivial issue. Still others compared the ruling of the Constitutional Court to the forcible replacement of the crucifixes with pictures of Hitler during the Third Reich.(2) The chief editor of Die Welt, a leading national right-leaning newspaper, was hastily fired for writing an editorial praising the court's decision. A member of the Bavarian State Parliament from the Green Party(3) explained, "The cross is the raw nerve."

The resemblance of all this to commonplace political posturing in the United States is remarkable, considering how different the backgrounds of the two countries are. In the more remote history of Germany, nobles struggled against the power and wealth of the Roman church - during the Reformation and at many other times.(4) After World War II, the desire to reconstitute normal life led to a larger role for the churches than their actual importance and influence would have justified. In former West Germany, the Roman Catholic church and the "Evangelical" (i.e., Lutheran) Protestant church were officially established, and depended on church tax collected on their behalf by the government from each individual church member. Each established church controls considerable expenditure of public money, as well as the teaching of certain subjects in the universities and in some cases public schools.

The strong institutional position of the two established churches is not indicative of their actual influence, which is less than in the United States. The Protestant church in Germany is much like stateside "mainline" liberal Protestantism in its views. As in the American Catholic church, a wide chasm separates the views of the German Catholic hierarchy from those of the laity.(5)

There is nothing comparable to stateside Protestant fundamentalism in Germany (although special doctrine sects such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Science have footholds). The real situation is one of passive rather than active support for the established churches by the German public.

Until reunification, West Germans enrolled in the church of their forebears as a matter of course. The high costs of reunification caused taxes in Germany to skyrocket. The pocket money that could be saved by disenrolling from one's church and avoiding the payroll deduction for church tax - the equivalent of thirty or forty U.S. dollars per month for most people - now makes a noticeable difference in an average family's budget. Disenrollments, which held steady at about 200,000 per year in former West Germany prior to reunification, are expected to reach 600,000 for 1995. The church hierarchies are worried about the resulting erosion in their revenues.(6)

The condition of the churches in what had been Communist East Germany is a special and in some ways sad case. To belong to a church there under the old regime caused one to be regarded as "lost to socialism" and ineligible for any position of trust or responsibility. So, for many of the most thoughtful and responsible people unwilling to go along with the Communist regime and not allowed to leave the country, the churches were the only available avenue of expression. It was ordinary East German people in 1989 who brought about that bright, shining, redeeming moment in German history when protesters poured out of the churches of Leipzig, and - at great personal risk - brought down a totalitarian regime with the sheer moral force of their protest. Would that their grandparents had done something similar in the early thirties!

With the collapse of the Honnecker regime, leadership opportunities of every kind opened up to East Germans who had been sidelined in the churches. That opening abruptly curtailed church participation in the five new German states. With finances far more straitened than in former West Germany, few enroll to pay church tax.

So, why is it that "the cross is the raw nerve"? That could well be because the economic uncertainty of the German churches parallels a larger economic uncertainty. More so than in the United States, Germans are anxious because they know that they can no longer afford their accustomed high standard of living because of foreign competition, and taxes skyrocketing to combat deficits, and they realize that their indispensable cutting-edge status in industry and technology is slipping away from them. The Christian Democrats in particular have a narrower parliamentary majority than before the 1994 national election, and an unclear vision of the future. So, they mutter about the decline of "western values."

Perhaps the ingredient of the crucifix controversy most uncharacteristic of Germans is the widespread talk of disobedience to the Federal Constitutional Court's decision - the brewing of a kind of "massive resistance." The most important of the German leaders expressing such a view is Edmund Stoiber, the Premier of the Bavarian State Parliament, the counterpart of a governor in the United States. He has declared his intention to order removal of the crucifixes only in those instances where there is a complaint. A family like the Selers would now get its grievance redressed in Bavaria - after the damage has been done.

At this juncture, it appears that this controversy cannot go in any direction that would be good for the rule of law in Germany. The opportunity simply to obey the decree and make the best of it has already been missed; to do so would have been an appropriate generous gesture to the sizeable Muslim minority and the symbolically important Jewish remnant. If Stoiber's plan is carried out and there follows no reciprocal exercise of power to enforce the constitutional court's decree, then there is no rule of law in Germany. If the constitutional court rehears the case and climbs down from its decree, then its lack of independence and vulnerability to political pressure will be painfully obvious. A constitutional amendment to neutralize the decree would be a frivolous distraction from serious public business. Such an amendment clearly could not attract the necessary two-thirds majority in the two chambers of the German parliament.

At best, the protagonists in the crucifix controversy are in a dilemma of their own making. They may have set the stage for a constitutional crisis in the coming months. The controversy will play out, and it will be the old story of views that cannot stand up to scrutiny coming under that very scrutiny.


1. "Freedom of faith, of conscience, and freedom of creed, religious or ideological (weltanschaulich), shall be inviolable."

2. This claim is not as frivolous as it may first appear. In 1942, the Nazi Party ordered that the crucifixes in Bavarian classrooms either by taken down or displayed only underneath the mandatory Hitler portraits. This met with widespread grass-roots resistance, and various Catholic school teachers ignored threats from party officials. There was a flurry of Catholic resignations from the Nazi Party and boycotts of local Party functions were staged in protest. More teachers and administrators engaged in this resistance than the Nazis could see their way clear to send to Dachau. The Nazi Party backed down. The behavior of these ordinary Catholic laymen was in sharp contrast to the well-documented craven complicity of the Catholic hierarchy with the Hitler regime.

3. A liberal, environmentalist party with significant strength at all levels in German politics.

4. The term culture war - Kulturkampf - bandied about so freely by right-wing commentators in the United States refers to Otto von Bismarck's attack on the autonomy of the Catholic church in Prussia. He wrested control of the schools from it, and imposed his own rules on its operation and elevation of the clergy. He deposed some Catholic bishops and jailed others at the height of the controversy. Many reference books contain face-saving references to the church's eventual victory in the "culture war." But the Catholic church never recovered its former power in Prussia, even though the state rules governing its operation were lifted.

5. A public opinion poll in 1994 showed that 87 percent of German Catholics favor abolition of the requirement of priestly celibacy, and 60 percent regard the reign of Pope John Paul II as a destructive one. Der Spiegel, December 12, 1994, (50), p. 81 ff.

Anti-abortion views are, however, more prevalent in Germany than in the United States. A compromise national abortion law attempting to resolve the differences of the two former German nations on the subject was enacted recently. The law contains ambiguities that make its practical effect unclear.

6. See Der Spiegel, March 6, 1995, (10), p. 76 ff.

Edmund D. Cohen is the author of The Mind of the Bible-Believer (Prometheus Books).

COPYRIGHT 1995 Council for Democratic and SecularHumanism, Inc.


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