Global Extremes: Analysis

Why are Christians in Germany more immune to far-Right populism than in the US?

On opposite sides of the Atlantic, Christian communities are reacting very differently to the messages of right-wing populists

Tobias Cremer
12 July 2021, 9.08am
Trump's supporters breach the US Capitol in Washington DC to protest against his election loss, on 6 January 2021
Michael Nigro/Sipa USA/PA Images
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Whether Pro-Trump rioters parading oversized crosses and Jesus flags during the storming of the US Capitol in January 2021 or the far-Right parties in Europe stylizing themselves as the defenders of their countries’ ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’, right-wing populists are determined to use Christian symbols in order to appeal to voters’ concerns about national and cultural identity.

From Washington to Berlin, these populists often appeal to Christian identity as a marker against Islam, but without necessarily aligning themselves with Christian doctrine, beliefs, and institutions. But between one side of the Atlantic and the other, the Christian communities these groups hope to attract are reacting very differently.

In the US, white Christians supported Donald Trump at record levels. However, in much of western Europe, Christian voters appear comparatively ‘immune’ to right-wing populists’ appeals. A prime example is Germany, where the far-Right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) consistently scores significantly higher amongst irreligious voters than amongst Protestants or Catholics, and where the institutional churches themselves have emerged as some of the far Right’s most outspoken public critics.

There are a host of reasons that may help us understand this discrepancy. Differences in theology, the different make-up of party systems and the availability of ‘Christian Democratic electoral alternatives’ in Europe, or the unbroken tradition of white Christian nationalism in the US, which is contrasted by a historical aversion to far-Right politics in European churches after their experience of Nazism and fascism, are some possible explanations. However, one key factor that is often overlooked in this debate is the role of church-state relations.

Germany’s church-friendly political system of ‘benevolent neutrality’ formally includes faith leaders in the policy-making process and provides them with institutional privileges and a high social status, which encourages them to consider themselves as ‘part of the establishment’ and defenders of the status quo. As a result, they tend to perceive right-wing populists’ anti-system agenda more critically.

By contrast in the US, the formal separation of church and state, and a perceived ‘secular surge’ in parts of the Democratic party, has allowed many conservative Christian leaders to stylize themselves as system outsiders, and for a ‘victimhood narrative’ to flourish within Christian circles.

While many observers stress that this ‘persecution complex’ is often dramatically overdone, most US Christian leaders I spoke to during my own research agreed that within their community there is increasingly a “fear that the secular world is closing in on them”, as one prominent Christian conservative commentator put it. A leader of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee concurred adding that there is a “growing scare, and a sense of fear (which) can cause us to defensively turn inward”. It is against this backdrop that many US faith leaders were willing to enter a transactional bargain with Trump, if, in return, he was to protect them against what they saw as a secularist re-interpretation of the First Amendment.

In Germany, ‘the churches always have the opportunity to set their own substantive accents and voice their views’

A second critical way in which church-state relations in Germany may have contributed to a more openly negative Christian response to the populist Right is by making access to policy-making less dependent on personal favours and relationships than in the US’s formally separationist model.

In Germany, the constitution not only grants churches symbolic, legal and financial privileges but also formalises their consultation in important policy-making processes, regardless of which party is in power. As a result, German faith leaders I spoke to agreed that their churches were significantly less dependent on personal access to specific individuals and more willing to criticise politicians publicly. One senior official of the German Protestant Church, hence, stressed “even if their view is not always followed, the churches and other religious communities are still heard by all parties” while their Catholic counterpart added that “the churches always have the opportunity to set their own substantive accents and voice their views”. By contrast, US faith leaders often explained that especially after Trump was elected president, the only effective way to influence policy was by informally gaining personal favour within the White House and by muting any public criticism.

As one member of the White House Faith Advisory Board put it: “You got to praise and encourage publicly so you can voice criticism in private (…) If you publicly criticize you don’t get into the room and if you’re not in the room, you don’t have any influence.”

Finally, Germany’s formalised system of benevolent neutrality, which collects faith communities’ member dues through the tax system and requires clear formal hierarchies, has favoured a more deferential top-down relationship between church leaders and congregants. This can endow leaders with greater authority and independence.

By contrast, the US’s unregulated marketplace of religion, in which church leaders’ prominence, authority and even their livelihood depend on their ability to attract members and donors, produce much more of a bottom-up power dynamic, which makes faith leaders more cautious about making potentially controversial public statements.

This impact of church-state relations on faith leaders’ willingness to speak out against right-wing populism is important because research has shown that, like other social elites, faith leaders can, through their public statements, either legitimize or create a social taboo around voting right-wing populism and thus shape right-wing populists’ electoral success among their flock.

Even in times of secularisation and institutional erosion, church-state relations can have an outsized influence

This impact is further amplified by the fact that the governance of religion can also have a significant impact on their ability to be heard. For instance, Germany’s centralised and formalised system boosts church leaders’ ability to influence voters by clearly identifying them as leaders, raising their social status and authority, and providing them with a prominent platform in the German public.

The decentralized and unregulated religious landscape in the US, creates no comparable identifiable, authoritative figures who could speak with the same authority for Christianity. Instead, US interviewees stressed that even though a majority of the US’s “religious establishment” were initially critical of Trumpism, the historical lack of hierarchy between and within US churches meant that their voices were often drowned out.

For instance, one senior evangelical commentator lamented that those, who like the members of the White House Faith Advisory Board may lack institutional or denominational standing, but “are often played up by the media (…) and speak up constantly in support of Trump, as people of Christian faith” often had an “outsized influence” on perceptions of Christians in the news.

In sum, Germany’s system of moderate secularism appears to have helped impede an US-style alliance of Christian voters and right-wing populism, and likely contributed to the ‘religious vaccination effect’ against the populist Right we can observe among German Christians. Research showing a similar ‘religion gap’ in other European countries with comparable models of religious governance to Germany, such as the Netherlands, Austria or Scandinavian countries, further suggests that this dynamic could be more generally applicable across Europe.

This is important in that it suggests that even in times of secularisation and institutional erosion, church-state relations can have an outsized influence not just on how faith communities engage in the public sphere, but also on how religious symbols and language are used in politics. At a moment when Western countries face the question of whether religion is a source of integration that should be supported or a fuel for radicalization that should be evicted from the public sphere, taking such institutional factors into account is critical.

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