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Systematische Theologie: Allgemeines


Vögele, Wolfgang


Zivilreligion in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland.


Gütersloh: Kaiser; Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus 1994. 480 S. 8o = Öffentliche Theologie, 5. Kart. DM 98,­. ISBN 3-579-01949-X.


Richard E. Crouter

Among its critics the term civil religion often appears as a catchword that is loosely associated with what is supposed to happen to religion under the conditions of secularity and religious neutrality in a modern, liberally-constituted state. Few writers agree on ways of using the term or assessing its appropriateness as applied to modern industrial societies. Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762) develops the concept in Book Four as a logical effort to neutralize religion in the wake of Europe’s religious wars, and ends with a neutral but authoritarian regime in matters of religious belief. Recent American discussion ­ since 1967 this has evolved around the work of the sociologist of religion, Robert N. Bellah ­ is rooted in a mélange of insight that brings ideas of Tocqueville and Durkheim together with popular American piety, ritual celebrations of nationhood in times of crisis (civil war memorials), and the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence. Whether with respect to Rousseau or the American experience Christian theologians and ethicists have not been in the forefront of this debate. The topic’s disciplinary provenance lies more within history, social and political philosophy, and social science than the field of Christian theology.

It is thus striking that Wolfgang Vögele’s study of Zivilreligion in contemporary Germany should encompass these ambiguities and bring them into conversation with the task of developing a Christian theology in the form of a politically responsible public theology (öffentliche Theologie). The novelty of V.’s study lies not so much in its careful execution and comprehensive nature ­ admirable though these features are ­ as in taking on the onerous task of integrating reflection on civil religion with cognate debates and concerns about the state, political teaching, and social life on the part of Christian theology. Originally a Heidelberg dissertation under Wolfgang Huber (1993), the book thoroughly examines recent reflection on civil religion and addresses the ways in which civil religion is present in the Bundesrepublik. At the same time V.’s work cautiously and pointedly asks whether (and the degree to which) Zivilreligion in the Federal Republic can be compared with civil religion in America. To be sure, as contemporary liberal democracies the U.S. and Bundesrepublik have much in common. Yet their radically different histories, the ancient cultural roots of Germany, the U.S. with its Enlightenment and deistic origins, its legacy of Puritan moralism, and its radical multiculturalism make it improbable that one will find exact parallels. In contrast with Heinz Kleger and Alois Müller (eds.), Religion des Bürgers. Zivilreligion in Amerika und Europa, (1986), who prefer the idea of a "Religion des Bürger" to a "Zivilreligion," V. draws from the heavily historical political theory of Hermann Lübbe to argue for a significant understanding of Zivilreligion with respect to the Bundesrepublik. The book is timely in studying political and politico-religious discourse and judicial writing since November 1989 (e.g., the framing of state constitutions for the new Bundesländer) and the need to formulate public policy with respect to basic human values that will accommo-date citizens of a united Germany.

Following an introduction that lays out the basic clash of views on civil religion, V. begins chapter one by presenting de facto phenomena that illustrate the (implicit?) presence of civil religion in Germany. V. examines the speeches of politicians during the period of German unity (November 1989 through October 1990) for their potential civil religious content. Although varied, these addresses from different political parties and persuasions (both Bundeskanzler Helmut Kohl and Bundespräsident Richard von Weizsäcker are included) consistently refer to fundamental human values and responsibilities as God-given. The much-discussed church position papers, the EKD Denkschrift on democracy (1985) and the jointly sponsored EKD-German Bishop’s Conference declaration, "God is a Friend of Life" (1989), are analyzed next. This pair of well-chosen phenomenological examples shows that Germany’s politicians speaking in the name of religion and Germany’s two historic religious communities speaking on politics both belong to the landscape of German social reality. Of course, neither set of data presents a theory of civil religion. But we would scarcely expect them to do so.

Central to V.’s argument (chapter two) is his analysis of the prolific political philosopher Hermann Lübbe, whose reflection on history, politics, and religion extends over some four decades. Without endorsing every detail of Lübbe’s work, V. points to the significance of Lübbe’s profoundly historical understanding of how our sense of present time becomes shrivelled in a technological age, thus requiring modern humanity to seek larger explanatory theories (e.g., religious explanations) of life. This thematizing of the distinctiveness of a "Zivilreligion since the Enlightenment" is implicitly endorsed by V., who contrasts Lübbe with the social-theoretical functionalism of Niklas Luhmann and maintains that Lübbe’s thought is richer than can be suggested by labels like "neo-conservative" and "liberal." In passing, a reader can observe that for all the differences between the work of Lübbe in Germany and Bellah in the United States, both writers are genuinely engaged by the crisis-ridden times in which they live. Their respective theorizing ­ more pronounced in Lübbe than in Bellah ­ reflect this social reality. V. is aware that recent work of Bellah (his multi-authored Habits of the Heart) drops the term civil religion altogether, whereas Lübbe retains the German term Zivilreligion. Like Bellah, Lübbe stands as a lightening-rod in debates about civil religion. Neither figure is as concerned about the semantics of naming the phenomena as he is about the social reality to which it points in his respective cultural situation.

Chapter three reviews the cross-fire of recent German discussions regarding civil religion and leads a reader piece by piece into problems of definition, empirical studies of civil religious phenomena, including the NS regime and forms of constitutional patriotism. Of great interest here, precisely because their meaning is widely disputed, are the "God clauses" of the Grundgesetz as well as various state constitutions. V. is well aware of the ambiguous status of civil religious analyses and the way that one’s presuppositions affect the outcome of one’s reflections. This situation is mirrored in his own decision not to analyze empirical manifestations of civil religion in the DDR (presumably the Jugendweihe and other religio-political social rituals) on grounds that a condition of civil religion is the presence of a liberally-constituted democratic state (p.248). Among many critical voices of the disputants surveyed by V. those of Jürgen Habermas and Jürgen Moltmann stand out. V.’s most vociferous moments arise in questioning Moltmann’s post-Holocaust view that any talk about civil religion is rendered passé by the horrors of Nazism.

A brief digression (pp. 340-346) confirms that V.’s account of Zivilreligion in Germany has a deep affinity with the Bellah model in the United States. On this point V. takes a sensible middle position. Whatever their differences may be, one is struck by the parallel (and sometimes eclectic) ways that Bellah and Lübbe go about identifying the societal issues and crises of modernity that lie behind the civil religious discourse. V. effectively draws from Rolf Schieder’s extensive discussions of the American civil religion and is less inclined to view the debate as an "American import" than are writers like Niklas Luhmann (1978) or even the earlier work of Hermann Lübbe (1981).

In chapter four V. builds on this cacophony of critiques of Zivilreligion in Germany by social philosophers, social thinkers, and theologians. The work now turns to four representative theological voices that bear on the discussion: the Protestant theologians and social ethicists, Trutz Rendtorff, Eilert Herms, Wolfgang Huber, and the Catholic jurist and legal-philosophical theorist, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde. Each of these writers has developed a significant systematic understanding of religion and politics, even if issues of civil religion are addressed only obliquely. Trutz Rendtorff’s social ethical perspective stood behind the EKD Denkschrift on democracies. V. sees Rendtorff’s recent work as justifying Zivilreligion, even if not integrating it into his system of social ethics. Overtly critical of the proposal, Eilert Herms’ Christian politics draws from classical two-kingdoms theology to argue for a church-based critique of and involvement in a pluralistic social order. However much a public consensus may be needed, Herms sharply criticizes the apparent demand of Zivilreligion for universally held core values as related to the state. For his part Wolfgang Huber’s career has been shaped by preoccupation with the tasks of a public theology.

V. sees in Huber’s recent work modifications of his model of church and society that would allow for greater recognition of the problematic claims of civil religion. These three Protestant theologians are then juxtaposed with the position of the Catholic jurist, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, whose theory of church and state is shaped more by the historic experience of the Catholic church, and the need for theology to be neutral with respect to the state. To the extent that Böckenförde considers Zivilreligion he sees it as too authoritarian (in the manner of Rousseau) and inhibiting of religious freedom. By analyzing these four significant models of relating the church and politics V. seeks to nudge them toward more explicit dialogue with Lübbe’s historical analyses of Zivilreligion. To do so, he implicitly maintains, would challenge a shortcoming of their theories: For Rendtorff something more than oblique recognition, for Herms and Böckenförde an inadequate model as the object of critique, and for Huber insufficient recognition of the potential for shaping a public theology in dialogue with the tradition of civil religious analysis.

W. V. has undertaken an ambitious study of civil religion, and the debate about civil religion, with respect to Germany. His conclusions are given at various summing-up points in the book as well as in a final section (pp. 432-438). Much of the work draws from the effort to bring key aspects of Lübbe’s political philosophical perspectives on modernity into discussion with Christian theology. For V. there can be no doubt that civil religious phenomena pervade the Bundesrepublik. The problems posed by a cross in a classroom are firmly embedded in the cultural situation and do not admit of easy resolution. Yet V.’s acknowledging that the appropriation of Lübbe’s insight remains formal and analytic means that the discussion of actual phenomena ­ and questions about the institutional embodiment of Zivilreligion ­ will continue to be subject to vigorous discussion by specialists in the human sciences and in theology. A reader can hope that this work will further enliven a substantive debate on this topic in the German setting. Differentiating the discussion from its parallels in France and in the United States helps to disarm criticism of his project as reflecting alien presuppositions and historical experiences. Throughout all this, of course, there stands the dark shadow of National Socialism with its demonic ideology and religious practices. The danger of fomenting odious nationalisms, or religiously legitimated ethnic and racial hatreds, makes any call for greater recognition of Zivilreligion an especially hard sell. Yet V. proceeds in an undaunted manner to provide a comprehensive, almost encyclopedic, treatment of the topic. For an American reviewer the work’s merit lies in its comprehensive way of relating quasi-secular social or political thought to the explicit concerns of Christian theology with religion and politics. Just how his German audience of expert theologians will respond bears watching and constitutes a field of inquiry for another time and place.