Question 166:

What is the Christian view of the separation of state and religion (secularism)?


Answer: When Christians and Muslims meet, for example in Germany, it is not only their different faiths that determines and shapes their meeting. Whether they are aware of it or not, a third major element is always the constitutional state which is neutral to religion. While Germany is thus, on the one hand a part of the Western civilization, i.e. shaped by Christianity and its Jewish roots, in which for centuries Muslims were only able to be guests welcomed in friendship, today’s organization of state and society in Germany ensure that Muslims have no fewer or lesser legal rights than Christians, and that Muslims and Christians can meet as free and equal people. In other words, it is not the faith, but the legal system founded on secular principles, which determines the legal status of a person. It is the secularity of the legal system which ensures the legal equality of citizens of different faiths, contrary to the Christian ordo in medieval times, and contrary to parts of the Islamic world, in which even today the lesser legal status of Jews and Christians as citizens requiring protection (dhimmi-s) has its impact.

The fundamental emphasis in modern western constitutions and the German basic constitutional law on religious freedom also corresponds with the Christian, Catholic conviction. In the Second Vatican Council, and especially in the declaration on religious freedom "Dignitatis Humanae in 1965, the Catholic Church recognized religious freedom as a human right derived from the principle of human dignity. On the one hand, it is therefore understandable and, if understood correctly, also necessary that Christians call for Christians to have the same level of religious freedom in Muslim countries that Muslims enjoy in countries with Christian majority (which are constituted normally on the basis of the principle of secularism in its different kinds. On the other hand, it would be contrary to its constitution, as well as to the Christian understanding of religious freedom, if Germany tried to restrict Muslims rights to practice their religion because of a lack of religious freedom in other parts of the world.

In pluralistic German society, the basic right to religious freedom is increasingly applicable in the context of different religions and people with no religion. Society has to decide how to draw the boundaries between the freedom of religion for individual people. Christians and Muslims are required to talk together about their respective faiths. In their conversations they find much that separates them. In their relation to people without faith, however, they also find much more that unites them. The result is a growing interest in a conversation with each other and as members of the same society with a view to everyone living peacefully side by side across all boundaries.

Historically speaking the constitution of contemporary Germany – which is based on strong values, but is neutral with regard to religions – originates from the experience of the religious wars. As a consequence of these wars the State abandoned its monopoly of truth and learned that religious convictions cannot be forced using state power and violence. The opposing parties during those wars, however, had been Christians of other confessions. And so for a long time the secular structure remained "Christian” and is still informed by the Christian tradition. In our relationship with Muslims, we Christians have to be more aware that the secular structure, which ensures our peaceful living together, is partly seen by Muslims as Christian, but partly also as no longer Christian and godless.

Through their engagement with their state and society, as well as in their relationships with Muslims, Christians have to work towards ensuring and making it understood that secularity does not mean godlessness. It is important that Muslims, too, recognize secularity to be the basis of their own religious freedom, as well as for the peaceful side by side of different religions. In a value based legal state that is neutral on religion, both Christians and Muslims are expected to determine their identity in the category of citizens and in the category of religious believers.

In this respect, Christianity has learned about secularization the hard way in the course of the last two centuries. We are helped by Jesus word: "pay Cesar what belongs to Cesar – and God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:20f.). For us Christians, Jesus has been the perfect living example that religion cannot be the same as the governing system. The political thinking of many Muslims, however, is still largely focused on a close connection between religion, state and law. The Christian experience of the secularization process has been partly painful, but because it has resulted in freeing the Church from political tasks, it has also been very affirming. Could the Christian experience therefore help Muslims recognize the secular state as providing the appropriate framework for a living together in diversity?

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Prof. Dr. Christian W. Troll,

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