Bavarian state government orders that crucifixes be displayed in all public buildings

Germany’s Christian Social Union (CSU), conservative sister party to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has governed its home state of Bavaria since 1946. The only interruption to the party’s rule was a three-year spell by a Social Democrat in the 1950s, by now long forgotten.

In particular, the CSU prides itself on having been able to govern alone with absolute majorities in Parliament since the 1960s – a feat unmatched in German politics, whose electoral system privileges proportional representation and hence the formation of cross-party coalitions. Only from 2008 to 2013 did the CSU have to rely on the liberal FDP as a junior coalition partner.

Overtaking the AfD on the right

For a party so spoiled by success, the results of last year’s federal elections were nothing short of catastrophic: The CSU received a drubbing, obtaining only 38.5 per cent of the popular vote – its worst score since 1949. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) obtained 12.5 per cent, one of its better scores in the former German West. (The AfD’s strongholds lie, broadly speaking, in the Eastern parts of the country.)1

The main lesson that CSU politicians have drawn from this electoral débâcle is that the AfD must be beaten on its own turf. Already on election night, party boss Horst Seehofer fell into line with the AfD’s populist, identitarian diction: “Our main goal is and remains: Germany must stay Germany and Bavaria must stay Bavaria”, he announced.2

Seehofer has since become Interior Minister in the federal government in Berlin. He has used his new office to announce a hard-line stance on immigration and to pander to Islamophobic prejudice. CSU politicians have also widely lauded Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his Faustian bargain with the far-right FPÖ party. Coopting the far-right by taking up their topics is, they argue, the way forward for German conservatives.

A string of controversial policy initiatives

Following Seehofer’s move to Berlin, Markus Söder has become Bavaria’s new Minister President. Söder is widely seen as a right-wing hawk, and his arrival in office was met with dismay by more centrist CSU figures as well as by a range of civil society actors working for the defence of human and minority rights.

Bavaria will see crucial regional elections in October 2018. Söder’s CSU, anxious to prevent a defeat comparable to the one suffered in last year’s federal elections and fearing for its absolute majority in the Bavarian parliament, has been gearing up to the elections by firing off a barrage of controversial measures over the past month.

Expanding police powers

In a first move, the Bavarian Interior Ministry announced the enactment of a new Police Tasks Act (Polizeiaufgabengesetz, shortened to PAG). According to its critics, the PAG grants the Bavarian police competencies of control, surveillance, and detention of a scale that “no German authority has ever possessed since 1945.”3

Without any element of suspicion backed up by concrete evidence, Bavarian police will be able to stop and search individuals, wiretap their phones, collect online and offline data, as well as spy on them through covert investigators. Police will also be able to rely on DNA testing at the earliest stages of investigations; and they will be allowed to carry hand grenades and other explosives.

The PAG, in other words, builds on the preventative turn in policing practices since 9/11; it also takes the militarisation of law enforcement to a new level, at least in the German context. The law is to be pushed through parliament in May and to enter into force prior to the October elections, in order to demonstrate the CSU’s tough stance on security. Counter-terrorism objectives loom large – as do the potentially discriminatory impacts of the new law on particular communities.4

Curtailing the rights of the mentally ill

Shortly after the PAG was announced, the CSU government also made public its plans for the Act Helping the Mentally Ill (Psychisch-Kranken-Hilfe-Gesetz, shortened to PsychKHG). Citing “public security concerns”, the law prescribes that anyone who is treated in a psychiatric clinic in Bavaria will have their personal data stored and accessed by the police and the authorities for five years. Visitation rights and other prerogatives of the patients will also be limited.

Until now, such treatment had only been reserved for mentally ill offenders convicted for serious crimes. Critics of the Act fear that anyone suffering from a bout of depression or any other mental health issue will be stigmatised and hence refrain from seeking help.5

Reemphasising Bavaria’s Christian identity

Bavarian Minister President Söder has since announced his willingness to retreat on some of the most controversial aspects of the mental health bill.6 At the same time, however, he completed a third strike of his strategy to present the CSU as the security-loving and identity-fostering home of disgruntled AfD voters. Söder announced that, from June 2018 onwards, any public building in the state of Bavaria would be obliged to prominently display a Christian crucifix in its entrance area.

This applies not only to government buildings but also to schools, universities, and courtrooms. In a manoeuvre geared to maximise media attention, Söder himself attached a (somewhat mangled) cross in the Munich State Chancellery.

On Twitter, Söder defended his move as a “clear profession of our Bavarian identity and our Christian values”. Yet in order to circumvent accusations that his acts undermined the state’s denominational neutrality, Söder simultaneously denied that the crucifix conveyed any religious meaning at all. Instead, he presented the Christian cross as the “expression of the historical and cultural character of Bavaria”.7 (The cross put up by Söder himself was, however, a gift from a late cardinal and had been beatified by the Catholic clergyman, belying the claim that its significance was detached from religious meanings.)

The CSU’s relationship with the Church

The measure was greeted by some top functionaries of the largest German churches. The President of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Heinrich Bedford-Strohm complimented the Bavarian government for recognising that “religion cannot be banished to the private sphere” before adding that “no one must abuse a religious symbol such as the cross for political ends”. The Catholic archbishop of Bamberg, Ludwig Schick, heralded the cross as “a sign of unity, reconciliation, peace, community of brothers and sisters, solidarity”.8

Söder himself has actively courted the support of the Church. In a recent interview with a Christian news magazine, Söder spoke extensively and emotionally of his personal faith, his participation in prayer circles, and his activities as a preacher.

He also called upon the Church to retreat from overtly political stances and statements. Instead of meddling in such issues, the Church should return to its domestic missionary activism in order to stem the tide of secularisation.9 Such a depoliticised Church has been a core demand from many conservative believers, who accuse both Catholic and Protestant institutional hierarchies of being too liberal as well as of being complicit in the tyranny of political correctness.10

Church fears of identitarian cooptation

Other Christian voices were critical of Söder’s agenda, however. In a harsh commentary, Catholic journalist Felix Neumann accused the CSU of “blasphemous profanisation” of Christian symbols: “For the cross is not just a marker, some random symbol of a state or of the history of a people, or even the emblem of a guiding culture (Leitkultur).”11

A priest at the University of Würzburg in northern Bavaria published on open letter to Söder: “Many people increasingly perceive it as a provocation and as hypocrisy how you publicly talk about Christianity. In our perception, you are abusing Christianity for the purpose of excluding people of a different faith. Together with many others I am deeply concerned about this development.”12 Catholic and Protestant youth organisations from Bavaria echoed these concerns, calling on the Munich government to abandon its plans.13

Politicians from the Bavarian left were equally dismayed, arguing that the obligatory presence of the cross was discriminatory and violated Germany’s constitution.14 The Chairman of the Free Democrats, Christian Lindner, asserted that the move was “reminiscent of [Turkish President] Erdoğan” and his tactics. The AfD party, however, lauded Söder’s initiative.

Religious minorities fearing for their rights

To atheists and minority religions, the announcement spells an increasingly hostile stance on the part of the Bavarian state. “A cross in public buildings contravenes the principle of state neutrality”, Mohamed Abu El-Qomsam from the Bavarian branch of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD) asserted. As a “self-evidently” religious symbol, it represented much more than ‘Bavarian identity’ and could not command the allegiance of non-Christians.15

El-Qomsam’s superior, the ZMD’s Aiman Mazyek, asserted that “we Muslims don’t have an issue with the cross, or with the appreciation of religion in societal life.” He added, however, that double standards privileging the display of the cross while banishing other religious symbols from the public sphere were untenable.16 (In recent years, Bavaria has been at the forefront of efforts to progressively ban burqas or niqabs, as well as hijabs from various spheres of social life.)

Leading personnel from the more traditional Jewish umbrella organisations such as Josef Schuster or Charlotte Knobloch were less critical of an obligatory display of crucifixes. Knobloch in particular hailed the decision as a major achievement in the effort to integrate Muslim immigrants.17 The Union of Jewish University Students (JSUD), however, weighed in strongly against the Bavarian move, castigating its exclusionary implications.18

‘Enemies of religion’

By way of response, the CSU’s Secretary General Markus Blume disparaged these critics as constituting “an unholy alliance of enemies of religion and self-denialists.”19 This chilling piece of rhetoric undoubtedly represents an escalation in the culture wars surrounding religious neutrality. Nevertheless, this is not the first time that Bavaria, a state whose south has a staunchly Catholic history, has been at the forefront of such debates in Germany.

In 1995, the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe ruled that Bavaria was in breach of the Basic Law, since the state government ordered that a crucifix be displayed on the walls of all classrooms in public schools. Tens of thousands of protestors defending Christian Bavarian identity took to the streets in Munich as a response, led by then-Minister President, CSU politician Edmund Stoiber.

Ever since, Bavaria has by and large managed to evade the jurisdiction of Germany’s top court even though it has routinely circumvented its rulings on religious freedom. For instance, crucifixes are still on display in many Bavarian classrooms, after the government implemented a ‘dispute resolution mechanism’ that would keep crosses in place while allowing individual parents and students to file complaints and ultimately have crosses taken down. (Teachers cannot file such a complaint, however, and must do their job under the cross.)20

Position of the German Constitutional Court

Yet it is important to note that the Constitutional Court rejected the argument that the crucifix was a cultural symbol devoid of religious connotations already in its 1995 judgement. Hence, it seems unlikely that the new initiative on the part of the CSU will ultimately withstand the Court’s scrutiny.

At the same time, Karlsruhe has also eschewed open conflict with the Bavarian government. When a teacher sued the Free State of Bavaria over the presence of crucifixes in every classroom (against which he could not complain), the Court waited for five years without delivering a judgement – i.e. until the teacher in question had retired and the Court could avoid passing a verdict on the matter.21

Christianity as religion or as identity

The Bavarian move to have the crucifix displayed in all public buildings is only the latest episode in the identitarian redefinition of Christianity underway in Germany. Levels of religious observance and of institutional affiliation with the major Churches are continuing to decline, as they have done for decades. At the same time, recent years have witnessed a marked resurgence of voices stressing the country’s Christian history and identity.

Leading Church representatives will ultimately have to decide how they position themselves vis-à-vis this identitarian turn. In the past, they have often admonished the CSU for failing to respect Christianity’s core lessons in its policy-making: Most notably the conservatives’ hard-line stance on immigration and their rhetoric on Islam and Muslims have sparked Church criticism.

At the same time, the more positive reactions of top figures of the clergy to the announced obligatory display of crucifixes show that Church leaders may become more amenable to the CSU’s agenda. In particular, they may come to the conclusion that a government-backed Christian identity politics is the best way to prevent or even reverse the Church’s descent into irrelevance.

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