BERLIN, Germany — When Barack Obama traveled to the eastern city of Dresden with Angela Merkel in 2009, they stopped at the Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady. Leveled by Allied bombing raids in 1945, the towering landmark was painstakingly rebuilt after German reunification.
At the end of their visit, the US president and his German counterpart sat together in quiet prayer — something Germans wouldn’t know because photographs of that moment didn’t appear in the press here.
That’s because images of politicians praying are rare in Germany’s largely secular society. “Merkel didn’t want photos of it,” says Volker Resing, who called his biography of the chancellor Angela Merkel: The Protestant.
A former scientist with a doctorate in physics, Merkel is also the daughter of a Protestant pastor in what was then East Germany. Although Germans largely accept her faith, she’s rarely discussed it as a public official for her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) — until this month.
In a speech to the synod of the German Evangelical Church — the country’s largest Protestant group of churches, which are primarily Lutheran — she spoke about religion at length, and outlined her hope that the upcoming 2017 anniversary of the Protestant Reformation would have a “missionary” effect. Christianity is the most persecuted religion worldwide, she said, and appealed for the protection of persecuted peoples, including Christians, to be part of German foreign policy.
Those comments drew fire from human rights groups and politicians who criticized drawing distinctions between Christians and others.
But it was Merkel’s statements on a podcast broadcast on her website earlier this month that Resing said revealed the most about her personal views.
“I am a member of the Evangelical Church,” she told a young theology student. “I believe in God, and religion is also my constant companion, and actually has been my entire life.”
“I find it very liberating that as a Christian, one can make mistakes,” she added. “That one knows there is something higher than just human beings, and that we are also called on to shape the world in responsibility for others. This is a framework for my life, which I consider very important.”
Such statements from politicians may be commonplace in the United States, but not in Germany, where personal religious beliefs are largely kept under wraps.
Theologian Michael Bongardt of Berlin’s Free University says that although Americans “talk about God a lot more” than Germans, “the interesting thing is that church and state are more strictly divided in America than they are in Germany.”
Religion classes are part of the curricula in the public schools of most German states, while the government collects taxes for major churches from those who register their religious preferences.
Although many don’t attend regular services, Germany has 50 million registered Christians. Experts say many belong because the Catholic or Evangelical churches play an important role in society by funding institutions such as preschools, schools and nursing homes.
Most Germans’ relationship with religion isn’t unlike their ties to the fire department, says professor Rolf Schieder of Humboldt University in Berlin. “Everyone knows we need it and people pay taxes for it, but many don’t really want anything to do with it,” he said. “They think they need it only in cases of emergency, like a funeral.”
The country also has 4 million Muslims and a Jewish community of about 200,000.
However, more than a third of all Germans do not officially belong to any religion. Philosopher Frieder Otto Wolf, president of the Humanistic Society of Germany, says that group is the most influential.
“It’s not true at all that religiosity is growing in Germany,” he said of Merkel’s recent speech, adding that her hope the celebration of Martin Luther’s reformation would have missionary results has “no basis.”
“The return to religion spoken of in the 1990s never took place,” he said.
Atheists are still a majority in former East Germany, where affiliation with a church could once harm careers and chances for education. More than 50 percent of those in the ex-Communist state don’t believe in God, according to a recent study by the University of Chicago.
Nevertheless, three of Germany’s top politicians are former East Germans with Protestant religious backgrounds. Besides Merkel, they include President Joachim Gauck, a Protestant former minister from the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and Katrin Goering-Eckardt, recently selected as a top candidate for the Green Party in national elections next year.
She is a theologian with a top position in the synod of the Evangelical Church. Born and raised near the eastern city of Erfurt, Goering-Eckardt has said she will suspend her work with the church until the elections next fall.
In the village of Teltow, just outside Berlin’s city limits, Protestant pastor Thomas Karzek says their ascent in politics makes him “proud.”
“But I also hear critical voices from those who are reluctant about this connection between church and state,” he says.
Teltow is part of the eastern state of Brandenburg, where Merkel grew up. Small sections of the Berlin Wall are still visible along a main road leading to town.
Unlike many others, Karzek’s St. Andreas church — which dates to the 13th century — is thriving, sustained by an influx of young families moving there from western Berlin. On some Sundays, the hand-carved pews are full.
Karzek believes Merkel’s recent mention of churches’ role keeping an eye on government is significant. “I think it’s very important she put these things in the debate,” he said.
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However, Bongardt of the Free University said the chancellor’s cautious language showed she isn’t entirely comfortable speaking about religion.
But although most experts agree religion won’t be an issue during next year’s elections, some believe Merkel’s sharing of her beliefs may point toward a future reversal.
“I think Angela Merkel reflects the rising importance of religious issues,” said Klaus Schubert, a professor of politics at the University of Muenster. “She is really careful, not someone who pushes things forward. She more or less waits until an issue ripens, and then puts her ideas out there.”