In a televised election debate on Sunday, September 3, the moderator asked the two candidates for chancellor, Angela Merkel and Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz, whether either of them had been to church that day. The surprised candidates both answered no, which may be natural from Schulz, a non-believer leading an explicitly secular party. Merkel, though, is the leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU), a party formed on the basis of political Catholicism, as well as being the daughter of a Lutheran pastor.

This demonstrates just how much the CDU has changed over the years. The party was essentially a revival of the pre-Nazi Catholic Centre Party, along with supporters of smaller Protestant parties in northern Germany. Its founder Konrad Adenauer, chancellor from 1949 to 1963, was a weekly Mass-goer who, along with Italy’s Alcide de Gasperi, was arguably the leading Catholic statesman of the post-war period. In the 1980s CDU chancellor Helmut Kohl, though rarely seen in church, would often stress his cultural Catholicism. Under Angela Merkel’s leadership – and probably more so after she retires – the “Christian” part of the CDU’s name has become a marker of historic sentiment.

Traditionally, Germany’s electoral map has reflected the landscape at the end of the country’s post-Reformation religious wars, with the Social Democrats strong in the Protestant north and Merkel’s CDU dominating the Catholic south. But this is a less sharp divide than it used to be. Religion itself is much weaker in German society. Though the churches remain very rich thanks to the church tax system, weekly Mass attendance for Catholics is barely 10 per cent, and the Protestant churches have even lower rates of participation. In the eastern states, religious observance is negligible, certainly less than when the communist government persecuted the churches. The two main parties are also less dominant than in the past, and in current polls can barely muster 60 per cent support between them.

The partial exception to this trend is Bavaria, where Catholicism is strongly bound up with regional identity, and where the CSU (the CDU’s local counterpart) has run the state government without interruption since 1957. CSU leader and state premier Horst Seehofer, who has a tense relationship with his nominal ally Merkel, is much happier to stress the region’s Christian roots, though the intensely Catholic Bavarian culture of previous decades is in steep decline.

If there are issues of specific interest to Christians in the German election, these don’t for the most part revolve around social conservatism, for which there is little support. (The CDU voted in parliament against same-sex marriage, but accepts the change.) If religion features in politics today, it is in connection with another question raised in the Merkel-Schulz debate, the status of Germany’s four million Muslims.

There is some evidence that Germany’s small percentage of conservative Christians is being tempted away from the CDU towards the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The party now has its own Christian network, Christen in der AfD, which has even attracted some theologians. This has alarmed Church leaders: though the Catholic bishops’ conference usually avoids party politics, its president, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, has specifically condemned the AfD, leading to a war of words in the press with party leader Frauke Petry.

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