The postwar division of Germany left roughly equal numbers of Roman Catholics and Protestants in West Germany. East Germany had five times as many Protestants as Roman Catholics. There the authorities waged a persistent and largely successful campaign to minimize the influence and authority of the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches.
In the Federal Republic, freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 4 of the Basic Law, and the churches enjoy a special legal status as corporate bodies. In theory, there is constitutional separation of church and state, but church financing complicates this separation. To support churches and their work, most Germans in the old Lšnder pay a voluntary church tax, amounting to an 8 or 9 percent surcharge on income tax paid. Living in a society known for consensus and conformity, few West Germans formally withdrew from the established churches before the 1980s and hence continued to pay the tax.
Beginning in the 1980s, negative attitudes toward the tax and the churches become more common, and people began leaving the churches in significant numbers. Between 1980 and 1992, about 1.0 million Roman Catholics and 1.2 million Protestants gave up their church memberships. A faltering economy and increased taxes caused many to withdraw for financial reasons. In a 1992 poll, approximately 42 percent of those queried stated that the church tax was "much too high"; 64 percent favored abolishing the tax and supporting the churches through voluntary contributions. Fourteen percent of those Roman Catholics and Protestants polled stated that they were likely to withdraw or definitely would withdraw from their church.
In a society increasingly materialist and secular, the spiritual and moral positions of the churches became irrelevant to many. Among the younger generation seeking autonomy and self-fulfillment, allegiance was no longer simply surrendered without question to institutions of authority. Attendance at services dropped off significantly, and the institution of the church quietly disappeared from the lives of many Germans.
In East Germany, although the constitution theoretically provided for freedom of religion, the Marxist-Leninist state placed formidable obstacles before those seeking to exercise that basic right. Enormous pressure was exerted on citizens to renounce religion. East Germans who practiced their religion were denied educational and professional opportunities, for example. Consequently, at unification the majority of East Germans were either not baptized or had left their church.
In the 1990s, polls in the new Lšnder revealed that more than 70 percent of East Germans did not believe in God. Young people were even less religious. Some polls found that only 16 percent of East German schoolchildren believed in God. An entire generation had been raised without the religious rituals that traditionally had marked life's milestones. Secular rituals had been substituted. For example, the Jugendweihe (youth dedication) gradually supplanted the Christian practice of confirmation.
After unification in 1990, there were nominally 30.2 million Protestants and 26.7 million Roman Catholics in united Germany. Roman Catholics and Protestants combined amounted to about 76 percent of the German population and 71 percent of the country's total population.
Although less extreme than in the past, attitudes toward religion continue to polarize German society. In the 1990s, especially in the western Lšnder , attitudinal differences separate many younger Germans with humanistic values (concern for the environment, the rights of women and minorities, and peace and disarmament issues) from an older generation who hold traditional religious values. Many others of the postwar generations have accepted the values of popular culture and consumerism and have left the churches because they no longer seem significant. Millions of Germans of all ages, however, continue to profess a religion for a variety of reasons, among them strong religious beliefs, social pressure to conform, preservation of educational and employment opportunities, support for essential church social-welfare activities, and (in the western Lšnder ) the enduring appeal of Christian rituals surrounding baptism, marriage, and burial.
As of 1995, it was difficult to determine to what extent Germans in the new Lšnder would return to religion. In the early 1990s, popular magazines featured stories about the "heathenization" of Germany. Although such a provocative characterization of trends seems exaggerated, the incorporation of the former East Germany did dilute religious influence in united Germany. Conversely, however, the opening of eastern Germany gave missionaries from the old Lšnder and from around the world the chance to rekindle religious fervor. In the old Lšnder , the churches have continued their vitally important work of operating an extensive network of hospitals, nursing homes, and other social institutions. The need for such services and facilities is greatest in the five new Lšnder , and the churches quickly stepped in to help.
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