Shaping the future – Address at Jubilee Conference

Shaping the future – Address at Jubilee Conference

Bishop Wolfgang Huber, Ph.D.
Chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD)

Shaping the future
The Reformation heritage and the relation between Europe and the USA

Address at Jubilee Conference
“25 years of UCC- EKU/UEK Kirchengemeinschaft”
Berlin, November 13th 2005

Bishop Wolfgang Huber, Ph.D.
Chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD)

Shaping the future
The Reformation heritage and the relation between Europe and the USA

Address at Jubilee Conference
“25 years of UCC- EKU/UEK Kirchengemeinschaft”
Berlin, November 13th 2005


In 2004 in the USA, more than 200 Christian theologians and ethicists signed a statement protesting against the misuse of the Christian faith in political decision making in the USA. In connection with the presidential election last year, this statement was printed on October 20th 2004 in Sojourners Magazine under the title, “Confessing Christ in a World of Violence.” When the General Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC) met at the beginning of 2005 in Atlanta, the participants had this in mind.

The first point of the statement is as follows:

“Jesus Christ, as witnessed to in the Holy Scriptures, is not limited by any national borders. People who confess his name are found throughout the world. Our faithfulness to Christ takes priority over any national identity. Wherever Christians identify with an empire, they discredit the gospel of Christ.

“We reject the false teaching that any state could ever be described with the words, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not comprehended it.’ These words from the Holy Scriptures refer exclusively to Jesus Christ. No political or religious leader has the right to link them with the function of war.” (*)

The structure and reasoning of the statement is very similar to the Theological Declaration of Barmen. It is a courageous attempt to renew the confession of Jesus Christ in a contemporary situation. In this sense, the influence of the Barmen Theological Declaration goes far beyond the borders of Germany and Europe, as this example demonstrates.


Allow me for this reason to take a look at the Reformation heritage as expressed in the Theological Declaration of Barmen.

The Barmen Theses of 1934 form a powerful, impressive document. Even today, they still provide an excellent source of guidance for Proestants. Their arguments are derived from the heart of Christian theology and their core relates to important questions that are central, the answers to which determinine whether the church will stand or fall. They are a key document for how Protestants understand themselves.

These Theses confess Jesus Christ as the only Lord of the Church alongside whom no other authority can make higher demands on believers. The message of God’s grace is emphasised as the foundation of the Church which determines everything. For this reason, the central task of the Church is described as conveying this message to all people. Not only the Church’s message but also its outward form should be devoted exclusively to this aim. So the Church must not be subjected inwardly to social or political goals, nor be compelled from outside to submit to them.

The Barmen Declaration is therefore a document of evangelical freedom. It commits the Church to take advantage of this freedom and it expects the state to respect this freedom. It reminds everyone, political representatives just as much as individual citizens, of their responsibility before God and their common duty of standing up for good governance and peace.

The Reformation’s rediscovery of the central biblical message has often been summarised in the fourfold “alone”: Christ alone, the Scriptures alone, grace alone and by faith alone. The Barmen Theological Declaration put this Reformation insight into new words with a special clarity and firmness that point the way. It is Christ alone whom we confess as the Word of God, “which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and death,” (as the Barmen Declaration states). In Holy Scripture alone we find the source of insight into God’s revelation. Grace alone underlines God’s mercy as the centre of our faith – with the consequence, to quote Barmen again, that “the message of the free grace of God [must be proclaimed] to all people.” By faith alone points to the dignity and uniqueness of each human being who is addressed as an image of God and to whom God gives the ability to respond to this address.

In connection with the Barmen Theses of 1934, it has often been asked whether they should not have taken a more decisive stand on the hostility to the Jews in the National Socialist state. Time and again, regret has been expressed at the lack of a seventh thesis which should have dealt with the covenant with God’s chosen people which God has never renounced and with Jesus of Nazareth’s belonging to that people. Looking back now, it would seem very desirable for the confession of Jesus Christ as the one Word of God to have been linked to the fact that this Jesus was a Jew and therefore, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated later, was on the side of his weakest and most defenceless brothers and sisters, namely the Jews. We probably have to recognise that the members of the synod at Barmen drew up a document which is still of significance today, not because they were able to deal with the problems of their time but because they knew it was their duty to concentrate on the gospel. Admitting that this confessional statement, however relevant it was, did not demonstrate the necessary intellectual awareness of all the aspects of the situation at that time, demands that we not only look back critically but, still more, calls for such presence of mind in our own situation. The whole of the Christian life is witness, as Martin Luther said. So the Church always needs convincing forms of witness related to the contemporary situation.


That is something which links our church life in Europe and in the USA. In the light of the Reformation message, how do we see the relations between our churches and their political contexts today? How do we understand the relationship between religion and politics in the USA and in Europe? A brief review, which is all that is possible in this address, cannot take account of all the aspects. So I am well aware that this will be somewhat one-sided.

In 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr, the well-known North American theologian of German extraction, published a book on the “Irony of American history.” For him, the irony lay in the fact that a nation, which had developed from a small group of refugee pilgrim fathers who had hoped to find the “promised Jerusalem” on the other side of the Atlantic, had been led astray to relate this promise to a claim to global power. Niebuhr was thinking about the excesses of the McCarthy era when militant anti-communism was allied to a North American sense of being chosen. He voiced a warning about reacting to fundamental challenges in a fundamentalist frame of mind. He considered it preferable to go on being aware of the “irony of American history” and not to allow an awareness of being chosen to reinforce claims to a hegemony over world politics.

The belief in the religious vocation of North America has taken a number of different forms in the recent history of the USA. The view was summarised in 1963 in the sentence, “I have a dream.” The Baptist pastor, Martin Luther King, conjured up people’s dream of freedom and equality. This dream was not linked with a particular claim to domination but rather with the demand for equal rights for those previously oppressed and with an appeal for non-violent resistance. It was a vision which transcended continents and religions.

Since those days, the role of religion in North American politics has undergone a profound change. Only three decades ago, religion was still not considered to have any key significance for political developments. But, once Jimmy Carter had been elected in 1976 as the first “reborn Christian,” the situation changed. In the second half of the seventies, religious fundamentalism came to the fore worldwide. It brought a new recognition of the potential for mobilisation found in a religiously conservative, evangelical type of Protestantism, such as existed especially in the “Bible belt” of the Southern States. Then the religious right-wing interpreted civil religion in a way completely exempt from Niebuhr’s irony. The USA was presented as the “shining city upon the hill” and as “God’s chosen nation.” The sense of mission based on this was contrasted with a “religion of secular humanism” that was considered to be the dominant spirit of the times. Or, to use an expression from Jürgen Habermas, the “secularisation which empties” had essentially created the space for religious fundamentalism.

The high hopes of the religious right, which had been further encouraged by the election of Ronald Reagan, were quickly dashed. A policy centred above all on fiscal, economic and security activities could also not meet the expectations expressed in Germany at the same period under the heading “mental and moral transformation” which were equally disappointed.

Towards the end of the eighties, the agenda of the “reborn Christians” shifted. Its dominant emphasis was no longer the struggle against “secular humanism” but the re-establishment of a culture of law and order, no longer a struggle against the supporters of abortion but commitment to a comprehensive right to life, no longer critisism of the school curriculum but support for the doctrines of creationism in the name of a freedom to teach and learn. This contributed a lot to giving the evangelical type of churches a growing resonance also among people who had previously supported the mainline Protestant churches.

Since then, there has been an amazing growth of this type of North American spirituality. Its symbols can be seen in the enormous evangelical congregations of Willow Creed or Saddleback Mountain, for example. Now the mega-churches are developing into “giga-churches” which gather ten thousand people or more for worship. That is where the religious right fits in, all the more since it was possible to avoid its becoming further radicalised. But it has meant that a religio-political rhetoric has become more direct when it is attacking the supposed or real enemies of the USA. “Crusade” was a word used in the fight against communism as it is in the fight against terrorism; Ronald Reagan spoke about the “empire of evil” and George Bush jr. speaks about the “axis of evil”. Often without any self-criticism, belief in God is used to support such a Manichaean worldview; the “irony of American history” has vanished from consciousness.

In the United States, the term “civil religion” is used to refer to the link between religion and politics despite their simultaneous institutional separation. The sociologist, Robert N. Bellah, uses it to mean the sources, which are not themselves political, of a morality that is necessary to hold the social and political life of the community together. So civil religion constitutes one of the ways in which religion and politics can be inter-twined in society and can thus contribute to the stability of society. Institutional cooperation can be another form. The former is what we find in the USA, the latter in Germany. North America can stand a lot of civil religion but very few institutional connections between church and state. Germany can put up with the churches having a strong public position but not with much civil religion.


The civil religion in Germany, where hardly anyone counts themselves among the “reborn Christians”, is a negative civil religion. Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, a constitutional lawyer, put this most clearly in his now famous sentence, “The freedom-loving, secularised state lives off prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself.” So the state itself refrains from defining the prerequisites which allow the renewal of the awareness of freedom and the readiness to accept responsibility. But the state is not indifferent to the existence of institutions devoted to defining the content and to transmitting such prerequisites.

The state considers it must be religiously neutral. But it has good grounds for linking this religious neutrality with an attitude that encourages religion. The state’s religious neutrality gives it the fundamental duty to respect the freedom of all religions to the same degree. But it cannot be indifferent to the kind of relations existing between the religions and the structure of the free, secularised state. In this sense, the state has a special, inherent affinity for the distinction between state and religion which forms an indispensable prerequisite for the enlightened secularity of the legal order.

When one describes this constellation, it becomes clear why different answers are given in the USA and Germany to the religiously plural situation of the present. In the USA, people have no difficulty about all religions having the same institutional standing, because in any case it will be a standing beyond the “wall of separation,.” Hence, the state’s laws have very little to say on the equal standing of religions any way. Nevertheless, the content of statements made by religions is very carefully examined to see to what extent they fit into the dominant civil religion. There was a clear example of this in the large ceremony to commemorate the victims of September 11th at the Yankee Stadium in Harlem. Every person who spoke, Christian or Jew, Muslim or Sikh, joined in praising the United States as the chosen nation and asked for God’s blessing on its future destiny. In the face of the challenge from terrorism, they demonstrated their affiliation with a civil religion which had never before in North American history been defined so clearly in a way that transcended different religions.

In Germany, on the other hand, the conception of equal religious liberty for all must also have an institutional expression. The structural provisions of the German law on church and state are designed for religious groupings which are themselves structured in a way that allows them also to become corporations under public law.


There can be no doubt that the relationship between religion and violence is a major focus of public interest at the present time. Violence is even discussed mainly in reference to its religious justification. This happens whenever terrorist violence is the subject. And, in reverse, when the spotlight is turned on religion in this way, it is also seen mainly as having a potential for and an inclination to violence in both the historical and the contemporary context. From this point of view, September 11th 2001 has aquired a paradigmatic importance. The witness to the importance of religions for peace, which was expressed by so many voices a few days later at the inter-religious memorial ceremony for the victims of September 11th, has faded completely behind the overwhelming impression that the revival of religion is linked with the occurrence of terrorist violence as the greatest threat to peace in our time.

There are more nuances to the relation between violence and religion than the occurrence of extremist acts and their treatment in the media can convey. Invoking religion to justify violent killings exists side by side with the criticism of violence in the name of religious conviction. Both are known in Christianity and in the European tradition. No consideration of the relation between religion, politics and violence can neglect the diversity of positions ranging from pacifism to bellicism, from just war to just peace. But we are dealing with a quite different level when suicide attacks or the terrorist use of force are defended and justified by religious motives. So we are becoming increasingly aware that we can no longer have an inter-religious dialogue which does not also discuss such developments.

On the stage of world politics, one can see relationships between religion and the political exercise of power in many contexts, although they had appeared to have been almost overcome from a European or, more precisely, Euro-centric perspective. The renewed strength of Hindu nationalism in India is just as much an example of this as the Islamic link between religion and power. The new proximity of church and state in certain countries where Orthodoxy predominates also points in this direction, as does the new proximity between religion and politics which has evolved in the USA, irrespective of the “wall of separation” for which the constitution provides. Religion, politics and violence are not just European issues. But we must examine critically the extent to which the European development has produced a model that is able to survive and, in addition, whether this model can also be considered binding on others. When one religion decides to refrain from using state means to obtain recognition, can this also be binding on other religious traditions? Does the enlightened secularity of the European legal order determine the criteria for the globalised world? Is the combination of democracy, religious liberty and a secular state a useful model? Might it perhaps even be an indispensable prerequisite for peace between the religions as well as for peace between states? Europe should confidently contribute its own conception to the debate on the relation between religion and politics.


This is where we come full circle. Not drawing the line against the USA but self-confidently formulating its own position should constitute the European conception of trans-Atlantic relationships. The dialogue needed today has two requisites: a deeper understanding of the North American religious culture which can explain the increased importance of religious attitudes for North American politics over the past two decades, and new reflection on the different type of relationship between religion and politics in Europe. Differences in definitions of the relationship between religion and politics do not need to deepen the gulf between the USA and Europe. On the contrary, they can form part of the dialogue which is so urgently needed today. Naturally, a critical approach to the North American developments will have its place in this dialogue. But what is more important is for Europe to define its own position on the issue.


The Christian churches can make a major contribution to the debate. Their voice must be clear and stand out among the variety of different religious expressions. Reflection which looks back to the Reformation heritage combined with a search for convincing ways of witnessing to the faith in relation to the present situation are the indispensable conditions for this. Reflection on the Reformation roots of our churches calls upon us, according to my firm conviction, to engage in critical debate about all ways of using religion for political aims; the fourfold “alone” of the Reformation is just as much a critical norm for this as is the witness of the Barmen Theological Declaration derived from the principle that Jesus Christ is the only Word of God “which we have to trust and obey in life and in death”. I believe the time has come to bring this critical potential of our theological tradition into our contemporary debates with one another.

To this end, the partnership between the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Church of the Union – now the Union of Evangelical Churches – can be of exemplary significance. We can draw on and benefit from our common experiences which certainly did not only start when the seal was solemnly set on our church fellowship. Ever since the founding synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC) in 1957, there has been regular interchange between our churches. The confirmation of the church fellowship in the resolutions of the Western EKU synod at its meeting from 16-18 May 1980, of the Eastern EKU synod at its meeting from 12-15 June 1980 and of the General Synod of the UCC at its meeting on June 30th 1981 gave binding shape to this dialogue which was then deepened over the following 25 years and to which we are still committed.

The church fellowship between the UCC and the Evangelical Church of the Union, which was established in 1980/81 was a special contribution of the Evangelical Church of the Union when it became part of the Union of Evangelical Churches (UEK). That took place in 2003. The intention of the UEK from the very beginning was to strengthen the communion between all the member churches of the Evangelical Church in Germany. For this reason, both the work and the existing links of the UEK are to be integrated into and continued within the EKD. This is also the purpose of the bond between the EKD and the UEK which we plan to establish from January 1st 2007 but are already preparing. On both sides of the Atlantic, we are linked by the expectation that, in the midst of these changes, the church fellowship between the UCC and the UEK will be especially valued and developed further. I personally also feel committed to this goal.

The General Synod of the UCC in 2003 invited the churches which were not members of the EKU but are now members of the UEK to enter into this bond of church fellowship. One point on the agenda of the bond is our responsibility for just peace. Both of our churches are living out the commission to bring about reconciliation and facing the challenge of overcoming violence. In this, we are united with the ecumenical movement worldwide.

The special characteristics of the connection between the UCC and the UEK relate to their common historical roots and to both sides being committed to the Barmen Theological Declaration. We are concerned that this church fellowship be given life time and again in the everyday context of our churches at the “Gemeinde”, “Kirchenkreis” and “Landeskirche” level or in your congregations, Conferences and the General Synod. The working group on the UCC side and the UCC Forum of the UEK are important instruments for theological reflection as well as of organisational activities and for coordinating regular exchanges and common projects. We shall need these instruments in the future as well.

We gain significant insights from our theological dialogue which we need in order to witness to the gospel before the world, to gain assurance in our own faith in reference to the church’s confessional documents and for relevant witness to the faith in our different situations. One example is the reason given for church unity, namely mission. “World mission is a driving force for unity,” was a statement made at the 5th consultation of United and Uniting Churches in 1987 in Potsdam-Hermannswerder. All Christian churches together have the task of giving public witness to Jesus as the Christ. Their diversity is not an obstacle to this but rather an expression of the many facets of faith. With all their differences, the churches are called to communion in the faith and in witnessing to the faith. They contribute their different theological, cultural, national and social traditions to the dialogue on common witness and common service. The aim of this dialogue is to make church fellowship possible and to deepen it. Honest and open dialogue deepens the understanding of what we have in common; so it also helps us to understood what is ours better. Hence, our churches can be true witnesses of the gospel together and each in their own place and stand up “For justice and peace”, which was the main theme of the consultation at Erfurt in 1983. Deepening the visible fellowship in the faith and witnessing together before the world are tasks which unite us in a lasting way.


Since we call one another into our fellowship of churches, we have the duty to be continuously self-critical.

The foundation of our church fellowship is God’s word which is the only support for this fellowship. By this we mean a fundamental agreement on the understanding of the Christian faith. In the preamble to the constitution of the EKD, it says, “The foundation of the Evangelical Church in Germany is the gospel of Jesus Christ as given to us in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. By recognising this foundation, the Evangelical Church in Germany commits itself to the One Lord of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Only where the characteristics of the true Church of Jesus Christ are recognisable can church fellowship come into being and be acknowledged.

Another feature of our church fellowship is that we expressly witness to this foundation and grant one another fellowship in word and sacrament. The Protestant understanding of the ecumenical goal of the visible unity of Christ’s church continues to be that of reconciled diversity; churches which do not deny their own profile for the sake of the fellowship but contribute it to the dialogue for the sake of their sisters and brothers. Reconciled diversity is the basis for an ecumenism of profiles in which respect for and recognition of each church’s profile goes hand in hand with giving shape to church fellowship.

So it is also part of our church fellowship to put the fellowship into practice. In the fellowship, it is a question “not only of faith but of believers, not only of sacraments but of disciples who are fed by these sacraments and of servants who administer them, not only of ethics but of the discipleship of those who are called”, as a Catholic, Anton Houtepen, once put it.

Theological work on the foundation of our witness and the continuous translation of our witness into common and missionary action are lasting commitments that follow from our common Reformation heritage. Therefore, church fellowship is a common path, a path which leads in the same direction. We are aware of our common origins and our common goal. On the basis of this certainty and trusting in God, we can shape the future together.

(*) Translator’s note: This is a free translation from the German and not the original quotation.