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Ambassadors of Democracy in Times When It is Under Threat

Millions of people in Germany have demonstrated against right-wing extremism and in favour of democracy in recent weeks. A huge wave of peaceful and creative protests swept through the country, not only in the big cities – up to 300,000 people are said to have taken to the streets in Berlin alone at the beginning of February – but also in smaller towns and cities up and down the country. Germany probably experienced one of the largest demonstration movements in its history. The protests were triggered by a meeting of right-wing extremists in Potsdam, which was uncovered by media research and at which high-ranking members of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which is represented in the German Bundestag, are said to have been present. According to the reports, the meeting discussed expelling millions of people from Germany if the AfD came to power. There was talk of “remigration” – a euphemism for deportation – in the land of the Shoah. In Germany, elections are due to be held in three eastern federal states in 2024 and the AfD, which has been categorised by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution as right-wing extremist in some cases, is more popular there, in the structurally weaker regions in the east, than in western Germany. It is benefiting from the tense economic and political situation. Polling institutes are predicting that the party will win large numbers of votes.

This is all part of the background against which the German Catholic bishops have published a remarkable statement. In a recently published statement entitled Völkischer Nationalismus und Christentum sind unvereinbar[1] (translated: Ethnic nationalism and Christianity are incompatible) the bishops distance themselves from right-wing extremism more sharply than ever before. The AfD is even explicitly mentioned in the statement, which was unanimously adopted by around 60 bishops at their plenary meeting in February 2024. The bishops emphasize that ethnic nationalism is incompatible with the Christian image of God and man. They go on to say: “Right-wing extremist parties and those that run rampant on the fringes of this ideology can therefore not be a place of political activity for Christians and are also not electable.” The message of the Catholic Church, which the Protestant Church in Germany also endorsed with the same clarity, is clear: it is time to stand up and take a stand against inhuman slogans and ideologies, against racism and anti-democracy. Some bishops also emphasized their position by taking part in demonstrations against right-wing extremism.

As important and remarkable as the bishops’ declaration is, it is only a first step. It does not yet answer the question of how the Church deals with anti-democratic attitudes within its own ranks in concrete terms. And this question is urgent: the bishops emphasize that even within the church, people with extreme right-wing views should not be allowed to hold any positions, whether full-time or honorary. But the real debates about the consequences of the bishops’ position at local parish level have yet to be held. This could lead to tensions. In the context of canon law, it is emphasized that the bishops’ statement is of an ethical, not a legal nature. The media have already reported on the first case in which an AfD politician is to be excluded from a church committee. This will not be the last case.

However, it is not only at the level of such personnel decisions in local congregations, but also at the level of theological reflection that major challenges are currently emerging in view of the threat to democracy. Theological ethics is faced with the task of mobilising its resources against racism, contempt for humanity and hostility to democracy, also in order to prevent Christianity from being appropriated for anti-democratic positions. Theological ethics will therefore have to focus its attention even more than before on the hinge points at which right-wing Catholic and right-wing nationalist circles believe they can identify common ground. This primarily concerns questions of gender order, sexual morality, the family and the protection of life. Here, the impression of congruence and agreement must be scrutinised and thwarted. It must be made unmistakably clear how fundamentally different Christian and right-wing extremist concepts of humanity are. It must be communicated even more clearly that there is an unbridgeable gap between the belief in the inequality of human beings and the belief that humans are created in the image of God and which ethical attitudes and standards arise from the (non-)assumption of the fundamental equality and dignity of all human beings, which is where the decisive differences lie.

But theological ethics can also counter the resentment and hatred fuelled by the extreme right by pointing to the biblically attested inner connection between love of God and love of humanity. It urges us to stand up for justice and freedom and to protest against misanthropy. Particularly in the current times when democracy is under threat, this is linked to advocating a society in which the field is not given over to a very specific attitude: indifference. In a recently published essay, the Syrian-German writer Rafik Schami writes that there is hardly a group of people who have more influence on the course of world history than the group of the indifferent. Against the backdrop of his own experiences of migration, he is convinced that indifference causes greater damage than attacks by misanthropes and summarises: “The indifferent are the worst enemies of democracy. In my opinion, they are just as dangerous as right-wing extremist ideologues. It is time for the indifferent to be reminded unequivocally of their responsibility.”[2] Christian ethics of responsibility could also take part in this reminder work in spring 2024.

The people who have taken to the streets in Germany over the past few weeks have defied indifference and expressed their belief in the equality and dignity of all people. They have become ambassadors of an ethic of responsibility in the name of democracy, which gives confidence in times that do not inspire much optimism.

[1] The statement is available online at:

[2] Rafik Schami: Weil es nicht egal ist, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung 8. March 2024.