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Bavaria Requires Crosses on All Public Buildings. Church Leaders Disagree.

German Christians debate whether conservative state’s new law honors or hijacks the core symbol of their faith.
Bavaria Requires Crosses on All Public Buildings. Church Leaders Disagree.
Image: Philipp Guelland / Getty Images
Bavarian Alpine Riflemen celebrate Mary as patron of their German state on May 6, 2018. The Catholic group upholds Bavarian folk traditions.

“A clearly visible cross must be placed in the entrance area of every service building to serve as a reminder of the historical and cultural influence of Bavaria.”

So reads a controversial new law introduced in Germany’s second-most populous state.

Markus Söder, premier of Germany’s Christian Social Union party (CSU), was the driving force behind the new law, which went into effect on June 1 and has caused a schism between church and state leaders.

Söder called the ruling an “affirmation of our cultural and historical, as well as spiritual values.” He acknowledged the cross is “primarily a religious symbol,” but also said it is foundational to the secular German state.

The law is viewed by many as an effort to lock down conservative voters in the run-up to state elections this October. The CSU currently dominates the state’s legislature, but some of its core constituency has been lured toward the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) in light of more than 1 million refugees—most of them Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa—who have flooded into Germany over the last few years.

The decision, which was accepted in April and has now been implemented, is a key component in an attempt to bring voters back.

In Bavaria, where more than half of the population is Catholic and 1 in 5 are Protestants (while 4% are Muslim), the move to promulgate crosses in public spaces is popular. More than 56 percent of residents favor the decision, though only 29 percent of Germans nationwide do likewise, according to a poll for the Bild am Sonntag, Germany’s largest Sunday newspaper, and cited in the Independent.

Some of the greatest opposition within Bavaria has actually come from church leaders. The highest officials in both the Bavarian Catholic and Protestant churches came out against the law.

“If the cross is only seen as a cultural symbol, it has not been understood,” said the head of the Catholic German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

He also accused Söder, a Lutheran, of expropriating the cross to provoke “division, unrest, and animosity.”

Franz Jung, the incoming bishop of Würzburg, echoed the same sentiment in the Guardian: “The crucifix is a genuine religious symbol and it should not be reduced to a folkloric object and regional custom.”

Catholic clergy have been joined by a host of academics, students, and artists in speaking out against the law. Protestants, too, have added their critiques.

Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, the chair of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, expressed at Pentecost a happiness at seeing every cross. But he emphasized the need to “distinguish between the passion of putting crosses in buildings and the passion for the cross.”

“We have enough crucifixes in Bavaria,” said Protestant theologian Johanna Haberer, according to the Guardian. “Söder is instrumentalising and abusing the cross as a religious symbol.”

Other church leaders of various stripes, as well as the Association of Germany Catholic Youth and the Protestant Youth of Bavaria, have condemned the decision, arguing crosses should not be turned into tokens to win political points.

Still, there is plenty of support for the policy, even among Christian leaders.

Dozens of theology professors have signed an ecumenical declaration of support for the decision, convinced it conveys an important message to the secular world.

“Those who look at the cross are equally confronted with an essential value anchor of our humanistic culture of tolerance as with Jesus Christ as the Son of God,” states the declaration.

“We are happy that Markus Söder makes no secret of his faith, which he lives from personal conviction,” Siegfried Winkler, the second chairman of the German Evangelical Alliance, told the evangelical IDEA Magazine. “We welcome that he is committed to the Christian-Jewish roots of our society. Crosses in public buildings should specifically remind of these roots. We fundamentally reject the instrumentalization of the cross for political and election tactical goals, but we cannot recognize them in Markus Söder’s initiative.”

In general, evangelicals both inside and outside Bavaria approve of the ruling. Numerous Catholic leaders have voiced similar opinions.

Birgit Kelle, a Catholic journalist in Germany, wrote in a Die Welt editorial, “Every Muslim, every atheist, and every other believer can feel safe under this cross, which does not constitute a claim to power, but a commitment to treat each person equally and decently, regardless of their background, faith, ability, or gender.”

“Christians are happy when they see a cross. In the cross is healing, in the cross is life, in the cross is hope,” tweeted Bavarian archbishop Ludwig Schick, according to CBN News.

Bavarian Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer stated in Bistum Regensburg “the cross is the epitome of Western culture. It is the expression of a culture of love, compassion, and affirmation of life. It belongs to the foundations of Europe.”

“The dividing line does not run between Protestants and Catholics, but mostly between liberal and theologically conservative Christians,” Daniela Städter, managing editor of IDEA, told CT. “It is the piety which is decisive.”

This isn’t the first time politicians in Europe have forced debates over the honoring or hijacking of crosses.

In Italy in 2003, a judge moved to pull crosses from schools. “The presence of the crucifix in classrooms communicates an implicit adherence to values that, in reality, are not the shared heritage of all citizens,” said Judge Mario Montanaro at the time.

In 2010, evangelicals in the country also opposed the government’s use of crucifixes in public classrooms. In this case, as reported by CT at the time, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of the state after a three-year legal battle, calling a crucifix on a classroom wall “an essentially passive symbol” and arguing that crucifixes are signs of cultural heritage in the heavily Catholic nation. Their removal from schools would, therefore, “rob the Italians of part of their cultural personality.”

The ruling riled Italian evangelicals, who see the crucifix—as opposed to more generic crosses—as favoring and propagating Roman Catholicism.

The decision, however, had ramifications far beyond Italy. It was binding on all 47 states in the ECHR, including Germany.

The United States has seen similar debates. As CT reported in 2015:

CT previously examined the Supreme Court’s tangled view of public crosses, and noted the range of perspectives among Christian lawyers and scholars on whether memorial crosses should be neutered of religious meaning in order to preserve their public presence. Rhode Island even attempted to determine which public crosses were “sufficiently secular.”

Back in Bavaria, the new law has already hit speed bumps. State-owned museums and universities have been exempted from the requirement to hang crosses—though the government still strongly encourages it.

The law—which some perceive as a helpful reassurance of Christian values in German society, while others view as a theocratic powerplay that makes an accessory of the symbol of faith for the purpose of swaying elections—plays into a larger German debate over the country’s open-borders policy and the cultural, religious, and demographic shifts in recent years.

More than 70 percent of Germans identify as Christians, though only 22 percent attend church services once per month or more, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center. Bavaria, however, is one of the strongest bastions of Christianity, especially Catholicism.

In fact, Söder, the state leader behind the law, met with Pope Francis the week before the law came into effect and claims the pontiff is supportive of the ruling.

“Söder did not talk to Francis about the so-called crucifixion, which came into force this Friday in Bavaria. However, subsequently the State Secretariat had expressed a ‘fundamental benevolence’ towards initiatives of a ‘Christian confession to the outside’ as well as the Bavarian care and family allowance,” reported the Frankfurter Allgemeine.

Associates of Söder have testified to the sincerity of his faith, and he himself has openly proclaimed his convictions, urging people to read their Bibles and recognizing the centrality of Christ.

“It would certainly be wrong,” IDEA’s Städter told CT, “to assume Söder’s decision was only based on electoral tactics.”

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