Thomas Schirrmacher, a German theologian and scholar of human rights associated with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, is the new general secretary of the World Evangelical Alliance, an association of groups including millions of global Christians. In my interview, he explains his work and reflects on the threat of Identity Politics to human dignity and the common good.
Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, as well as editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. Today I have the great pleasure of talking to Dr Thomas Schirrmacher, who spoke in our office in Washington several years ago, but he is a German theologian and scholar of religious freedom and international human rights. He is also the newly elected Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), and so, I’m hopeful that his expertise and background will enhance that organization’s focus on religious freedom and international human rights. The WEA includes evangelical churches and associations from around the world, totaling hundreds of millions of people. So, Thomas Schirrmacher, thank you so much for joining this conversation.
Schirrmacher: Yeah, thank you so much for the invitation.
Tooley: Well, tell us a little bit about your background as a pastor, theologian, and scholar in Germany, and please tell us about your church affiliation.
Schirrmacher: Well, I have at least two lives, which are independent from each other. One is, as you mentioned already, I am a theologian. I have a standard career, so to speak, with studying, my topic always was ethics. And I taught in state universities, private schools, on all levels within the globe. I have a fully second career as a sociologist. Also starting from scratch, bachelor, master, and so on. And specializing on comparative religion in the area of state-church relations and religious freedom. And I still hold this, I still can do it online. I’m still professor of the sociology of religion in Timisoara in Romania. I don’t know what I will do once we can travel again. I probably won’t have time to keep this up. And I’m also teaching at Oxford on religious freedom and human rights at the Regent’s Park College.
And the second life led me into politics. I have been involved with Mrs. Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, more or less all my life. And in the last few years I was the chief counsel on religious freedom for the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union, which is the partner in Bavaria. To which the foundation belongs. And while I thought the last life, the political life, is over, now I have especially often lectured in universities and testified in parliaments. And two days after my installment, now I got a letter from the Christian Democratic Union to testify in our parliament on religious freedom. We now have a Special Envoy of Religious Freedom in the German Government. Something Mrs. Merkel promised me in 1999, but only two years ago we finally got it. And so, it’s a big debate the party has pulled out some weeks ago. And so, I went back. I’m now in the second channel. So, the political life will stay a bit, yeah.
And in both lives, I have been working with religious minorities in the underside of the churches. I started out while a student already, later built up underground training network in the former Communist Germany, so we would regularly go over there, pretend to visit someone, and then go back to have them get out. And they were amazing times till 1990, of course that came to an end. And then I have started to work on a global level, and this is where all my ecumenical relations come from. For some, it’s amazing because normally you have official ecumenical relations to get all the contacts, and I just have been working with many of the churches around the globe. And so, the Patriarchs and others what would invite me and thank me. But at the same time, I have been working academically on the topic of religious freedom.
In 1999, we had the first ever debate on religious freedom in our parliament. Mrs. Merkel was in opposition still, and this is when she made her promises that if she gets to power, she will not forget the topic. And afterward, Sam, who was the chief counsel of the Christian Democratic Union in parliament, came back to me and said, “If you ever give us so weak data, we never will do this again. You get going. You get academic, solid data.” And this led, two years later, to the foundation of the International Institute for Religious Freedom, which is a network of professors and chairs around the globe that research religious freedom. Lawyers, sociologists, theologians, and meanwhile, we provide a whole book each year to the German Parliament for the debate. One, actually it’s two books, but they are bound together. One is on the situation of Christians around the globe, and one is on the situation of all other religions. And so, that always has been my secular life that brought me into the International Society of Human Rights, a kind of conservative Amnesty International with sections all over the world. And I’m still the Chair of the International Council. Again, I don’t know how long I can do it. In virus times, I can do it, but once we travel again, I can’t divide myself. I can see what I can do. And it’s really only now with my new position that the two things suddenly merge and come very close together.
So, now, when Pope Francis is visiting Iraq and Kurdistan, of course, and in the background there are thousand things going on up and down, and I don’t know whether I’m, but I’m working more on the Christian side, helping Christians in the countries than on the political side. But the new situation brings me into all the mess even more. So, I’ve many situations which I studied academically where I gave advice, testified in parliament, and suddenly I’m in the middle of the mess and have to do something about it myself. Just a little bit of background about the World Evangelical Alliance, I call it the cake theory. World Christianity is let’s say about 2.4 billion people, half of them are Catholics and half of them are non-Catholics of any kind, so you cut the cake into half of the Catholic Church, and you have the rest. Now the rest can be found in the World Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches is mainly the Orthodox Churches or Oriental Churches, plus in general for mainline churches or former state churches. It’s getting a bit diverse over the years. But they have together something like I think in the moment they say 420 million, and at least half of them is Orthodox or Oriental. And all the rest of the cake, so you cut the half in half again, and then you have the 600 million of the Word Evangelical Alliance, which are Protestants. So, if you just take the Protestants, you can see that’s about three-quarter of all Protestants are in this box. There’s an overlap. There is no decision on either side that you cannot be with the other side.
The World Evangelical Alliance goes from the national level, so a church becomes a denomination, becomes a member, say in Germany in the German Evangelical Alliance, and all the alliance from the World Evangelical Alliance. In the World Council of Churches, you become a member on the global level, so you easily can do both. And that means it’s the second largest religious organization in the world. It’s due to what Christianity is, that all the largest organizations are Christian, because from the time of the first century on, Christianity was highly organized compared to other world religions. Islam, for example, the organization that really is organizing is the state. The state has organized Islam itself. You go to the mosque and that’s it, but there’s no structure, no membership, no something. And with Christianity that has been different from the first day. Inhabited from our Jewish friends, of course, where the synagogue already was organized and brought in its own leaders. So, the difference from the Catholic Church is that we don’t have a hierarchy. Well, when somebody on the top gives commands and everybody does it, the interesting thing is that the result is that the positions on many topics are much, much closer to each other than the Catholic Church, where one man says what you have to believe, but in reality, many people on the grassroots don’t believe what they said up there. And that’s the difference between us. But it’s very, very low hierarchy.
It’s a specialty of evangelical convictions that every Christian should know what he’s talking about and should be able to speak about his faith. And the typical example is the house Bible study groups, house churches, or whatever you want to call them, where people just sit down and everybody can pretend to know the Bible and just say what comes to mind. Sometimes it’s a bit nonsense, sometimes it’s a deep discussion, but everybody can talk. And I always tell my Catholic friends, priests or bishops, the huge difference that if I, having several Doctorates and being an influential person, preach in an evangelical church and then I go out, an old lady will come and say, “I don’t think that is in the Bible. I see this verse differently.” There is no feeling that she should not talk to me like this. And if I then would say, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Don’t you know whom you are talking about,” I quickly could lose my job because that’s part of our identity.
I always say some people say we are fundamentalist because the Bible plays such a role. That’s too on the one side, not that we have fundamentalists, but the Bible plays a role. But because everybody can discuss the Bible at the same time. We are probably the largest debate club in the world. And I normally joke that I organized 600 million Popes, yeah. And sorry to say, some of my friends really act a little bit like this, but the vast majority really takes it for granted that we can just discuss, we debate. And then, of course, also coming back to religious freedom, gives us a lot of influence, because when we have situations and we are convicted, we should do something. Our people match. So, we have thousands of lawyers around the globe that are willing to do something, and we have Catholics, Orthodox, all kinds of people coming to our lawyers, because they know they are waiting for just for cases on religious freedom or other cases, willing to go for it whether they get paid or not.
And so, I know that in the US, the perception of evangelicals is a bit different, because especially, of course, in the last years. One has to distinguish our member party as the National Association of Evangelicals that has a very broad spectrum, and I sometimes say that I have a little bit of the impression that the problem is that all of America is evangelical. So, when you go to the National Prayer Breakfast, whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat, you have the impression, I always joke a little bit, “It’s always me and my Jesus.” I recall that President Obama, at the National Prayer Breakfast, he recorded that has pastor sends him a Bible verse each morning. And that he then prays and sends him a short message back. In Germany, that would make you a hardcore evangelical. People would say that.
I saw a poll which showed that even the atheists in the US, in the majority don’t want an atheist President. They want to be atheists themselves, but they don’t trust someone who doesn’t believe in God. That’s, of course, much different here. Here it’s the other way around. Here we have people who are good Christians, like Mrs. Merkel, but don’t like to let too many people know about it. And that is the perception here very much. That religion is private and you should not go selling it. So, that’s the opposite to the U.S.
Tooley: Let me ask you, Thomas, in the minute or two that we have left, that as a scholar of international human rights, obviously you’re aware that the assaults on religious freedom around the world are increasing. And also, we have, even within our own democratic societies, increasing illiberalism and a lack of confidence in democracy, so how can Christians, and especially evangelicals, respond to these threats to religious freedom and to democratic values?
Schirrmacher: Well, I think we have several developments that are responsible for this. Number one is a kind of religious nationalism. Now, that is, if you are in Turkey, you have to be a Muslim. If you are in Sri Lanka, you have to be a Buddhist. More and more of our societies lack solidarity and unity. Diverse languages, diverse backgrounds, I mean, we are so much more diverse than any time before. And it’s easy then to go for something that seems to be the thing unifying, and that is religion. So, I mean, Turkey is a good example. And you clearly can see that religion is in misuse there. It can be used very well, but Erdogan himself is a very non-religious person. Not to talk about his wife, who is only religious as long as the camera is on, but when she’s traveling in Paris, you will not find anything of this.
And you can see this in Buddhist countries, you can see this in India very obviously. And the bad thing is that this even destroys democratic countries. For a lot of religious minorities, meanwhile, election times are the times most feared. In Indian election time, there is this Hindu nationalism. In between elections, it waters down a bit, but it’s used to win elections. The same, of course, in Turkey, where this really boils up if there is an election, because then Erdogan goes for all those things. And in Sri Lanka when they have election times, Christians don’t leave the house. They just stay at home. So, that really touches the democracy. There, of course, the development in the US also is in part an example. I’m not speaking up against, Christians are part of a democracy, they have the same right as anybody else to form a majority or to go together with others for certain things. I’m not questioning this. But it easily can be mixed with the idea that a country is a Christian country. If this is not knit in this with full of religious freedom, it becomes very dangerous.
Not to talk about, and the US also is a good example, if you have a Christian state, what Christianity? Here in Europe, we had Christian states and this was not good for other Christians. So, the Catholic state would persecute the Lutheran state, so what did the Lutherans have from a Christian state? Nothing, quite the opposite. And so, you really, if you want to go for
Christian values in politics, you have to have a very straight and clear idea of religious freedom and have to guarantee that religious freedom is seen as a Christian value. And is not killed by other values. So, this is a development. Then we have the development of fundamentalism. I do not mean the fundamentalists of the United States in the 1920s and the theological debate, but the sociological understanding of fundamentalism, that you think that you or the state or whoever has the moral right to use force against people that think otherwise.
In 1979 the best example was Iran. And in Iran, the problem is not that people are Muslims, Shiites, but that the top Shiites think they can force anybody to think like them or to live like them. And I don’t care what my neighbor believes, who lives next door, he has the right to believe what he wants. It becomes a problem the moment he thinks that he has to punish me because I think otherwise. That’s fundamentalism, not to be convinced of something. And in history, you can see that all religions move forward and backward, how far this idea of violence goes. If you go back in Christianity 100, let’s say and 20 years ago, a little time before the First World War, the majority of Christians were convinced you may use force in colonialism. It’s good for those people if you force Christianity or other values on them. In the first world, people would use the name of God. The British would say the Germans are not real human beings, the Germans would say the same about the British. Both would say that God wants us. So, the relation between using violence for one’s own conviction in Christianity in the majority was a wrong one. Now we meanwhile have a long development bringing Christianity to the other side. Nowadays, the number of Christians who are willing to use violence, state violence to press their beliefs on others is really smaller.
Another good example are the atheists. 50 years ago, the majority of atheists, the Soviet Union, which meant forcing atheism on other people. The number of atheists that still have this dream that they force atheism on other people has become very small. Atheism has become quite a peaceful religion or world view compared to 50 years ago, where for many, the atheist version of fundamentalism was the biggest problem in the world. And in the Cold War, it truly was the danger that was there. So, we have groups that really are moving away from this. A small percentage. And sadly to say, we have religions where it’s the other way around. And sadly to say, it includes the two largest world religions besides Christianity, that is Hinduism, which has gone high speed the last 10 to 20 years from being a peaceful religion in the minority to winning elections by telling all Muslims should leave, or Christians should leave, or the strange idea that everybody living in India is born as a Hindu and actually has been forcefully converted to another religion, has to be converted, and all those things. And, of course, Islam, sadly to say, nobody can be happy about it, but it is just the fact that the percentage of people who can think of their religion in terms of violence is growing in every country in the world.
Even in Western countries where Muslims went for a better life, but very often also for religious freedom I would say, in Germany, half of the Muslims that live here came from Turkey or other countries because of religious freedom. They didn’t want the situation at home. And now their kids or their grandchildren suddenly go back to a version of their own religion which they left behind. And suddenly parents find that the kids go back to a version that you have the right, if you have the tools, you have the right to use violence to push this on other people. And in history, I would say, that’s always going further back. As a Christian, I can be happy to be in a religion where the development is going more to the good side in the moment. And then we are back to what you said what can we do as Christians? I’m deeply convinced that one of the most important things to do starts with educating the children.
If children do not inhabit the idea that tools include peace and justice and that values are taught, values are not forced on people, and that the state should keep out of our head and not decide what we do. Then it just becomes difficult. And I think in the Muslim world, that’s the biggest problem we have. The young people are no longer under control, very often just because there are too many of them. So, if you go to Egypt, you go to a to a city, this is a situation you could still could have under control. But then you go to the countryside, and you have villages full of young people who hear nothing else than indoctrination about enemies, and they are 80 to 90% of the population. I just recently had a debate here in Germany in Munich. And an important Imam from the Muslim side blamed the government for constantly saying they should do something about the kids. And he said, “We have a mosque, we go there to pray. That’s not our duty. We offer people to pray to God and to assert the life around this.” And I said for me that’s just the opposite. That is one of the most important things we do. And I said, if we would not do it in Christianity, if we would not have this huge work with our young people in the Catholic Church, YMCA, in the Protestant churches, Sunday School, however you call it, if this would not be the case, very quickly ideas of using violence against others could emerge again and run around. It’s not a given. It’s nothing that is just there. It’s something that needs to be pushed for, talked about, discussed, otherwise, it fades away. What I see as a big problem, but I have to be frank that I have no solution. In the moment around the globe, we have identity politics.
And in identity politics, you group people according to ever new criteria, and you have to prove that you are victim, and then people stand up for the victims. Now, there’s a lot of tools in it, but the end result is that you cut the society into pieces and all those identity groups don’t find solidarity afterwards. So, you make anti-discrimination laws that make it possible that everybody sues everybody. And people start to do it or least in the media you have this. And then you suddenly need solidarity, because there’s a virus around or whatever. And you see it just has left the room already. And for Christians, solidarity, or let’s take the theological term love, yeah, but solidarity is very central to the DNA. This is what Christianity is about. And so, they normally are not ready constantly to defend themselves as victims or to claim money and rights and so because somebody is not nice to them, which gives them much lesser influence in society meanwhile, because they do not constantly go for it.
And when we got here in Europe, we got the first big anti-discrimination law, I said that if every evangelical who is discriminated would go to court according to those laws, they wish they never would have made the law. They made the law because they know there are many nice people who never will use something like this, but want to go for reconciliation for solidarity in society. And this is something I have no answer for yet. I’m hoping that I will meet a genius someday who can tell me, but these are two developments that really run against each other. And what happened in the US in the last years was exactly that Christians would claim that identity and stand up against identity politics. And I don’t say that’s worse than not doing it, but the end result, of course, is that the society loses even more solidarity. And we will see whether President Biden will be able to bring the solidarity back beyond nice words in a press conference. And for me, that’s a real problem, so I was glad that I was not an American citizen and not needing to decide.
The same development will come here in Germany too, but for the moment not being here. Because you either play the game, then you help to cut society in so many pieces that in the end, you have no real country left. But you only have thousands of different groups of people who are fighting each other, and who cannot get out of it because they claim that the evil in the other side, so to speak, is built into the other person. So, we are both white, so it’s built into us. We even have no chance. we can be the nicest guys, we can try to save ourselves by criticizing ourselves all day, but even that does not always help. And that does, of course, does not overcome the problem. It just states the problem. Often it’s right, often it’s nonsense, but even if it is right, it doesn’t solve the problem, it states it to a point that it cannot be solved any longer. And how Christians can stand up here by claiming their rights without being a partner in destroying society, this is something I find very difficult. That’s the real challenge, yeah.
Tooley: Dr. Thomas Schirrmacher, new chief of the World Evangelical Alliance, thank you for a fascinating conversation, which I look forward to continuing when you finally come for your first visit to Washington, DC as head of WEA. Hopefully sometime later this year. Thank you so much.
Schirrmacher: Thank you very much. Bye-bye.