One reason it’s good to be a Jew in Germany

One of the advantages of being a historian is knowing historical background current events. This can mean knowing why the rules of something don’t quite seem to match up with the stated purpose – the current American laws about civil marriage being only between a man and a woman are actually a good example: as the judge who ruled it unconstitutional noted, our current civil marriage concepts are anachronistic – or simply not having any idea why they exist in the first place. The role of the church in Germany is one of these.

I got the idea to write this post when I was establishing my residency for a research stay. Even though my visa was for less than a year, the civil servants asked for my birth date, my reasons for coming to Germany, and my religion, among other things. One of those three might be illegal in the United States, in that it was not for statistical purposes and I did not have the right to refuse to answer. I asked why. They told me it was for church taxes.

As far as I know I’m not subject to any normal German taxes, but apparently the church taxes – paid by Protestants and Catholics to their respective churches – exist for everyone and thus if I was Christian I would have to pay. Germany is not exactly the most religious of nations, even for Europe, and the era of confessionalization ended long before the French Revolution. So where does this come from?

After the Reformation, the German states that converted to Lutheranism quickly secularized their churches. They closed the monasteries and convents, took control of church lands, and basically created a state religion on Luther’s principles. Older historiography argued that the princes often converted to get their hands on the church’s sizeable wealth, but we now know that most of this new income went to the new Protestant church, its pastors, its institutions, its catechisms, and so forth. Through the Tridentine period and the eighteenth century, Catholic states followed suit. These did not secularize church wealth, per se, but they certainly extended controls over the churches, priest selections, the uses of the church’s local wealth for wages, church repairs, and charity, and limited outside interventions. But just as confessional identity solidified, the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War, converting princes, and the mercantilist love of higher populations led to tolerated populations that did not follow the local state’s religious whims.

Essentially, unlike the United States, each German state developed significant controls over their churches to the point where it became part of the state in all senses of the term. Tithes were just another form of taxation, in a sense, a literal church tax. Fast forward a couple hundred years and here we are. Germany’s church taxes, still regulated and collected by the individual Länder and not the national government, help maintain (seemingly often empty) churches.

A similar phenomenon continues in the schools. Most schoolchildren here have to take a religion class along with their other classes and it’s still divided among Protestants and Catholics. Those who do not wish to take those (well, their parents do not want it) get to enroll in an ethics class. My understanding is that the ethics class is often considered the one for the lazy students who want the easy grade without working too hard.

Again, this should strike most Americans as very odd and lead to a slightly sickly feeling, like something’s just not right. But again, the early modern German schoolmasters were part of the religious establishment and were thus chosen, paid, and examined by state institutions like the local religious conservatorium. Their major role was to aid the local priest in religious instruction like the catechism and develop strong moral fiber in the lord’s subjects. Each state often had its own catechism too.

Knowing the background might not mean we like the situation more than we did before. I still find the concept of a church tax to be… odd, at the very least. But institutional and historical inertia allows us to understand why it still exists.

Maybe it’s easier to understand if we remember that America’s freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights was meant to avoid a national church. Several states continued to have state churches well into the nineteenth century.

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8 Responses to One reason it’s good to be a Jew in Germany

  1. Matt Warren says:

    Interesting stuff. I enjoy reading about non-American traditions. It’s good for getting some perspective considering that, as a nation, we look through the wrong end of the telescope, like, all the time.

    rfmcdpei send me your way. 🙂

    • Welcome! Glad you enjoyed the first post, more will be coming.

      What do you mean by, “we look through the wrong end of the telescope”? There’s a number of interesting ways I’m interpreting that but before I respond I want to make sure I understood you properly.

  2. Matt Warren says:

    I simply mean that we Americans tend to focus almost exclusively on ourselves and consider all the places outside our borders to be strange and somehow ‘wrong’. Our geography plays a strong role in this (huge area, two borders, only one true borderland), but I’m still frustrated by the tendency.

    Basically, your post was the absolute first time I’d ever read (or even considered) such a different German tradition. Quite illuminating. 🙂

    • Ah! Okay. Well – and this does partly come from my American upbringing, but I’m okay with that – I actually do have a problem with this tradition. Most Germans don’t go to church. Why should they have to pay church taxes? I’d make it optional. I just think it’s good to know the historical background for things that seem (and in this case and in my mind, are) anachronistic.

      Of course a German likely wouldn’t write this post. You often need an outsider to see how ridiculous some things are.

      • David Gillon says:

        Things may appear ridiculous to an outsider, but that doesn’t mean we should discard the opinions of the insiders. Germany is not America, it has a different cultural relationship between citizen, state and church. The Germanies were the cockpit of the Wars of Religion, religion is a part of state history in the way that separation of church and state is a part of US history (says the citizen of neither). Individual Lander have distinct religious associations, such as Bavaria and Catholicism, that shape the character of the state beyond the church.

        What people value needs a more complex metric than simple attendance at mass. Just because I’m a very lapsed Catholic (for instance) doesn’t mean there aren’t aspects of Catholicism I’m passionate about (liberal reform for one!)

        • David:

          Oh, certainly! And I meant to make it clear that the reason I feel odd with the idea of church taxes – even if I were a Christian who simply never had time for church – is because I was raised in the American cultural. I apologize if that came out as me trashing the system. Certainly not. I find it interesting how we in the Western World, which is rather uniform culturally and politically according to the MSM, can still look quite foreign to each other in matters that to ourselves seem quite obvious.

          If anything, to respond more specifically to what you wrote, Germany’s ability to achieve an unsteady peace long before the Wars of Religion really ended and thus enacting hard religious boundaries is a large reason for confessionalization and strong state/Laender-religious identities. I can see why, in Germany, especially with its strong regional affiliations, many who in America might be considered areligious continue to happily pay their church taxes.

  3. Matt Warren says:

    Heh. It strikes me that there is no more powerful force in politics than inertia.

  4. Ellen Lazer says:

    Very interesting, and original. Most of us do not know anything about this and it could be part of an op ed piece sometime. I found the second half of the fourth paragraph a little confusing – the rest was A OK!

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