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Religion, State and Society in Germany and France


A paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Atlanta, Georgia, August 15, 2003.  

 by Jean-Paul Willaime, Research Director
Department of Religious Studies of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Sorbonne, PARIS
Director of the Group of the Sociology of Religion and Laicity  (EPHE/CNRS, PARIS)

e-mail: jeanpaul_willaime@yahoo.fr



Today the specificities of the political and religious histories of Germany and France still mark the relationships between Church and State in both countries very deeply. We study these specificities in showing that they imply different conceptions of political sovereignty and of the role of State. In France, religion is regarded as a matter for the private sphere, a matter often perceived as threatening – potentially or in reality – the prerogative of the authorities and the laïcity of the Republic. In Germany, religions are recognised as corporations of public law contributing to the education of the citizen in a democracy.  The comparison of the legislation dealing with the relationship between Church and State in both countries reveals different political philosophies. We examine the consequences of both models for the school domain and towards the contemporary challenges which these countries are confronted with (organization of Islamic religion, “cults” and new religious movements). In conclusion, we wonder about the respective plausibility of these two models in the process of europeanization.



First of all, I would like to say how pleased I am to be here today and to thank the ASR and the organizers of this congress, especially Bill Swatos, for having accepted the participation of French scholars in sociology of religion.

As you know my name is Jean-Paul Willaime. I teach sociology of religion, particularly sociology of Protestantism, in the Department of Religious Studies at the Sorbonne College in Paris. I lead a Research Group, namely the Group of Sociology of Religion and Laicity, which gathers more than thirty researchers in sociology of religion.

I am interested in the sociological study of the following topics:

  • Contemporary Protestantism and Ecumenisms; 

  • Religions and School Systems;

  • Europe and Religions; and 

  • History and theories of Sociology of Religions.

Today, I would like to explain why it is interesting to compare Germany and France from the point of view of the place and the role of religion in society. They are two countries of the, quote, “old Europe” - as Bush said – which are very close and alike and, nevertheless, very different in the way of considering and managing religion. My main interest in this topic consists in two aspects:

  1. First, it offers the possibility of better understanding the particularity of the French case and the opportunity of questioning about the French exceptionalism in the domain of Church/State relationships;

  2. Second, it is also a way to analyse some aspects of the European integration and its consequences on the relationships between the national Member States and the religions.

My presentation, which in the limit of twenty minutes, can only focus on the essential, will be divided into three parts. First, the historical and sociological background of the situation of religion in Germany; second, the same for France; and lastly the consequences of European integration.  The main idea of this short presentation is the following: despite several convergences and some similar challenges, the specificities of the political and religious histories of Germany and France still mark deeply the relationships between Religion and State in both countries. We notice it particularly by comparing the way of considering the place of religion in the framework of the European Union. The recent dispute about the mention of religion in the Preamble of the Charter of Fundamentals Rights of the European Union has revealed a divergence of opinions between Germany and France. This divergence roots in the history of Germany and France, especially in the way each country built its own democratic State. 


Contrary to France, it is not a political revolution, but a religious one, which is the crucial historical event of the German history. This event is the protestant reformation and its consequence: a two-ways split in the Christian world. Hence the main political problem in Germany was not how to reinforce and guarantee the autonomy of the political power towards religion, but how to build a State and to organize the exercise of power in a society religiously divided.  This problem arose in a country constituted by different autonomous territories, that is to say in a country where the regional level was important. This is why, during a time, the problem was resolved by the cujus regio ejus religio principle which preserves the religious homogeneity of each territory. A second essential characteristic of the German religious history is about Enlightenment: die Aufklärung. The comparison of the relationships between Enlightenment and Religion in France and Germany shows that the German “Aufklärung” was less hostile to religion than the French “Lumières”. Contrary to France where modernity and democracy have been seen as a process of emancipation from religion, modernity and the building of democracy in Germany have been considered to be an internal process of the evolution of culture and religions.

In fact and during the last century in Germany, religion played a great role in the process of democratisation. After 1945 and in the turning period of the eighties and nineties, churches have didn’t miss the date with democratisation. Both German dictatorships, the nazi and the communist, were against religion. Consequently, the religious institutions are recognised in Germany as political institutions that contribute to the common good. The German State gives a part of its sovereignty up to churches. In this connection, Protestant and Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt and Catholic Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl don’t differ basically. Both consider that politics has to limit itself and that the State is powerless to define the fundamental conceptions of life. The secular and liberal State lives on presuppositions that it cannot guarantee itself, as Böckenförde says.

Consequently, the German society implemented a positive approach to the role of churches in the public life. Churches are considered as a partner of the State and they work together for the public good (“Öffentlichkeitsauftrag der Kirchen”). We can notice it not only in the social and educational domains but in the public life in general. For example, that is why the religious education in school is not seen in Germany as a concession to religion, but as a recognition by the State of the positive contributions of the churches to education to the citizenship, that is to say educating children about the values to live in a pluralistic and democratic society. We can understand why, in Germany, the Christian churches care about the eventual consequences of the European integration. In a paper setting out their joint position, published by the Central Office of the Evangelical Church and the Secretariat of the Episcopal Conference in January 1995, the German churches declared:

“It would be better for the sake of future development if the legal position of the Church were also to be incorporated into the constitutional structure of the European Union”.


If it is a religious revolution, the protestant Reformation, which is the crucial historical event of the German history, it is a political revolution, the French Revolution in 1789, which is the crucial historical event of France. In France, the place of religion has become a political problem since the civil constitution of the clergy in 1790. Religion was a potential risk for the State because the Catholic Church has been considered to be an institution which can limit the State power on the society. Consequently, the trend of the French State is, on the one hand, to control and to take in charge the religion (gallicanism) or, on the other hand, to marginalize it by considering that religion is only a private phenomenon. According to me, there is a paradoxical nature of French political attitudes to religion, which bear the mark both of the Gallican tradition, which has attempted to establish a national religion (or national religions) strictly controlled by political power, and the secular tradition, which has sought to free itself from religious references and authorities. Even in secular France (“France laïque”), the Gallican temptation remained, with policies towards establishing laïcité appearing in some ways as a form of secular Gallicanism[1]. Hence the traditional distrust of religion in France: the trend to think that the power of religious organizations over people compete with the one of the State and the trend to think that to be religious is to be not free. In this way, it is significant that, in France, the wearing of the Islamic Headscarf in school has provoked a great controversy, with intense media coverage, about laïcité and religions[2]

Let me try to specify the specificities of the French approach to religion. I see four main characteristics:

1)  Emphasis on a strong and centralized State. By this, I mean that the State is the guardian of the civil society and is careful about cultural differentiations (linguistic, religious,…).

2)  The role of scepticism and criticism trends such as marxism, freemasonry, freethinking, …with regard to religion. For instance, the freemasonry considers itself as a guardian of the laicity of the State.

3)  Conflicting relationship between the State and the Catholic Church, that means the theme of the “war of the two France” (the catholic and the secular).

4)   The ideological nature of the question, that is to say the fact that religion is more grasped (apprehended) as a philosophical question than a social one. We can notice the important role of philosophy teachers in the debate on the place of the religion in society.  


The building of Europe is constantly a research of compromise solutions between the different countries taking part in this process of integration. The religions domain is not an exception to the rule.

In keeping with the subsidiary principle, “The European Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities of the Member States” (Declaration Nr 11 annexed to the Amsterdam Treaty entered into force on 1 May 1999). The Treaties establishing the European Union Community and the European Union make no mention of religion and « have been described as being “church-blind” » (Thomas Janssen, 2000, 103).

This fact doesn’t prevent that European integration give rise to contrasted fears in Germany and France. In Germany, the churches fear that increasing European integration jeopardizes the privileged position they have in their country. Hence, the initiative of the German Government, supported by the Austrian and Italian ones to include, as far as possible, an article about the churches in the Treaty of Amsterdam.

On the contrary, in France, it is not the churches that fear the consequences of the European integration, but the State. The French State fears that European integration jeopardizes laicity. Some French laicity militants lobby in Bruxelles for defending and promoting the French model of church-state relationship on the European scene.

According Janssen, “the declaration on the status of churches and religious communities annexed to the Amsterdam Treaty will probably help to build the new European consensus about a modern and adequate formula for the relation between the public actor and the religious communities” (Janssen, 2000, 110).

On the recent project of the constitution for Europe, I would like to say that the European Union implements a model of Church-State relationships closer to the German model than the French one. Firstly, by saying that Europe draw inspiration not only from the cultural and humanist inheritance but also from the religious one (Preamble of the constitution for Europe (July, 2003): “Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, the values….”). Secondly, by recognizing the contributions of churches and by the will to maintain an open and regular dialogue with them.

“Article 51: Status of churches and non-confessional organisations

  1. The Union respects and does not prejudice the status under national law of churches and religious associations or communities in the Member States.
  2. The Union equally respects the status of philosophical and non-confessional organisations.
  3. Recognising their identity and their specific contribution, the Union shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with theses churches and organisations.

This orientation, which goes towards a positive integration of churches in the public space and an explicit recognition of their role, has more similarity with the German model relationship between State and Religion than with the French one. Nevertheless, both countries are confronted with the same challenges, namely:  - the organization of the Muslim religion in the framework of the law concerning religions; - the question of the New Religious Movements and the controversy about the religious nature of some of these movements; - the challenge of an increasing lack of education in religious matter among the young people and the debate of the ways to teach religion at school (religious education or education about religion); - the challenge of the globalisation and the confrontation with other cultures and religions.

In this context and with similar evolutions in individual attitudes with regard to religion in both countries, I think that we could speak on some convergent trends in Germany and France. But I notice the persisting influence of the weight of history. Despite several convergences, it is not the end of the French-German misunderstanding about religions. This divergence is a long story…    



[1] In his famous A General Theory of Secularization, David Martin has written: “The nexus of French Enlightenment doctrines resembles a Catholicism inverted and the secular religions produced by France are sometimes a form of Catholicism without Christianity” ( p. 24).

[2] Cf. Lina MOLOKOTOS, « Religious Diversity in Schools : the Muslim Headscarf Controversy and Beyond », Social Compass 47(3), 2000, 367-381.




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