Church Politics and Buildings

My business affairs took me to the prosperous Düsseldorf suburb of Pempelfort the other day, so I decided to drop by the Kreuzkirche (g) one of the landmarks of this area.

At first glance, the Dorf appears to be full of ancient churches, but it ain’t so. Most of the churches which appear antique were actually built at the end of the 19th or early 20th centuries in various historical revival styles, mainly neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque. Back then, confessional differences between Catholics and Protestants were still important, and affected architectural styles. The Catholics tended to go for the neo-Gothic style when they built new churches, the Protestants chose neo-Romanesque, since Romanesque was the earlier style (ca. 700-1200), and thus reflected the Protestants’ claims to be returning to an earlier, “truer” form of Christianity stripped of Papist fripperies.

Let’s be frank about this: this is all a horrible missed opportunity. The late 19th century was a time of innovation all over Germany, but Düsseldorf’s bourgeois classes were too conservative to finance Sezession or Art Nouveau  or Jugendstil-style churches, which would have been more interesting than a bunch of copies of 500 or 1,000-year-old models. Kaiser Wilhelm the II hated Jugendstil, and loved neo-Romanesque buildings, so prosperous Düsseldorf Protestants built largely in the neo-Romanesque style. The fact that KW II was a thoroughly mediocre reactionary who certainly didn’t give two shits what kind of churches Düsseldorf burghers built doesn’t seem to have dimmed their enthusiasm. What an odd institution monarchies were.

Anyhow, the Kreuzkirche is a fine example of a neo-Romanesque church. It was designed by Carl Wilhelm Schleicher, a local architect, and built between 1907 and 1910. Here’s the view from outside:

Bildergebnis für kreuzkirche düsseldorf

The church was built as a Protestant parish church, with financial support from the prosperous merchants living in what was then a leafy northern suburb of Düsseldorf. They spared no expense, outfitting the towers with expensive green copper cladding, and filling the interior with marble accessories and lavish church implements. They hired local artists to decorate the interior domes with Byzantine-inspired reliefs. The church itself is in the shape of a Greek cross, with equal-length arms. Because of the unusual dimensions of the piece of donated real estate (the church is at a crossroads where 5 roads meet), it is not pointed toward the east — which, in German, is called being “easted” (geostet).

Much of the interior decoration fell victim to World War II bomb damage and various restorations. In 1974, the massive marble altar was removed from the chancel, and replaced by a simple lectern. standing in front of the chancel. The pews were removed from the ground floor and replaced with ordinary chairs. The naves both feature raised galleries to accommodate more visitors. The windows were designed in the late 1950s by Ernst Otto Köpke.

I took the old wide-angle lens for a spin, here are a few of my photos:

Kreuzkirche view of SW window
Kreuzkirche view of organ loft and SW facing window from NE gallery

I wouldn’t exactly call it beautiful, but it’s handsome. The unadorned sandstone is historically accurate, and in keeping with Protestant aversion to decoration (although the crucifix is a copy of Donatello). The regularity and repetition of the forms makes a harmonious overall impression. The church has been a designated historical landmark for decades now, which seems like a proper decision.

You can visit the church every weekday from 5:00 to 7:00 pm, just to pray, meditate, or look around. A friendly church lady will greet you, and you can basically have the run of the place. Nobody else visited while I was there, which seemed a bit unfortunate. But then again, Germany’s official Protestant church has been hemorrhaging members at an alarming rate, so there’s no surprise there.

Ulm Minster “Coated in Urine and Vomit” Thanks to German Videophobia

Piss

The Washington Post reports on the Ulm Minster:

The spire atop Ulm Minster, the world’s tallest church, juts 530 feet into the air above the German city for which it is named. In its 639th year, however, the Gothic structure could be laid low by a gross and unfortunate hazard: Too many revelrous Germans are ducking into the church’s alcoves to relieve their full bladders and queasy stomachs against the ancient walls.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on it for half a year now and, once again, it’s coated with urine and vomit,” Michael Hilbert, head of the local building preservation agency, told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Those charged with maintaining the building, like Hilbert, worry that abrasive chemicals in the bodily fluids are abrading the sandstone blocks that form the church’s foundation. Making matters worse, the potential damage to the stone comes after the church recently completed an expensive renovation….

To stanch the flow of expelled waste, police patrols have increased in the area. Ulm also doubled city fines for public urination to 100 euros, or $110.

But neither the increased fines nor the extra patrols appear to have curbed the acidic eliminations. (Most sandstones are able to weather acids, like those in acid rains, without significant damage, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Certain sandstone types, however, contain carbonate cements that dissolve when exposed even to weak acids.)

This is another instance of the curious German aversion to video surveillance. Like nuclear power, inflation, and debt, Germans have an intense cultural aversion to video surveillance. This is largely explained by the Nazi excesses in monitoring the population, as well as the European culture of privacy, which gives you rights over your own image, even in public. But these legitimate concerns are endlessly exaggerated and hyped in public discussions here, so that there is an organized lobby against video surveillance even where it would be a cheap, obvious, and effective way to solve serious problems.

As here. This is not a hard case. Just set up a bunch of obvious video surveillance cameras and signs where the problem is worst. Post images of the offenders online.

The predictable riposte from Green Party members, the most strident opponents of video surveillance, is that this won't stop everybody from pissing on the church. I've heard this argument literally hundreds of times from Green Party member about virtually every proposed expansion of government or police power. 

One of the strange defects in German debate culture is that almost nobody makes the obvious counter-argument to the Greens: that a measure doesn't have to be 100% successful to be worth doing. We have laws against murder, yet murders happen nevertheless. Some people will still piss on the church after the cameras are installed, but there will be many fewer of them. Perhaps the cameras might catch people who are engaged in innocent activity (although what that might be is a bit hard to imagine). Of course, nobody would see these images except the people who monitor the camera feeds.

The idea that this miniscule infringement of the privacy of people who know they are in a public space outweighs the importance of preserving the world's architectural heritage is, frankly, ludicrous. I'd be willing to bet that all the privately-owned businesses within a kilometer of the Ulm Minster already have video surveillance. The notion that a masturbation video emporium (g) in Ulm can manage to protect itself, while one of the world's greatest Gothic churches cannot, is, well, beyond ludicrous.

Grow up, Germany. We're counting on you.

Iceland’s Comfy Jesus

While we're on the subject of Iceland, a Facebook pal writes: "a friend of mine traveled extensively through the country and came across this fresco of a tanned male supermodel Jesus in a woolen turtleneck sweater. In comparison to this vision of The Utter Beyond, Michelangelo's Last Judgment or Bernini's St. Theresa just evaporate into insignificance. I name it Comfy Jesus:"

Img_1681

Pay Your Church Tax or No Wafer for You

Rod Dreher, a conservative American commentator, can hardly believe his eyes when he reads about the German church tax (Kirchensteuer):

In Germany, as in a number of other European countries, if you are a member of a church or mainstream religion, you have to pay a pretty significant tax to the government, which distributes the money to the churches. From the Wall Street Journal:

German church members must pay an additional 8% to 9% of their gross annual income tax and capital gains tax bills to the church. That is typically steeper than in many other parts of Europe. A registered believer, for instance, paying a 30% income tax rate, or €30,000, on an income of €100,000, would pay another €2,400 to €2,700 in church tax.

To American eyes, that’s stunning. Now, the German government is closing a loophole having to do with capital gains, which means an effective tax increase for its officially registered Christian believers….  The church tax issue has become a big deal with the German Catholic bishops taking the lead in trying to liberalize the universal Catholic church’s rules on married and divorced people receiving communion. Look at this report from theNational Catholic Register:

In response to the numbers de-registering, the German bishops issued a decree in September 2012 calling such departure “a serious lapse” and listing a number of ways they are barred from participating in the life of the Church.

The decree specified that those who do not pay the church tax cannot receive the sacraments of Confession, Communion, Confirmation, or Anointing of the Sick, except when in danger of death; cannot hold ecclesial office or perform functions within the Church; cannot be a godparent or sponsor; cannot be a member of diocesan or parish councils; and cannot be members of public associations of the Church.

More:

The critics point out that while Cardinal Kasper and most of his fellow German bishops have been leading the charge to allow those in “irregular” marital situations — those who are divorced and remarried — to receive Communion, they have simultaneously denied the sacraments, including even Confession, to those who opt out of paying Germany’s “church tax.”

In both cases, the German position is at odds with Church teaching: admitting to Communion those formally not allowed; and forbidding those whom the Vatican says can validly receive the sacraments.

The German definition of mercy, critics say, is a “pay to pray system” that has its “financial” limits.

The bishops in Germany “are notoriously the most merciful in wishing to grant Communion to the divorced and remarried, but at the same time are the most ruthless in de facto excommunicating those who refuse to pay the church tax, which in their country is obligatory by law,” Vatican analyst Sandro Magister wrote Oct. 29 in his “Settimo Cielo” blog for Italy’s L’Espresso newspaper.

Read the whole thing.  If I were a German Catholic or Protestant, I would be enormously offended by this whole thing. It’s outrageous that if you are a German Catholic who wants to go to confession, the priest will deny it if you haven’t paid the church tax. How is this much different from Johann Tetzel’s indulgence business, selling salvation to Renaissance German Catholics?

So, who agrees with Dreher? Not being religious, I don't have a dog in this fight. Well, at least not in the title bout — although as someone who pays German taxes I do subsidize many relgious activities with my tax dollars. Further, coming from the United States, I tend to regard estabilshed churches with a skeptical eye.

But even setting aside these biases, I've often thought the church tax was a particularly clumsy way of regulating church-state interaction. Nevertheless, Dreher can calm down somewhat: You aren't going to be denied Communion at a Catholic church in Germany if you haven't paid your Kirchensteuer unless you tattoo that fact on your forehead, and probably not even then. Germans are famous for dropping out of the church they were raised in as soon as they become adults, thus saving themselves the Kirchensteuer. Then, if they decide on a church wedding, they re-join, since getting married in church is complicated enough transaction that the church will demand you be a member to enjoy this benefit. But despite the Bishops' huffing and puffing, I've never heard of an ordinary German Catholic being denied Communion for not having paid the Kirchensteuer. But then again I don't travel in churchy circles, so I might not know.

Wiblingen Monastery Library and Bleg: Joseph Nickel

A few years ago I bicycled around the Allgäu, a succulent part of Germany on the border between its two large and influential southern states, Baden Württemburg and Bavaria. Gentle hills, meter-wide brooks, and frothy South German baroque churches.

I happened to ride by Wiblingen, which hosts a Benedictine monastery church with a library that looks like this:

Wiblingen Monastery Library

The camera was a Canon Powershot G11, nothing special. The photographer in me regrets the overexposed bits, but overall, it's an eye-feast, and the monastery itself works the magic. Most of what looks like solid marble is actually plaster that resounds when you tap it.

The bleg is this: I paid a couple of euros to visit the museum here, which was detailed — maps of the monastery's shifting domains, dioramas of the practical winemaking and woodworking and property management of the industrious ora et labora Benedictines, and maps illustrating the fascinating legal history of the local Benedictines: when they were granted their first clerical fiefs, which pieces of land they lost during the War of the Moravian Pretender in 1715, what percentage of their land they rented to tenant farmers, etc.

All relentlessly informative and dull, even for a lawyer. But then one of the pull-out wooden information tablets (the curator had gotten pretty frisky) spoke of The Benedictine Monks receiving the Blutrecht (literally blood-right) from the local prince in the early 1700s. This meant they had the power to enact their own criminal code and inflict corporal penalties. The abbey had become a large local landowner, and the local prince was tired of policing it, so he transferred that authority to the monks themselves. They enacted a crude criminal code, punishing unrepentant blasphemers by death.

Here, the (likely tendentious and unreliable) monastery records describe an interesting case. A local man named Joseph Nickel came to monks' attention. He'd studied in Paris and then returned to Wiblingen to spread his free-thinking views and eke out a living as a highway robber. He even robbed a monk. He was punished a few times. Then one evening he was overheard in a tavern denying the divinity of and blaspheming Mary. He denied nothing at trial, and the monks sentenced him — as a repeat offender and blasphemer — to death. They had to have a special scaffold erected since they'd never done this before. He was hung by the river in front of a crowd. The historical account in the museum stressed that the monks were awfully broken up about having to hang Nickel, and, if memory serves, never hanged anyone again.

I remember reading this and being more than a bit surprised, since I'd never heard of a monastery acquiring sovereignty, enacting a criminal code, and actually hanging someone. Perhaps I'm naive.

In any event, that's the story as I remember it, from my memory and blurry photos of the card. I think it's about 80% accurate. My bleg to you is if anyone can find me some other written sources about Joseph Nickel? 98% sure that's his name, because I drilled it into my memory. But I've never found anything more about him. An educated, free-thinking vagabond hanged by monks in the 1700s interests me. Can anyone point me to more information about Joseph Nickel?

There are No Atheists in Prison Cells

This from Salon:

This week, Pew Research Center published the results of a survey conducted among 40,080 people in 40 countries between 2011 and 2013. The survey asked a simple question: is belief in God essential to morality? 

…In 22 of the 40 countries surveyed, the majority says it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. “This position is highly prevalent, if not universal, in Africa and the Middle East,” says the report. No surprise there, but Asian and Latin countries such as Indonesia (99%), Malaysia (89%), the Philippines (99%), El Salvador (93%), and Brazil (86%) all fell in the highest percentile of respondents believing belief in a god (small G) is central to having good values.

Interestingly, clear majorities in all highly developed countries do not think belief in god to be necessary for morality, with one exception only: the U.S.A.

Only 15 percent of the French population answered in the affirmative. Spain: 19%. Australia: 23%. Britain: 20%. Italy: 27%. Canada: 31%. Germany 33%. Israel: 37%.

So what of the U.S.? A comparatively eye-popping 53 percent of Americans essentially believe atheists and agnostics are living in sin. Despite the fact that a research analyst at the Federal Bureau of Prisons determined that atheists are thoroughly under-represented in the places where rapists, thieves and murders invariably end up: prisons. While atheists make upward of 15 percent of the U.S. population, they only make up 0.2 percent of the prison population.

The result for Germany's a bit surprising — just a reminder that despite green energy, a gay foreign minister, and swinger-club sex-and-suckling-pig parties (g – as a friend of mine once said, 'the ultimate integration test for foreigners'), large parts of Germany are still quite conservative. Also, these results are yet another reason no lazy reporter should ever mention 'Catholic Spain/Italy' again.

The atheist result is pretty interesting, although I'm sure it's mostly an artifact of the fact that atheists are richer and more educated than the general population, and are therefore less likely to end up in prison for various reasons. But still, if the New Atheists need a rallying cry, why not 'There are no Atheists in Prison Cells?' NAs, you can have this one for a reasonable licensing fee.

USA Getting More Secular, Less Nationalistic

God guns guts

From a recent survey:

When Americans were asked if they think the United States is the greatest country in the world, there were sharp differences in the responses across generations. In total, 48% of Americans believe the United States is the greatest country in the world and 42% believe it is one of the greatest countries in the world, but a significant portion of the Millennial generation responded differently.

Just 32% of Millennials believe the U.S. is the greatest country in the world. That number progressively increases among the Gen X (48%), Boomer (50%) and Silent generations (64%). Millennials were also the most likely generation to say America is not the greatest country in the world (11%).

Millennials also are less likely than their elders to express patriotism. A majority of Millennials (70%) agreed with the statement “I am very patriotic.” But even larger percentages of Gen Xers (86%), Boomers (91%) and Silents (90%) said the same. This generational gap is consistent and has been identified in surveys dating back to 2003.

The annoying 'generation' names can be ignored — the key thing is that the younger an American you are, the less likely you are to call yourself 'patriotic', which (if you'll pardon a bit of snark) describes the mental state Americans denounce as 'nationalistic' whenever non-Americans display it. In related news, the number of non-religious Americans is on the increase — about 20% of Americans now fits this category.

Sociologists have long puzzled over the U.S.: given its levels of prosperity, technological advancement, and education, it should be a lot less religious and nationalistic than it is. Put crudely, the richer a country gets, the less religion it needs, and the the more educated its citizenry, the less prevalent the cruder forms of nationalism and tribalism. We seem to be seeing a gradual end to this aspect of American exceptionalism: in 20 years, the psychological profile of the average American will probably be much closer to the average European, Canadian, or Japanese.

I would be willing to wager the Internet has had something to do with this, but that's pure speculation. So here goes: If you seek critiques of religious faith, all manner of them — from the ridiculous to the cogent to the sublime — are no more than a mouseclick away. It's hard to enforce conservative sexual mores in the age of Internet porn, where any anyone can see people having loads of fun with their genitals, and afterward suffering no disease, ostracism, or scorn at all. As for the nationalism angle, you can hardly swing a dead cat in cyberspace without hitting a website that shows you that many people (1) distrust the U.S., and have legitimate reasons for doing so (yet who aren't anti-American cranks); and (2) don't consider the U.S. paradise on earth, and think the quality of life they enjoy in their own country superior to that of the U.S. It's a bit hard to maintain the fantasies of your country's superiority and innocence in the face of these competing narratives.

Six Years for Multiple Cop-Stabbings

A self-described German Salafist stabbed three police officers during a demonstration, injuring two severely. In Court he shows not a trace of remorse, saying he was justified in his actions because the German state allowed right-wing demonstrators to show caricatures of Mohammed.

And now he's just been sentenced to a not-so-whopping six years (g) in prison, which means he may well get out in 3 or 4. You won't often hear this from me, but this sentence strikes me as ludicrously light. A potentially deadly knife attack against three uniformed police officers must be, in anyone's book, an extremely serious crime. Further, according to news reports, the defendant was sober and sane, acted out of ideological conviction, showed no remorse and indicated he would be a future danger, since he considered himself only accountable to Allah for his actions.

I don't know if the tabloids are complaining about this, but if they aren't, they should be.

Circumcision: A Thought Experiment

http://www.google.de/trends/embed.js?hl=en-US&q=Beschneidung&geo=DE&date=today+12-m&cmpt=q&content=1&cid=TIMESERIES_GRAPH_0&export=5&w=500&h=330

There have been lots of interesting comments on my circumcision piece here and at the various other places it's been posted, and I'm working on a longer reply.

But for now, I'd like to throw out what you might call a Gedankenexperiment, although I'm no Einstein.

It's as follows:

  1. Many German commentators on the circumcision decision call male circumcision 'mutilation' or 'assault' or 'a barbaric custom that permanently deforms'. I hardly have to provide links, do I?
  2. Yet, the parents of the Muslim boy in question voluntarily had their own son mutilated and deformed.
  3. Any parent who insists on having their own child be deformed and mutilated by means of a criminal assault is incapable of acting in their own child's best interests and should have their parental rights terminated — right? Imagine a parent who, for instance, encouraged their young child to participate in knife fights, or who threw their child down a hill to 'toughen them up'. At the very least, there should be a thorough investigation into their fitness to raise all of their children.
  4. Yet there has been no attempt to track down the parents of this 4-year-old Muslim boy and investigate their fitness as parents. Nor has there been a nationwide policy of questioning the parental fitness of Muslim and Jewish parents who have their male children circumcised.

The Gedankenexperiment is simple: why is this so?

Answer in comments, if you're inclined. My proposed answers are below the fold:

Point One: As the graph above shows, most Germans were hardly concerned about male circumcision before the court judgment. So it's not as if there were a thriving, mainstream movement in Germany to ban male circumcision before this judgment. Most of the people now claiming to be outraged about this brutal practice never even gave it a thought before 2012.

It seem as there might be something other than actual concern for these boys' penises behind the outrage of circumcision opponents, doesn't it? The charitable assumption would be that the exaggerated outrage hides a generalized secularist bias that views all religious customs with contempt. The less charitable assumption is that lots of this hyperventilating outrage is actually a pretext for anti-Islamic and/or anti-Semitic sentiments.

Point Two: The thought experiment shows that most of the overheated rhetoric about mutilation is just that: rhetoric. If people really thought that having your male child circumcised were equivalent to a knife-fight, there would be a massive movement to investigate parents who engage in the practice and get them to change their ways or face losing their children.

Yet almost nobody is saying this in Germany. That's because, deep down, even the most convinced (newly-minted) opponent of male circumcision knows, deep down, that circumcision is different from child abuse, and that most parents who have their boys circumcised are probably perfectly fit parents in other respects. They understand that although they themselves might not have their own children circumcised, it's a well-accepted tradition throughout the world, and therefore is not obviously irrational or dangerous.

As in most human affairs, actions (i.e. not calling for the parental rights of parents to 'mutilate' and 'deform' their kids to be suspended) speak louder than words. Or put another way, revealed preferences are much more reliable than stated preferences. And the revealed preferences show that most circumcision opponents don't take their rhetoric seriously.

My Take on the Cologne Circumcision Case

Here is my take on the famous German circumcision judgment. Thanks to the friendly folks at verfassungsblog.de for cross-posting this.

—–

The Cologne Landgericht decision proclaiming religious
circumcision to be a form of illegal assault will apparently soon be
superseded by legislation permitting the practice under certain
conditions. Nevertheless, the mere fact that the decision came about –
coupled with its endorsement by many members of the German criminal-law community and the fact that approximately half of Germans
want to see religious circumcision punished by law – points at a
continuing controversy. Circumcision also presents an interesting
cross-cultural case study, since it is not expressly regulated in either
the United States or (yet) in Germany. An enlightening 2002 analysis
by Geoffrey P. Miller shows that all U.S. published U.S. court cases
about male circumcision involve botched operations or problems with
obtaining parents’ consent. It appears that no U.S. court has yet
addressed a situation in which a doctor has been criminally prosecuted
for competently performing a circumcision with the consent of the
child’s guardians.

Even were such a case to emerge, it’s difficult to imagine a similar
outcome. Following the First Amendment’s explicit ban on ‘established’
churches, the Supreme Court has limited government interference in
private religious rituals. A line of Supreme Court cases has called for
the government to display a ‘wholesome neutrality’ toward all religions,
and to avoid unnecessary ‘entanglement’ of church and state.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court has forbade American government entities
from pronouncing on internal church administration, drawing government administrative boundaries to accommodate religious sects, or banning controversial religious practices
under the pretext of public safety. This basic suspicion of
intermingling secular administration and religion is widespread among
legal officials. The average District Attorney, presented with a case in
which a third party complained about a properly-performed circumcision,
would almost certainly use her discretion not to prosecute.

The second (somewhat related) strand of jurisprudence emphasizes family autonomy. In a landmark 1972 case, Wisconsin v. Yoder,
the Court upheld the right of Old Order Amish families to withdraw
their children from formal education at the age of 16, observing that
though there is no explicit guarantee of family autonomy in the
Constitution, ‘the values of parental direction of the religious
upbringing and education of their children in their early and formative years have a high place in our society.’ The state, for example, may not ban
parents from sending their children to private religious schools or
even educating them at home, as long as curricular standards are
met. The fundamental Constitutional principle of American family law,
repeated in case after case, is to presume that “natural bonds of affection lead parents to act in the best interests of their children”.
When parental autonomy is bound up with religious practice, the
rationale for judicial circumspection becomes even clearer.

And indeed, the decision of the Cologne court demonstrates the
problems that occur when courts intrude in this area. Considering its
worldwide resonance, the decision itself is astoundingly brief, just a
few paragraphs long. At one point, the court accuses the doctor (and, by
implication, the boy’s parents) of infringing the boy’s right to choose
his own religious affiliation. Yet the mere fact that a child is
circumcised doesn’t irrevocably commit him to Islam, as the 55% of American males who are circumcised
can attest. Second, the court can hardly have thought through its
proposed right for children to freely choose their religion. Both of
Germany’s established religions provide for elaborate public rituals in
which children are brought into their parents’ or community’s faith long
before they are of age to make binding legal commitments under German
law. Granted, these induction ceremonies don’t involve circumcision, but
the court did not bother to limit its principle only to these cases.
Like many legal commentators, the court also confidently proclaimed
circumcision to be against the child’s best interests without ever
suggesting why the child’s parents, who obviously had different views,
should be ignored.

These problems help explain the different reactions to the decision
among German and foreign observers. Christian Germans (whether devout or
nominal) are rarely circumcised. This is in stark contrast to the
United States, where routine circumcision was adopted during the late
19th century on hygiene grounds (including the prevention of
masturbation) which would now be considered dubious. Yet the practice
remains well-accepted: The American Pediatric Association recently concluded that
“scientific evidence demonstrates potential medical benefits of newborn
male circumcision” and explicitly noted that it is “legitimate for
parents to take into account cultural, religious, and ethnic traditions,
in addition to the medical factors, when making this decision.” By
contrast, circumcision in Germany has only been customary among two
religious minorities, one of which was decimated during the Third Reich,
and the other which only arrived in significant numbers in the last 40
years. The generally positive reaction to the decision among Germany’s
socially conservative legal culture shows a lasting undercurrent of
suspicion against customs and beliefs that have “non-European” roots –
and of the parents who wish to pass them on to their children.

Two Models of Freedom and Responsibility

Yet there is another factor driving the circumcision controversy: a
stronger emphasis on social cohesion. Again, the comparison with the
United States is instructive. America is, in many respects, an an
outlier in terms of governmentally-enforced social cohesion. There is no
national identity card in the United States, and some 10 per cent
of the population has no picture identification of any kind. American
rules regarding home schooling and religious education are among the
most liberal in the world. Unlike every other government in the world,
the American state is constitutionally debarred
from banning hate speech and propaganda in the name of social harmony.
Aside from wartime, compulsory military or civil service has never
existed in the United States. And, of course, the American social safety
net is designed only to provide transitional, time-limited aid. The
possibility that the devout might create self-perpetuating ‘parallel
societies’, a perennial source of anguish in the European media, is
largely absent from American public discourse. This is not because such
parallel societies do not exist in the USA – quite the contrary
is true – but because their existence is not seen as problematic as
long as they do not encourage crime or exploitation. (Of course, these
libertarian hallmarks coexist with a massive security sector and the
highest imprisonment rates in the world – but exploring this paradox is
beyond the scope of this post.)

Although the German political order also guarantees its citizens
wide-ranging civil freedoms, the approach is subtly different. In an
interesting article on the ‘German Idea of Freedom
Edward J. Eberle argues that Germany’s conception of individual liberty
— while robust and deeply-rooted — differs significantly from that
found in the United States. In contrast to the freewheeling American
conception of individual rights (accompanied by an equally unfettered
free market), the German conception of liberty ‘take[s] place within a
moral structure erected on ethical concepts that include human dignity
and its multiple radiations, people acting within the bounds of a social
community with its ensuing reciprocal obligations, and a Sozialstaat.’ Further, the discussion of rights in Germany is coupled with ‘duties rooted deeply in the culture and community’.

This conception of ‘freedom’ conditioned by social integration
(which, of course, prevails in many Continental European cultures)
enables the state to make claims on its citizens that would be
controversial in Anglo-Saxon countries. German court decisions, for
example, permit government officials to reject parents’ chosen names
for their children on a number of grounds, including that the name
might subject the child to ridicule or does not clearly indicate the
child’s gender. Until recently, military service was compulsory in
Germany, although many young men opted out under liberal
conscientious-objector laws. Germany also has a registration law, which
requires Germans to timely inform their government of any change in
address. Germany has comprehensive federal laws regulating everything
from the permissible size of huts on garden allotments to the content of vacation contracts, and a sizable contingent of ‘order police’ (the Ordnungsamt)
to enforce them. The German legal order does not provide for
untrammeled free speech – pro-Nazi rhetoric is illegal, and media which
publish insulting or privacy-intruding material may be confiscated and
their owners fined.

The flip side of this intrusion is an impressive network of social
rights and benefits. Despite recent reforms, German social welfare
benefits are still much more generous than their American counterparts —
but recipients may also required to submit to intrusive surveillance.
Germany has universal health insurance provided by subsidized insurance
companies which are run on the principle of ‘solidarity’. Germans
receive large welfare subsidies for having children, and enjoy some of
the most generous family leave policies in the world. Virtually all
higher education is provided free of charge (or for nominal tuition) by
government-funded universities. All workers are guaranteed several weeks
of paid vacation per year. Even welfare recipients can petition for
extra money to pay for a child’s wedding or a vacation.

To put it simply, the German social bargain permits the state to
intrude more deeply into citizens’ affairs in certain areas, in return
for providing them with an array of services designed to foster personal
development and socialize common life-risks. Germans face more subtle
pressure to conform to majority social norms, but in return enjoy
benefits conferred by that majority itself. This ideology of ‘duties
rooted deeply in the culture and community’ may have influenced the
German court’s reasoning: Instead of simply endorsing parental autonomy tout court,
the judges asked whether the parents’ choice would bind their child
closer to the majority ‘culture and community’ of Germany. Because it
would not, it was that much easier to second-guess. Yet the reaction to
the court’s decision seems to mark a subtle shift in consensus-minded
Germany toward accommodating beliefs and rituals which will always
remain outside the mainstream.