ANGELA MERKEL has often been compared to Margaret Thatcher. Both trained as scientists. Both rose to the top of their (male-dominated) conservative parties through intelligence and hard work rather than connections. And both were, or are, sincere Christians.
Here, however, is where the comparison breaks down. Lady Thatcher was an ideologue who set out her views, religious and political, with force, and then showed the public why they were right. Dr Merkel, in contrast, has always been more attentive to public opinion, preferring instead to “lead from behind”. The result is that her Christian faith is almost as obscure as the rest of her undemonstrative private life and convictions.
Dr Merkel’s father was a Lutheran pastor and theologian, who made the unusual move from West to East Germany when his daughter was six weeks old. She grew up in the theological seminary he ran, living in a church centre for people with mental and physical disabilities.
Like Lady Thatcher, Dr Merkel was deeply influenced by her father, although less by his political views than by his “clarity of argument” and “logical rigour”. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, although a largely apolitical youth, she joined Democratic Awakening, an East German party with links to Lutheran Church, before it merged with its West German counterpart, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Elected to the Bundestag, she was soon appointed to the Cabinet by Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who recognised her talent, but also wanted a Protestant woman from the East with a science background to balance his cabinet, which was largely made up of Roman Catholic male lawyers.
Although she was Kohl’s protégé, Dr Merkel wielded the political knife after he admitted taking illegal campaign donations. She helped to rebuild her battered party, winning a razor-thin majority in 2005 to become Chancellor of a coalition government. Two successful elections, a global recession, and a never-ending euro crisis later, she stands as one of the best known, most respected, and latterly most controversial political leaders in the world.
DR MERKEL “was more intensely affected by her family home and the Christian faith than she was by her study of physics”, her biographer, Volker Resing, said. She told a theology student, in a videoblog interview, in 2012: “I am a member of the Evangelical Church. I believe in God, and religion is also my constant companion, and has been for the whole of my life.” The Bible is the book that has most influenced her life, she told students at Trinity College, Dublin, in 2014.
Inevitably, critics say that all this is political cosmetics — stock phrases tailored to appeal to the electorate, and particularly to the more traditional and Roman Catholic elements in her party. Be that as it may, it is clearly more than superficial. “We as Christians should above all not be afraid of standing up for our beliefs,” she said on the videoblog in 2012. Those beliefs provide her with a “framework for my life that I consider very important”.
Precisely how this shapes her politics is trickier to determine — although perhaps no trickier than for any leading politician. In one respect, it is visible in the fact that Dr Merkel is willing, albeit occasionally, to “do God”: she speaks at church meetings, and is willing to talk about her faith.
There is substance to her interventions, however. Dr Merkel has spoken of how Christianity is the main foundation of Germany’s value system. Appearing at an Ecumenical Church Congress in 2010, she explained (in remarks that were not in her prepared text): “Our society lives on premises that it cannot create by itself. Without a doubt, one of these very important premises is Christianity.”
In the face of the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Germany, she has proclaimed that the country suffers not from “too much Islam”, but “too little Christianity”. In a line that is familiar within the CDU, she has made repeated references to the manner in which the Christian view of humankind, made in the image of God, is the foundation for her politics.
DR MERKEL was named as Time magazine’s person of the year in 2015, partly because of (or despite) her unpopular handling of the refugee crisis — a crisis that has got worse since the New Year sex attacks in Cologne. Her stance was principled. “If we have to start apologising for showing a friendly face in response to emergency situations,” she said, “then that’s not my country.”
It would be naïve to trace this position straight back to the Old Testament legislation on the imperative of hospitality to the stranger. Political leaders no longer govern in that way, mercifully. In any case, others have suggested that such principles are rooted not so much in theological soil as in that of an East German childhood, where free movement of people was effectively forbidden.
Even if Dr Merkel’s Christianity cannot be read from her list of policy prescriptions, as Lady Thatcher implied that hers could be, it remains an important feature of her intellectual landscape. It has helped her to walk on political water for nearly ten years — if not to still the political storm that rages constantly around her.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos. A fuller treatment of Angela Merkel’s faith is at: www.theosthinktank.co.uk.