Merkel warns on abuse of religious freedom at Reformation event
500 years after Martin Luther nailed up his theses, he may be seen as father of austerity
German chancellor Angela Merkel at Martin Luther’s grave at the Castle Church in Wittenberg: “Whoever values diversity has to practise tolerance, that is the historical experience of our continent,” she said. Photograph: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
Chancellor Angela Merkel, the world’s most famous Lutheran pastor’s daughter, has warned against abusing freedom of religion to undermine tolerance in the name of belief.
The German leader was speaking in Wittenberg where, exactly 500 years ago , Martin Luther presented 95 reform demands for corruption rife in the Catholic church.
Five centuries later, the German leader said the Reformation’s lessons remained vital, in particular the need to bed down religious questions in a secular order.
“Whoever values diversity has to practise tolerance, that is the historical experience of our continent,” she said. “Tolerance is the soul of Europe.”
Her remarks were a nod to unease over Islamist attacks in Germany and Europe, and the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). It argues that German religious freedom should not be extended to Islam, given its political component and drastic views on apostasy.
Germany’s religious debate 500 years ago was sparked when Luther complained to his local bishop about corrupt clergy and the sale of express-lane access to heaven for deceased loved ones.
Instead of embracing reform, the Vatican excommunicated Luther in 1520 and sealed a schism in the Christian world.
The tremors of Luther’s war with Rome still linger around the world, not least in contemporary Northern Ireland’s uneasy positions over Stormont and Brexit.
Meanwhile in Germany, where there are once again more Catholics than Protestants, Luther’s legacy is as much cultural as religious.
His masterful use of German in sermons and religious writings united the German peoples through their language and laid a foundation stone for the belated German state, three centuries later. And, even as religion retreats, different social norms linger in Germany’s more protestant north and more Catholic west and south.
The run-up to Tuesday’s anniversary saw renewed debate over whether Luther actually nailed the theses to the church door at all, as claimed, or if this was simply a marketing hook for a new world religion.
Though Luther wrote expansively in his lifetime – and more than 7,000 of his dinner-table conversations were transcribed for posterity – he made no mention to the hammer and nails. That fell to Philipp Melanchthon, Luther’s long-time companion, as well as a philosopher and theologian in his own right.
Melanchthon wrote in the foreword to Luther’s collected works, published shortly after Luther’s death in 1546, how the monk “nailed” the theses “publicly on to the church linked to the Wittenberg Castle on the eve of the Feast of All Saints 1517”.
However Melanchthon was not himself an eyewitness: he came to Wittenberg in August 1518. Others close to Luther also mentioned the theses and the church door, with some researchers suggesting they were put on display there in line with theological practice of the time.
It’s no longer possible to examine the doors themselves: they went up in flames, along with the church itself, in 1760. The current bronze doors, containing the theses, were gifted by Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV in 1858.
For Wittenberg the anniversary has been – literally and figuratively – a godsend. The former East German city has been extensively renovated. It welcomed guests from around the world to a €50 million world exhibition.
In exhibitions and discussions, locals and visitors discussed everything from Luther’s problematic anti-Semitism – a hook exploited later by the Nazis – to his demands for education for women.
But critics suggested that, beyond happy memories and more than 10,000 events around the country, the Reformation year will have little long-term impact on Germany’s struggling Lutheran Church.
“Where was the content?” asked theologian Friedrich Schorlemmer. “Where was the statement: this is what Protestantism once was, where we are today and where we want to go?”
Like the anniversary, the Reformation itself remains a mixed blessing: it gave Germany the Luther translation of the Bible, still venerated as a model of theological and linguistic clarity. But the monk’s revolt – and Rome’s response – opened the door to ruinous religious warfare.
Half a millennium on, whether religious or not, Luther still shapes the German psyche like no one else. Among his hundreds of maxims are lines visible in the Merkel-Schäuble euro crisis playbook: “You have to swallow a bitter pill” and “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Martin Luther: father of German austerity.