Protestant parliamentarians not predominantly left-wing

Cluster of Excellence researching political activities of Protestant theologians from 19th century to present day – New database “TheoParl” with rich source of materials – Protestant parliamentarians cover entire political spectrum also after 1968 – Highest level of political participation in times of social upheaval – Consistently high proportion of women at imperial and federal levels – Episode 4 of Cluster of Excellence’s “Religion and Politics” podcast

Press release 28 April 2021

According to researchers, a long-term perspective shows that Protestant parliamentarians cover the entire political spectrum and are by no means predominantly left-wing. “The cliché of the bearded clergyman at anti-nuclear demonstrations, for example, is in need of revision. Although party affiliation has moved a little towards a more social-democratic and green outlook during the past 170 years, it would be going too far to speak of a red-green turn in the spirit of 1968”, explain social ethicist Arnulf von Scheliha and theologian Uta Elisabeth Hohmann, who are researching the parliamentary activities of Protestant theologians from the 19th century to the present day. They have recently presented their initial findings at a conference organized by the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics”, together with the University of Münster’s Centre for Religion and Modernity (CRM) and the Institute for Ethics and Related Social Sciences (IfES). One further finding is that Protestants were to begin with particularly supportive of the monarchy, but quickly developed models of thought in order to combine their beliefs with the democratic idea.

Social ethicist Prof. Dr. Arnulf von Scheliha and theologian Uta Elisabeth Hohmann
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“Protestant theologians are particularly common in parliament in times of political upheaval, although it is impossible to discern a clear political orientation.” What is striking is the above-average proportion of women at the imperial and federal level, with male theologians dominating in the state parliaments.
The researchers also report on their findings so far in Episode 4 of the research podcast “Religion and Politics” on the Cluster of Excellence’s annual theme “Belonging and Demarcation” (in German language).

Evaluations of the rich data material so far also reveal: “Political Protestantism has been represented in the entire party spectrum across the epochs, from predominantly liberal in the Empire, to rather nationalistic and Christian-conservative after the Weimar Republic, and to social-democratic and green in the more recent past”. Exceptions confirm the rule. For example, there were social-democratic Protestants in the Empire, and there are also currently some state parliaments with elected officials who have a theological background and are in the AfD. Liberalism, once so strong, has shrunk greatly, but has not completely disappeared. “However, the entire spectrum is covered”, Hohmann explains, which, for the two researchers, reflects the whole society’s history of learning with regard to democracy. It was a long road to accepting democracy and pluralism for Protestantism, too. “Today, we associate scepticism about democracy more with the Catholic than with the Protestant Church”, says Hohmann. But this cliché should be thrown overboard.

“TheoParl” (Theological Parliamentarians), the database initiated by Hohmann and von Scheliha, currently has around 560 entries and aims to provide a comprehensive statistical inventory of parliamentarians at state and federal level. Parliamentarians with a degree in Protestant theology and a democratic mandate are deemed “TheoParl”. According to the researchers, these strict selection criteria enable analysis over a long period of time, the aim being to provide as complete a list as possible of all elected officials with a theological background since 1848. The results of the quantitative and qualitative evaluations are taken from various sources such as parliamentary handbooks, party files, and bequests.

Highest number of Protestant parliamentarians in times of upheaval

The researchers cite the end of the 19th century as an example of a period of political upheaval when the number of Protestant parliamentarians was at its highest: the social question that arose at that time in the wake of the population explosion and industrialization motivated pastors of all camps to participate in politics. The first freely elected 10th People’s Chamber of the GDR also had a high “TheoParl” proportion in 1990 of 8%. The theologians had already learned about democratic processes in their church work, and their training also made them particularly articulate for their parliamentary work. The East German “TheoParl” were particularly in demand when it came to the political work of dealing with the past.

According to Hohmann and von Scheliha, there is no clear policy area that Protestant parliamentarians specialize in, but at most a certain tendency towards the areas of education and social affairs. “Interest in social policy predominates in the Reichstag”, explains Hohmann, “but ultimately ‘TheoParl’ can be found in all policy areas, including, for example, in portfolios for international affairs and security, as well as in economics and finance portfolios”. The specialist policy orientation of Protestant parliamentarians is also balanced in the German Bundestag.

Theological parliamentarians have always included those who are better known; when the Green Party entered the Bundestag in 1983, for example, the pastor Antje Vollmer was elected to the presidium. Other well-known elected officials with a theological background include Susanne Kastner (SPD, 1989-2013), Peter Hinze (CDU, 1990-2017), and the later Federal President Joachim Gauck (Alliance 90/Greens, 1990). The survey also reveals some curious facts: the state parliamentarian in Saxony, Frank Richter, was originally a Roman Catholic priest, but has since changed his denomination twice and his party once.

More than half of the parliamentarians previously worked in the parish ministry, and school is the second most frequent professional field represented. Other parliamentarians had previously worked in higher education or journalism. “This broad notion of theology allows our study to take into account at an early stage women parliamentarians, who had had access to theological studies since the end of the Empire, but not to church office”, explains von Scheliha. The proportion of women among the “TheoParl” in the current Bundestag is 44%, while their proportion among all parliamentarians is only around 30%. This can be generalized for the imperial/federal level: the number of Protestant women parliamentarians is often higher than the overall proportion of elected officials who are women. (apo/vvm)