Sociologist Peter Berger on the influence of the Lutheran parsonage in Germany, particularly in East Germany under Communism:
[Chancellor Angela] Merkel [daughter of a Lutheran pastor] and [President Joichim] Gauck [a former Lutheran pastor] share a background of Protestant life in Communist East Germany. To what extent has this background shaped their worldview and their overall lifestyle? I don’t think that I know enough about these two individuals to answer the question—though it is hard to believe that the conditions under which one lived during one’s formative years leave no traces in one’s later life. In the event, one can take an individual out of a Lutheran parsonage—I doubt whether one can take the parsonage out of the individual. The powerful language of Luther’s German translation of the Bible and the powerful music of Lutheran hymnody must inevitably reverberate even in the consciousness of individuals whose ties with the Lutheran church have frayed. But we do know a lot about the story of that church in the so-called German Democratic Republic, and in East Germany since then. It is an interesting and somewhat puzzling story.
The ideology of the DDR was an aggressively atheist Marxism. Religious institutions were closely watched by the Stasi. Clergy and active lay people were harassed, frequently arrested, treated as second-class citizens. As a result religion existed in a barely tolerated subculture, tightly contained and periodically persecuted. Because of the exigencies of German religious history, the population of the DDR was mostly Protestant. By the very nature of its pariah status, the Protestant church inadvertently maintained (as it were, preserved in amber) not only a particular religious tradition, but the bourgeois culture with which it had been historically linked. Visitors to the DDR were regularly impressed by the old-fashioned appearance of its urban landscape—socialist neglect had kept away the frenetic modernization of West German cities and towns. But equally impressive was the preservation of bourgeois values and habits, equally old-fashioned by Western standards—not only in the Protestant quasi-ghetto, but especially there. Most Protestant congregations did not actively oppose the regime. Nevertheless, they constituted oases of an older, different culture in the desert of official Communist institutions. Since the Protestant church was the only institution with a degree of tolerated autonomy, it very naturally became the main locale of political opposition in the late 1980s. The regime change was inaugurated by the huge demonstrations that first emerged from the historic Thomaskirche in Leipzig (where Johann Sebastian Bach had been organist). When the regime finally collapsed in 1989, some people spoke of “a Protestant revolution”—prematurely, as things turned out. In the final years of the DDR and the first years after re-unification, a number of church-related individuals, including pastors, became politically prominent. Merkel and Gauck were not the only ones. But the role of the church diminished rapidly in the 1990s. Today the territory of the former DDR and the Czech Republic constitute the most thoroughly secularized region in Central Europe. (The Austrian sociologist Paul Zulehner has described them as two countries in which atheism is the established religion.) Why this is so is an intriguing question, but I cannot pursue it here.
A few years ago I heard a lecture by a historian about the role of the Protestant parsonage in German cultural history. The role was quite remarkable. A disproportionate number of writers, scholars and artists were the children of Protestant pastors. But the Protestant parsonage, the Pfarrhaus, was a focus of education and cultural activity beyond the family that inhabited it, especially in smaller towns and villages. The parsonage radiated the distinctive “Protestant ethic” to which Max Weber ascribed an important causal role in the genesis of modern capitalism—personal discipline, soberness, honesty, a penchant for orderliness. Did all good Protestants live that way? Of course they did not. (Deservedly or not, pastors’ daughters had a reputation for sexual laxity.) Did this ethic have negative aspects? Of course it did. It could be stuffy and stultifying, and its penchant for orderliness often led to a supine respect for authority, any authority. Yet many of the greatest cultural achievements in German history had Protestant, specifically Lutheran roots.
HT: Joe Carter