Canadian Civic Religion and a German Core Culture

Canadian Civic Religion and a German Core Culture

by

Howard Adelman

When I posited a set of values central to the Canadian civil religion, I did not define that set as constituting the core culture of Canada as a nation. Further, I dubbed it as a civic religion rather than as a set of cultural values. The differences are important.

Germany is a country that has undergone a radical revolution with respect to the dominant values and practices of the society in the last 72 years. The difference in practices was most evident when Germany agreed to admit and resettle by far the highest number of Syrian refugees in the West. Germany also admitted the most asylum claimants.

“Germany has pledged 30,000 places for Syrian refugees through its humanitarian admission programme; nearly half the global total of resettlement and humanitarian admission programme places for Syrian refugees and 82 per cent of the EU total.” (Amnesty International.)

What a change even from 1979, about the half way point between WWII and the present. In the Fall of 1979, I was a guest of the German government sitting in the balcony of the Bundestag in Bonn (the old capital of West Germany before reunification) when parliament passed a motion to admit 20,000 Indochinese refugees into Germany by a sizable majority, but the vote was very far from unanimous. Afterwards, the Minister in charge met me and, with an enormous smile of self-satisfaction, asked me whether I thought that what had been accomplished had been great.

I did not give him the answer he was expecting. Essentially, I gave his Parliament a C grade. Germany was so much larger, so much wealthier than Canada, I said, and Canada was then admitting 50,000 Indochinese refugees. I said that I did not see why Germany was not admitting 100,000 rather than just 20,000. The Minister was visibly unhappy with my reply. Somehow, I had deflated the great joy he had taken in what had been accomplished. But his reaction was not defensive. We went back to his office to discuss the prospect of Germany taking in more Indochinese refugees.

Germany then had a much more expensive method of resettling refugees. Supported 100% by the government, they were kept in special camps, usually for two years, where they were taught to speak German, learn German ways and otherwise acclimatize themselves to German society. While the young attended school, adults were given training to upgrade their skills to facilitate their entry into the German job market. Of course, this method of resettlement posed challenges. As one example, it is much more difficult to learn a language when you live within your own linguistic community and have relatively little contact with the native German-speaking community. I described the Canadian private sponsorship program and how it might be both more suited to integrating Indochinese refugees as well as permitting Germany to take in many more refugees.

The Minister was skeptical, but he was a very enlightened and open man, indeed eager to try new things. He offered me a car and a translator to travel around Germany for 2-3 weeks and explore the issue with Germans and to return with a report on whether I thought such a program would work and, if so, how it might be implemented. The translator was necessary to facilitate contact with a much wider group of Germans than the many who spoke English. Further, my German skills had so deteriorated that I could not speak as well as an Indochinese refugee, and he wanted me to speak to them as well about their own experiences.

I took up the challenge. I visited only lists of liberal people in human rights and other humanitarian organizations as well as a number of German clerics. My report was completed in 8 days. I concluded that it would be impossible at that time for the German government to introduce a private sponsorship program for refugees. Second, I had come to understand why the decision to take in 20,000 refugees was considered such an accomplishment.

My interviewees were unanimous in declaring that such a program would be impossible to implement at that time. It was not that Germans were ungenerous. Rather, they regarded the Indochinese as never being able to become German. This was not seen as a problem of the Indochinese, but because of the German self-definition of themselves. To be a German was not just to be a citizen – which the Indochinese could certainly become, but it meant being an ethnic German. The liberals I consulted said that a shift away from an ethnic self-definition would not and could not take place in their lifetimes. I would not have predicted from those interviews that the shift came as fast and as extensively as it happened, even though, as I understand it, a majority of Germans still maintain a self-definition of a German primarily in ethnic terms. (Cf. Christian Jopke “Contesting Ethnic Immigration: Germany and Israel Compared,” European Journal of Sociology, 43:3, 301-335, December 2002)

Last month, the German Federal Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maizière from the Christian Democratic Union, published ten points that he believed were central to the German core culture. This was especially interesting to me because his name indicated that he might have been descended from the Huguenots, the Protestant refugees who fled France and the French Catholic persecution then underway in the seventeenth century. When I first visited Berlin, I remember being surprised to learn that 10% of the names in the Berlin telephone directory were Huguenot ones. I checked and my presumption was correct. The Minister’s family originally came from Maizières-lès-Metz. As Hurguenots, they sought asylum in Prussia and attended French-language schools and Huguenot churches in Berlin until the beginning of the 20th century.

The Minister asked, “Who are we? And who do we want to be? As a society. As a nation.” He initially offered three core characteristics of German constitutional patriotism: “the protection of human dignity,” the reverence for democracy, and linguistic commonality. However, he argued that there was more to it than that. “Democracy, respect for the Constitution and human dignity are honoured in all Western societies. I think there’s more. There is such a thing as a ‘German Core Culture’.”

The Minister offered two components to a core culture. “First is the term culture. This shows what is at issue, namely, not rules of law, but rules of living together. And the word “core” is not about prescription or obligation. It is much more about what is guiding us, what is important to us, what gives us direction. Such a direction-giving guide for living in Germany is what I mean by core culture.”

What is the difference between what the Minister wrote about Germany and what I wrote about Canada? Aside from the use of “culture” rather than “religion,” he referred to rules. I had referred to values. His were rules about “living together,” which implied they were obligatory informal rules governing behaviour for all those who lived in Germany even though he declared that “core” did not entail obligation. Later he would specifically declaim such a suggestion by stating that the rules could not be prescribed and were not even obligatory. In contrast, the values I listed were normative aspirations rather than rules, which I do not believe even a majority of Canadians feel are central to who they are. But the implication was that they were the dominant set of values setting standards, not for living together, but for doing good works together.

In both cases of informal rules or aspirational values, they are signifiers as guides, as offering meaning and direction. However, in the German case, we observe an effort to redefine the German nation from an ethno-national approach to a normative frame. But not from a citizen frame. And not from a long term residential frame. All German citizens are automatically part of this nation. But the definition of the nation goes further to include others who live in Germany, speak German and agree to abide by the same rules that facilitate Germans (in this cultural sense) having “trusted and true” norms for living together. They are not the only rules which are trusted and true. Other cultures may have different sets of rules. Nor is it a claim for a superior culture, just one that is different and unique for Germany.

When the Minister spelled out the content of the rules as translated into a set of practices, it was clear that he was enunciating norms more characteristic of the French definition of laicité, what I have dubbed the French secular religion, than the description I offered for the Canadian civic religion, if only at its most basic in avoiding the description of what he was talking about as a religion. I contend that he was offering a secular religion based on rules rather than aspirations, rules which permeated the fabric of the whole society.

He called them customs, expressions of a certain attitude – norms of etiquette for members of German society, such as introducing oneself by name, acknowledging the other by name, and shaking hands upon meeting. But it also included “prohibitions against demonstrators” covering their face. At first, one is invited to think of demonstrators wearing face masks to hide their identity. But it is clear that he is enunciating a form of civic religion, a secular religion unlike Canada’s explicitly rooted in faith groups, a core culture based on rules rather than values, which limit even the clothes worn in public. “We are an open-minded society. We show our face. We are not Burka.” [my italics]

His second statement about the practices of the core culture of German society spoke, not of etiquette, but of a precondition, education, not as techné, not as instrumental, a type of education in which Germans excel, but a claim that, “A well-rounded education has a value in itself.” One is carried back to the debates in North America over general education at universities in contrast to mastery of specific disciplines so characteristic of the transition of the university from a Sanctuary of Method to a Social Service University. Germany came late to this transition in higher education. It is noteworthy that in my definition of the Canadian civil religion there was no inclusion of proselytizing even in the mild form of education.

A third emphasis was on achievement combined with a social safety net. “We require performance. High performance and high quality produce high living standards. Our country was made strong by striving for accomplishment.”

Perhaps the most interesting of the ten norms enunciated was the fourth one regarding accepting the past as present, which in Germany, entails a special provision for Israel. I quote it in full.

We are heirs of our history with all its high and low points. Our past affects our present and our culture. We are heirs of our German history. For us, it means a struggle for German unity in freedom and peace with our neighbours, the maturing of the states together into a federal State, the fight for freedom and for acknowledgment of the lowest lows of our history. This also includes a special relationship with Israel’s right to exist.

Wir sind Erben unserer Geschichte mit all ihren Höhen und Tiefen. Unsere Vergangenheit prägt unsere Gegenwart und unsere Kultur. Wir sind Erben unserer deutschen Geschichte. Für uns ist sie ein Ringen um die Deutsche Einheit in Freiheit und Frieden mit unseren Nachbarn, das Zusammenwachsen der Länder zu einem föderalen Staat, das Ringen um Freiheit und das Bekenntnis zu den tiefsten Tiefen unserer Geschichte. Dazu gehört auch ein besonderes Verhältnis zum Existenzrecht Israels.

In Canada, I did not make the obligation to remember the sins of cultural genocide committed against our aboriginal peoples or making up for those sins by acts of redemption a part of the civic religion, not because this is not entailed by the values of the civic religion I set forth, but because, even if this was the most egregious sin, our past sins are manifold – the imposition of the Chinese head tax, the rejection of Sikhs seeking homes in British Columbia, the “None Is Too Many,” approach to Jewish refugees and the internment and relocation of Japanese Canadians during WWII. More importantly, I believe the Canadian civil religion is more of a social justice than a confessional religion.

A fifth characteristic of the core German culture that he tried to define was the esteem given to poets and philosophers, to musicians and artists. “We have our own understanding of the stellar value of culture in our society.” Is the equivalent in Canada the centrality of hockey in our collective lives and memory? Is this why I did not include the so-called “low” culture as a central feature of the Canadian civic religion? The question is rhetorical only to make the reader think about why I would not include it.

The sixth characteristic directly addresses the issue of the role of religion in German society.

“Germany is characterized by a particular relationship between State and Church. Our State possesses a neutral worldview, but views Churches and religious communities in a friendly way. Church festivals add rhythm to our yearly cycle. Church steeples dominate our landscape. Our country is Christian. Our religious life is peaceful. And the basic prerequisites for this are the absolute priority of the law over all religious rules within our state and communal co-existence.”

Note, neutrality rather than impartiality with respect to religion. Note the state support for and celebration of religion. Note the definition: “Our country is Christian.” And it is evidently out of that Christian religion that the rule of law trumps and sets boundaries to any religious rules. Does de Maizière not recall when the ravings of Martin Luther “to connect” Germans included screeds against Jews? In the desire “to connect,” there must be a self-consciousness of what is disconnected in the process. A reading of E.M. Forster’s Passage to India would teach one that.

Note as well with respect to the Minister’s seventh point about the German “civilized ways to regulate conflict,” based on compromise and consensus (presumably as illustrated in the industrial-union accords so characteristic of German economic life), currently expanded to dealing with and tolerance of minorities and rejection of violence as a principal way for resolving conflicts. The seventh point includes this odd sentence: “We accept diverse ways of living, and those who reject this will find themselves outside the majority consensus.” Besides the construction as a tautology, the “majority” consensus dictates tolerance, but anyone who refuses to participate in this consensus is effectively ostracized from the core culture of Germany.

The eighth point insists that Germans are no longer to be defined ethnically, but are also no longer to be defined in terms of nationalism. “Enlightened patriotism” is the new designation to celebrate unity, justice and freedom. Note the difference with my depiction of the Canadian civil religion. There was no mention of unity there. Instead of justice, which is a result, the stress was on impartiality and fairness, both of which are procedural. And freedom was very clearly articulated as a goal rather than a given.

While my depiction of the Canadian Civil Religion was small “l” liberal, but otherwise apolitical, the Minister’s depiction of the core culture of Germany included a clear political position.

“We are part of the Western world: culturally, spiritually and politically, and the NATO protects our freedom. It links us to the USA, our most important foreign friend and partner. As Germans, we are always also Europeans. German interests are often best represented and fulfilled through Europe. Conversely, Europa will not flourish without a strong Germany. We are perhaps the most European country in Europe – no country has more neighbours than Germany. Our geographic location has formed our relationship with our neighbours over the course of centuries that used to be problematic, but is currently good. This fact influences our thinking and our politics.”

Wow! It is one thing to describe this as a current reality about Germany. It is another to depict it as a core feature of German culture. Partnership with the U.S. Primacy of Europe. Centrality of a strong Germany.  Compare this claim of partnership with my own negative contrast with the values and norms of those who rule America at present, the implicit depiction of the economically and militarily weak Canada relative to the U.S., but with its moral superiority. Further, Canada has an outlier status, not just in North America, but with respect to the rest of the Western world. That politics may have influenced the creation of the Canadian civil religion, but does not define it.

Finally, and most descriptive of all, there is at the heart of the German culture, nostalgia, memories and attachments to place and time that did not play any part of my depiction of the civil religion of Canada, except in the claim that the different memories of groups, such as religious communities, helped understand the differential responses to refugees by different religious and other communities. Therefore, the core of memory was not nostalgia, but a concrete memory of the failure to live up to the values and virtues listed as central to the Canadian civic religion.

Look at how the Minster described those who do not share in the norms of the core German culture. First, they seem to be only newcomers. Secondly, there are those who 1) do not absorb those values; 2) ones indifferent to them; and 3) those who reject them. The result will be a failure in integration. Canadians who do not share the values of the Canadian civil religion are not depicted as failing to integrate, if only because the core civic religion does not require a majority status. In a subsequent blog, I will outline the problems that emerge when identifiable groups do not identify with the predominant Canadian civic religion. There will be differences in the values of the emerging generation as well as the values of various groups of immigrants from those of the Canadian civic religion.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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