Will the Catholics bring down Merkel?
Angela Merkel. Credit: Thomas Lohnes / Getty   

Germany, like the rest of modern Europe, is a largely secular country. So how ironic that its political future, and the stability of the EU itself, could rest in the hands of Bavaria’s Catholics.

Chancellor Merkel’s government currently relies on the support of its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The party has dominated state politics for over six decades, largely with overwhelming support from the state’s numerous Catholics. But its vote share dropped dramatically in last year’s federal election as many former CSU voters switching to the populist and anti-immigrant AfD.

This switch seems seems counter-intuitive. The state, especially the rural parts where CSU support has been traditionally strongest, contains very few foreigners or refugees. The state is also prosperous, with a growing economy and low rates of unemployment. Thus, the two measures often associated with support for anti-immigrant populist parties – proximity to migrants and economic distress – are largely absent in Bavaria. Something else must at work.

Could that be Bavaria’s high level of religiosity? Bavarian culture is very different from the rest of Germany, and its intense Catholicism is perhaps the most important distinction.

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Most of Bavaria stayed loyal to the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation and has maintained its faith even as the rest of Europe has fallen away from organised Christianity. “Gruss Gott” – literally, “greet God” – is the local way to say “hello”, and it is normal to see ornate crosses in front of Bavarian homesteads. Even today, 54 % of Bavarians report that they are Catholic, with the share rising as high as 80% in the rural southeast.

This part of Bavaria has voted for the Catholic party for well over one hundred years. It backed the Catholic Centre Party during the days of Imperial Germany and gave that party’s Bavarian successor, the Bavarian People’s Party, the highest share of the vote in every free election during the Weimar Republic.

This pattern was resurrected after the Second World War, as Bavaria’s rural devout gave the BVP’s successor, the CSU, overwhelming support time and time again. So the fact that AfD support last autumn was strongest in this region made me wonder: are Catholics deserting their historic party?

Statistical analysis suggest they are. Support for the AfD rose in direct proportion to the share of Catholics in Bavaria’s election districts; the higher the share of Catholics, the more the AfD vote went up.

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This relationship holds even after controlling for other factors such as education, income, unemployment, and the share of migrants in the region. Alexander Roth of the Bruegel Institut ran such an analysis and found “a positive correlation between Catholic church membership and AfD voting in Bavaria, controlling for numerous other factors”. So we have a curious anomaly: Germany’s most Catholic party, one that recently passed a law mandating that crosses be posted in all government buildings, is losing support among Catholics.

It’s not clear exactly why this is happening, nor is it clear which types of Catholics are switching. But we do have some clues. In America, Donald Trump picked up some his strongest support from people who held a strong personal identity as Christians but rarely or never attended religious services.

Bavaria’s high number of Catholics almost certainly includes many for whom Catholicism is a cultural heritage rather than something that is a center of their lives. Only about 10% of German Catholics regularly attend mass, according to 2016 figures from the German Bishop’s Conference. These people may, like their American brethren, be afraid of Islam and migrants but be unconnected enough with the Church to pay attention to its stances on “Islamophobia” and migration.

That cultural identity may also combine with isolation from formal institutions to create a warm climate for anti-Islam fears. Data from Germany’s past and America’s present again reinforces that view. The vote share for the Centre Party and the BVP was relatively stable throughout the rise of Nazism: those Catholics close enough to the Church to vote for the Church’s party did not waver despite the Depression’s pressures. So, too, did more nominal Catholics who voted for parties with ties to strong unions such as the Social Democrats or Communists. But those who voted for other parties, presumably those without active membership in strong institutions, switched en masse.

Similarly, Trump’s most fervent support came from people and in regions with low levels of social capital or social interaction. His most intense backers watched more television than his other supporters, were least likely to know basic political facts, and were the most likely to believe they were powerless in society and that others were out for themselves.

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CSU efforts to regain these voters’ support has so far been unsuccessful. The most recent polls show the CSU receiving even fewer votes than in 2017, with AfD polling higher along with the more moderate Free Voters and the Greens. It may thus be that their efforts to reclaim the defectors’ loyalties has hurt them more than it has helped. As one AfD official told a reporter, “Voters are no fools. They can tell the copy from the original.”

Meanwhile, the CSU has dropped by as many as seven points since Seehofer threatened to resign over Merkel’s immigration policies. Too late to garner Catholic support, too strong to keep moderates: the CSU is beset on all sides now. Its decline among Catholics is instructive both for it and other mainstream centre-right parties.

Christian faith may be waning, but Christian identity still resonates across Europe. Any influx of immigrants into a society can cause tension, as British voters’ concerns over Eastern European migration shows. But couple that with the introduction of an alien religion traditionally in conflict with Christianity and whose radical adherents remain violently opposed to the West, and an entirely new challenge arises.

National and religious identity seems to comfort many people, giving them confidence in a society from which they otherwise feel disconnected. Threaten that, and they will be open to new voices that promise to restore the primacy of the identities that give their lives stability and meaning.

Europe’s largely secular elites seem to be unaware that millions of their citizens still derive sustenance from the old identities. For Germany’s and Europe’s sake, these elites need to rekindle their support for these notions before it is too late.

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