Should churches be involved in politics?

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Should churches be involved in politics?

Churches in Switzerland are voicing their opinion on laws and votes. But should religion be involved in current Swiss politics?

In November 2020, Madam Karin Keller-Sutter, a federal counsellor, stated that “Churches have nothing to say on today’s politics!”[1] She expressed her point when Swiss citizens had to vote on the matter of responsible business. If this law passed, Swiss companies would not be allowed to be involved with international companies that violate human rights or harm the environment.[2] However, during the campaign period, some churches put up a banner on their church tower to show that they supported the passing of this vote. Should Swiss churches engage themselves in political debates during these voting periods? What is the relationship between churches and politics in Switzerland today? 

Politics and Christianity in Switzerland today
The Swiss population votes four times per year on specific political matters, and every four years they elect representatives in the Cantonal Council and in the National Council.[3] With this political system, the Swiss are used to voting and to discussing politics around a kitchen table. But do these discussions also take place in churches?

Switzerland is a secular society in a non-secular country. First, the Swiss constitution states the Christian background in the first sentence: “in the name of God Almighty.”[4] Second, a Protestant or a Catholic Church is affiliated with the state depending on the canton’s political decisions. For example, the Protestant Church in Geneva is not affiliated to the state but the Protestant Church in Zurich is.[5] Even if these two points reveal that Switzerland is not a secular country, the Swiss society is a secular society in general. A small majority of the Swiss population is Christian and most of them do not practise their religion on a daily basis.[6] For most politicians, the Christian tradition in Switzerland is seen as a cultural background rather than a practised religion.[7] Due to this secular landscape, politicians and church members have different points of view about the relationship between the church and politics.

In current Swiss society, churches should not play a role in politics…
One opinion is to keep politics and church life separated. The liberal radical youth political parties from Bern, Argovia, Saint-Gallen, and Thurgovia expressed that churches should focus on the spiritual needs of the people rather than politics.[8] On that note, Michael Baumann – pastor at the Protestant Church in Wiesendangen – agrees with the political party, arguing that the church does not have to change society because Christians should not try to bring the Kingdom of God on earth. Michael Baumann indicates that churches should focus on ethical and spiritual questions. According to the youth parties and Michael Baumann, the church should not get involved in politics.[9]

…but churches are on the political front with the ‘marriage for all’ vote
However, in November 2020, Christians got involved in politics when the National Council voted on a law on ‘marriage for all’. This law would open marriage for couples of the same sex and permit lesbian couples to get a sperm donation. On this matter, Swiss Christians manifested their political positions. In April 2021, 61,027 signatures (of the 50,000 needed) were certified to ask for a referendum on the ‘marriage for all’ law. A major part of these signatures was signed by members of the Federal Democratic Union (EDF), the Democratic Union of the Centre (UDC), and the Evangelical Party (PEV).[10] These three parties are known to find Christian moral values important for Switzerland. Due to this initiative, the Swiss will have to vote on the law ‘marriage for all’ in September 2021. 

But not all Swiss Christians agree with this referendum. The initiative brought conflict in the Evangelical Party as the majority of the members signed the initiative and others, such as Michael Wiesmann (pastor in Zurich), did not agree with it. He decided to leave the party and focus on his work of pastoral care for all human beings.[11] Then, the Swiss-German theologian feminist group (Die IG feministische Theologinnen[12]) declared that reading the Bible with a theological perspective helps people to understand that homosexuality in biblical times did not have the same connotation as today. With their public statement, the group affirmed their support for the law.[13] Also, the Protestant Church in Switzerland declared that they support opening marriage for all back in 2019. However, they have not made a statement on the recent ‘marriage for all’ law.[14]

Political discussions will continue in churches
Political discussions are present in churches but differ from one church to another. We see two ways in which Christians are involved in political debates in Switzerland. First, as a church through public statements. Second, as individuals through political parties or social groups (such as the feminist theologian group). These two ways show that Christians, as individuals living in Swiss society, cannot be apolitical. With the new voting period coming up in June 2021, the Protestant Church in Switzerland answered Keller-Sutter’s remark this way: “But all the citizens are concerned by the state affairs and the common good. This applies to the individuals as well as to the collectives. And so, as actors in society, the churches also have the legitimacy to express their views on political matters.”[15]

Emma Van Dorp

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[1] «Les Églises n’ont pas à se mêler de l’actualité politique!» in Multinationales responsables: quand l’engagement des Églises irrite.

[2] Initiative populaire « Entreprises responsables – pour protéger l’être humain et l’environnement »

[3] Élection du conseil des Etats. 

[4] Constitution fédérale de la Confédération suisse.

[5] Les religions – faits et chiffres.

[6] Félix Moser, Les croyants non pratiquants. Genève: Labor et Fides, 1994.

[7] Religions- Participation à des services religieux. 

[8] Multinationales responsables: quand l’engagement des Églises irrite.

[9] Wer handelt, macht sich schmutzig.

[10] Referendum gegen «Ehe für alle» steht.

[11] Kontroverse um die «Ehe für alle» in der EVP

[12] IG feministische Theologinnen.

[13] Liebe ist Liebe – unabhängig vom Geschlecht.

[14] Le silence de l’Église.

[15] “Mais tous les citoyens sont concernés par les affaires de la cité et du bien commun. Cela vaut pour les individus comme pour les collectifs. Et donc, en tant qu’acteurs de la société, les Églises ont aussi la légitimité de se prononcer sur des questions d’ordre politique.” in Les partis politiques essaient aussi d’influencer les Églises.