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The rise of family values in Angela Merkel's new Germany

Angela Merkel’s new Germany bristles with contradictions. On the one hand it is highly secular, fiercely focused on individual freedoms, satisfactions, and affluence. Yet at Easter, all the bookshops have been show-casing, would you believe it, Confirmation! I attended two packed Confirmation services, one of a young relative from a village in Lower Saxony. The whole community was there, and the celebrations went on for days.

A visitor like myself also notes enviously the generosity of State Governments to cultural programs and research centres. Yet the universities are tottering on the edge of financial collapse, especially in the poorer, eastern provinces, and students and young academics are increasingly restive. For the last three months I’ve been living among an elite group of young scholars. Few have any hope of a secure job until they are forty! They have to become entrepreneurs, inventing research programs for themselves, surviving from one temporary ‘project’ to the next. There is virtually no ‘Mittelbau’. One is either a lofty Professor or a precariously situated ‘Assistent.’

Angela MerkelGermany’s schools have also registered humiliatingly low scores in a recent international study. At the Rütli school in Berlin, attended largely by immigrants, teachers were so demoralised and menaced by the total indiscipline they encountered that they went to the media and poured out their woes. And then there is the demographic crisis. Women, especially professional, academic, career women are structurally inhibited from having children. Since 1965 the number of live births has almost halved.

In response, phrases such as ‘leading norms’, or ‘family values’ are bandied around. In part, this is a conservative reaction against modern pluralism and against ethnic, particularly Turkish, enclaves. The building of mosques can be fiercely opposed in the suburbs. Reflection about citizenship is complacent, reflecting a middle-class perspective. But the recognition is growing that neither a society nor its schools and families can exist without some integrating vision. Educationalists point out that many families have degenerated into ‘well organized supply centres’, with scant communication, discussion, or shared experience.

Ursula von der LeyenA formidable polarizing figure is the dynamic Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Ursula von der Leyen, (47) , whose seven children figure prominently in publicity photos. Legislation introduced by her, and to come into force next year, will provide couples who are both working with ‘parent money’. 68% of the mother’s salary will be paid by the State for 12 months. Whether the legislation will actually promote births remains to be seen. Women academics who rarely enjoy paid positions in their best child-bearing years, will for the most part be ineligible.

In mid April the debate exploded. Von der Leyen, herself Catholic, met with Cardinal Sterzinsky and the Lutheran Bishop Margot Kassmann. Both churches have a key role in early childhood education. The Minister’s call for a return to specifically Christian values in education went well beyond this reason for meeting. Predictably, outrage followed. The influential weekly, Der Spiegel, attacked the speech and meeting as a crusade for church and children that threatened the constitutional separation of church and state. Reasonably enough, Jewish and Islamic representatives felt marginalised. Many commentators, including Protestants and Catholics, asked whether the churches were being used as political tools.

On Becoming Un-GermanSubsequently other religious groups have been assured their views will be taken into account. Yet the initiative, and the controversy that followed, are a sign of the times. The education system, from pre-school to university, desperately needs to be changed, as do prevalent assumptions about the role of women. Mothers who attempt to continue with their career can still be dismissed scornfully as 'Rabenmütter' (black crows).

Hardly, of course, a uniquely German problem! Yet if Germany can develop a genuine discussion about how communal and caring values can be reasserted within an individualistic economy, and what Christian churches might have to contribute, it may be of more than local benefit.



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