Diplomat Looks to Religion to Bridge U.S.-German Rift

By JUDY DEMPSEY,
International Herald Tribune

New York Times

November 8, 2004

BERLIN, Nov. 7 - When President Bush was swept back into power for a second term on Tuesday, Karsten Voigt felt vindicated, at least intellectually.

Eighteen months ago, in an interview in his Berlin office, the German diplomat responsible for trying to keep relations between Washington and Berlin on an even keel kept referring to America's religious right.

"The fundamentalist Christian right is getting stronger and stronger," Mr. Voight said at the time. "Don't forget this."

As Mr. Voigt prepares to head across the Atlantic on Monday to gain some idea of the future direction of United States foreign policy, the 63-year-old veteran diplomat is far from despondent - despite differences between Berlin and Washington over Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Mr. Bush's conservative agenda.

Indeed, Mr. Voigt is in a combative mood, ready to discard conventional wisdom about how Washington and Berlin can rebuild the trans-Atlantic relationship that was so badly damaged by the war in Iraq. His view is that because the religious right is on the ascendancy in the United States, Germany is one of the best-placed countries in Europe to engage it.

"It may even surprise Germans, but we have the largest number of theologians in any European parliament," Mr. Voigt said in an interview on Friday. "The president of the Parliament, Wolfgang Thierse, is on the central committee of Catholic lay organizations. Of the four deputy presidents of the Parliament, two of them, a Green and a Social Democrat, studied theology. We have more people on the left side who are theologians than on the right side."

And if anyone thinks it is only Mr. Bush who calls his cabinet members and top advisers to morning prayer meetings before any session, Mr. Voigt is quick to dispel the myth that the United States is unique.

"You know there is a chapel in the Bundestag, or German Parliament," Mr. Voigt said. "About 100 parliamentary deputies are members of the prayer breakfast organization. So why shouldn't church people in Germany discuss issues with those people in the United States. I will try and bring both sides together even though we disagree on many issues."

Mr. Voigt concedes that chapels and prayer meetings are not enough to bridge the trans-Atlantic rift. Europeans, and for that matter, liberal East Coast Americans, have not forgotten how Mr. Bush divided the world into good and evil, or condemned anyone who was not with him in his war on terrorism.

Mr. Voigt said that sense of moral rectitude divides believers in the United States from those in Europe.

"The religious right in America combines patriotism with religious fundamentalism which is terra incognita for the Europeans," he said. "And second, the religious right in the United States has a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible that is totally unknown to Germany."

Mr. Voigt says this combination of patriotism and religious fundamentalism is anathema not only to secular people in Germany but also to the religious people.

Yet somehow, ways have to be found to establish some dialogue. That, for Mr. Voigt, is going to be a big problem.

His biggest concern is that Mr. Bush's victory could lead to a rise of anti-Europeanism in America and a rise of anti-Americanism by Europeans.

"As far as we are concerned, we have our elections, our democratic institutions," Mr. Voight said. "And we are convinced by our principles and values as others in the United States are convinced of theirs. The problem is that in Germany and Europe, you feel a sense of alienation from the conservative and domestic agenda in the United States. It will have an impact on how Europeans will see the United States. I see that the criticism of the Bush administration by Europeans might go in the direction of anti-Americanism."

Mr. Voigt says the view of Europe by non-liberal America is just as pessimistic. After spending much time talking to church leaders, attending meetings of Christian conservatives and talking to the Congress, Mr. Voigt senses a real shift in how this section of American society perceives the Europeans.

"We are seen as unethical, secular, cynical, having no values," he said. "I do fear a rise of anti-Europeanism."

Yet Mr. Voigt sticks doggedly to his hope that by bringing church leaders from both sides of the Atlantic together, some dialogue can be started.

His deepest conviction, however, is that Europe will be unable to exert any kind of sustained influence on the Bush administration if Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain does not play a greater role in Europe.

"Britain would be much more influential in the United States if Britain were to play a much bigger role in Europe," Mr. Voigt said.

But on that point, he exudes little hope.