Secular Politics of Sexuality and Christian Churches: Supporting, Undermining or Boycotting State Goals in Policy Implementation?

Published September 16, 2019 by Dr Eva-Maria Euchner

Secular Politics of Sexuality and Christian Churches: Supporting, Undermining or Boycotting State Goals in Policy Implementation?

Dr Eva-Maria Euchner reflects on the challenges Christian Churches are faced with in a secular age. She is particularly interested in the response strategies of Christian Churches on secular politics of sexuality.

The legalisation of same-sex marriage, sex work and the introduction of comprehensive abortion rights are fitting cases in point. All these reforms have in common that they challenge fundamental religious principles in terms of marriage, family and sexuality. Not only fundamentalists, but also more moderate, so to say 'socially conservative', religious groups – such as the Catholic Church and some strands of Protestant and the Lutheran Churches in Europe – have a hard time in dealing with so-called morality policies (Engeli et al. 2012, Euchner 2019, Hennig 2012). So, the main questions are: (1) How do Christian Churches in Europe respond to secular politics of sexuality? And (2) how can we explain varying responses among Christian actors and with regard to different morality policies?

An in-depth case study on three different morality policies related to questions of gender and sexuality (abortion, prostitution and same-sex marriage) and two religious denominations (Catholic and Protestant Churches) in Germany shows that Christian actors have very different response strategies: they support, undermine or even boycott state goals via different activities. For instance, the Catholic Church and some Protestant Churches boycott state goals by rejecting to bless same-sex couples in religious services. Some churches undermine state policies by denying to offer abortions in religious hospitals, or by offering counselling activity based on religious norms for women in need (e.g. emphasising the obligation to protect the unborn life). At the same time, Protestant welfare agencies such as the Diakonie and the related religious NGOs offer counselling for sex workers (e.g. on questions related to pensions, health care etc.) and lobby for more permissive policy reforms in terms of prostitution.

We also discover that the concrete engagement of the Christian Churches in the policy implementation stage depends very much on the legal room for intervention provided by policy makers and the congruence in policy goals between policy makers and the church. This means that the stronger a religious group rejects a state policy and the more room for intervention it is offered (e.g. via the legal responsibilisation of churches in the welfare sector), the easier it becomes for the religious group to undermine and boycott state goals in terms of secular morality issues.

In other words, not only fundamentalist religious actors but also more moderate religious Christian groups in Europe are seriously challenged by increasingly secular politics of sexuality, and that they try to compensate losses in policy decision-making through different activities in the implementation phase. However, these activities may also change over time because Christian churches adjust their positions towards morality issue through an intensive internal deliberation process. A prominent case in point is the discussion on same-sex marriage within the Protestant churches in Germany. In the last decades, several subnational churches liberalised their position and now offer religious marriage for same-sex couples within churches. The current discussion in the Catholic Church on sexuality and gender due to the scandal on the sexual abuse of minors and nuns may not immediately change value positions (i.e. on homosexuality), but may seriously disrupt existing belief systems and hence, in the long-run, eventually allow reform processes. An important conclusion of this study is that religious groups are not static organisations. They undergo internal reform processes, allowing them to stay in touch with an increasingly secular society that distances itself from regular religious services but often still believing in God (cf. the concept of 'vicarious religion'; Davies 2010).

Dr. Eva-Maria Euchner was a Visiting Researcher at the Woolf Institute in March and April 2019 and presented a full paper on the topic at the conference Strictly Observant Religion, Gender and the State organised by Dr Ed Kessler and Dr Tobias Müller. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Geschwister-Scholl-Institute for Political Science, Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich. Eva-Maria just published a monograph titled Morality Politics in a Secular Age: Strategic Parties and Divided Governments in Europe with Palgrave Macmillan. For more details on her CV as well as her scientific interests, visit:

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