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"We're much better off today than we were 10 years ago"

A conversation about the Secular Bus Campaign, old successes and new challenges

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The bus campaign visiting the "old Fritz" in Potsdam, who once said that everyone should be happy in their own way

The Secular Bus Campaign travelled through Germany for almost four weeks to promote the separation of state and church and the constitutional imperative of the worldview neutral state. The tour was accompanied by a considerable organizational and financial investment. Was the effort worth it? The Humanistic Press Service (hpd - Humanistischer Pressedienst) spoke with Michael Schmidt-Salomon, who travelled the entire route of the Secular Bus Campaign. for the permission to include the original article on the gbs website. We appreciate the hpd's authorization to include the original article on the gbs website.)
 

Michael, from May 4 to May 30, you travelled to almost 30 places with the campaign bus and almost every day you were part of an evening event in another city. Was it as exhausting as that seems? 

We philosophers are said to live in an ivory tower – not in a bus or on the street. And I must confess that my absolute favourite place is at home behind my desk, which I am reluctant to leave. In this respect, I had a lot of respect for the bus campaign. But the tour wasn't as exhausting as I feared. This was due to the many friendly and clever people we met on the way – and of course also to our fantastic team, which was able to cope with any problem, no matter how difficult.

What problems?

We were prepared in advance for some problems, such as assembly authorities interfering with the requested locations for the bus. We could handle that. More stressful were the unexpected difficulties that occurred during the tour: painful injuries, brazen thieves and cumbersome bus breakdowns. One time our oldtimer bus stopped in the middle of the night at an intersection in Augsburg because the hydraulic pump had failed. But even that didn't stop us in the end...

  
"The big effect comes afterwards"

Were you disappointed that, despite the enormous efforts by the team, the media reported very little about the bus campaign

One can only be disappointed if one has indulged in deceptions. To be honest, from the very beginning I didn't expect the media to embrace the bus campaign on a large scale. One can only be disappointed if one has indulged in deceptions. To be honest, I didn't expect the media to embrace the bus campaign on a large scale from the very beginning. I was even a little surprised that Stern, Hannoversche Allgemeine, Neues Deutschland, Südkurier, Junge Welt as well as some radio stations reported in quite detail about the tour. In addition, the publication of EXIT, the anthology published by Helmut Ortner to accompany the bus campaign, was preceded by a considerable two page publication in the Frankfurter Rundschau, as well as by preliminary reports on our events in several newspapers, such as the book reading with Kristina Hänel in Nuremberg. More was realistically not to be expected. If we had achieved a really strong media response, this would even have been a sign that the bus campaign was not needed after all.

Why?

Well, the campaign had a primary goal: we wanted to draw attention to the fact that the "political class", to which journalists also belong, culpably ignores the topic "separation of state and church". It would have been almost a refutation of our central concern if we had not encountered any reluctance from the media with the bus campaign.

Beispielbild
The bus campaign in front of the Weimar National Theatre, in which the separation of state and church was decided in 1919 (Photo: MSS)

Let us get this straight. You suppose that a greater relevance for the media of the bus campaign issue would have indicated that the issue is no longer all that relevant?

Exactly. Of course, the topic of "worldview neutrality" is important for the extension of an open society, but it is not a mainstream topic, which is why we cannot expect to be able to ride on a big wave. By the way, this is the lot of all pioneer movements: The big effect comes, if at all, only afterwards.

Does that bother you?

No, on the contrary. It would not be a challenge to swim with the cultural mainstream on the zeitgeist wave. If you want to change something, you have to set counter-accents. That's why we couldn't simply repeat the theme of the first bus campaign this year. If every other German cabaret artist has religion-critical routines in their program, this is no longer an issue that we need to deal with primarily...

But what would you do if the subject of the current bus campaign, the adherence to the constitutional requirement of the worldview neutrality of the state, was at some point generally accepted?

Well, then we'd have to be one step ahead again in that moment. That is precisely the ambition of the Giordano Bruno Stiftung: as a think tank for humanism and enlightenment, we cannot follow the mainstream, but must promote developments that are not yet anchored in society.

That sounds a little elitist..

... is not elitist, however, but avant-garde.

What's the difference?

Elites try to reinforce the status quo and distance themselves from the masses of the less privileged. The avant-garde, on the other hand, wants to change the status quo and strengthen the rights of all people. That's pretty much the exact opposite.

  
Comparison of the bus campaigns 2009 and 2019

 

We would like to talk about media reactions again: Is it misleading to think that the first bus campaign ten years ago had more coverage

In fact, the campaign in 2009 was initially covered more in detail because the topic was popular after the so-called "Crusade of the Atheists", and the German bus campaign was perceived as part of an international movement. However, the interest of the media dropped quite quickly after the start of the tour. It is clear that we were able to reach many more people with this year's campaign both on the street and with our events than in 2009. 500 people attended my discussion with Volker Beck in the Audimax of the University of Kiel, our ceremonial act on "70 years of the Basic Law" in Karlsruhe was fully booked up to the last seat, at some events such as the one in Düsseldorf guests had to be standing because there were not enough seats, even in tranquil Constance the theatre hall was crowded, which nobody really expected. In 2009 we would not have been able to afford so many events financially and organizationally, let alone to fill the rooms. All in all, the 2019 bus campaign was much larger than that of 2009, and we won't be able to assess its aftermath until a few years from now. Even the first bus campaign took some time to unfold its effects.

At that time the campaign bus was accompanied by a Christian bus, which responded to the slogan "There is (with probability bordering on certainty) no God" with the question "... and if there is one?". The fact that the 2009 Christian bus followed the Secular Bus Campaign gave a whole new meaning to the term "Christian persecution". Have there been similar reactions from outraged Christians this year?

Not really. In Saarbrücken religious notes were sticked to our bus overnight and the diocese of Trier reacted quite harshly to the campaign in a press release, but overall the churches held back very much. This also corresponds to their current communication strategy: they try to play down the topic. Christian politicians are now also pursuing this strategy. During our Germany tour an interview with Annegret Kamp-Karrenbauer was published, in which she absolutely insists that there is no such thing as "Christian politics".

So in the meantime even politicians of the Christian parties are trying to give the impression that they are acting worldview neutral. Is this a success for the secular movement or rather another danger

Both. The fact that Christian Democratic politicians feel compelled to make such statements is, on the one hand, a success that proves that even in these circles there is now a hint of problem awareness. On the other hand, of course, we must not be blinded by such trite words. As we have shown in our campaign brochure "Farewell to the Church Republic", citizens' freedoms are still considerably curtailed by religious laws. Only if the political demands that we formulated in our brochure were fulfilled could one seriously claim that there is no longer any Christian policy in Germany.

  
Old successes and new challenges

Will it ever happen?

At least there is a lot in motion right now: The "Sterbehilfeverhinderungsparagraph" ("Euthanasia Prevention Paragraph") 217 of the German Criminal Code could fall after the remarkable hearing before the Federal Constitutional Court, the church labour law has come under severe disrepute because the European courts no longer allow such a form of discrimination, the state payments to the churches have meanwhile become embarrassing even for church representatives, and the German laws on abortion could become obsolete through the proceedings against Kristina Hänel. Many politicians seem to gradually become aware that the complicity of state and church, which goes far beyond any constitutional cooperation, will no longer work. However, there are increasingly political forces that can counteract this secularization process with all their forces and use considerable resources to do so.

What do you mean?

A year ago a remarkable study was published at EU level on the so-called "Agenda Europe", an international association of right-wing populists who seek to reverse the wheel of history. Although "Agenda Europe" is massively funded by religious forces, especially the Vatican, its central communication strategy is to strictly avoid religious arguments and instead use the language of political opponents, especially women's rights activists, LGBT activists, and secularists. That is why this right-wing populist strategy is essentially about levering out actual human rights (such as the self-determination rights of unintentionally pregnant women) by referring to supposed human rights (such as the alleged rights of unborn life). Last but not least, we have defended ourselves against this insidious enterprise with the bus campaign, which is why our central slogan "Church state? No thank you" aimed to make the hidden intentions of the right-wing populists explicit.

 
Worldview neutrality and the agenda of right-wing populists

Are the European right-wing populists really that religious

Some of them undoubtedly are, but the majority is probably not. Many right-wing populists use religion primarily for the identitary distinction of their own group from "the foreigners" and only plead for a "rearmament of Christianity" because they think they are thus prepared for the "cultural struggle" against the supposed "Muslim invaders". We have heard such identitary, right-wing populist positions again and again during our tour, especially in East Germany...

What did you oppose?

First of all, we corrected the numerical proportions. In view of the real ratio, there can be no discussion of a Muslim invasion at all, especially since many Muslims are by no means as pious as they are often accused of. We have, of course, also referred to the constitutional requirement of worldview neutrality. For it should be clear: Only a state that acts as an impartial referee on the playing field of religions and worldviews has the necessary credibility to enforce the rules of the game that apply to everyone. This means that anyone who does not want the Muslim Brotherhood or DITIB (the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, TN) to secure special religious rights and to intervene massively in German politics must not let the Christian churches get away with this either.

And? Did that convince people

Of course not all of them, but some of them did give in during the conversation. However, it will be difficult to initiate real changes with individual conversations on the street. It was much more important that we had many constructive background discussions with journalists, politicians, and lawyers during the tour. Our stop in Karlsruhe alone, with the very high-quality festival by the ifw (Institute for Worldview Law, TN) in the evening, almost justified the expense of the bus campaign.

   

"This has enormously increased our political leverage."

Would you agree with us that the founding of the Institute for Worldview Law was perhaps the most important secular innovation of recent years?

Yes. The ifw is doing a great job - not least thanks to the tireless efforts of our coordinator Jacqueline Neumann! Currently, the Institute is involved in more than a dozen model proceedings at national and European level, it was involved in the constitutional complaints against § 217 of the German Criminal Code (StGB) and is also currently advising Kristina Hänel in her proceedings under § 219a. The enormous legal and political competence of the ifw advisory board is an important resource for strengthening the constitutional requirement of worldview neutrality. This has increased our political leverage enormously. Thanks to the ifw and the increased number of friends and supporters of the gbs, we are undoubtedly in a much better position today than we were 10 years ago. This is also easy to reconstruct quantitatively: in 2009 the Giordano Bruno Stiftung did not even have 2000 supporting members, today there are more than 10,000. 10 years ago there were just two gbs regional groups, today there are over 50. Our annual budget has increased fivefold since 2009 through donations, inheritances, and endowments, and the foundation capital has even more than thirtyfold increased. Compared to the churches we are still poor, but at least we can now finance some important initiatives with our funds. As I said, we could not have carried out a campaign with so many events in 2009. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to thank the many people who have made the current bus campaign possible.

Beispielbild

The team with "Schlussmachen jetzt" fan "Bernd das Brot" in Erfurt (Photo: MSS)

Feel free...

I'm afraid this is going to be a little longer, though. First of all, I would like to thank everyone who donated to the bus campaign via betterplace.org or the gbs account. These direct donations alone raised about 40,000 euros - just under half the cost we had budgeted for the campaign. The International League of Non-Religious and Atheists (IBKA) also supported the campaign as a premium partner with 10,000 euros, so that the gbs will probably only have a little more than 30,000 euros in residual costs. The fact that the overall costs of the campaign could be kept relatively low was not least due to the great commitment of our regional groups and cooperation partners, who organized the events on site. I couldn't even begin to name the most important participants here, so I would like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to everyone!

Special thanks, of course, go to the closer campaign team: to David Farago, who was the technical director of the campaign, found wonderful locations for the bus and had to deal with the often very unwilling administrative authorities; to Maximilian Steinhaus, who besides many discussions on the street operated the social networks and tweeted his hands sore; to Peder Iblher, who developed the design of our campaign and perfectly laid out the bus, the website, the posters, flyers, brochures, and much more; to Elke Held, who tirelessly pulled all the strings for the campaign as gbs managing director; to Evelin Frerk, who took a lot of great pictures on the tour and provided us with the memorable photos for the campaign posters; to Luisa Lenneper, who not only discussed with many pedestrians, but also kept our documents in order; to Gisa Bodenstein, who not only helped with the street work incessantly, but also reported on the tour almost daily for the hpd; to Sabrina Vierke, our grandiose bus driver, who competently navigated us through all the tricky situations; and of course to Herbert and Bibi Steffen, who supported the bus campaign from the foundation's headquarters in Oberwesel with words and deeds.

Another fantastic feature was the engagement of the gbs Rhein-Neckar, which provided a much photographed attraction on the tour with the "money hamster with poor church mouse" designed by Bernd Kammermeier. Of course I would also like to thank all those who took part in our events or joined the campaign team temporarily, especially Carsten Frerk, who enlightened us humorously and competently about the "brand church" along and off the bus route and gave us important tips as one of the co-initiators of the first bus campaign; Helmut Ortner, who presented his EXIT book in Trier, Mainz, and Augsburg despite an overcrowded schedule; Philipp Möller and Tanja Baudson, who discussed evidence-based politics in Berlin; Jacqueline Neumann, who spoke in Cologne about the worldview neutral state; Kristina Hänel, who read from her diary of an "abortion physician" in Nuremberg; Thomas Darnstädt and Ingrid Matthäus-Maier, who made the ifw ceremony in Karlsruhe a very special experience; Ricarda Hinz and Nadine Pungs, who conducted numerous interviews for the forthcoming major film documentary of the bus campaign; Florian Chefai, Andreas Kielmann, and Bruder Spaghettus, who supported the campaign team during the tour; Nicolai Sprekels, who helped prepare the campaign and supplied us with chilled drinks at the last stop in Berlin; Falko Pietsch for the short-term accommodation at his V-Café in Dresden and the most delicious vegan burgers in the world - as well as last but not least Chris Paulson, who spontaneously agreed to accompany us on the bus tour in Frankfurt with his religion-critical songs and whose song "Don´t pray for me / Free from Religion" has burned itself so deeply into my brain that I will probably never forget it again. In this list I have certainly forgotten some people who were also important for the success of the bus campaign. I hope they won't hold that against me. After the many encounters of the last weeks my neuronal circuits are just a little overloaded...

I'm sure anyone can understand that. One last question: Do you think there will be another Secular Bus Campaign in 10 years

I very much hope that something like this will no longer be necessary in 2029. But as the saying goes: Never say never...

Thank you very much for the interview!

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