BERLIN -- Before he became Germany's president, the ordained minister wanted a word with his bishop. Which is why Joachim Gauck showed up unexpectedly last Friday at the Mecklenburg church synod in Plau am See.

It was his last public appearance before the vote. Although he hasn't worked as a pastor for the past 20 years, Gauck spoke like a man of the cloth. "What nurtures the soul is linked to the roots that we, as Evangelical Christians, represent," he said, adding that the most important time of his life was when he built up a parish and defended the faith.

But the country's president-to-be wasn't the only one making references to Protestantism. The last speech Angela Merkel made before the assembly met to choose the country's next president was about political Protestantism.

On Saturday, one day before the federal assembly met, the Evangelical Task Force (EAK) of the Union parties – as the conservative Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU) are known – celebrated its 60th anniversary in Siegen (Westphalia) with a church service and reception. Angela Merkel attended.

Mission accomplished?

The theme of the EAK meeting was "evangelical responsibility," but it could just as well have taken place under the motto: "Mission accomplished!" When it was founded in 1952 in the then Catholic-dominated CDU, the EAK was a preserve for Protestants. Six decades later the Protestants have taken over not only the party but the whole republic.

There's Gauck the former pastor, and Merkel, a pastor's daughter. There's also the CDU's general secretary, Hermann Gröhe, who was for years a member of Germany's Evangelical Church Council. There's the Union chair, Volker Kauder, and last but not least Christine Lieberknecht, prime minister of the State of Thuringia, who was also formerly a Protestant minister.

The number of Evangelicals was particularly noticeable during the search phase for the new president. Along with Gauck, Wolfgang Huber was also short-listed, and Margot Käßmann and Green politician Katrin Göring-Eckardt were nominated. That makes one former Protestant minister who won out over two former chairs of Germany's Evangelical Church Council, a Council president and the wife of a minister.

It's a coincidence, but it illustrates a trend: Protestantism is playing a role in German politics now as it never has before. Politics being the operative word -- because socially, the Evangelical Church is on the decline. In the country that spawned the Reformation, there are only some 24 million Protestants, not even a third of the population. And never have so few Protestants attended church: in 2010, on average 3.6% of baptized Protestants attended church services.

Protestant churches in the former East Germany, from whose ranks so many in top political positions come, have taken a particularly strong hit: they were never able to recover from the damage inflicted on it by Socialism. The Mecklenburg synod that Gauck attended last Friday is the last of the bunch. Nevertheless, the democratic structures of the Evangelical Church have proven a good testing ground for future political involvement – at least recently.

In the early days of the German republic, educated folk believed that Protestantism was one of the things holding Germany back. Sixty years ago, the founder of the CDU's EAK, Hermann Ehlers, complained to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer not about Catholic dominance but about his own milieu: "In German Protestantism, we have had the idea for much too long that we can easily criticize mayors and […] members of parliament -- and that we have the right not to cooperate or share responsibility so that we can supposedly be more neutral and objective in our fault-finding."

"More northern, more eastern, and more Protestant"

The leading German church historian, Christoph Markschies, analyzed the Evangelical march through politics and particularly the CDU as follows: "Protestant theology has finally overcome its aversion to a Christian party." Formerly, only left-leaning pastors were involved in Socialist politics; conservatives played no political role at all.

The Protestant base still leans somewhat left. The difference is that the CDU no longer frightens them. When Angela Merkel was EAK chair 20 years ago, she once wrote angrily against the red-green mainstream: "Watch out, dear Evangelical Church, we're Christians too!"

Now, Union politicians like Merkel or Minister of Defense Thomas de Maizière find a very receptive public when they speak at church assemblies. The famous prediction of former CDU General Secretary Volker Rühe has come to pass: the CDU would soon become "more northern, more eastern, and more Protestant," he said in 1990.

On the other hand, things aren't going so well for the Catholics. Although for the first time since the Reformation, there are more Catholics in Germany than Protestants, and they go to church nearly twice as often and make up the majority of the members of the CDU and CSU parties, leadership figures are lacking – or, at least, that is the public perception. Even the Pope's visit to the German Parliament, arranged by its Catholic president, Norbert Lammert, didn't do anything to change the situation.

Maybe the new president is already aware of the problem. After his nomination, Gauck and a few staff members moved into some temporary office space – in the same building as the offices of the Catholic German Bishops' Conference in Berlin.

Read the original story in German

Photo - Aleksandr Zykov