On May 25, 2017, at one of Obama’s first public appearances since leaving office, the former president received a raucus rock star welcome by an adoring crowd of more than 80,000 people. Adopting the role of elder statesman and looking spruce and rested, he opened his remarks with a cheerful, “Guten tag.” A placard waved back, “Du bist ein Berliner” (“You are a Berliner”), a playful paraphrase JFK’s famous speech in 1963.
The theme for the day was, “Being Involved in Democracy: Taking on Responsibility Locally and Globally.” Chancellor Merkel and President Obama together spoke about God, faith and the state of the world. The podium discussion lasted for 90 minutes.
President Obama expressed his admiration for Chancellor Merkel and her “outstanding work.” He described her as one of his “favorite partners” during his two four-year terms in office. He particularly complimented her on her handling of the refugee crisis.
Obama warned of the dangers of embracing nationalism and closing borders. He said the digital era has created a new, interconnected world, one in which countries cannot afford to hide behind walls. He spoke in positive terms about America’s deep religiousness, but expressed concern about the perils of wanting to be uncompromising on matters of faith, when democracy is all about compromise.
He said that the true strength of faith lies in an ability to recognize the value of opinions other than our own. “Each of sees only a part of the truth,” he said, adding that self-doubt can sometimes be a good thing. This part of his speech resonated particularly strongly with a young woman, Natasha, who had come all the way from Chicago in the United States. She was also impressed with President Obama’s remarks that presidents were human, and therefore flawed. It reminded her that President Trump, President Obama’s successor, was only a person and should be allowed to make mistakes like anybody else.
Also attending this year’s event were Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib, Grand Imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque; Max Giesinger, German singer and songwriter; Melinda Gates, philanthropist and wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates; Amos Oz, Israeli author of titles including Judas and How to Cure a Fanatic; Thabo Makgoba, Archbishop of Cape Town; and Ottmar Edenhofer, German climate change researcher.
Every two years, tens of thousands of Christians take part in Kirchentag, literally “Church Congress”, dubbed by some as the ‘Protestant form of Woodstock’. This year’s Kirchentag was special because it coincided with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The significance of Kirchentag 2017 was underlined by the fact that President Obama had been invited to the celebration in May 2016, a full year prior to the event.
An unabashed celebration of Protestantism, Kirchentag has earned the respect of international leaders in politics and in the church, and attracts world-class speakers on every subject in the programme of events. The president of Kirchenetag, Christina Aus der Au, said that Protestantism had shaped nations and societies all over the world.
First held in Hanover in 1949 with approximately 5,000 tickets sold. It has always leaned towards the integration of theological, social and political themes, and has never shirked its duty to discuss sensitive issues. By 1954, ticket sales had swollen to 60,000. From 1956 onwards, the festival has been held every two years. This year’s crowd was estimated at over 140,000, a testament to the significance of the anniversary of the Reformation, but also to President Obama’s popularity.
The last time Kirchentag was held in Berlin was the year the wall came down in 1989. This was a poignant occasion for Ms. Merkel because she was in Berlin that night.