Growing militancy and political activism within West Germany's powerful Protestant Evangelical Church has injected a potent element into the country's already turbulent political arena, putting some clergy at odds with prominent Social Democrats, who traditionally have looked to the Protestant church as their religious wellspring.
Of crucial importance in the controversy is opposition with the church to a new generation of NATO missiles -- a key part of future alliance defense strategy in Western Europe.
The missiles were a chief target of a four-day gathering in Hamburg last week that included 120,000 leaders and members of the Evangelical Church -- West Germany's major Protestant federation, grouping the Lutheran, United and Reformed churches and representing nearly half of the country's population.
While dramatizing the degree of political unrest in West Germany today, the conference, which was organized by independent church groups and which took on aspects of a sort of religious Woodstock, also underscored an important feature of the peace movement here -- the support it draws from religious argument and from some in the Protestant church.
Whether tutoring pacifists, solacing housing protesters or blessing environmentalists, church officials have been frequently in evidence in West Germany recently.
Religion-based opposition to the NATO-missiles decision has parallels to the Mormon Church's challenge in the United States against plans to deploy the MX missile in Utah and Nevada. Chancellor Helmut Schmidt made the comparison this weekend and warned that a Reagan administration decision to put the Myx missiles someplace else would damage West Germany's ability to keep its NATO missile commitment.
In April, both Schmidt and President Karl Carstens -- members of opposing political parties -- attacked Protestant church officials, accusing them of misusing their office by interfering in politics and siding with the antimissile protest.
Senior church officials, who appear to have less quarrel with the government than many local pastors do, see it as bad form for religious officers to be cloaking themselves in the authority of their parish positions when preaching opposition to official policies, but they say the clergy have a right to carry out political duties.
The West German church is particularly sensitive to its political responsibilities as a result of the Nazi past. "We have been strongly influenced by the experience under the Third Reich, by the sense that the church then did not do enough when the government was developing," explained Cornelius van Heyl, chairman of the Protestant synod and a church specialist on security issues. "We feel we have a responsiblity now when dangerous and inhuman developments appear."
To some church officials, the new NATO missiles appear to be just such a development. The weapons are viewed not simply as a further explnsion of the arms race but as an especially menacing one since, it is argued, they could allow the superpowers to limit a nuclear war to Europe.
"We are in a difficult position of conflicting opinion, misunderstanding, accusations and tension," said Heyl. "Naturally, the church is looking for new answers to express what the common basis for belief is."
Peace groups have gone to the Bible to find one of their favorite arguments for renouncing the NATO decision: Christ's Sermon on the Mount, which advises turning the other cheek to aggressors.
Bonn officials say that while Christ's words may be an appropriate guidepost for individual behavior, the sermon is an inadequate prescription for political leaders who must bear responsibility for the security of nations.
Government officials are especially sensitive to church participation in the peace movement because it has given it institutional legitimacy, making more difficult the government's attempts to dismiss opposition to the missiles as youthful idealism, radical protest or political opportunism.
Schmidt used an interview in April with a West German Protestant publication to launch his drive against the antimissile campaigners. He said that is the Western allies had turned the other cheek during the Stalin era, Soviet divisions would now be stationed along the Rhine, which runs through the central part of West Germany.
Last week, debating critics in a television broadcast, Schmidt said the Sermon on the Mount has practical limitations.
"You can't make is so easy for yourselves," he said, "that you say, 'I will put up with someone else building up arms and missiles that are directed against my town and against other towns, I will stand back on the ground that God will look after me.' You can't do that."
ywith Protestants divided or uncertain on where to stand in the debate on the nuclear arms race, senior church officials have raised the possibility the West German Protestant church may reconsider its 22-year-old position on nuclear weapons, a position so evenhanded as to be noncommittal.
The policy was issued as a guideline for military pastors by a committee the concluded that both opposition and support of nuclear armament, provided such arms were for deterrence, were allowable Christian ways to peace.
Heyl has said that the current controversy could prompt a review of this position during the annual Protestant church synod in November.
Relations between church and state in Germany have a long history of contention mixed with cooperation.
In a trade-off of functions that blurs the constitutional independence of church and state, the government collects taxes for support of German churches while the churches operate hospitals, schools and nursing homes.
Protestants and Catholics each claim about 43 percent of the West German population. Traditionally, the two have differed in their approach to public policy. The Catholics tend to pursue specific policy aims, such as opposing abortion, obscenity and divorce and favoring religious schools. The Protestants have keyed their political activity to such broader issues as German reunification, labor-management relations and civil liberties.
The government's feud is chiefly with Protestant clergy who have traditionally been friend and religious tutor of West Germany's ruling Social Democratic Party rather than with Catholics, who historically have opposed the Socialists.
Schmidt, a Lutheran, has asked why recent youth revolts have occurred mostly in Protestant cities. He suggested that a Protestant unbringing may be "less suited" to raising children with a sense of tradition.
Protestant officials like to recall the welcome they got from an earlier Socialist governmewnt when in the 1960s the church supported Bonn's detente policy with Eastern Europe. Church officials say the government appears to favor church involvement only when pastors side with official policy.
The church's recent activism has been interpreted by some critics as an effort by some clergy to appear more relevant in a period of declining church attendance.
Heyl disputed this, saying: "The theme of peace does not make the church full. Just the opposite. It causes tension and that is not popular." c