(RNS) While Americans watch Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fighting to the finish in a noisy and polarized campaign, Germans are quietly debating their own presidential election in far different terms.
Among the names put forward as candidates are two leading Protestant bishops — one of them a woman — and even a respected Muslim writer.
That’s not the only way the presidential election in Berlin next February will be different from the American contest.
German presidents are figureheads without real power, nominated by the parties in Parliament and indirectly elected by its members along with representatives of the state assemblies. They spend a lot of time meeting visiting dignitaries, addressing conferences and cutting ribbons.
But one job qualification that stands out is the idea that a president should be a moral leader willing and able to speak about the state of the nation’s soul. Pundits like to call this the “preacher in chief” aspect of the job.
The current president, Joachim Gauck, fits the bill perfectly. As a Lutheran pastor in former East Germany, he learned how to deliver a rousing sermon.
Gauck was part of the dissident movement that forced open the Berlin Wall in 1989. He spent the next decade as commissioner for the archives of the former Stasi secret police, exposing the crimes of the fallen communist regime and examining the moral dilemmas many East Germans faced during the dictatorship.
Two of his most respected predecessors — Gustav Heinemann (1969-1974) and Richard von Weizsäcker (1984-1994) — were both gifted orators and active lay leaders in the Evangelical Church in Germany, the country’s main federation of Protestant churches, known as EKD.
So when Gauck announced in the summer he would not seek re-election, one of the first possible successors named was Wolfgang Huber, the former Protestant bishop of Berlin and chairman of the EKD from 2003 to 2009.
He declined the offer, the third time he has been asked since retiring from his church offices.