A Brief Look at the Böckenförde Dilemma

The former German constitutional judge Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde posed a dilemma by asking the question of whether the liberal, secularized state lives by normative presuppositions which it cannot guarantee itself. Here the concept of social capital also comes to the fore. 

On 24 February 2019 the former German constitutional judge Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde died at the age of 88. During his lifetime he became famous for a dilemma he posed in the 1960s by stating that the free, liberal and secularized state exists because of prerequisites that it cannot guarantee itself. It is commonly known as the Böckenförde Dilemma. Basically, this dilemma refers to the difficulty of a secular state to create social capital.

A Definition of Social Capital

We can conceive of social capital as follows: there are interpersonal relationships, strong ties and / or networks of individuals that share values, norms and a sense of identity. From these tight-knit networks arise understanding, sympathy, goodwill, willingness for cooperation and norms of trustworthiness and reciprocity. Accordingly, social capital ensures the effective functioning of a group.

Undoubtedly, the extent of social capital depends on whether the members of a particular group have a similar cultural background. However, at this point, we should not neglect the ethnic dimension. That means, when focusing on social capital, we need to consider a group’s ethnic composition.

Broadly speaking, social capital constitutes a significant factor in society. If everything is equal, a community with a higher degree of social capital will surely outcompete an opposing group with less social capital because the latter lacks cohesion and internal trust. Let’s now return to the Böckenförde Dilemma and briefly look at the question of its relevance nowadays.

The Relevance of the Böckenförde Dilemma

So, does the liberal, secularized state live by normative presuppositions which it cannot guarantee itself? Many will probably agree that the obvious answer is: yes, it does. Today,  the free, secular state really exists on the basis of certain presuppositions or foundations. These are, in turn, laid by components we associate with the concept of social capital including shared values, customs, norms as well as a sense of cultural identity.

More precisely, the liberal, secularized state relies on indigenous, ideological, ethical, philosophical and / or religious traditions, which are collectively binding. Eventually, such traditions not only lead to cooperation, cohesion and trust but also to the working of society. Thus, the Böckenförde Dilemma is still relevant. In this connection, questions regarding the role of Christianity, churches, religions or other traditional institutions take centre stage.


Angenendt, Arnold. Toleranz und Gewalt: Das Christentum zwischen Bibel und Schwert. 2nd ed. Münster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2009.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. London, New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

Murray, Douglas. The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.