In this case, Swedish clergy seem to have been more passive and open than those in other nations to politicians’ attempts to introduce liberal or de facto anti-Christian elements into the church. Rodney Stark and Laurence Iannaccone even state that this process in Sweden was mutual, to the extent that many Swedish priests actually favored the process: “In fact, many Swedish clergy became strong supporters of state socialism. Moreover, they acquiesced when control of the Church passed into the hands of avowed atheists.”
David Thurfjell suggests a supply-oriented explanation to Swedish particularism: The dominance of the state Lutheran church created a lack of competition, which resulted in the “product” never really being adapted to demand, and therefore losing its attraction.
Still, for the market model to hold, we would have to find more concrete evidence of how the church was shaped in a certain direction. We find one in the political sphere.
The Social Democrats and the state takeover of the church
Few people would dispute that the Social Democratic Party’s long hegemony over politics has had a huge impact on twentieth-century Sweden. With the exception of a few brief periods, the Social Democrats ruled Sweden for more or less a whole century, mostly alone, sometimes as the dominant party in coalition governments. One of their most successful (their opponents might say devastating) ideas was to connect the individual so strongly to the state that all other bonds – to church, family, and traditions – faded away. Historians Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh have labeled this ideology“Swedish state individualism.”
When looking at the high degree of Swedish secularization, the question arises how this could come about in a nation that 150 years ago was a very pious one, in which Christianity played a central part in everyone’s life. My view is that the strong relationship between the Lutheran state church and the secular-oriented Social Democratic Party was highly influential in this development. Rather than opposing the secularizing forces, the Church of Sweden in some ways actually enhanced secularization, not least because of the strong pressure from the Social Democratic Party. This point of view is also reflected in international literature, where secularization scholar David Martin argues that this relationship in Scandinavia has had a crucial significance to secularization in Scandinavia, and states that this “symbiosis of Lutheranism and social democracy is a pre-eminent case.”
The Social Democrats’ first impetus toward the Church of Sweden was to separate the church and state. However, in the 1930s, influential Social Democrats turned to another track to reach their goals. Arthur Engberg wished to “de-Christianise the church through its connection with the state” and wrote that the church should be transformed into “an atheistic general religiosity.” Later, as minister of ecclesiastical affairs he suggested in a famous one-liner in parliament that the church should be transformed into “the royal bureau of bliss” (“kungliga salighetsverket”). Vicar and Social Democratic parliamentarian Harald Hallén presented a program for a democratic folk church – a folkkyrka, governed according to the same pattern as secular assemblies. This strategy seems to have worked efficiently over time, putting the market model into practice by changing the “supply,” rebuilding the church on a foundation quite different from Reformation doctrines.
When Swedish secularization is being discussed, it is somewhat telling that Berggren and Trägårdh in the first edition of their book Is the Swede Human?forgot to include the role of the Lutheran state church in Swedish individualism. In the second edition, though, they added an extra chapter on the Church of Sweden. Here they go as far as to say that “the Swedish alliance between the state and the individual has its roots in the interaction between a local interpretation of Luther’s theology, the development of the Swedish state from the sixteenth century onwards, plus the challenge against the state church which came from the nineteenth-century revival movements.” These threads, they argue, result in the twentieth-century desire to recreate the state church as a folkkyrka.
Generally, a Lutheran church does not have the same defense against sudden changes as the Roman Catholic Church, which relies heavily on tradition. On the other hand, a Lutheran church has its own strong bulwark in form of Scripture and the Lutheran Book of Concord. In Sweden, though, the secular state could overrun any foundation in Scripture by introducing this secular Lutheranism, where the purpose of the church was no longer necessarily to glorify God and preach the Gospel. Instead, Alvunger describes how the Social Democrats created “a folkkyrka program that was intended to transform the Church of Sweden into a democratic and open and tolerant national church.” These are the keywords in the Social Democrats’ church transformation policy.
There were several steps during the twentieth century that pushed the church in this direction. In 1930, church governance changed into a more secular system, much like secular city council elections. Church historian Oloph Bexell describes the content of these changes as something “in an international perspective truly unique: the connection between the worshiping congregation and the ecclesiastical governing body disappears.”