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Secularizing the Church of Sweden: By politics alone

    Sweden stands out as arguably the world’s most secular and individualistic nation, according to the Inglehart/Welzel cultural map of the world. At the same time, Sweden is one of the nations where the state has the among the strongest control over the people in the world and which only recently disestablished its state church. How is this paradox possible? Did the nation’s Social Democratic Party cause a state takeover of the church and transform it from within?

    The Reformation: The road to secularism?

    The Reformation centered around Luther’s message that truth is found in Scripture alone, or sola scriptura. It seems astonishing that such a message could change into more or less its exact opposite. The Reformation tried to put the West on the narrow road of the Bible. But the path had two side-alleys: The increased focus on the believer’s personal relationship with God, and the weakened bonds to the Catholic Church, could result in individuals taking control of religiosity and politicians taking control of the church, leaving both the church and the Bible on the sidelines.

    Both of these events have taken place in Sweden, beginning in the early sixteenth century. Gustav Vasa, king of the newly independent Sweden, used the Reformation as a pretext to take over the Church and her assets. The Lutheran Church of Sweden (Svenska Kyrkan) functioned as a state church from that time until the year 2000. Over the centuries, the nation’s connection to Martin Luther and the Reformation became more tenuous.

    It was not, however, until the twentieth century that the direction started to deflect significantly, thanks in large part to the Social Democratic Party’s determination to bring the church’s views into line with the party’s political ideology. Church historian Daniel Alvunger describes the party’s vision for the state church as a secularized Lutheranism. They were able to achieve their vision by ridding the church of some of Luther’s ideas, while putting the emphasis on other notions: “Ideas that derived from Reformed principles, such as Luther’s two-kingdom doctrine and the notion of free will, were subsumed into a system of secular ideas and norms,” writes Alvunger.

    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.

    David Thurfjell, a Swedish historian of religion, refers to many Swedish people’s worldview as a Protestant humanism, a position he explains as a combination of “post-materialism, secular rationalism, relativism and, not least, individualism.” He goes on to state that the individualistic ideology of the 1960s came to include conflicting social movements – sexual liberation, a left-wing pathos, the struggle for women’s rights, etc. – all included under the wider anti-authoritarian movement, “while traditional Christianity was considered as an obvious opponent of this position.”  

    In 1951, the Church of Sweden lost its key connection to the state, when it became legal to leave the state church without entering another denomination. Until then, the Swedish national identity included membership in the Lutheran church. In 2000, the Church of Sweden was separated from the state, and became one denomination among others. Still, the Church of Sweden has maintained a much stronger connection to the state than other Christian denominations or non-Christian religions.

    Several scholars argue that Protestantism provides key elements in the secularization of the West. José Casanova, a sociologist of religion, argues that Protestantism is “not only a secularizing force but a form of religious internal secularization, the vehicle through which religious contents would take institutionalized secular form.” Adam Seligman suggests that the creation of Protestant churches rests on the idea of the autonomous self, which hereby “underpins the process of secularization through which heteronomous authority is ultimately lost.”

    Some theologically liberal churches may have gone in that direction, but not Protestantism as a whole. The growth of the evangelical and Pentecostal movements makes it obvious that Protestantism does not automatically lead to secularization. It seems obvious that other ingredients must be added for secularization to take place.

    “The market model”?

    In secularization theory, a concept called “the market model” argues that secularization does not happen just as a result of a spontaneously weakening demand for religion. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart write, “The religious market model disregards the public’s ‘demand’ for religion, which is assumed to be constant, but focuses instead on how conditions of religious freedom, and the work of competing religious institutions, actively generate its ‘supply.’” The larger discussion about this theoretical model indicates that supply in this sense may reflect the society’s religious content: what theology or ideology lies behind it, who provides it, and how this message is conveyed in church and society.

    “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.”

    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.”

    The state interventionists’ strategy for the Lutheran Church of Sweden continues. It is not based on Christ alone, not on Scripture alone, but on politics alone.

    The question of what ought to be the purpose and mission of the church hereby became open for political, rather than theological debate. One important decision from the Social Democratic government came in 1949, when the General Synod was changed into more of a political body, with secular politicians in the majority. The explicit argument for this was that “the Church of Sweden shall be a folkkyrka, not a priests’ church.” This move had the expected result, that the Social Democrats proved increasingly able to place their members on the General Synod during the 1950s. This version of a secularized Lutheranism took shape in this manner, according to Alvunger: “The government wanted to pave the way for a church in which elected lay representatives, with party affiliation, took decisions that were intended ultimately to transform the Church of Sweden from within.”

    The ideology of a politically governed church became a new basis for the Church of Sweden, and, over time, spread to other political parties. Not only Social Democrats, but also a short-lived liberal government had some impact on the new church legislation of 1982, which was in effect until the separation of church and state in 2000. This law stated that priests were no longer to elect delegates to the General Synods, and simultaneously, that the bishops lost their right to vote in these synods.

    Swedish Lutheran Church: By politics alone

    To summarize: The direction of the church from functioning as the body of Christ to a more general “democratic, open, and tolerant” organization was set, and has continued to this day. Contemporary development also shows this quite clearly. The remarkably high voter turnout and success of the Social Democrats in the church elections in September 2017 came, to a large extent, due to the party turning the election into a dress rehearsal before the following year’s general election. In particular, they turned the church election into a political battle against the nationalistic Sweden Democrats. While several political parties have left church politics since the separation of church and state, Prime Minster Stefan Löfven declared in a highly debated interview a few months before the election: “The church will continue to be an interesting arena for the Social Democratic Party for the foreseeable future. I cannot see an end to this engagement.”

    The prime minister’s strategy seems to have worked out well and, in the election, the Social Democrats won a landslide victory. This also meant that the party solidified its hold over the former state church for at least the next four years. Therefore, the state interventionists’ strategy for the Lutheran Church of Sweden continues. It is not based on Christ alone, not on Scripture alone, but on politics alone.

    A slightly longer version of this paper was presented at the conference “La réforme 1517-2017” at the Sorbonne University in Paris in November 2017. That version appeared on the website of the Clapham Institute. This English language edit appears specifically for publication in Religion & Liberty Transatlantic.

    (Photo credit: Jarvis. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 3.0.)

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    Per Ewert is the director of the Clapham Institute, Sweden’s leading Christian think tank. He is working on a Ph.D. thesis on the secularization of Sweden.