By Jacob Rudolfsson
Coordinator, Swedish Evangelical Alliance
On the religiosity of the American people the distinguished sociologist Peter Berger once remarked that the United States was “a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes.” Berger had noted that Sweden was the most secular country in the world and India the most religious, and used this analogy to show the discrepancy between the United States’ ruling minority and the country’s population. In Sweden, a nation famous for breaking taboos, belief in a God that acts in history is the last taboo.
From the Swedish viewpoint and given recent events, one wonders whether the American secular elite would regard Sweden as a promised land. One could even argue that your president, who has been criticized by the Religious Right for being lukewarm with regard to the role of faith in public life, is too religious. Had he stayed in Sweden a few weeks longer after his visit in the beginning of September last year, President Obama would have been able to have a firsthand experience of what aggressive secularism looks like.
Moments after Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt announced that the chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on the Labour Market, Elisabeth Svantesson, would be the new Minister for Employment, at the opening of the Parliament’s annual session, Swedish tolerance showed its double-face. After a few questions about Sweden’s much-debated youth unemployment and Svantesson’s academic background (she has a doctorate in economics specializing in employment of new arrivals, one of Sweden’s most pertinent policy-issues), the press conference zeroed in on her membership of a charismatic church and her past work in a pro-life organization. The mainstream-media immediately carried pieces depicting her as a nefarious figure due to her implied stance on homosexuality and abortion. So-called liberal commentators proved to be illiberal as they demanded that she distance herself from “religious fundamentalism.”. Newspapers championing tolerance and diversity wrote that Svantesson’s values are “offensive” despite the fact that they are shared by many Swedes and immigrants.
This is not the first time that Sweden has encountered a problem with religion in the public arena. When the Maltese Tonio Borg, a Catholic, was to be elected to the position of European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy last year, liberal Swedish MEP Cecilia Wikström wrote in Sweden’s largest newspaper Aftonbladet that “as a private person Mr. Borg is allowed to any moral conservative opinions he wants” – as long as he doesn’t bring them into his work. One newspaper editorial wrote that ”there is an imminent risk that ultra-conservative, obstinate powers – especially in countries where the Catholic Church have a great influence – will get a greater opportunity to influence laws and policies in an illiberal and downright misogynist direction.” One week later the same editorial criticized “everyday racism and the constant categorization where ‘they’ are lumped together and often ascribed negative characteristics.” Not letting the left hand know what the right hand does, has taken on a new connotation in the most secular nation on earth.
Swedish historian of religion, Eli Göndör, says in an interview with Radio Sweden’s English-language news program that there is “great animosity” towards religion in Sweden. “I don’t think that an openly religious person has the same chance to have a political career, or any other career, as a secular person,” says Göndör.
Ironically the media storm concerning the newly appointed minister Elisabeth Svantesson came only a few days after the election for the General Synod in the former state church, the Church of Sweden, an election that has become heavily politicized due to the fact that the synod is made up of political and semi-political parties. So much for the separation of church and state taken place in the year 2000.The former president of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, Wanja Lundby-Wedin, running as a top-candidate for the Socialdemocrats in the church election was quoted in the Christian daily Dagen that “this election is about politics, not religion.”
The lesson learned: it is considered self-evident that politicians decide over church-affairs, but it is a big problem to have government ministers that are active in their church.
Perhaps the most significant difference between our two nations is Sweden’s long history of building consensus over deeply held convictions – from state church to state secularism. One of the most frequent words used by Swedes in a conversation is “exactly.” No friction. No conflict. No one wants to stand out like a sore thumb and emphasize their difference of opinion. Conscientious objectors, beware. Americans, on the other hand, “have the right to their opinion!” The most recent incident where convictions of conscience clash with the consensus norm of Swedish state secularism came at the same time as president Obama argued for why freedom of religion is important and mentioned prisoners of conscience missionary Kenneth Bae and pastor Saeed Abedini during the National Prayer Breakfast. The case concerns the Swedish midwife, Ellinor Grimmark, who was denied an extension of her contract at a hospital and denied employment since she couldn’t perform abortions. “When she declared that she was not able to perform abortions because of her faith, she was fired,” said Ruth Nordstrom, her lawyer, to Vatican Radio.
Mrs. Grimmark was also denied funding to continue her nursing education. The Swedish Association of Health Professionals has offered no support to protect her freedom of conscience, because of its own pro-abortion convictions. One hospital offered her “help” from a counselor “to overcome their aversion to abortion.” In other words; for a health care worker to have issues or see a moral dilemma with abortions is equivalent to needing psychological help and reeducation back to the consensus norm. But as one Swedish doctor recently put it: “Society shouldn’t alleviate the moral dilemma but allow people to admit it.” Mrs. Grimmark’s case has now been submitted to the Equality Ombudsman (DO).
Even if the United States has challenges of its own concerning the role of religion in public life, your leaders have all argued against what Richard John Neuhaus called the naked public square, where religion is excluded from the public forum.
From George Washington’s letter to Benedict Arnold in 1775: “While we are contending for our own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of Men, and to him only in this Case, they are answerable.” To Barack Obama’s “Call to Renewal”-speech in 2006; “to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality’ into public policy debates is a practical absurdity.”
It would therefore have been interesting had President Obama taken a break from discussing Sweden’s innovations on renewable energy and reiterated at least parts of his views on religious convictions in public debate. Chances are big that Swedish media would have criticized even him.