Something Rotten in the Church of Denmark

Malene Busk

In America, in books on religion, atheism, and secularism, Europe and especially Scandinavia are often cited to prove that prosperity, solidarity, and high ethical standards are alive and we ll in societies where faith is all but absent, at least compared to the intense role it plays in the United States. “Why can’t we be more like Europe?!” Bill Maher will shout in despair when American politicians profess how deeply they hold various superstitions, something regarded as bad taste in most of Europe.

Although advocates of freethought, secularization, and social progress have undeniably won important victories, European secularism still faces pressure from various religious influences across the continent. Denmark is no exception. In contrast to the general nonreligious skepticism of its civil society, the Danish state still maintains quite serious legislative betrayals of proper state-church separation.

In the latest update of the Danish constitution, the Grundloven of 1953, the fourth paragraph affirms that the Danish Folkekirke or “People’s Church” is the Evangelical Lutheran Church and must be upheld by the state. Denmark is a constitutional monarchy, and the sixth paragraph commands that the king (yes, male heredity rules the monarchy) must belong to this faith. Each year, when the Danish members of parliament gather after summer, they begin their session with a nationally televised Lutheran ceremony in the parliament’s own church. As a matter of course, the Danish state automatically collects a church tax (from every citizen who has not overtly left the People’s Church): about 1 percent of all citizens’ annual income enriches the Lutheran Church. This national church employs male priests who by principle refuse to shake the hands of female priests because of something St. Paul once wrote about women shutting up. Danish law surely forbids sexism, but then again, priests are more equal than others.

In the Folkeskolen, the common public schools attended by 85 percent of Denmark’s children, the Lutheran lobby long ago secured for its particular faith a status any office of propaganda would envy. Since the first law on public education (1814), it is required that schools should serve to pass on the Christian faith to the pupils “in accordance with the Evangelical Lutheran teachings.” This rather crude decree of indoctrination of minors has survived for more than 150 years, past modernity and into postmodernity. Only in 1975 did nonbelievers succed in changing the legal clause defining the goal of public schools to the promotion of democratic citizenship and freedom of thought rather than the Lutheran faith. But it has proven hard to teach an old theocratic dog new secular skills. To this day, all public schools are obliged by law to teach Christianity, not as one element among others in a historical or societal curriculum but as a subject in itself. One could imagine nine years of formative courses in say, Enlightenment values, democracy, philosophy, sociopsychology, or ethics. But no: “knowledge of Christianity” has a unique national license to enter children’s minds for one school-hour every week, in every classroom, during all nine years of primary schooling. And guess who selflessly supplies the “nonmissionary” teaching materials for free: the School Service of the Lutheran Church.

For centuries, priests have complained about Danes taking faith alarmingly lightly, despite all the privileges that Christianity has accorded them. Perhaps it is this reluctance that has spurred extensive missionary work, since the message somehow has continued to miss the mark. American sociologist Phil Zuckerman investigates the religious beliefs of Danes in his study A Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment (NYU Press, 2008). He concludes that the Danish people are just not religious. If they see themselves as Christians, they tend to define that identity in terms of social values like solidarity, freedom, and nonviolence. Those with mystical inclinations might believe vaguely in “something” supernatural—Zuckerman calls it “somethingism”—while such core articles of Christan faith as the virgin birth, Judgment Day, blessings, revelations, original sin, and Resurrection are dismissed as metaphors or ancient ignorance. Such curious assymmetry between the massive legislative promotion of Lutheran faith and the civil tendency toward quiet disbelief suggests that the Danes politely keep lending deaf ears to their godmen.

Malene Busk

Malene Busk is a humanist activist in Denmark.


In America, in books on religion, atheism, and secularism, Europe and especially Scandinavia are often cited to prove that prosperity, solidarity, and high ethical standards are alive and we ll in societies where faith is all but absent, at least compared to the intense role it plays in the United States. “Why can’t we be …

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