Religion as private resource and public/political voice

1 Introduction

I want to thank Inger and Pål for this opportunity to present some thoughts about religion both as a private resource and public or political voice in the European North. I would also like to thank you both for your excellent leadership of the Norel-project which is very professional. It has made this seven day seminar extremely valuable. I think the good spirit of the group is reflecting that situation.


So much has been said already through lectures and paper presentations, so I don’t know what is left really. I will, however, stick to my aim to make a plea for the need to increase the study of the (new) visibility of religion both as a public interest and a private resource, connecting also to the Impact of Religion – Programme carried out in Uppsala.


In contrast to for example Brian Wilson and his influential volume from 1982, Religion in Sociological Perspective, where differentiation and privatization goes hand in hand with secularization, I think it has become more and more important to include the public sphere in the analysis of the presence of religion, exactly as the NOREL-project has done. As a matter of fact the interest to study the relationship between religion and the public or political dimensions of society has increased dramatically since the Impact-programme and the Norel-project were introduced.


It is however important not to fall in the other ditch, which I think that John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge have done in their book God is back. How the global rise of faith is changing the world (2009), a statement which indicates that God or religion has disappeared and is now re-entering the scene again, which is obviouly not true. This is also the point that Hugh McLeod makes in his study of The Religious crises of the 1960s (2007). Religion comes and goes in a kind of S-formed curve but does not disappear or appear in an uncomplicated way. That is why it is more appropriate to talk of the visibility of religion, as the visibility not necessarily related to growth or decline but to changes in society at large.


That religion is still part of modern social and political life has however come as a surprise to states, politicians and research communities. Even if religion in numerical terms not have increased in recent years, the attitudes from the research community have changed, a change that to some extent can explain differences in the location of religion to the public debate. This background is obviously a strong argument for research councils to offer substantial funding for studying a phenomenon that according to the idea of modern secularism should have disappeared, but seems not to.  This situation creates anxiety, and a need for new knowledge. David Martin considers in The Future of Christianity (2011) that modern Europe has been more engaged in controlling the religious visibility than using it contructively. He wonders if we are entering a new phace in European history where this conflict might change into a stage of mutual negotiations in a plural situation.


Also Thomas Banchoff brings up these questions in his volume Democracy and the New Religious Pluralism (2007). In the book he argues that religious diversity in America and Europe is nothing new, but it has increased in scope since the 1980s and 1990s, sparking greater interaction among religious groups which function as a challenge for democratic governance. That interaction brings to the fore the complex relations between a secular majority in European countries and their attempt to handle religious minorities differently. He argues that greater religious pluralism makes it more difficult to exclude religious claims from the public sphere. As we will see later on I share on the whole Banchoff’s view that the new religious pluralism has come to stay, and is in need to be treated seriously, and not as a general problem, if we are to reach social cohesion in the society to come.


To put it in another way, and citing our honorary doctor at Uppsala University in 2007, cardinal Walter Kasper: According to Kasper the discussion of the end of religion has now come to an end. It is not the future of religion that is the problem of today, but the future of the world, where hope is much needed. The question is if religion can be dispensed in that process or as the European Commission puts it: How can we find social cohesion in the midst of an ever more diversified Europe? This question relates also to the European North.


2 What is «the public»?

Before I continue, I would like to suggest a simple definition of  «the public».  In accordance with Charles Taylor (2004) the public could be defined as the arena or place where groups, individuals, and also religions I would say, interact and discuss common issues. This conversation should focus on issues of mutual interest and concern a common goal which is the good society. Since the media is very important as a conveyor and scrutinizer of these conversations, the representations of the media itself becomes an important mark of this publicity, Mia Lövheim (2010) argues


There is a clear scale from strong publicity, which is represented by the state, to a weak publicity represented by associations. Civil society organizations, including the political parties, act as an arena for a democratic dialogue between state and individual. The extensive research on the organizations of civil society which has emerged since the 1990’s, is an example of the prominent role that this sector is understood to have within a framework of the public discourse, Lars Trägårdh (2007) argues.


The definition of the public sphere is therefore not straight forward. The strong state’s emergence in the 20th century resulted in a larger public sphere to which the Nordic state churches came to belong, while the weakening of the state, and a growing role of civil society, has resulted in an expansion of the public sphere to areas bordering to private life where existential life questions now appear. There is a clear aspect of power tied to the concept of the public, which has to do with implicit norms and values. That makes the whole discussion of private and public even more complex.


In the following, I shall touch on four areas that in different ways illustrate that religion finds itself in the field of tension between private and public in Nordic democracies.



First: what about the presence of Islam

The global migration to the rich world is similar to the rural to urban migration during the early days of the industrial era. Currently 10-20% of the population in the Nordic countries are born abroad or have parents who were born abroad. This migration and a following religious diversity, challenge an assumed secular homogeneity. Islam is perceived as particularly difficult for the secular state to deal with since it does not accept the division between private and public. Islam has rules for diet, dress and prayer which have a public character. As Muslims go from being immigrants to becoming citizens, we see growing demands that Muslim values should be accepted as a part of the public discourse. The heated debate around freedom of religion in many European countries shows that Europe never quite solved the issue of freedom of religion in the way that America did. In Europe, the default idea is still that freedom of religion means freedom from religion, while the religious pluralism and the multicultural society demand a freedom to be religious.


The Swedish parliament’s change of the constitution in 2010, where Sweden is identified as a multicultural society, shows a basic idea of tolerance towards dissidence. But there is unease in the multicultural debate which shows that it follows at least two separate tracks. One track departs from the 20th century idea of tolerance towards dissidence. According to this track, multiculturalism is a part of a modern and secular pluralism as a matter of course and contributes to confirming the neutrality of the secular state. The second track relates to 21st century’s discussion on the multicultural, which can be perceived as a part of a religious pluralism originating through the migration to the rich world. Religious pluralism is therefore not a self evident concept, and can be perceived as a threat to an assumed secular homogeneity, and as such it is dangerous to the cohesion of society. This attitude is mirrored by Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy when they say that the multicultural model has failed. This is also at least vagely mirrored in the social surveys from the Nordic countries. Pål Ketil Botvar and Ulla Schmidt has showed in their book on Religion in Norway (2010), that about 80% of the population show tolerance towards religious minorities, but only 45% support the notion that different religions should be treated as equals.


According to Nilüfer Göle (2010), the French population question where the Muslim loyalty lies. Are they loyal to the nation or loyal to the Muslim global community? Do we need to ban the wearing of niqabs in public places? The argument follows the secular idea that a Muslim patriarchy hinders women’s economical and sexual liberation. For this reason feminists in France are opposed to the veil since it symbolises a perceived religious opposition to private freedom and integrity. The fact that women hide their body in public makes the issue of visibility even more complicated: On the one hand, the veil makes religion far too visible in public places, but on the other hand, the visibility is too hidden in a sexualized culture.


This argument, as well as the suspicion that Muslims are not loyal to the nation, is the reason that both the left and the right of French politics jointly criticize religion’s new visibility through migration. There are similar tendencies all over Europe, not least in Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria, but also in the Nordic countries. As we have seen in the reports to this seminar in Metochi the nationalist party True Finns (Sannfinländarna) gained seats in parliament in the 2011 election in Finland. The Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna) entered parliament in the 2010 Swedish election. The Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet) is strongly represented in the Norwegian parliament, even if weakened after last election, and the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) have had a long-standing influence in Danish politics. These parties have given a bid to the populations and have gained political power as a result. The question today is how the Nordic countries can find a cultural identity, that result in social cohesion, without using religious minorities as a threat. Norway after the 22d of July, would be an illustrative example to follow.


In sum: the presence of Islam raises a number of questions about the visibility of religion. This has repercussions for religious life as a whole in the Nordic countries. The criticism of religious symbols make, not just veils and minarets, but also crucifixes, politicized. Also end of term ceremonies in church buildings have become a sensitive subject. The whole religious field is suddenly visible in the secular North and thereby subject to a renewed debate about religion’s place in the public sphere. Above all, however, the increased pluralism, which contributes to creating a multicultural society, makes religious involvement – even on an individual level – more politically charged. Nordic governments need therefore to deal with questions they thought the modern world had left behind.


Second: Religion as a public legitimizer of care

A second factor I want to raise is a growing social exclusion in the Nordic countries, which tends to absorb churches and religious organizations in a public discourse on the foundations of solidarity and care. The increasing global social and economic mobility, the effects of the liberal economy, the reduced public revenue, the increasing migration, an aging population and growing health care costs contribute to a problem scenario that is similar in all countries in Europe. This has led to the «establishment» of a new poverty that is essentially part of a social exclusion in society at large. This exclusion is in turn based on a lack of social networks and also on a new hierarchy between rich and poor. I perceive poverty as a narrower concept than exclusion, but both terms are defined here as relative with regard to a national context. We are not talking about the kind of poverty which we can see in the so called Third World. It is rather about a sense of exclusion that can be experienced by people who live in a consumer society but who cannot take part of this society’s goods and services, as Bauman (1998, 2007) defines it. This comes also close to Ole Utakers interesting paper on social capital.


To a certain degree, the new exclusion has ethnic and religious undertones and the sad thing is that it probably has come to stay for some time. Jürgen Friedrichs (2010) in the Facit-project has shown that a wide-spread migration has led to the emergence of urban districts in towns where alienation, as well as poverty, has increased since the 1990’s.  All signs point to a growing diversification in the European countries, both between different religious/ethnic groups and between different social groups. The problem escalates when these factors interact. This can lead to anxiety and uncertainty amongst the citizens of respective country and could provide the basis for reduced tolerance of religious and ethnic minorities as Pål Repstad showed yesterday in his lecture (see also: World and European Sustainable Cities, 2010).


It is in this perspective that the increased involvement of churches and religious organisations should be understood. This applies not only on the continent but also to a large extent to the Nordic countries, not least in Finland. The question today is whether the deregulation of the welfare state means that the Nordic countries are approaching a continental family-based welfare society where care is more and more individualized and carried out by women. Does this mean that the organizations of civil society are filling a void which appears when the welfare state is slowly withdrawing? This is a complex issue that does not have an obvious answer. In the Nordic countries, the work of civil society organizations is essentially complementary to the state’s welfare organizations (cf. the Facit Project, 2010).


The WREP-project (Welfare and Religion in a European Perspective 2003-2009) and the WaVE-project (Welfare and Values in Europe: Transitions related to religion, minorities and gender 2006-2009/10) carried out in Uppsala show similar patterns in all countries studied due to growing global economy and migration. At the same time, the results show clear contextual differences that have to do with different historical developments. The Nordic welfare states with their universal transfers still remain, despite deregulations. Similarly, the mixed welfare organizations of southern Europe essentially remain. The projects also show that there is a persistent view that it is the state’s task to deal with welfare issues in Europe. Björn Hettne (1997) argues that this can be understood as a specific characteristic of the European identity. This idea was strongly developed in the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union in 2007.


The results from the WREP and WaVE projects raise important theoretical questions concerning the secular state’s idea of a clear separation between the religious and the secular. As we all know, the theory of secularization has presumed that such a gradual separation is taking place in affluent countries, as Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart (2004) would say. The development from the 1990’s and onwards point in the opposite direction, even if only tentatively. The development therefore contributes to make churches and religious organizations more socially active and politically involved in issues concerning the European fight against poverty – both nationally and not least internationally (Bäckström-Davie 2010, 2011).


The WREP- and WaVE-studies show, in sum, that churches and religious organizations’ role as moral and ethical voice for solidarity has become more visible due to a social situation characterized by a new alienation and poverty. It is this function that contributes to an increased publicity for religion and which leads to the expectation of religious leaders (e.g. bishops) to participate in the political debate around these issues. The Archbishop of Sweden has for example taken initiative to the so called Easter appeals on social issues and integration, arranged a conference on environmental questions and is now preparing a conference on the treatment of children.


In conclusion, it could be said that there is an uncertainty in the state’s expectations to the religious organizations of civil society. The uncertainty lies in the risk that religious organizations not only complement the activities of the welfare state but take over parts of it. That would hit the Nordic universal system of care badly. But there is also an uncertainty about the consequences of an increased social involvement of religious organizations for the role and identity of the secular state. The social issue therefore contributes to focusing on both the possibilities and risks involved when churches and religious organizations become more entangled in the public activities of society.


Third: Individual integrity as public value

The concept of modernity has highlighted individual integrity and the individual’s right to welfare and well-being. This has provided the foundation for a new spirituality which is not least represented by women. It concerns, for example, basic existential issues in an increasingly stressful life situation between work and care. This trail of research is represented by Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead (2005) among others, and their thoughts about the subjectification of Western culture and the individual’s tendency to turn to the self, a report which many of us have referred to.


The idea is that the need for existential questions of meaning has escalated due to the uncertainty to which the rapid social changes are contributing. Searching or travelling becomes a lifestyle. To this one has to add the late modern notions of deconstructing the grand narratives, and the tendency of globalization to create new social identities which are not geographically anchored. In practice, the individual belongs to different social fields that are competing for the individual’s attention, fields which the individual oscillates between. In this perspective, the idea of quality is fundamental. It concerns quality of life, quality space, quality time, and religion or the spiritual life is working in a quality perspective. The analysis suits societies where the state and the individual have been liberated from the authority of religious institutions (churches) and where the individual authority has been elevated to become a recognized norm. The Nordic countries with their long Protestant history and with a well-developed welfare organization constitute such an environment.


In their new book Ole Riis and Linda Woodhead (2010) take these ideas further when they argue that a late or post-modern cultural situation in practice helps to create external structures that individuals tend to adjust to. In a liquid life situation the need arises to relate to various experts, who support the individual in his or her search process. They all contribute to the regulation of the emotional field of experience. This means that the emotional lives are increasingly governed by standard rules.


By separating positive and negative emotions, Riis and Woodhead (2010) stress that happiness has become an optimal state to be pursued. This strong emphasis on happiness, however, depends on the demands of consumer society. Many of consumer society’s goods and services are marketed with the explicit purpose of creating satisfaction and happiness. This explains why anything other than individual happiness is perceived as a problem that requires some form of treatment. Similarly, negative experiences clump together with stress reactions. This shows that emotions are closely linked to experiences of health and well-being. It also shows that these experiences are guided by external norms and regulations, which is a result of the need to regulate an existence that otherwise has been deregulated. The point is that liquid identities and social contexts within themselves create new rules through the negotiations that individuals, techniques, attitudes and symbols are drawn into. This makes the whole existential field of life a public matter.


It is thus unclear how far to push the privatization thesis a matter which Pål Repstad (2001), amongst others, has brought to the fore. The private values tend to become a new collective norm, which works just as controlling as earlier collective frameworks as Danièle Hervieu-Léger (2006) puts it. Like all other values, these must be negotiated publicly and legitimized politically.


As Jim Beckford (2010) points out, parts of the individual religiosity, as manifested in New Age phenomena, is structured in a heavily commercial way. The private sphere is thus part of a public economy that is determined in the relation between the private and the structural. New Age spirituality can thus be seen as a part of the capitalist logic which provides products, technologies and symbols that promises the customer happiness and success both privately and publicly.


Amidst of all this diversification, we must not forget that the private spirituality is constructed in relation to majority religions and in relation to the social conditions which constitute an individual’s reality. The idea of freedom of choice is in fact publicly legitimated and governed by tradition. It is therefore problematic to claim that free choice is «free» in the sense that it is not rooted in social, religious and cultural conditions. At the same time, these values are fundamental for a democracy and they are maintained through public debate.


In conclusion, it is possible to argue that the value shifts which are a result of the materially beneficial second half of the 20th century, alongside the values which promote individual authority in relation to various institutions in society, particularly religious institutions, work differently in different cultural contexts and between women and men. Spirituality which is free from demands of faith requires other or new results in terms of happiness and satisfaction in a quality-controlled situation, to act as a resource for the individual. This is also the ultimate expression for experienced health. The experience of happiness that fails to appear becomes an existential problem for the individual and can be linked to the stress image that has become so apparent in the Western world.


The very idea of freedom and indeed freedom of choice is an important value in a democracy which demands constant legitimation. All this means that the late modern discourse about an increased subjectification of the sphere of life and the fragmentation of beliefs in practice has led to a need for new public negotiations to create a sustainable existential situation for both individual and society.


Fourth: The state and the church or religion

The importance of separating state and religion is one of the corner stones of secular liberal tradition of ideas. These have been debated throughout the 20th century in the Nordic countries. With the rise of Social Democracy in the 19th century, there was a strong criticism of the church’s influence in social issues. The Social Democrats, who came to power in Sweden as early as 1932, have gradually taken a pragmatic approach to the issue of religion. In practice, the long period of Social Democratic governance has come to incorporate the Church of Sweden into the Swedish welfare model and the church has been given a specific welfare mission, namely to cater for spiritual guidance and rites aimed at the individual. A similar development can be seen in the other Nordic countries although with different pace. On the whole, however, the Nordic Folk churches still belong to the public sphere, as at least semi-official institutions. Through the system of election to Church governing bodies, the political parties have direct influence in the democratic decision-making of the churches, with the possible exception of Denmark.


A further glance at Europe shows that the situation is far from resolved when it comes to state-church relationships. England has an established church with 26 senior bishops in the House of Lords. In Germany, the two dominating church traditions have taxation rights and the right to teach religion in schools. In France, the state funds the education in Catholic free schools. Between the Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Slovakian and Croatian governments there are special concordat with the Vatican, which have a special legal status outside of the national legal system. The concordats give the Catholic Church special privileges, especially in relation to religious education in schools. Emma Svensson, a doctoral student in European Law in Uppsala, calls these concordat «loopholes» in the legal system which benefits normative legislation. In Greece there is an implicit strong relationship between the nation and the Orthodox Church. The question is therefore how strongly the European identity is tied to religion in a broad sense and to the historical churches in a more narrow sense. The preamble of the Lisbon Treaty from 2007 makes a reference to the  «… cultural, religious and humanist inheritance…» of Europe. This is a compromise between acknowledging Europe’s both Christian and broader humanist history and identity (Svensson, 2009:68).


The point I am trying to make with this overview is to show that the secular state within itself can harbour many different solutions to the relationship between the secular and the religious and that the border between these two spheres therefore becomes vague and not self-evident. In practice these borders are the subject of a comprehensive debate in contemporary Europe, where the Nordic model is perceived as one of several possible solutions. The uncertainty of what counts as secular neutrality becomes even more apparent if the USA and Turkey are included: two secular states where religion play very different roles. In both countries religion is strongly present in political life. This also brings up the question of Christian or Muslim Political Parties, a question a leave for the moment.


It should also be mentioned that the fact that rites and church buildings contribute to link the individual to the collective memory is an expression of their public character (Bäckström-Bromander, 1995, Hervieu-Léger, 2000). In this way the churches contribute to a sense of security and trust in society. It is possible to argue that this trust is not primarily a question of active involvement but rather a question of belonging. The churches act as public utilities (Davie, 2000), a function that is particularly visible in crises and catastrophes (Pettersson, P, 2000), a function apparent after the 22 of July in Norway.


Altogether, this shows that religion appears in the public through its relation to the state in a number of different ways. These relations follow different historical genealogies with the consequence that different states regulate the presence of religion in different ways. It is however the privilege of the state to regulate, one has to remember. These historical patterns are likely to remain, unless new dramatic events take place, on the same scale as the revolution in Iran in 1979 or the fall of communism in 1989. It is therefore likely that the Nordic situation with a secular state but with religion present both institutionally and privately will continue over the years to come.


In Conclusion

In this lecture, I have aimed to show that the secular European state’s assumed role to define the religious relationship between private and public does not follow any uniform pattern, neither historical nor geographical. I have said that religious pluralism makes demands on the ability of secular states to include the right to religion. This activates a political dimension of religion which in turn reactivates the secular elite of the country.

I have also said that the consumerist culture of choice creates within itself an alienation, which rises as a consequence of consumption inadequacies with loss of networks and which activate ethical dimensions of churches and religious organisations. This is the critical voice-function we are talking about.

I have also said that fast societal changes means that the search for meaning and identity has become an important part of an existential quality of life which is publicly legitimized. That’s where religion broadly defined as spirituality function as a resource.

Finally I have said that church-state relations follow different historical genealogies and not one given path. In the light of this, I argue that several developments take place concurrently and that the process during the 1900’s towards an increasing secularization peaked in the 1960’s definition of a secular modernism. Since then, there are new developments taking place parallel to this, which can be related to global social and religious conditions. It is the consequences of this latter development which attracts growing scientific interest from a research community that has discovered religion as a visible factor of importance to study.


The Nordic countries are therefore part of global communication but, at the same time, with its own road to modernity. Drawing on Shmuel Eisenstadts (2000) assumptions of multiple modernities, Grace Davie summarizes the idea elegantly: «The notion of multiple modernities indicate first that there is more than one way of being modern and second that not all modernities are necessarily secular» (Berger, Davie, Fokas 2008: 44). Grace continues to say that it is today possible to be fully modern and fully religious at the same time. This is, however, a relationship that still is debated in the Nordic countries and mirrored though our reports to this seminar.


It is today not clear who owns modernity, Hans Joas (2009) claims.  It is true to say that modernity came to be the secular force’s triumph over the religious one in the 20th century. It could also be said that the minority of 19th century became the majority in the 20th century, particularly in Europe. However, these historical conditions are now likely to become a future pluralism, where religious and secular actors, based on a binary logic as Ola Sigurdson (2009) puts it, need to work together to achieve the good society. Religion is not returning, as it never left the western world, but is revealing itself as one of several options in a much needed conversation, which is public by nature. A relevant question that rises from our material is therefore if the modern world can afford not including religion in this conversation (i.e. Habermas 2006) as religion otherwise could interfere with public discourse through other channels, something that we all want to avoid.


I think it is from this perspective religion becomes highly relevant to study as a private resource and public political voice.


Thank you.



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