Oddbjørn Leirvik:



A multicultural perspective on religion, state and social realities.


Presented to the conference “How to build a multireligious society in the context of political Islam”, Arua, Uganda, August 2001.





It is often said that in the Western world, state and church are separated. But as with many other stereotypes, this is not entirely true. There are in fact many exceptions, just as one will find a number of exceptions to the alleged rule that state and religion are always intertwined in Muslim majority societies. In Europe, we still have a state church situation in countries such as Denmark, Norway and England.


Another stereotype is that the Western world is secularised. In institutional terms, it is true that in most countries in Europe and North America, there is secularisation on the institutional level, i.e. no state church arrangement. But in terms of popular attitudes, the situation varies a lot from country to country. As we know, there is no state church in the United States. But there is much religion in public life, only in more informal ways – or perhaps not so informal any more since ”faith-based” politics has become an increasingly popular self-designation of conservative politicians. In the sociology of religion, the United States has been the classical example of a society pervaded by so-called ”civil religion”. Polls show that 90% of the inhabitants in the United States believe in God, and an increasing number consider themselves as born-again Christians. At the political level, presidents and politicians are less reluctant than before in referring to moral and religious values as the uniting bond between Americans.


In other Western countries, secularisation has been more pervasive at the individual and societal levels, although a state church system has been retained even in societies that have otherwise undergone secularisation. In terms of popular attitudes, Sweden is often cited as the most secularised country in Western Europe. But until 2000, the Lutheran church was still the state church of Sweden. When last year, the Church of Sweden was disestablished as a state church, both church leaders and politicians preferred to speak about ”changed relations” between state and church rather than ”abolishment of the state church system”. Even in a secularised country like Sweden, religion as a communal issue cannot be ignored, and the dominant Lutheran church continues to refer to itself as a national church.


Even more so, Lutheran Christianity has retained its role as a national symbol in Norway and Denmark, where the Lutheran church is still a state church. In all the Scandinavian countries, the Lutheran church has traditionally been referred to not as one confession among many, but as ”the church of the people” (currently comprising around 85% of the population). On the other side, there is also a strong Scandinavian tradition of regarding religion as a ”private matter”. Speaking of religion as a private matter in a state church situation may sound as a contradiction in terms. But it rather reflects a distinction between individual conviction and religion as a collective, cultural heritage.


In Catholic countries in Europe, Catholic religion is still an integral part of public life, and well and alive as a ”civil religion”. But this does not mean that the Catholic Church is a state church. Instead, there is a tradition of speaking of ”concordats” between state and church, in recognition of the majority position and public role of the Catholic Church in those societies.


If one looks at European countries with an Orthodox majority, the image becomes even more varied. In countries like Serbia and Greece, Orthodox Christianity is considered to be part of the national identity, and religious leaders are very conscious of their either supportive or critical role in national politics.


A good indication of the way in which Christianity is considered as a communal issue, is how religion is dealt with in public schools. Across differences in formal arrangements of state-church relations, in Europe one will find at least three different models for religious education in school. (1) The classical model in most countries has been Christianity as the only option. In modern times, non-Christians have been exempted, but not always offered an alternative. (2) The most radical alternative is the secularist model of no religion in school, as practiced in France. (3) In between these extremes, different attempts have been made to establish more inclusive models – of two different kinds. (3a) In Catholic countries such as Belgium and Austria, and in the Netherlands, a pluralist model of multiple choices has been introduced. Here, both Christian confessions and other religions are allowed to establish separate forms of religious education in school. (3b) The other inclusive option is to establish a unified subject in which every major religion belief is taught. In England, the subject Religious Education is meant to be non-sectarian and all-inclusive, and has proved to be so in many places. Central authorities have, however, stated that the way religion is dealt with in school should reflect the fact that England’s religious tradition is “mainly and broadly” Christian.


The examples given indicate a wide range of models to choose between as regards state-church relations and the way religion is dealt with as a communal issue in European countries. In short, there is no such thing as a ”Western” model.





It is even more difficult to speak of one ”Christian” model for state-church relations or the social role of religion. If one looks at the world outside Europe and America, Christians often live in minority situations. As we know, Early Christianity remained a minority religion for three hundred years, often in marked opposition to the dominant civil- and state religion of the Roman Empire. In the post-Constantine era, however, integration of state and religion has been the rule rather than the exception in societies with a Christian majority. But in the Roman Empire, Christianity was established as the religion of the state even before it became a numerical majority (during the fourth century, the number of Christians in the Roman empire seems to have increased from 10% to 50%). It was a political decision.


The opposite development, towards a general disestablishment of state-church arrangements, is a product of the European Enlightenment and more particularly the French revolution and American constitutional thought. But as I have already indicated, there are so many levels in this and so many exceptions to the rule. In some countries, the use of Christian symbolism at the national level has in fact been revitalised. I will come back to Norway as an example of a development towards reestablishment of Christianity as the uniting meta-narrative of the nation.


How does this look in an interreligious perspective, then? Some scholars addressing the issue of state and religion have suggested that in all world religions, one may distinguish between ”protesting” and ”ordering” phases. Islam too began as an opposition movement, in Mecca. But differently from the case of Early Christianity, it did not take 350 years to establish Islam as a political reality. Islam entered its ordering phase in Medina only twelve years after Muhammad had received his first, subversive revelation.


For Christianity’s part, one may also speak of a ”disestablishment” phase that was introduced in Early Modernity - after a protracted ordering phase which stretched from late Antiquity throughout of Medieval Ages. But in Northern Europe, “political Christianity” survived early modernity and was transformed into the Lutheran principle of cuius regio, eius religio (the one who controls the area, has also the right to control its religion).


In many countries, Islam too has been disestablished as a political order – most conspicuously in Turkey but also de facto in some other Muslim majority countries. In the Muslim world, however, we may also speak of a ”re-establishment” phase in which religion recuperates its role as a public and political force.


But re-establishment of political religion has not only happened in Muslim countries. A parallel development towards re-establishment of Christianity as a national bond can be seen in quite a few European countries. Maybe European and Muslim countries face very similar challenges? In both contexts, one may witness a reaction to the modern idea of religion as a private matter (Europe) and the likewise modern ideal of secular nationalism (in the Arab world). In both contexts, religion has once more come to be regarded as a communal issue – either in rather exclusive terms, or in more inclusive, multicultural ways.



Russia is an interesting European example. After a long period of anti-religious communism, which entailed secularisation at both the popular and political levels, religion has re-entered public life. Both in Russian and other Eastern European countries, increasingly one sees politicians and state leaders visiting holy places and celebrating Orthodox mass publicly. At the same time, one witnesses mounting Islamic resurgence in some regions of Russia (Chechnya) and in former republics of the Soviet Union.


In 1997, a new law ”On freedom of conscience and on religious associations” was enacted by the Russian parliament. Through this law, the Orthodox Church was in a way re-established as the national church of Russia. The preamble makes it clear that the Russian Federation will remain a secular state. But at the same time, it recognises ”the special contribution of Orthodoxy to the history of Russia and to the establishment and development of Russia’s spirituality and culture”.


This is, however, not all that is said. In the following paragraph, the preamble goes on stating that along with Christianity, also Islam, Buddhism and Judaism ”constitute an inseparable part of the historical heritage of Russia’s peoples” (note the plural).


What is this? Is it an assertive form of Orthodox Christian nationalism? Or should it rather be seen as an inclusive redefinition of Russian religion? The cited preamble could be taken as an example of what is often called postmodern multiculturalism, or the politics of recognition. Differently from both secular arrangements and monolithic state-church arrangements, multiculturalism implies that it is religion in its pluralist expression that is regarded as an issue of communal and even national interest. 

But this can be done in more or less inclusive ways. There is no doubt that the cited preamble privileges the Orthodox Curch as the main cultural symbol of Russia. And the law’s concrete regulations make it difficult for other Christian denominations and new religious movements to be recognised as corporate entities with formal rights. A common interpretation of the law is that it was enacted in order to avoid that Protestant Christianity, Jehovah’s Witnesses and New Religious Movements would be able to get a solid foothold on Russian soil, through missionary efforts from the outside.


The case of Russia is interesting because it represents a postmodern re-establishment of religion in public space, in a way that at first glance might seem to be quite inclusive. But a closer look shows that there are certain restrictions. The preamble confirms the right of each individual to freedom of conscience and of creed. But in general, it focuses more on communities than on individuals, and favours certain religious communities with historical strongholds in Russia.


By virtue of its focus on communities rather than on individuals and its favouring of certain communities, the Russian law of 1997 resembles the classical principles of Islamic Shari‘a.




As we know, Shari‘a recognises the rights of those religious communities that are considered to be monotheistic in their orientation. In practice, the dhimmî protection offered for Jews and Christians has also entailed certain restrictions on their public rights. However, the question of what kind of restrictions that should be applied (if any) has always been and is still liable to quite different interpretations among Muslims.


In principle, the basic principles of Shari‘a might not be very different from those underlying postmodern multiculturalism. It both cases, religious freedom is being defined in collective terms, that is not only as a matter of individual rights. Differently from classical Shari‘a, postmodern multiculturalism affirms the unrestricted right of individuals to change their religion and thus their communal allegiance. But there are also similarities. In both cases, one may be ready to accept different legal practices within one nation, for instance in the field of family law, since religious affiliation is regarded as more important that national identity. In both cases, there is also a tendency to balance pluralism by defining the meta-narrative of the nation as mainly Christian (be it Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant) or Islamic.


Favouring one religion may sometimes be mainly a question of national symbolism. But constitutional symbolism may also be paralleled by socio-cultural developments that reinforce the dominant role of the country’s majority religion. In article 2 of the Egyptian constitution, Islam is mentioned as “the religion of the state”. The reference to Shari‘a in article 2 has been gradually strengthened, from being defined as ”a” major source of legislation in 1971 to becoming ”the” principal source in 1980. In the wake of the cited constitutional development, Islam has also been allowed an increasingly dominant place in public life (such as in national media). In the question of individual freedom rights, Islamist lawyers in Egypt are struggling with a government that is still relatively ”secular” in its outlook, as can be seen from the recent hisba-cases against alleged apostates from Islam.


However, the relation between constitutional symbolism and socio-political realities is often complex. In the Sudan, Islamisation of society has generally gone further than in Egypt. But Sudan’s constitution is in fact more inclusive and multicultural than that of Egypt. In article 1, the state of Sudan is defined as “a country of racial and cultural harmony and religious tolerance. Islam is the religion of the majority of the population and Christianity and traditional religions have a large following.” And in article 65 about the source of legislation, Shari‘a is mentioned as only one source among others: “The Islamic Shari‘a and the national consent through voting, the Constitution and custom are the source of law …”.


The question of religion and state, then, should always be approached as a multidimensional question. What is stated in the constitution and enacted at the legislative level must be seen in the light of cultural, social and political realities that may either be more favourable or more problematic to the minorities, in relation to what is stated at the level of national symbolism.


In the last part of my contribution, I will use the example of Norway to indicate some common challenges between European and Muslim countries in questions such as state and religion, religion as a national symbol, and the relation between group rights and individual rights when it comes to religious freedom.




About 90% of the Norwegian population, which amounts to a total of 4.5 million, is formally Christian. 87% belong to the dominant state church, the Lutheran ”Church of Norway”. In more recent times, Norway has got both a vigorous movement of secular humanism and a certain influx of adherents of other world religions – first of all Muslims. At the turn of the century, the number of Muslims in Norway amounted to some 2% of the population. In some main cities, the percentage is considerably higher.


In spite of mounting pluralism, however, nobody would contest the fact that Christianity is an integral part of Norway’s national history and its culture.


In the second paragraph of the Norwegian constitution, Lutheran Christianity is defined as no less than ”the public religion of the state”. This part of the constitution goes back to 1814. In the original version of the same paragraph, Jews and Jesuits were expressly denied access to the kingdom of Norway. Although a certain amount of religious freedom was established already in the 1840s and 50s, only in 1964 the unequivocal statement that ”all inhabitants of the kingdom shall be free to exercise their religion” was added to the paragraph.


A controversial question nowadays is whether religious freedom should also apply to the state church. Until the church reforms that were implemented in the 1980s, the Church of Norway was under firm state control. Most decisions in church matters have now been delegated to church bodies. But the government still appoints the bishops. Why? Probably because the state wants to retain some control of its national religion.


In any case, Norway remains ”a state with a religion”. Formally, the King is still the head of the Church, and half of the members of government are required to be Lutheran Christians. In principle, the system is not so different from that of certain Islamic states – although the practical consequences may of course be different.


Let us have a look, then, on how state religion works in practice in Norway. I will have some general questions in mind: Can state religion be modified into an inclusive form of multiculturalism? Or is it only the truly secular state that can ensure that religious freedom is practiced? And again: How should religious be conceived of? Only as an individual right, or as a group right too? 


During the last decades, there have been conflicting tendencies in Norwegian politics of religion. On the one hand, one has witnessed a general departure from the view of religion as a private matter. Both Social Democrats and Christian Democrats (who have alternated in power during the last decade) now affirm the public role of religion. As in the case of Russia, reaffirmation of public religion is carried out in a rather ambiguous way, and wavers between Christian nationalism and inclusive multiculturalism.


By a political alliance between the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, a new and compulsory subject of religious education was introduced in public primary schools in 1996, under the name of ”Christianity, Religion and Life Stances”. Before this new and inclusive subject was introduced, parents could choose between Christian education and the more neutral Life Stances alternative, or they could let their children opt out entirely from religious education in school. Now, only a very partial right of exemption remains, as the new subject is meant to be inclusive and non-confessional.


It is interesting to see that the new subject has been liable to quite different interpretations. Political signals too have been mixed. The general aims of the subject state unambiguously that the subject is meant to reaffirm the Christian cultural heritage as the main uniting bond between Norwegians. It has also been clear from the outset that teaching of Christianity would occupy in average 50% of the time. But at the same time, the new subject implies that other world religions too (such as Islam) will now also be taught extensively in Norwegian schools. In areas with a strong Muslim presence, extra time will be spent on teaching Islam.


Another overarching aim is that the new subject should promote interreligious understanding and foster a climate of dialogue. From the leaders of the religious minorities, protests have nevertheless been strong. They have seen the new subject mainly as an attempt to reaffirm Norway as a predominantly Christian country, as reflected both in the political rhetoric that has accompanied the new subject and by the larger space that is supposed to be set apart for teaching Christianity. A minority alliance between Muslims, secular humanists, Jews, Buddhists and New Religious Movements was formed in protest. Both the Islamic Council and the Secular Humanists have taken the case to court. They have sued the state for eliminating the right of exemption and thus – in their view – seriously violating the freedom of religion. The Supreme Court has recently turned down the case of the Secular Humanist, which will probably now be taken to the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg.


It should be added, however, that minority parents seem to have been slightly more positive to the new subject than their leaders. Depending on how the subject is practiced in local contexts, it could either be seen as liberal multiculturalism or as a soft kind of Christian nationalism focused on the cultural heritage.

In more general terms, one may ask what kind of religious education that serves a multireligious society best. Is it a religious education in school that tunes in with the historical traditions of the country in question? In case, should the religious heritage of the country be taught as a unified subject, or within a differentiated model of multiple choices? Maybe one should drop the contextual approach and rather opt for a more neutral education about religions and life stances? Or – considering the inherent problems in all models – perhaps one should have no religion in school at all, as the French and Americans still insist?


Another question is who should be the bearer of rights in matters pertaining to religion in school. Should the religious communities be consulted, with the purpose of arriving at some kind of national consensus? Or should one insist that the bearers of rights are individual children and their parents? In the latter case, one would need to retain the right of exemption within any model that might be agreed upon communally. As noted, both postmodern multiculturalism and classical Shari‘a tend to focus upon group rights, whereas modern secularism gives priority to individual rights.


Norwegian politics of religions is not entirely consistent when it comes to balancing group rights and individual rights. In some cases, religious freedom and religious rights are dealt with on the group level. In terms of finances, compensatory measures to the state church system were introduced thirty years ago to avoid discrimination. The system implies that every religious or life stance community that registers itself is entitled to exactly the same amount per member as the Church of Norway receives in financial support from the state and municipal budgets. One could have chosen to refund individual taxpayers for the part of the general taxes that goes into church finances. Instead, Norway has chosen to refund communities. In financial terms, Norway may thus be said to be a state with many religions. Even Islam is a state-supported religion in Norway in this sense.


A similar approach to religious freedom as a group right can be seen in the question of gender equality, which is generally high on the political agenda in Norway. Since 1978, Norway has had a law of equality between the sexes. But from the outset, the ”internal affairs” of religious communities have been exempted from the regulations of the law. This means that religious freedom as a group right has been given trump over against the rights of individual women to full equality within their community.


In other cases, individual freedom has been given absolute trump over against the cultural or religious practices of communities. For instance, special laws have been enacted during the 1990s against forced marriages and female genital mutilation – practices that most widespread in Muslim immigration groups from Pakistan and Somalia respectively.


More examples could be given, but I think these will suffice to illustrate the general questions at hand – which are:


*          In the age of globalisation, and in search for some global standards, to what extent should states be allowed to favour one religion over against another? Norway does, Sudan does – although in very different contexts, and with different results.


*          Can liberal multiculturalism go together with a communitarian definition of the nation’s cultural heritage as mainly Christian or Islamic? In my view, one can only respond to that question by referring to context and history. In Norway, it still makes sense to say that the cultural heritage is mainly Christian, although this must now be rethought and reformulated in the light of historical change. In Sudan, it does not make good sense to say that the cultural heritage is mainly Islamic. It is Christian just as much as Islamic, African just as much as Arab (a fact that the constitution confirms, but that actual politics has often contradicted).


*          In view of the problems faced when trying to combine the idea of a national religion with the ideal of multiculturalism, many would argue that the only viable option is multicultural, secular nationalism. Is that the better candidate for a global standard? Is that what all Christians should work for?


If one opts for the secularist alternative, one may have good and principled reasons for that, but also some problems with global realities. Not all Christians or Muslims (to say the least) would be ready to opt for multiculturalism wedded to secular nationalism. Secular nationalism tends to be the favoured option when Christians or Muslims are in a minority position. When in majority, both Christians and Muslims tend instead to pursue an idea of national religion that may be wedded to a more or less inclusive version of multiculturalism.


The intention behind my references to Norway and Russia has been to demonstrate that this is just as much a Christian and European problematic as an Islamic one. If we recognise that we face some common challenges, Christian-Muslim discussions about state and religion could perhaps be conducted in a more open landscape. The main prerequisite, however, is that realities and not merely ideas are addressed.