Oddbjørn Leirvik (research associate), Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo:

Democracy, Religious Freedom and Nation/State Churches
- as seen from Norway/Scandinavia

Paper presented to The Fourth Tantur International Conference on Religion and Culture:
"Religious Freedom and Proselytism: Ethical, Political and Legal Aspects" (Jerusalem May 31 - June 4, 1998)

The (Lutheran) state church systems in the Scandinavian countries have several parallel features, but increasingly distinguishing marks as well. The Church of Norway comprises 88 % of the population, and still remains a state church. Sweden has recently decided to abolish its state church system (as from 2000), but the Church of Sweden will probably retain many of its characteristics a nation church, and seek for new kinds of interaction with the state. In Denmark, Folkekirken ("the church of the people") remains a state church without major reforms. In legal terms, Church of Norway lies somewhere in between Sweden and Denmark: the state church system will remain at least for a while, but has recently been subject to several reforms that have transferred authority from state and municipal to separate church bodies.

In the following, the situation in Norway will be analysed more thoroughly, with a view to the interrelation of constitutional/legal, institutional and current political factors. The state church system in Norway implies something more than just a pragmatic ordering of the affairs of a nation church. Constitutionally, one might just as well say that Norway is a state with a religion. At the same time, Norway subscribes to the human rights principle of a non-discriminatory freedom of religion.

As the constitution of Norway stands today, many would say it is rather contradictory in the field of religion - both prescribing a rather solid alliance between church an state and affirming an unfettered freedom of religion. The second paragraph of the Norwegian constitution reads as follows (in my translation):

(First part): All inhabitants of the kingdom shall be free to exercise their religion. (Second): The Evangelical-Lutheran religion remains the public religion of the state. Inhabitants confessing this religion, are obliged to raise their children in the same.

Other paragraphs prescribe that the King must confess and protect the Evangelical-Lutheran religion (§ 4), and that half (originally all) of the members of government are required to be members of the Lutheran church (§ 12b). Additional paragraphs that gives the King the prerogative to supervise religious services and doctrinal purity, as well as the right to select the clergy (§§ 16 and 21), have been put in brackets by a far-reaching reform process that has delegated most of the internal matters of the church to democratically elected church bodies. But the government still elects the bishops.

As for § 2 of the constitution (cited above), the second part - a state with Lutheran religion - came long before the first - freedom of religion. Freedom of religion was only inscribed in the constitution of Norway in 1964, and followed by a Law of Faith Communities in 1969. It almost happened, however, that freedom of religion was stated as a principle right from the beginning. When Norway got her constitution in 1814, the draft of the constitution actually included a paragraph on freedom of religion. But in the final version presented to the assembly, this paragraph had mysteriously disappeared, and nobody asked for it. Although the constitutional fathers of Norway subscribed rather wholeheartedly to the basic liberties of the French and American constitutions, freedom of religion apparently turned out to be too much of a good thing.

Before the time of the constitution, Norway had little or no experience with other religions, or even with other Christian confessions than Lutheranism. Catholicism was severely restricted after the Lutheran Reformation, that took place by royal decree and in accordance with the principle cuius regio, eius religio (control of religion corresponds to territorial control). Almost 300 years later, the fathers of the constitution found it necessary to state explicitly that neither (Catholic) Jesuits nor Jews should have any access to the kingdom. The ban on Jewish presence was lifted as early as in 1851. But curiously enough, it should take another hundred years before the prohibition of the Jesuit order was removed from the constitution, in 1956. And only in 1964 the principle of religious freedom was actually stated as part of the Norwegian constitution.

The struggle for freedom of expression in the field of religion was originally an intra-Christian strife. At the time of the constitution, all public preaching required the permission of the local Lutheran minister (priest), who was just as much an officer of the Crown as a servant of the Church. Some years before the constitutional fathers met, the famous Lutheran lay preacher Hans Nielsen Hauge had been imprisoned for several years. Hans Nielsen Hauge was a Lutheran Christian of a mystical temper, and with some links to the more radical Quaker movement. It was this embryonic lay movement within the Lutheran Church, and the presence of a tiny Quaker movement, that pressed the Norwegian state to grant the freedom of Lutheran lay preachers as well as other Christian denominations in the 1840s. This process towards freedom of religion must, of course, be seen in the light of more general factors in the development of Norwegian society - like the growth in literacy, and the emergence of popular movements independent of official authority.

Recent research has highlighted the role of Norwegian Quakers in the process towards freedom of religion. Being a tiny minority of previous prisoners of war in England, and constricted to Stavanger and some other parts of the Norwegian south-west when they returned, the Quakers still managed to shake the foundation of the Lutheran state. Their challenge was fairly radical: they refused to greet the Lutheran priest in the street, and they refused to do the military service. Together with the far more widespread movement of lay preachers and radical democrats within the Lutheran church, the Quakers were able to press the new national government to grant their freedom of religion only thirty years after the constitutional abortion. State, church and school

Still, during the next hundred years, freedom of religion was not the same as full fledged freedom of expression in society. Until 1969, only Lutheran Christians were allowed to teach religion (or "Knowledge of Christianity", as the subject was named until recently) in public primary schools. The underlying idea would be that only Lutheran teachers could properly aid the (at that time) maybe 95% Lutheran parents to fulfil their constitutional duty to raise their children as good Lutherans. Until 1971, confessionally based Christian instruction was the only teaching in religion offered by the state schools. Most non-Lutheran pupils opted out. Only as late as from 1971 an alternative was organized in some schools, under the more neutral label of "world views" or "life stances".

Behind the organization of a world views-alternative in primary school, there was the pressure not of other churches, but rather of secular humanists in Norway. Since the dawn of modernity in this country, Norway has had a rather strong but diverse movement of secular humanists. From 1956, they have been organized as the Humanist Federation of Norway. As of today, they organize about 1.5% of the Norwegian population, but may be said to represent even more people than that with their alternative ceremonies (name-giving, confirmation, burial) and their articulation of a non-religious ethics.

During the last 25 years, the religious scene in Norway has changed substantially, mainly because of the growth of immigrant religions. As for the state Church, that retains 88 % of the population as its members, only about 10 % would consider themselves as regular church goers. That means that when it comes to religious practice in community, the difference between the state church and the "free churches" is not at all as big as the rather overwhelming discrepancy in nominal membership would suggest. During recent years, increased pluralism within and among the churches has wrestled with a popular tendency towards reaffirming one's identification with the national church and the "Christian cultural heritage" - as symbols of national unity. As for other religions, Norway is the home of about 67 000 ethnic Muslims, which amounts to 1.5 % of the total Norwegian population of 4.3 millions. Out of the 67 000, statistics from 1997 show that 46 500 have now also organized themselves by becoming member of a Muslim congregation in Norway. The level of organization among Muslims in Norway have been rapidly increasing. In 1980, 10% of those with a Muslim background were members of a Muslim organization. In 1990, the percentage had increased to 50%, and as of 1997, 70% of immigrant Muslims are part of an organized Muslim community in Norway.

The dominant nation groups among Muslims in Norway are Pakistanis, Bosnians, Kosovo-Albanians, Turks, Iranians, North Africans and Somalians. In some parts of the capital, the concentration of the Muslim population has resulted in a Muslim majority in a few city centre schools, and a quite substantial group of Muslim pupils in several other schools all over the city. Oslo alone counts for almost 30 mosques, only one of them purpose-built, the rest of them being more modestly accommodated in converted industry or office premises.

During the last ten years, Norway has also witnessed a considerable growth of the Buddhist community, which is mainly of Vietnamese origin and amounts to 13 000 / 6 500 when counted by background/membership respectively. Hindus and Sikhs may also be counted in some thousands each, whereas the oldest non-Christian community in Norway, the Jews, only amounts to about 1 500.

The Catholic church has also grown considerably because of immigration, and is now the third in size among the Christian churches in Norway (soon equalling the Pentecostals in numbers). If we add new offshoots of radical Protestantism and widespread New Age-oriented spirituality among native Norwegians, one can really speak of a new religious Norway. A growing tendency of organized pluralism coexists with an increased number of "wandering souls", less loyal than before to what might be their formal religious affiliation (if any). Many would argue that in Norway like in some other Western countries, the phenomenon of "new religious movements" should rather be seen as a widespread cultural tendency of the liberal kind, generating a sort of non-confessional spirituality, than as a sectarian phenomenon. So far, Norway has only got some 25 years of experience with being a truly multi-religious society. Popular as well as official responses to the new situation vary a lot. Some people are ready to embrace post-modern pluralism without fearing to lose their own identity. Others would like to reinforce the state religion, or what most politicians and church leaders tend to call "the Christian cultural heritage" of Norway.

At the structural level, Norway remains a state with a religion. Different from Sweden, where the decision has recently been taken to abolish the state church system, the state church system of Norway still enjoys considerable popular and political support. But different from Denmark, where the notion of the nation church and the state church system has remained without major changes in the 20th century, there has been a steady work for increased church self-determination in Norway. During the 80s, the reform process culminated in the establishment of a church synod with wide-ranging authorities, and regional church bodies (dioceses) were given the right to elect and appoint most of the clergy and church personnel. But two important aspects of state rule still remain, also in Norway. First, the government still appoints the bishops and the deans, by which it may exercise considerable influence on the profile of church leadership. Second, almost the entire church budget (most salaries, much of other running budgets, as well as maintenance and raising of new churches) remains part of the general state and municipal budgets. Thus, Norway remains one of very few nation states in which the finances of a particular faith community is fully integrated in the public budgets.

Church of Norway-budgets are financed by the general tax bill - there is no separate "church tax". Without compensatory measures for tax payers outside the Lutheran church, this system would, of course, rather dramatically threaten principles of non-discrimination. But here comes the paradox: The same Norway that faithfully pays the salaries of all her Lutheran priests (as well as most other church personnel), offers the same amount of money per member to other faith communities as the state church receives per capita. In 1997, the combined state and municipal support amounted to 342 NOK (about 50 USD) per member/year for Oslo's part (the municipal part varies). State and municipal support according to this principle is accessible for any faith community that is willing to sign up for support. Practically all faith communities - even the smallest - receive public support of this kind, the Mormons being the only community of substantial size that has decided not to sign up for membership support from the authorities. Following an amendment to the law of 1969 that laid the ground for these compensatory measures, also secular humanists are entitled to the same amount of financial support. By this token, the state church of Norway finances its own vigorous opposition. Although the system may seem overly generous, it is of course only a matter of justice: this is the way Norway has chosen to refund that part of the official budgets that are set apart for the Church of Norway - not by refunding individual non-members, but their faith communities. The only condition is that individuals let themselves be registered. Since there is no membership fee in the state church, no membership fee is required as part of the registration of members in other communities neither.

In addition to the general support per member, the municipality of Oslo have even been given considerable financial support to Muslim qur'anic schools through the school budget. This has applied only to those Muslim pupils that have been exempted both from "Christianity" as well as the alternative subject "World Views" in public schools.

Given the fact that 88% of the Norwegian population still remain members of the Lutheran Church of Norway, and no other single faith community amounts to more than 1.5%, it goes without saying that there are still huge differences in the infrastructure of the overwhelming majority religion on one side and that of the numerous small minority communities on the other. Those who want to raise purpose built mosques or temples, face financial challenges far beyond what the membership fee may cover. But the principle of membership support may still be patent enough. Since this system of compensatory measures was introduced by law in 1969, Norway may be said to have not only one, but numerous state supported faith communities and religions - a wide range of free churches, but also Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhs and the Baha'i faith, as well as a likewise state-supported non-religious association of secular humanists.

Partly because of this system of compensation, many faith communities in Norway tend to have a rather pragmatic approach to the question of whether the state church system should stand or not. Many fear that in a state without an officially supported majority religion, there would be no political will to support any faith community. All communities would then have to raise their money directly from their members. That would, of course, be the normal global procedure, but a scenario looked upon with some fear by some of those enjoying state support in Norway. The Christian free churches, however, are well accustomed to raising their money from dedicated members, and less dependent on state support than the newcomers to the religious scene of Norway.

Is everything concerning freedom of religion in well order, then, in the kingdom of Norway? Probably not. Although rather content in financial matters, most minority communities would still argue that the state church system constantly threatens some fundamental human rights principles of non-discrimination. As indicated above, half of the ministers of the Norwegian government are still required to be members of the Lutheran church. By convention, only Lutheran priests are employed as hospital and prison chaplains, and cemeteries are under church administration. As for the relation between state and civil society, faith communities are treated as a protected zone of civil society in one particular respect: The Law of Equality between the Sexes does not apply to internal affairs of faith communities (not even to the state church).

More critical, according to the minorities, is the situation in public schools. Private schooling is a very weak tradition in Norway, and private primary schools encompass only 1.5% of all pupils in Norway. (In Denmark, private schools represent a much stronger tradition, and in recent years, several Muslim private schools have also been established).

Public schools in Norway, as well as public kindergartens, still have a Christian objects clause, stating that kindergartens and schools should help the parents to raise their children in accordance with the basic values of Christianity. For primary schools, the formulation runs as follows (in my translation):

In co-operation and understanding with the home, primary school is supposed to help in giving the pupils a Christian and moral upbringing, to develop their talents both spiritually and bodily, and to give them a good all-round knowledge so that they may become beneficial and independent human beings in home and society.

In 1997, a new system of religious education was introduced in primary schools. Until then, parents had three options as to religion in school: either (1) Christianity with a confessional, Lutheran basis, or (2) "world views" with a neutral or even secular flavour, or (3) nothing at all (with qur'anic schools as the only alternative for some Muslim children). From 1997, pupils are supposed to take part in the new and compulsory subject "Knowledge of Christianity with Introduction to Religion and World Views". Full exemption is not possible, only so-called "partial exemption" from activities that parents might deem to run contrary to their own faith (i.e. reading prayers aloud, participating in services). As the name indicates, there is a difference in ambition between "knowledge" (of Christianity) and "introduction" (to other faiths). However, the law presupposes that all religions are taught in the same, non-discriminatory way and with the same pedagogical approach, and treated individually as "a living source of faith, morals and life interpretation".

When first introduced, the new subject was met with considerable suspicion and protest from the non-Christian minorities. Some concessions, however, were made to the minorities right from the start of the process, and the new curriculum imply that for the first time, all Norwegian pupils will receive a substantial amount of knowledge of the other world religions, as well as philosophy and more secular outlooks on life. The intention has also been to open a space for dialogue-training in an increasingly multi-religious society. Despite these good intentions, to which most parents and faith communities will subscribe, minority representatives initially saw the new subject as a just another way of reinforcing "Christian culture" and "Christian and Humanist values" (a slogan from the 80s).

As already mentioned, the new subject is designed to be compulsory. Many minority representatives are still struggling for the right to opt out of the new subject entirely, and - if necessary - to organize alternatives as before. Both secular humanists, Muslims and others have considered taking the case to the European Court in Strasbourg. But many minority parents seems to have become slightly more positive, as several developments indicate that the subject may soon become more flexible and pluralistic in practice than in theory. Some minority voices (like the Islamic Council of Norway) have signalled that with some more adjustments, they would be ready to recommend the new subject to the parents. But the majority of Muslims - many of them took to the streets of Oslo to demonstrate against the new compulsory subject in 1997 - are still suspicious towards the original design of the subject ("Christianity +"), and critical of the idea of a compulsory subject which is mainly Christian in quantitative terms.

The case is replete with potentially wide-ranging consequences. Within say ten years, we will know whether a unified school system - including a unified system of religious education - will survive the new pluralism, or whether people will organize themselves differently in order to ensure their freedom of religion.

With a view to religious freedom, the situation is aggravated by the fact that the only application so far for a state supported Muslim private school was turned down in 1995. The reason given by the Ministry was that such a school would not be beneficial when measured against the over-riding ambition of integrating language minorities in public schools. The reference to the integration of immigrants and "language minorities" indicates that the principle of religious non-discrimination was considerably underplayed. Although only 1.5% of primary school pupils go to private schools, new schools with a Christian basis have steadily been introduced and accepted, raising the suspicion on the Muslims' part that they may not enjoy equal rights with Christian minorities.

It could be argued that religion in school is not primarily a issue between the Church of Norway and the other faith communities, but rather a question that relates to a new kind of (moderate) religious nationalism which is voiced by politicians more than church leaders. As of today, several competing versions of a public discourse reaffirming the "Christian cultural heritage" of Norway can be identified: a social democratic version emphasising the need to ensure that the church does not discriminate between regular church-goers and more passive members; a Christian democratic version sometimes with a slightly more revivalist touch; a traditional conservative version; and even some recent versions voiced by the extreme right that tend to use "Christian values" as a protective shield against the "foreign cultures" of the newcomers. The social democratic movement (the Labour party) has been the major political force in Norway during the last 50 years. In the social democratic tradition, there has been a strong backing of a unified school system, in accordance with the vision of a society with a maximum of equality (or even "likeness") both in social and cultural fields. The application for a state-supported Muslim private school in 1995 was turned down by the then social democratic government.

Until the mid-70s, the social democrats did not see religion as a major factor of social integration. Religion was rather referred to as a private matter, although held to be in need of some state regulation. From the beginning of the 80s, a major shift in the social democratic approach to religion could be recognised - in the direction of seeing religion as a public matter in its own right. The Labour party started to consider itself as a major agent in church politics - more specifically as the warrant of an open and inclusive church, against all tendencies of narrowing the outlook and services of the nation church. Without the help of the government, it might have taken some more time before seeing the introduction of female ministers (priests, in the 60s), and indeed a female bishop (in the 90s) in the Church of Norway. Generally, the social democratic government has been regarded in wide circles as the warrant of a more liberal or pluralist nation church, also warranting that the Church of Norway will truly remain "the church of the people". A test case during the last years, apart from women's issues, has been the rights of homosexual partners to be appointed by the church.

Since 1997, Norway has had a government made up by the three parties that are considered to constitute the political "centre" of Norwegian politics, with the Christian Democrats as the major force. The Christian Democrats have traditionally regarded themselves as political representatives of the more conservative brands of Christianity in Norway. It belongs to the irony of the situation that in 1998, the Christian Democrats were pressurized by their partners in government to elect the more liberal (in terms of current controversial issues) and unconventional candidate as the new bishop of Oslo (Gunnar Stålsett, formerly the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation). The result would have been different had not the prime minister abstained from voting. He is a close relative of the more conservative candidate, who is already the bishop of a Western diocese and received slightly more votes from the church bodies than his colleague. Election of new bishops still being a question of political decisions, church matters retain their weight not only as state affairs but equally as matters of considerably public interest.

It would be the hopes of many that church affairs would remain a matter of public interest also in a future situation without a state church system. As of now, church leaders in general tend to be rather more critical of the state church system than the political parties and the majority of the population. The governing bodies of the church (not the political authorities) have recently assigned a new state/church-committee, commissioned to carry out a re-evaluation of the entire state church system.

With only 25 years of experience to accommodate for extensive religious pluralism, Norwegians enter the future with a mixed heritage of state religion and strong subscription to human rights values. Many people committed to human rights issues would like to abolish the remnants of the state church system as soon as possible. I share this position, and believe that the church is finally maturing to maintain its role as the church of the majority of Norwegians without state supervision.

But it is not at all sure that a state without a religion will give better opportunities for faith communities to express themselves. In my opinion, the alternative to the state church system should not be a society in which religion is regarded entirely as a private matter. What should be sought for in my view, is rather a society and a state that actively values and supports religion and existential conviction in its pluralist expression. How can religion be treated as a public matter in a more inclusive way than a state church system allows for? Hopefully, the strong tradition in Norwegian society to regard religion as a public matter may prove to be a resource - also in a new, multi-religious context.

For a pluralist society to thrive, however, the majority population of Norway will have to learn to live more comfortably with differences. Although Lutheran Christianity has become more sensitive of minority issues, much of the impetus will have to come from the minorities. 150 years ago the joint efforts of a tiny Quaker minority and radical democrats within the majority population opened the door to freedom of religion in this country. The historical lesson might allow for some optimism as to the possibility of minorities to generate slow, but in the end wide-ranging change in society.


Although the Church of Norway is still mildly supervised by the state, it has its own potentially controversial agenda. Facing recent waves of asylum seekers, church people and church leaders have tended to be more liberal and more insistent on minority rights than the government and (possibly) the general public. Among other things, this has resulted in hundreds of refugees (mostly Muslims) seeking asylum in churches, some of them remaining protected guests for month and years while church people were lobbying their cases. When anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim attitudes have been voiced by populist politicians, church leaders have vigorously defended the case of the immigrants and Muslims, and strongly warned against current enemy images in some Christian circles. Last year, facing verbal attacks on Muslims from the extreme right during the electoral campaign, the leaders of practically all Christian churches in Norway (including the Pentecostals), as well as representatives of all major tendencies within the Church of Norway (conservatives and liberals), sat with Muslims in one of Oslo's mosques and expressed their sympathy and support.

Confronted with the new, multi-religious reality of Norway, there have been two different, but often inter-related, approaches. Facing the "wandering souls", missionary organizations have taken special efforts in order to reach all those who for different reasons look for alternative identities. Some previous Muslims (especially Iranians) have been baptized. In a global society of migration and shifting identities, conversion is a reality, and should not necessarily be looked upon with suspicion as a calculated result of proselytism. In Norway, like in the rest of Western Europe, the process goes both ways: some native Norwegians have embraced Islam, or practice Buddhism.

The majority of immigrants, however, remain faithful to their religion, and as indicated above, they increasingly organize themselves as religious minorities. The Church of Norway has initiated several initiatives, locally and nationally, towards a dialogue between respected partners. Among the more official expressions, one will find a thriving national Contact Group between the Church of Norway (together with ecumenical partners) and the Islamic Council of Norway. Towards more inclusive discourses in society?

Also on the political level, the challenges of inter-religious dialogue are gradually recognized. The Christian Democrat-led government has recently set up a "Values Commission", a political novelty meant to be an invitation to all sectors of civil society to initiate ethical discussions in the community. Behind the initiative, there is the recognition shared by large sectors of Norwegian society that values, life stances and religion is a public matter. It is not only the sake of the individual - it matters for the community. In the "Values Commission", representatives of the Islamic Council and some other religious minorities sit together with church people and representatives of general public.

Slowly, Norway is getting accustomed to being a multi-religious society. There are several challenges to be faced, both by the religious majority and the minorities. A major challenge might be the tendency on the part of the majority population to equate "Norwegian" with "Christian", alternatively "Christian-humanistic", values. Although it is not always clear what this would imply (considering the wide array of value positions within the Christian majority population), minorities are apprehensive of a public discourse that is sometimes heavily marked by a distinction between "us" and "they".

Hopefully, the churches will be in the forefront of a process towards more inclusive expressions of national unity - acting not only as representatives of the "Christian cultural heritage", but just as much as defenders of minority rights.