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State Churches, Advantages and Drawbacks - Johannes Aagaard

Table of contents:
Denmark As a Test Case
More Freedoms
A Historical Outline of Religious Liberty in Denmark
Freedom as Liberation Within the Church, Not From the Church
The Liberation of the Church Within the State, Not From the State
A Church - Not Regulated by Law
From State Church to People's Church
The People’s Church in the Furnace of the New Religions
Public Recognition of New Religious Movements (NRM)
The New Religious Movements and Their Finances
The Critique of Religion as a Human Right and a Human Duty
Denmark As a Test Case

To define the term state church conceptually and theoretically in such a way that it fits all over the world is obviously not possible. This term, however, does by necessity denote a close relationship between state and church. It can also mean that one or more churches (in Finland both the Lutheran and the Orthodox church) hold(s) a position of priority, - not necessarily of monopoly - within the framework of a state. It does at any rate imply that there is no equality of religions in such a state.

An important question will obviously be: Is freedom of religion possible without equality of religion? As Europeans we are in a situation, where US influence seeps in everywhere. The US model in which freedom and equality of religion both are taken for granted is making Europeans uncertain of their own traditional ways of realising freedom of religion on their own terms.1

Now it is important to realise that different conditions have created different traditions in Europe and in the United States of America. No absolute models of freedom should be pressed down upon others.

The state church model is under heavy shelling from the artillery of free-church spokesmen, and in many ways rightly so, for state church models have at times served very dubious purposes. It is however not simply so that Europeans should follow the US model, and then our problems will be solved. On the other hand a European isolation is not our usual way of solving today's problems. Europeans have always been learning from others.

Let us therefore take a fresh look at the state church tradition and try to understand it in a critical but not destructive way. It is a reality, and it does not serve a good purpose to deny or neglect facts.

I have been given the task to speak on the subject State Churches, Advantages and Set-backs from a Danish perspective. That is my limitation, but hopefully also a qualification.
More Freedoms

Freedom of religion is not the only freedom. It has been called "the Mother of All Freedoms", and possibly rightly so in many ways. The struggle for freedom of religion has in fact given birth to a deeper an wiser understanding of the nature of freedom as such.

Still, however, the freedom of conscience (thought) and the freedom of speech (communication) are both wider than the freedom of religion. Religion is a community project, and you can allow all sorts of religious communities and give them all rights of practising, but still such a liberty-approach may promote sup­pression of freedom of thought and freedom of conscience and freedom of speech and communication.

It is too easy just to let freedom mean that we abstain from control. To give freedom to people who steal other peoples freedom is not an act of responsibility. To give freedom without limitation can mean the very destruction of freedom.

We all know that a freedom of the bore to talk endlessly at the conference means to steal the other participants' freedom and their right to speak. To give freedom to the brute is to sacrifice the freedom of the weak. To give freedom to the psychopath can mean the end of all true communication.

There is no easy solution to this. And those who pretend that it is easy to give freedom to people who are not set free themselves but are victims of aggression and aggressors themselves, such "prophets" are false.

The same insight is relevant in relation to religions, of course. Religions are very human, but not always very humane. To allow freedom of religion to whatever organisation, which calls itself "a religion", is an expression of irresponsibility and may be a betrayal of freedom as such.
A Historical Outline of Religious Liberty in Denmark

Neither in pre-reformation time, nor during and after the reformation can you find "the church as such" in Denmark. The Christian faith was there, and the Christian rituals were performed, whereby Danes were made Christians. But the concepts of state as well as church were absent. There was a population or a people with its 1) royalty, 2) nobility and 3) clergy, and these were seen as parts of the community which was neither a confessional state, nor a state church.

After the reformation the long-lasting struggles with the Papal authority and the Roman jurisdiction disappeared. The bishops and ministers now became servants of the king only. The Danish people

was considered "a Christian people under God", who ruled through His consecrated king and His loyal servants, of which some were clergy, but not therefore without influence in the kingdom as a whole.

King Harald Bluetooth set up his huge baptismal "certificate" in the form of a rune inscribed stone monument in Jelling in Jutland around 980, declaring that he had "made the Danes Christians", and so they remained. In Danish history it was never seriously considered to change this religious option. The Jews and the Moslems were considered enemies of Christ. Other forms of the Christian faith were named "religions", not denominations or confessions. As religions they simply belonged to another part of the world, another region.

According to the peace-formula from 1555 the ruler of a region had to decide what religion the region belonged to (cujus regio, ejus religio). Accordingly the Danish kings had to keep the Lutheran religion as the "pietas" of the Danish region. The term "pietas" at that time approximately meant what "spirituality" means today but definitely as in a "holistic" sense, i.e. including both the spiritual and the material realm.

The Lutheran religion was accepted in the form which was sanctioned in "Confessio Augustana" in 1530, i.e. in a moderate form, not yet influenced by Lutheran orthodoxy, but still being quite clear in its Lutheran profile.

Other Christian "religions" were tolerated, but not as alternatives for Danes. French refugees were welcomed, but isolated. Catholics were accepted within the area of the diplomatic mission, but not outside. Also Jews were tolerated, but again within their own sphere. Toleration was quite another matter than toler­ance in the modern sense.

To be a Dane came to mean to be a Christian, and to be a Christian meant to be a Lutheran. The Danish culture became through and through, for good and for bad, Lutheran, but Lutheran in a very special way: Danish Lutheran.

Now we have to make a distinction. Lutheran culture in Denmark was not nationalistic. The simple reason was the fact that there was no Danish nation up till the middle of the 19th century, when the national and the liberal and the romantic trends fused into a new and quite different form of Danish Christianity, marked by the Nationalist dimension.

But between the reformation in the 16th century and the liberal "revolutions" in the 19th century a Danish Lutheran spiritually came into being, which formed the mentality of the Danish population to a degree which can probably only be compared to the Eastern Orthodox traditions (Greece and Russia for instance)

The most important expression of this spirituality is found in the great Danish hymn-writers each of whom represent a particular century and a special chapter of Christian faith: Kingo as an expression of the 17th century Orthodoxy, Brorson as an expression of 18th century pietistic orthodoxy. Grundtvig as an expression of the 19th century synthesis of Orthodoxy and Romanticism and Liberalism. And with the first tendencies towards Nationalism and other -isms within Modernism and Modernity.

Danish democracy has the same history. Schools and other institutions of the modern times were founded in the gardens and fields of the pastors, and especially the Folk High Schools became a full-fledged expression of Danish Christianity.
Freedom as Liberation Within the Church, Not From the Church

This short outline indicates that the modern times first of all arrived within the orthodox Christian tradition and were promoted by leading Christians as a people's concern. The term people (Folk) was added to all initiatives of modernity (libraries, communal dairies, co-operatives, adult education etc.) and consequently also to the church.

Liberty was at the heart of all these folks initiatives, and freedom (frihed) was the code to this new active spirituality. This combined well with the freedom, advocated in the Reformation as the spiritual freedom of the Christian person. There was no serious dualism between Lutheran Christianity and the modern world, for both were inspired by the liberal movements for progress.

There were conservative reactions of course, but one can hardly call them reactionary. The specific Danish trend seems to be the ability to combine Christian orthodoxy with a liberal mentality. You could also say it like this: Classical Christianity never was dissolved by or alienated from modernity. There were of course controversies, but not in such a way that Danish people lost confidence in the People's Church (Folkekirken).

Freedom therefore came to mean reform and renewal within the Lutheran tradition and without secessions from the established church and its belief-system. Denmark therefore got very few and very small "free-churches", i.e. alternative denominations. They were normally not felt as a necessary consequence of the new world, of progress and liberty. They were rather felt as un-Danish and foreign elements.

The state church or People's Church was thus able to embrace the new trends and give the necessary freedom to the new tendencies within the people and the church itself. The new freedom thus became a liberation within the church itself as a People's Church, not a liberation from the church.
The Liberation of the Church Within the State, Not From the State

The period after 1849 first of all meant the introduction of liberal democracy and the democratic constitution. In fact it did not change much, but confirmed a development which had long time been on the way. The "revolution" in 1849 therefore took place with a minimum of pressure and no violence. The people told the king to give them a free constitution, and he said: "Why not?” and "That was it."

In the religious dimension even less was changed. There had been problems with Baptists, for the Danish spirituality considers children’s baptism a very important part of the creed. But even the most orthodox parts of the Christian people did not want pressure or police involved in such a spiritual matter. So the Baptists had their way, but very few people in fact followed them.

The constitution did not mention religious freedom as such. But its liberal emphasis on liberty and freedom is very clear. I need not take time to read the relevant paragraphs for they are not much different from the similar paragraphs of similar constitutions from all over Europe in the middle of the last century.

The most important point, however, is the fact that in the Constitution the Lutheran church did not lose its special position, on the contrary. One can argue that only after 1849 do we see an independent profile of the church within the Danish state.

The most decisive paragraph was section 4: (I prefer to use the numbering). In this section you read: "The Lutheran church shall be the Danish "Folkekirke" (People's Church) and shall as such be supported by the state". All Danes could stay or leave, but the king/queen had to belong to it. The reason was that "royal degrees" still constituted a very important part of the government of the church. The king and his people had to remain a unity, also confessionally. The Lutheran confession in Denmark in this way never became a denomination among other denominations. It was and is the religion of the country. It is therefore possible to see the development in the middle of the last century as a liberation of the church within the state, not from the state. The church remained an important part of the Danish people and therefore also of the state of this people in its new period based on the principles of democracy.
A Church - Not Regulated by Law

The fathers of the constitution had the intention that both the Lutheran church and religious communities which dissented from the People's Church should be "regulated by law". It meant that both the Lutheran church and alternative churches should have their own constitution. That was included as a legal promise, but was never respected by the politicians. And never wanted by the people!

A major reason for this "forgetfulness" was probably the economic situation which resulted from the wars in 1849 and in 1864, where one third of the royal Danish kingdom was lost to Germany. But on the other hand it is a fact that this defeat, similar to the defeat in the wars against England in the beginning of the century, released a lot of activities and a real renewal in the Danish community, but hardly in the organisation of the Danish church.

The explanation for the lack of constitutional change in the church was probably a conservatism which was rooted in a resistance to change of what generally was considered natural and meaningful. The Lutheran church was the People's Church, and the people had its parliament. In this parliament were the people who cared for the church, and the leaders of the church cared for the democratic development of the people. There were of course anti-democratic elements in the clergy. But they least of all wanted a democratic constitution for the church. Therefore - all in all - there was very little reason for structural change, and very little change did take place. The People's Church did, however, gradually get a sort of constitution on the level of the congregations, but never a traditional synodical structure. That was and is opposed first of all by pastors of all sorts. Very few really wanted a modern church, ready to take care of its own life and mission.

The resistance of the pastors (ministers) against a real liberalisation of the church was and is probably connected with the fact, that pastors of the People's Church were and are civil servants, appointed by the king and until recently paid by the state. So are the bishops. This dependence is certainly reflected in the front against disestablishment.

The conclusion, however, must be that Denmark has a church which is not regulated by law, at least not by the fundamental law, which is found in The Constitution. The Danish People's Church consequently is unconstitutional and out of touch with the basic intention of the law-givers in 1849. But since the population and its political representatives have chosen to continue this "unlaw­ful" condition, and no one with the necessary mandate has put forward a legally valid protest, the system will probably go on as a "relic" from the past.
From State Church to People's Church

As a whole the Danish population remained members of the People's Church. Only when a register of taxpayers recently was established was it possible to answer the question: How many are in and how many are out? At present still 88 per cent of the population belong to the Lutheran church. There is a tendency to leave the church, but the number of walk-outs are decreasing. And the number of people baptised is going up, in some places more than in others, but still there is a clear tendency.

It is easy to leave the church.. There are solid economic reasons to leave, for you can save much money by not paying the special church-tax. Still it is not very obvious for most Danes that they should leave. They may stay away from the services on Sundays, but they as a whole participate when family members are baptised, confirmed, married and buried. The popular term "four wheel Christians" indicate that you are taken to church (in a pram, in a taxi, in a bridal carriage or limousine, or in a hearse).

Most Danish people consider themselves Christians, even if they also consider it obvious that they are not and should not be practising Christians. It has become normal that leaders in the political and cultural sphere confess themselves Christians, but at the same time they often admit that they do not believe in God and that they are not "religious", whatever meaning they apply to that term. Christians or not, they want to remain members of the church, the People's Church, and they do not want any radical change of its present form.

A state church has developed into a People's Church in Denmark, and it hardly makes any sense to rebuke the Danes for their loyalty to it. It is certainly part of the genuine concept of freedom that people can make up their mind and conserve patterns of church life which may not be the best possible for the modern world.

A comparison can help to illustrate the Danish situation. Danes in general appreciate their system of health-care. They support the medical institutions, but hope never to have to use them. Most Danes look at the churches in a similar way. They have to be there - like the hospitals - and they have to be modern and fine, but at the same time Danes expect never to get so bad that they have to use them.

It is of course an open question if a church, a Christian church can survive under such conditions? The easygoing and widespread popularity of Christianity and of the People's Church may be the worst danger for its identity and mission. But that is another story. Or is it?
The People’s Church in the Furnace of the New Religions

The post-modern pluralistic community is coming, and the question is how a state church - a People's Church - like the Danish church can relate to such a community. Modernity was accepted, even in its radical and secular forms and to such an extent that matters of a credal nature sometimes were and are solved by a majority vote in parliament. The substance of the People's Church was not dissolved, but definitely weakened by this development.

Both the alternative "free churches" and secularisation in general had an obvious relation to the Protestant faith of the Danish church. The integration of modernity meant additions to the traditional pattern of church-life, but never meant a destruction of it. The acceptance of secularisation has threatened many old and classical positions (not least by acceptance of female pastors, abortion, homosexuality (i.e. same sex marriages), common law "marriages", etc.). But fundamentally the central parts of the classical creeds still stand in the People's Church. In a way one can argue that they are strengthened at the end of the 20th century. The Danish church as a People's Church still point to the creeds of the apostles as their firm ground and as expressions of the Biblical faith.

In the furnace of the new religions it may be quite different. But that possibility has not yet been considered by most of the leaders of the Danish People's Church. They still expect the new religions to be a short-lived phenomena, a sort of cultural flu, which is unpleasant, but not really dangerous.

Speaking as we are about the People's Church, one can conclude in a preliminary way that the reactions to the new situation from the People's Church is neither more, nor less irresponsible that the reactions from the free churches or from the Catholic church. In general the same attitude is adopted: Think of something else, and it will pass away eventually.

This escapism is of course not realistic. The new spiritualities are not passing away. They have come to stay.
Public Recognition of New Religious Movements (NRM)

The way in which the Established Danish church functions in relation to the NRMs, is best illustrated by referring to the proceedings for applications for religious organisations to get public recognition. In general there are good reasons to maintain that the NRMs enjoy a maximum of freedom in Denmark. The permissiveness of the Danish society is nowhere so obvious as in this case. Anyone can anytime and anywhere create and recruit to any religion imaginable. There is total religious freedom in the Danish society. Humans may at times miss the point, and there may be maladministration, but the system which is administered is open for anything, therefore also for abuse.

It has to be admitted, however, that the special Danish system for dealing with applications for public recognition is funny, (both as "funny weird" and as "funny ha-ha"). The procedure is illogical and filled with inconsistencies.

The procedure had - and still has - a certain sense in relation to the various Christian free-churches, and the terminology used in the legal texts had its meaning from this "inner-Christian" process of recognitions. But in relation to all sorts of cults, sects, and new religious movements which are qualitatively different from the Christian church the procedure has become obsolete and can only create misgivings. This analogue recognition has become a difficult problem in Denmark of today.

The major problem is that the procedure aims at verifying that the applicant is a "trossamfund" i.e. a community of faith, that it has a "trosbekendelse", a confession of faith, and that it "dyrker Gud", worships God etc. and that is obviously all meant in the Christian sense and cannot be applied to radically differ­ent religions, for they are not analogous to the Christian free churches.

The situation is made even more complex by the fact that applications in order to get public recognition are dealt with by the Ministry for Ecclesiastical Affairs, and that this Ministry traditionally operates in these matters according to the guidance given by the Lutheran bishop of Copenhagen and his advisor.

But the procedure is especially made complex by the fact that NRMs can only get the recognition in connection with the right to perform weddings! This implies that they seek and eventually get a small part of the civil mandate which Danish society may delegate, and such a delegation takes place on behalf of the Danish people and its government.

Therefore this right to perform weddings can only be given to persons (priests or deacons), who represent a religious community which has a clean reputation. Neither the person in question, nor the community he or she represents can exercise unlawful acts, if a recognition is to take place.

Public confidence is necessary if the state shall give away or delegate even a small part of its authority to a religious community and the person representing this community. That is why, for instance, Scientology has not been able to get this recognition from the Danish state.

But this same reason of course also makes the relation to the Lutheran bishop and his advisor questionable. The process of recognition is a matter for the state and its administration only.

The Danish procedure in this matter is the opposite of the US practice. While the public recognition in the US depends on the recognition of an organisation by the tax-authorities, a similar recognition in Denmark is achieved by getting the legal right to perform marriages on behalf of the state. As a consequence of such a recognition tax-privileges are achieved automatically. Both systems, however, are untenable.

The importance of this procedure for public recognition has however been exaggerated in a very confusing way. It is in fact a minor affair and has nothing to do with the "freedom of religion". All the religious movements and religions which have not had the recognition - for various reasons - are still free to do whatever they want and to believe whatever they imagine.
The recognition is something extra, not anything on which the freedom of religion depends. Public recognition gives a privilege, and a privilege is by definition not a right. I need not go into the details of the procedure, since competent researchers have already dealt with it.2
The New Religious Movements and Their Finances

One should of course not minimise the importance of finances. Recognition by the state - also the analogous recognition implies certain financial advantages. And there is also ambition connected with such recognition. But it is not at all the only way for NRMs to get public support from the Danish community. The Danish government gives much larger support to religious and cultural activities through the Ministry for Education. It supports Folk High schools, and for instance Transcendental Meditation has two such schools for "adult education", and the free churches have a considerable number of these treasured educational institutions. And the Ministry of Education supports adult education in general and gives millions of Danish kroner to yoga-classes, meditation-exercises, relaxation-groups, astrological experimenters, re-incarnation experiences and to all sorts of new spirituality. These subsidies can be had without any public recognition.

Many movements of the NRMs type run their own radio- and TV programmes and they also have their promoters within the public radios and TV-institutions. The NRMs could have even more public support, if they organised themselves according to the democratic models and accepted public and democratic insight in their finances. The Danish Youth Council administers millions of kroner to all sorts of democratically organised youth movements. But the NRMs have not been tempted to go that way for money, and it is not difficult to understand why.

All these possibilities are offered by the Danish community without any control of the content-matter. One can do whatever one likes and believe anything and still be financed by the state of Denmark.

It is consequently pure nonsense to propagate the idea that religious minorities are "suppressed" and "persecuted" in Denmark. One could argue to the opposite: That the Danish permissiveness has gone so far that it is impossible to play the role of the suppressed minority. But even that is not completely accurate. There will always be advocates who will invent some sorts of martyrdom irrespective of the reality of the situation.

The defence of the religious minorities will often be motivated - in Denmark at least - by a aggressive bitterness against the Christian church. If you can promote the NRMs, then you'll be able to hamper the Christian faith.
The Critique of Religion as a Human Right and a Human Duty

In an open society as Denmark with a People's Church which is first of all comprehensive and tolerant, the problem is not really "suppression of religious minorities". The problem is the lack of a critical dialogue.

The state can obviously not accept all sorts of religion indiscriminately. Abuse of religion is common all over the world. Religions seem to be the best and the worst humankind has invented. Religious freedom and religious co-existence depends on the realisation within the religions that mutual criticism is a necessity.

It is not an act of fanaticism and aggression when religions relate to one another in a critical way, on the contrary. If you fanatically only care for your own community and its welfare, abuse will creep in.
There are some die-hard liberals who seem to consider mutual politeness the essential characteristic among religions. They also - consequently - consider all sorts of mutual criticism an abomination. When a professor of sociology of religion can characterise all sort of such criticism in Denmark as expressions of "zealous combatants"… "militant activists"... "militant opponents"... "militant combatants"... then one wonders about the motive.3

Such aggression is, however, just an explicit version of the implicit tendency which is coming more and more to the forefront within most churches, including the Danish People's Church. It is taken for granted that tolerance means to "live and let live". When you want to realise a free society with peace and good will among the different believers, then you cannot really challenge on another. This seems to be presupposition. This absolute tolerance therefore inevitably becomes intolerant towards those who maintain that critical dialogue is necessary and try to realise it in practical apologetics.

The Danish Christian apologists, who engage in a critical dialogue with the NRMs, maintain that you always understand from a standpoint, and if you are not aware of that, your understanding becomes blind and misleading. Therefore: put your cards on the table and do not hide your aggressive attitude to the church behind a blind acceptance of the NRMs. The church also needs critique both from the protagonists of the NRMs and from the NRMs own antagonists.

But a People's Church with its emphasis on comprehensiveness and permissiveness can not easily participate in such mutual critique. Such a church in such a society is therefore vulnerable when confronted with an invasion of NRMs the way it happens in these years.

On the other hand this invasion could be the necessary means for awakening the People's Church and the other Christian churches in Denmark to their missionary responsibility.

All identity comes by a process of identification and often after a de-identification. This is already felt in relation to Danish Islam. Danes who have been unable to identify themselves as Christians can at any rate de-identify in relation to Islam, and if they have good reasons for that de-identification this may be a sound and healthy religious experience. In the same way in relation to all the gurus and masters from the camp of NRMs, who may also function as a wake up call of the People's Church and its leadership.

Mutually the Christian faith may become a leaven also for the various New Age types of alternative religion. The Gospel can find its own way.


1) The European Convention on human rights adds to the uncertainty. Is there in the Danish system an inbuilt discrimination against the citizens who have an alternative religion? There is definitely a number of "positive discriminations" inbuilt in the Danish system: Only Lutherans can be military chaplains, students pastors, hospital chaplains etc. Only Lutheran preachers are invited to give the annual sermon when the parliament begins its work. And first of all: Only the people's church receives direct financial subsidies from the state to restore the old churches and to general purposes. This state-dependence has, however, been drastically reduced since the last war, and the people's church as a whole can operate on the basis of its own income via church taxes, paid only by its own members.

See also Hanne Fledelius and Birgitte Juul: Freedom of Religion in Denmark, The Danish Centre for Human Rights, København 1992, p. 104-116.

2) Arild Hvidtfeldt in 1989 published a report on Practical legislative applications in Denmark concerning New Religious Movements. See Conscience and Liberty, publ. by International Association for the defence of religious liberty, Spring 1989 no 1 p. 85-90. The report is quite biased, but still communicates important information.

Margit Warburg gives a very detailed and important and fair analysis of the same theme in her "Lige ret for Loke såvel som for Thor. Religionsbegreber og retspraksis i forbindelse med religioner uden for Folkekirken" in Chaos, No 26, 1996 p. 9-32. See also her presentation "De nye religioner og den danske stats­magt: Sager i forbindelse med Scientology".

See also Jørgen Stenbæk. "Ægteskabsindgåelse, anerkendelse af trossamfund og religionsfrihed" in Religiøse Minoritetsforhold, Århus 1986 by Ragnhild Kristensen og Ole Riis.

3) The terms are found in the above mentioned article by Arild Hvidtfeldt.