Why Sweden’s newest minister upsets ‘smörgåsbord-Christians’

Reactions to the recent appointment of Employment Minister Elisabeth Svantesson, someone with clear religious convictions, exposes Swedes' general suspicion toward religion as well as the laziness of the political opposition, argues historian and commentator David Lindén.

Why Sweden's newest minister upsets 'smörgåsbord-Christians'

Compared with most of the world, Sweden is a non-religious country. If the average Swede practices religion, it’s by heading to a nearby church for weddings and funerals, or by watching a sermon on TV at Christmas. This relaxed – and during most of the year non-existent – form of religion can be traced back to the rise of the Social Democratic party as a dominant force in Swedish society during the last century.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the Social Democrats wanted to get rid of Sweden’s protestant state church, the Church of Sweden (Svenska kyrkan). They saw the church as an institution filled of conservative, reactionary, and puritanical pastors, much like the vicious bishop Vergeus in Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 Oscar-winning film Fanny and Alexander. But the Social Democrats’ hostility toward the church stopped after the Second World War, when they realized that the Church of Sweden could be an effective – although mostly decorative – part of the welfare state. Thus they kept the state church, but in the process religion in Sweden became, in a sense, non-religious.

The Swedish church was an institution that was used in times of celebration and in times of grief. But it was never allowed to play any political role, even when it could have been appropriate. An example of the conscious choice of separating the church from political life in Sweden is assassinated Prime Minister Olof Palme’s funeral, which was held in 1986 in Stockholm City Hall and not in a church, although Palme was eventually buried in a churchyard.

Today, most people that attend Church of Sweden services probably see themselves as “smörgåsbord-Christians” that pick and choose the parts of Christianity that suit them. The ability to be selective, combined with the fact that the Church of Sweden has become an increasingly secular and liberal institution, has resulted in a general scepticism towards those who are more devout or put their religion on display “a bit too much” compared with society-wide norms. First, this scepticism was directed towards those Christians that did not belong to Church of Sweden. As a result of increased immigration in recent decades, that scepticism has also been directed towards other religions as well.

But last week this suspicion toward religion unexpectedly resurfaced in Swedish politics when Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt reshuffled his government and appointed Elisabeth Svantesson as the new Minister for Employment.

A member of the Moderate Party, Svantesson has been in the Riksdag since 2006. Before she entered politics, she had an academic career focusing on how to integrate foreign-born Swedes into the labour force. Before she gained a spot in Sweden’s parliament, she was about to start a PhD in economics.

Svantesson is also a Christian, which was mentioned by Reinfeldt when he introduced her to the media at the opening of parliament. Had she simply been a run-of-the-mill member of the Church of Sweden, it’s unlikely the prime minister would have bothered to bring up her religion at all. But Reinfeldt probably felt compelled to mention it because Svantesson belongs to a church associated with Sweden’s Evangelical movement, which could be seen as a mild form of what in the United States would be labelled “Born Again”. Previously, she was a member of the Swedish anti-abortion organization Ja till livet (‘Yes to life’) and she has also been a member of the Christian congregation “Livets Ord” (Word of Life), which is the closest Sweden has to US-style Evangelicals.

While Svantesson has emphasized that she left those two organizations and that she now supports Swedish legislation on abortion and gay rights, the Swedish media responded to her appointment with a wave of critique focusing on her religious beliefs. The near witch hunt that ensued stemmed in large part from the fact that, when it comes to Christianity (or religion in general), Svantesson is profoundly non-Swedish.

Moreover, the media’s obsession with Svantesson’s religion resulted in her being grilled over issues like abortion, the Middle East, and gay rights that have nothing to do with her portfolio at the Ministry of Employment. The Social Democratic editorial page of the Aftonbladet tabloid nevertheless claimed that she still would have influence on such topics because the Swedish government operates by the doctrine of collective responsibility. By their dubious reasoning, Svantesson carries more political weight than one might expect since, apparently, she alone will be able to overrule the rest of a government, including heavy-hitting ministers like Anders Borg, Carl Bildt, and Birgitta Ohlsson – not to mention Fredrik Reinfeldt.

In Sweden, religion is seen as something acceptable as long as it is in an approved, modernised, and somewhat watered-down form. But when it turns into a strict set of rules and principles, religion quickly becomes something scary that should be attacked in every possible way.

Indeed, the appointment of Svantesson has pushed Sweden’s chattering classes out of their comfort zones. The reaction also suggests that the Swedish political opposition is rather lazy in its attempts to criticize the current government. Since they did not know enough (or bother to learn) about Svantesson’s political record prior to her appointment, the opposition instead decided to attack her religion and portray it as new and shocking information, despite the fact that it was well-known to anyone well-versed in the secret arts of Google searches and had enough curiosity to do a bit of basic research. If that’s the opposition’s approach to trying to convince voters it’s time for a change in elections next September, the Social Democrats and others on the left certainly have their work cut out for them.

David Lindén is a PhD student in history at King’s College London and is currently a political commentator for Borås Tidning (BT). Previously he was a visiting scholar at University of North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter here.

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‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.