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.