Fall 1998, Vol. 1, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 1, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A New Establishment?

Race and Disgrace

Church, Lies, and Polling Data

Catholic Controversy I:  Jesus Off Broadway

Catholic Controversy II:  Handling Pedophilia

Catholic Controversy III:  Philadelphia Story

The Oklahoman's Bible Belt


On the Beat
"Irreligion" in Denmark
by Tim JensenNew_Denmark.gif (5247 bytes)

Last July, in an article on the Fairytale Kingdom of Denmark, National Geographic described the country’s inhabitants as "irreligious Lutherans." Irreligious or otherwise, the Danes continue to define themselves, as they have for a millennium, in Christian terms. Indeed, the government recently decided to implant the image of the crucifixion from the 10th-century Jelling Monument on every Danish passport as an emblem of national and cultural identity.

Lutheranism became the only permissible form of Christianity during the Reformation, and while the Danish Constitution of 1949 established the principle of religious freedom, it left the Danish Lutheran Folkekirken ("Church of the People" or "Folk Church") as the privileged and financially supported established faith.

The country remains monoreligious: Eighty-six percent of Danes are paying members of the Folkekirken, with less than four percent officially classified as belonging to some other religious group. While barely three percent of the Folkekirken flock regularly attend religious services, most of them faithfully use the church for weddings, funerals, and other lifecycle events. The most popular and pervasive Christian festival is Christmas. The cozy and "traditional" Christmas Eve service (invented not long ago) has become increasingly popular, last year drawing more than a third of the Danish tribe.

The Folkekirken itself is governed by strict rules of conduct. Ministers who refuse to baptize children for lack of proof of the parents’ true faith are severely punished, as are ministers who participate in public demonstrations against abortion wearing their religious attire. As for the laity, anyone discovered to adhere to another religious faith is excommunicated. In actuality, it is estimated that over one million Danish Lutherans put their faith in astrology and various New Age religious practices.

Since the Iranian revolution, religion has frequently figured in Danish news coverage of political events "out there" in the world at large. The standard theme is "religion in conflict," purveyed from the perspective of the latter-day Protestant devotion to separating politics and religion, and to restricting religion to matters of personal faith and interpersonal morality. Violent nationalist and fundamentalist Hindus, Jews, and even Christians enter the media picture, but the predominant focus has of course been on the threat of Muslim groups to humanism, democracy, and "normal" religion. Sympathy for the Bosnian Muslims has derived not least from their being secular, i.e., good, Muslims.

Interest in Islam-or rather in radical variants portrayed as Islam by the media and as "true Islam" by the radicals themselves-has not been limited to coverage of foreign affairs. Muslims in Denmark, who represent 1.6 percent of the population, have in the past decade been covered more intensively by the Danish media than the 10 percent unemployment rate, social security, or environmental pollution. Typically, "Islam" and "Muslim culture" serve as code explanations for problems with criminality, social integration, and cultural marginality. While some journalists recently seem to have learned that even Islam and Muslims come in various forms, the media have helped create and shape an ugly public debate over "the Muslim threat to Danish culture," "Danish identity," and the supposed bonds between the Folkekirken, the Danish People, and the Danish Soil.

The upsurge of interest in religion has generated special pages and sections in even the most intellectual left-wing newspapers like Information and Politiken. These tend to be called "Belief and Ethics" or "Existence" (remember Kierkegaard?), and are run either by journalists devoted to "culture" or by specially hired theologians. All kinds of topics are treated in articles written by a wide variety of experts and interested lay folk. Although the offerings tend to have a critical edge, not long ago a reader wrote in to complain that he no longer saw a difference between Information’s "Belief and Ethics" section and his parish magazine.

Though these sections mark a significant development, they represent only one of the ways religion has carved out more space in the Danish media. Women’s magazines and popular TV entertainment shows tend to take New Age religion fairly seriously, albeit via an interest in the curious and exotic that hovers between reverence and ridicule. Last summer, Danes were taken up with a debate over whether lectures on astrology, Tarot card reading, and the like were educational or religious, and hence whether the state should underwrite them. This led to a discussion of the rationality or irrationality of New Age practices and beliefs-but not a discussion of whether these are more or less rational than traditional Christian beliefs and practices. No one broached the issue of state support for the education of Folkekirken ministers.

The new religions, while attracting less attention than a few years ago, figure in sensational events such as the Heaven’s Gate suicides. There have been discussions of problems with Danish procedures for recognizing such minority religions as Islam, the Hare Krishnas, and Scientology, with academics taking the leading role. In fact, journalists have learned something, and no longer content themselves with quoting only the opinions of prominent fear mongers. They have not, however, seen fit to cover the many European efforts to restrict freedom of religion, such as the establishment of official anti-cult committees. Only the Christian Daily has reported on the recent Russian legislative acts of discrimination.

The most remarkable recent trend is the treatment of the Folkekirken as an institution that, far from being outdated and only worth writing about when a minister gets drunk, actually has (or can develop) renewed spiritual and "cultural" significance both for individuals and Danish society at large. Public professions of Christianity and emotional stories about the spiritual awakening of leading intellectuals-including many former student radicals-have become increasingly popular, and are used as evidence that the Folkekirken is, after all, the authentically Danish form of religion. To be members of this "remote" faith with its mostly empty churches is seen as the grown-up way to be religious.

This trend reached new heights of popularity last December when, to the great delight of the Christian Daily, all the national secular newspapers published pro-Christian articles and devoted long, unctuous editorials on the blessings of Christmas and the national church. They singled out the incontestable values of Christian religion; the "message" of Christmas ("light," "hope," "joy," an "opening from without," something given and not taken); the "typically Danish and Protestant" attitude to religion; and the intimate bonds among the Folkekirken, Danish culture, and the Danish people.

Irreligious Lutherans indeed!

In fact, the Danish news media have no general policy or ideology when it comes to religion coverage. There is no tradition of having journalists specially educated to handle the subject. Journalism students study religion only when they want to learn about it as something extra.

Yet increasingly over the past five years, they have chosen this extra. In addition, working journalists have begun to look beyond Folkekirken theologians to academic scholars for expertise on religion (though many of the latter remain reluctant to sully their "scientific" standing by mixing it up in the public arena). Meanwhile, several influential groups within the Folkekirken have recently set up educational centers, including at the public universities, to educate ministers, theologians, and Christian teachers to meet the demands of the media.

Altogether, it may be hoped that these developments will lead to increased depth and sophistication in religion coverage. Journalists need to understand that how religion is covered can affect discrimination, intergroup violence, and the uses of symbolic power in Danish society. And they need to realize that they themselves are important actors in the ongoing interaction of religion and the secular. That means learning to see themselves as "irreligious Lutherans" who may not have all the answers as they write the present history of religion and help define the politics of religion and Danish identity today.