Vol. 1, No. 2
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
Catholic Controversy III: Philadelphia
The Oklahoman's Bible Belt
"Irreligion" in Denmark
JensenLast July, in an article on
the Fairytale Kingdom of Denmark, National Geographic described the
countrys 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
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
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 Informations "Belief and Ethics" section and his parish
Though these sections mark a significant development, they represent
only one of the ways religion has carved out more space in the Danish media. Womens
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 Heavens 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.