Of Vikings, Trolls And Translation Trouble

How I Learned About Church And State In Norway

I had a problem in July. I spent a few weeks in Norway – that was great, of course, and not the problem. But when I go out of the country, I try to collect newspaper clippings in order to write a column about the differences and similarities between church-state relations there and in the United States.

This worked great in Australia, Scotland, New Zealand and Ireland over the past decade. Those countries have English newspapers. Norway, on the other hand, does not. 

What could I do?

My solution was to turn to history and see what I could learn. I also had lunch with former Americans United staff member Rena Levin, who moved to Norway several years ago. I think this two-pronged approach worked.

Norway, it turns out, is all about Vikings. Indeed, it was “pagan” Olaf who converted to Christianity, became King Olaf II and was later canonized as a saint. His post-conversion conduct was fraught with some controversy.

According to legend (of which Norway has many, including ones about trolls who apparently don’t take any position on religion), Olaf would walk up to people and put his sword on their right shoulders, inquiring, “Are you a Christian?” A negative response did not lead to an invitation to attend Bible study but, rather, the immediate removal of one’s head.

Norway also had a “witch hunting” era. One of the most famous incidents involved Anne Pedersdotter, wife of a clergyman, who was accused of causing the mysterious deaths of three women and one pear tree. Forty-eight people testified against her; no one rose in her defense. She was burned on April 7, 1590. In a sadly ironic twist, Pedersdotter herself had accused a neighbor of witchcraft just two years earlier.

In another tragic but colorful religious history event, Fantoft Church, one of the oldest stave churches in Norway, burned to the ground one night in 1992. It turned out to be arson committed by “death metal” rock musician Varg Vikernes of the band Burzum. But his involvement only came to light when he was first convicted of the murder of a musician in a competing band.

Discussion of this musical altercation focused some attention on whether the lyrics of both musicians promoted “atheism” and whether that was the key to the criminal acts. These bands’ CDs are still prominently on sale at Norway music stores, but I couldn’t confirm what the lyrics are about because they are all in Norwegian.

The lovely church was rebuilt, but when I spoke to the kindly caretaker/admission collector about the incident he said ominously, “I will not speak of that.” Yes, it sounded just like you are imagining it would.

Norway today, however, is generally quite a tolerant place. These events from history have culminated in a society that welcomes people of many faiths and none. Although the (government-established Lutheran) Church of Norway claims the nominal allegiance of the vast majority of the population, Norwegians are moving to establish their version of church-state separation.

The history of Norway’s constitutions would be a book-length manuscript – and I’m sure that someone has produced such a volume, probably in Norwegian. In summary, however, there have been periods when the official church – Catholic or post-Reformation Protestant – has had closer and looser ties to the government, with closer prevailing in practice most of the time.

Things may soon change. During our tour of the huge cathedral in Trondheim, our guide informed us that in 2013 or 2014 the “separation thing” would be happening.

Upon questioning, she said “nobody really knows what this will mean,” but indicated that church personnel (and church guides) might no longer be paid salaries by the state. This turns out to be an unlikely immediate result.

Although Parliament has moved in the direction of giving the church more autonomy – it can name its own bishops if they are democratically elected – government is still likely to pay many church employees. In part, this is a function of the Norwegian principle that virtually all charities get funding from the government, and churches get it proportionate to their membership.

So, as it turns out, our “guide” in Trondheim may not have to find a job at some other location like the big nautical museum or the Oslo amusement park. 

There is something else, however, she may need to consider: Church membership is declining so rapidly, that the institution may soon have so few members the government subsidy will dry up (like the half-dried codfish I had for my 62nd birthday dinner).

I like churches and a lot of what goes on there. On the other hand, I can’t help but see the Norwegian experience as one more example of how religion is always undermined by the alleged “assistance” of government. Government wants to dictate policies and provides funding for churches. That means churches may decide that asking people to put their own money where their faith is seems like just too much trouble.

Finally, the church becomes so state dependent that its vitality withers. Keeping kirke and regjering separate is critically important for the health of both institutions, whether it’s in Norway or here.

See, I did learn a bit of Norwegian after all!

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.