Christianity Rebounding in Europe

Buried behind the WSJ’s subscription wall is a fascinating look at the resurgence of a particular type of Christianity within Europe, and especially within the cold grey socialist paradise of Sweden. There an outraged ACLU-type demanded a hotel chain remove the Bibles from its nightstand drawers, and they complied. Then something rather un-Swedish happened.

A national furor erupted. A conservative bishop announced a boycott. A leftist radical who became a devout Christian and talk-show host denounced the biblical purge in newspaper columns and on television. A young evangelical Christian organized an electronic letter-writing campaign, asking Scandic [the hotel chain]:Why are you removing Bibles but not pay-porn on your TVs?

Scandic, which had started keeping its Bibles behind the front desk, put the New Testament back in guest rooms.

“Sweden is not as secular as we thought,” says Christer Sturmark, head of Sweden’s Humanist Association, a noisy assembly of nonbelievers to which the Bible-protesting hotel guest belongs.

The WSJ reporter seems pretty confident that Christian religiosity is on the upswing, and spends most of the long article trying to explain why that might be. Some economists have an idea about how that could have happened:

As centuries-old churches long favored by the state lose their monopoly grip, Europe’s highly regulated market for religion is opening up to leaner, more-aggressive religious “firms.” The result, they say, is a supply-side stimulus to faith.

“Monopoly churches get lazy,” says Eva Hamberg, a professor at Lund University’s Centre for Theology and Religious Studies and co-author of academic articles that, based on Swedish data, suggest a correlation between an increase in religious competition and a rise in church-going. Europeans are deserting established churches, she says, “but this does not mean they are not religious.”

Upstarts are now plugging new spiritual services across Europe, from U.S.-influenced evangelical churches to a Christian sect that uses a hallucinogenic herbal brew as a stand-in for sacramental wine.

Well, that’s not the kind of “ascension” He meant, but it sounds to me like that church is the exception, whereas charismatic and evangelical churches are more the norm–and are growing rapidly just like they are in the United States. That fact isn’t lost on the free-market theorists:

The enemy of faith, say the supply-siders, is not modernity but state-regulated markets that shield big, established churches from competition. In America, where church and state stand apart, more than 50% of the population worships at least once a month. In Europe, where the state has often supported — but also controlled — the church with money and favors, the rate in many countries is 20% or less.

“The state undermined the church from within,” says Stefan Swärd, a leader of Sweden’s small but growing evangelical movement.

The state supported churches are banal, PC, and empty; they need not compete for parishioners because the state supports them no matter how wacky their ideas, how tepid their sermons, or how empty their church:

Consider the scene on a recent Sunday at Stockholm’s Hedvig Eleonara Church, a parish of the Church of Sweden, a Lutheran institution that until 2000 was an official organ of the Swedish state. Fewer than 40 people, nearly all elderly, gathered in pews beneath a magnificent 18th-century dome. Seven were church employees. The church seats over 1,000.

Hedvig Eleonara has three full-time salaried priests and gets over $2 million each year though a state levy. Annika Sandström, head of its governing board, says she doesn’t believe in God and took the post “on the one condition that no one expects me to go each Sunday.” The church scrapped Sunday school last fall because only five children attended.

Just a few blocks away, Passion Church, an eight-month-old evangelical outfit, fizzed with fervor.

Passion Church is, obviously, not state supported.

What struck me about this piece was that I had just finished reading almost the same argument by Lawrence Henry in the American Spectator Online–about subsidized versus unsubsidized talk radio in the United States. AM talk is competitive, and it’s brash, vibrant and entertaining as the talent struggles–and succeeds–to attract listeners. Meanwhile subsidized radio (ahem NPR ahem) is very professionally produced, but it is also bookish, snobbish, and trending toward irrelevant. If the state-sponsored churches of Sweden lack butts in their pews, the subsidized talkers of NPR lack ears on their frequency. But like the sinecures of the Swedish priesthood, NPR doesn’t care if you listen or not. They get paid either way.

As for the Christian renaissance in Europe, I witnessed it firsthand a while back while I lived in England. I attended one of the more Anglican of Anglican churches–though it may not have received money from the government it was very much the Established Church. It offered a beautiful, traditional service in a breathtaking building. And it was slowly dying off; the few who came were treated to well-intended, erudite, but PC sermons. Once over sherry after church the vicar told me that modern Anglicans no longer believed in the Virgin Birth–including himself in that tally.

One night I went with some friends to another church, only nominally Anglican, which was meeting in a school auditorium. It was packed with young people and college students, and the two-and-a half hour (!) service was mostly praise music with a modern band and the lyrics projected on a movie screen. The sermon was a striking admonition–the college students were about to be released on Christmas break, and they would go home and likely be subject to ridicule and abuse from their families and friends for their decisions to become Christians. They had to be strong in their faith to put up with that scorn, because that was exactly what Jesus had said they would endure.

I dislike praise-music services, so I didn’t go back–but the contrast couldn’t have been more striking. Nonetheless I loved the muddled, dying church I attended, where one of the priests introduced me to a poem by R.S. Thomas, called The Moon in Lleyn, about the apparent end of religion. As best as I can put it together, it goes like this, although I know I’m missing at least one line:

The last quarter of the moon
of Jesus gives way
to the dark; the serpent
digests the egg

…the tide laps
at the Bible; the bell fetches
no people to the brittle miracle
of the bread.
Religion is over,
And what will emerge from the body of the new moon,
no one can say,

But a voice sounds in my ear: Why so fast mortal?
These very seas
are baptized. The parish
has a saint’s name time cannot
unfrock. In cities that
have outgrown their promise people
are becoming pilgrims
again, if not to this place,
then to the recreation of it
in their own spirits.
You must remain
Kneeling. Even as this moon
making its way through earth’s
cumbersome shadow, prayer, too
has its phases.

Perhaps in Europe a new phase has begun.


Sorry for the absurd length of this post, but let me add one last note on Sweden and religion. Although several sources claim their suicide rate isn’t quite as elevated as Americans like to claim it is, there was an increase as the welfare state took hold. A 1991 study* by a Wayne State professor

found that the fall in religiosity in Sweden was indeed associated with a rise in the suicide rates of the young.

The finding is a bit problematic, because the study couldn’t completely disentangle a simultaneous breakdown in the institution of marriage in Sweden, which may have been a contributing factor as well. But to whatever degree broken homes or a loss in religiosity were driving a rise in youth suicide, it stands as a rebuke to statist socialism and the abandonment of traditional institutions in the name of progress.

*Stack, Steven. The Effect of Religiosity on Suicide in Sweden: A Time-Series Analysis. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 30, No.4., pp. 462-8.

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