Branding the Church of Norway

June 06, 2016

State Church services and Bible quotes are promoted on public transport in Oslo this year, but what is a secular public sphere supposed to look like? Do we want Jesus and Darwin on our daily commute?

On one of my recent commutes on public transport in Oslo, I was puzzled by some ads on the subway promoting baptism in the Church of Norway. I cannot recall seeing advertisement for church services in Norway before and I’m therefore wondering, why now?

There were two posters that I noticed. One depicted a young adult female being baptised alongside a text reading “Peace be with you” and “Welcome to baptism”.


Private photo.

The other poster showed a baptism of a baby in the arms of his/her father with the text “A good start to life” and with the same welcoming by-line as the other poster.


Private photo.

Now, there is nothing controversial in the form or content of the posters, but facing the Church of Norway as a commercial actor on public transport is – if not controversial – at least something of a novelty.

It is curious that the state Church of Norway, funded by its members over the tax bill, invests in marketing like this. Interestingly, the bishop of Oslo makes sure that they cut a sweet deal with #Ruter, the public transport company in Oslo. Regardless of the price tag, we can question the democratic legitimacy of such practice as long as the church is part of the state establishment. For the record, Norway still has a state church even though it is supposed to be dissolved next year. Hence, in 2017 the church will be an independent juridical (and commercial) entity. In my opinion it would be less problematic if the church was to advertise like this next year, as it would not appear as a promotion of some kind of “state faith”. Moreover, Norwegian law is already prohibiting broadcasters to air political and religious commercials. This is because questions about faith and religiosity are believed to be deeply personal and broadcasting of such commercials is likely to offend people. The same argument could definitely have been applied against religious commercials on public transport.

Riding with the Bible

This also coincides with another (new?) example of religious expressions in the public sphere, as The Norwegian Bible Society now is using the same commercial space to promote selected passages from the Bible. The publisher states that their intention is to “set the Bible free among the public” and that they “simply hope that this can inspire more people to read the Bible, and use it in daily life”. Moreover, the Bible Society argues that the posters will be a good test of the tolerance of a pluralist society. The chosen quotes are short texts (ought to be read in 5 seconds) and from what I have seen so far, the selected quotes are quite uncontroversial.


Private photo: bible quotes on the tram in Oslo. “From where shall my help come? My help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:2).

The content of the advert above is not provoking, but its mere presence is. In Copenhagen, the public transport company Movia decided not to permit similar religious campaigns exactly because it was believed to insult and alienate people of other worldviews. On the contrary, a Norwegian government appointed assembly in 2013 (“Stålsett-utvalget”) stated that the public should accept to be exposed to other people’s faiths and religious practices. Moreover, the campaign is criticized by secular humanists and atheist organisations that are sceptical to public expressions of religion. Among them, Hedningesamfunnet (“The Heathen Society”) has published photoshopped images on their Facebook pages, depicting buses in Oslo with more controversial bible quotes, such as the below:


Photo credits: Hedningesamfunnet’s Facebook pages. Bible quote: “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads” (Leviticus 20:13)

I will not dig deeper into that debate here, but for the purpose of this text it is worth noting that religious commercials are not passing without stirring controversy.

Why now?

When seeing these ads, my first guess was that the church, which recently acknowledged a gender-neutral marriage liturgy, was seizing a moment of positive reputation. Despite the fact that it might be long overdue, the Church of Norway recently voted in favour of same sex marriage. This could of course be part of the marketing strategy in terms of timing. Perhaps it is more likely, as the church admits, that the adverts are a response to a significant decline in baptisms in Norway. Last year only 62 % of newborns in Norway were baptised, compared to 83 % in 1993. Interestingly, the church also acknowledges that it does not hold a monopoly anymore, but is in competition that requires them to reach out and recruit. In other words, the Church of Norway now uses advertisement campaigns in order to position itself in the market. The Bible publisher on the other hand is celebrating its 200th anniversary, and its campaign is not related to that of the church.

Lazy state monopoly makes churches dull and passive

By applying Rational Choice Theory (RCT) to theorize the role of religion in society, sociologists have asserted that a free religious market, consisting of several “firms” competing for the attention of clients, boosts religiosity in general. Phil Zuckerman makes a similar analysis when he suggests that the decline of religious practice in Scandinavia is due to passive state churches:

When a religious organization is the «only show in town», that is, when a given religious organization has a state-subsidized, hegemonic dominance in a given society akin to that of a monopoly – without any competition – it grows lazy.

(Phil Zuckerman)

According to this rationale, we could interpret the recent commercial activities of the church to be an initiative to position itself in the market in order to climb the leader board of faith communities in Norway.

Allegedly, in a free market of religions, where there is real competition for the adherents, each faith community needs to offer more than basic services and religious expertise. They need to provide their communities with exactly that – community – which is believed to be formed by provision of something more than dry biscuits, soft wine and formalised liturgy. In the US, many faith communities have adapted business logics similar to those of commercial enterprises. These churches offer more than just normal church services, according to Mara Einstein’s Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age (2008): The faith communities provide a vast variety of community services, including music, sports and other social activities and support. This is a strategy of branding and the churches make use of commercials in order to pitch their image for the public. The congregation is approached as consumers of services rather than mere members of faith communities.

The Church of Norway is not at the level of its American counterparts yet, but has started with the basics; to inform the public of Oslo that they baptise people. Irony aside, the interesting part of this story is that the Church of Norway now, one year ahead of the state-church separation, attempts to position themselves in the market by advertising on public transport. To me, it seems like the Church buys into the logic of RCT.

Note that RCT is developed in an American context. European history and societies are different and diverse, and RCT does not seem to fit as well as it perhaps does in the US. Despite that, it is still interesting to take RCT into account as an attempt to come to terms with the recent commercialisation of the Norwegian Church.   

RCT has been developed as an American opposite to Western European secularisation theory. It is argued that the religious monopoly in Western Europe has facilitated secularisation; while in the US a free religious market has accelerated religious flourishing. Rodney Stark and likeminded Rational Choice theorists argue that level of religiosity is first and foremost affected by the supply side in the religious market. The European religious monopoly was an all-encompassing and authoritarian institution, which in the end was challenged by ideological and cultural pluralism. Following this rationale, the US with no state religion generated a social space of religious pluralism. In this space each individual has endless choices, and can reject and accept after its own liking. A critique of the theory is that it assumes that people are inherently religious by nature, as if they have a need to choose from the available alternatives on offer. Another assumption behind RCT is that people’s choices are based on economical judgements of costs and rewards, rather than impulsive affections.

Challenging the public sphere

The cases of the Church of Norway and The Norwegian Bible Society are fundamentally different as the former is still per definition a public institution, while the latter is a private company. On one hand, the Bible publisher has the same right as any other commercial actor to make use of the advertisement spots in public sphere while it is for democratic reasons more problematic that the state church does the same. State funded campaigns that aim to raise awareness about healthy lifestyles, traffic safety, and legal rights and so on also occasionally take up the commercial space. That is somehow more acceptable than promoting services of the state Church because it is not something that can be justified to nurture public health and education. These cases draw attention to the question of what a secular public sphere is supposed to look like. Should we, without any restrictions on content, allow anyone who can afford it to decorate bus exteriors with their messages?  Would we for instance permit religious quotes referring to condemnation or corporal punishment for impious behaviour?

It will be interesting to see if the marketing of religion will increase from 2017 and onwards, as the church separates from the state. Moreover, if the state funding of faith communities would dissolve as well, which is also a current debate, then that would probably encourage more faith communities to reach out to the public in a more commercially aggressive manner. If so, I suppose the secular humanist would up their game too and we could witness a complete change of scene regarding religion in the public sphere, which in the end would be a good test for the Rational Choice Theory. Who knows, maybe we should prepare ourselves to commute alongside both Jesus and Darwin in the future.