Religious Stuff and Identity Politics

March 28, 2016

Identity politics in Norway happens in relation to religion, but rarely explicitly based on it. A notion of a ‘Christian cultural heritage’ lurks around, but what does it really refer to?

Religious Stuff and Identity Politics

A quick glimpse at contemporary mainstream media tells us that we, despite assumptions of earlier secularisation theories, are not clear of religion at all. Religion is there, in our national curriculum, in our constitution, and – according to media spectacles – in our immigrants’ baggage. On the other hand, Norway is commonly referred to as a highly secularised country and possibly indifferent to religion, following the American sociologist Phil Zuckerman’s description of Scandinavian beliefs. Religious lingo, like Bible Thumpin’ in American politics, is rather absent from public discourses in Norway. Instead, we encounter vague references to ‘our Christian cultural heritage’ as part of a supposed Norwegian identity that allegedly needs protection.

Indifference to religion?

Much of what we classify as ‘religious stuff’ in the media concern the Muslim minority in Norway and the discourse can be described as (more or less legit) religious critique, based on (more or less defined) humanist values. Some will say, e.g. The Norwegian Constitution, that such values are part of and equal to ‘our Christian cultural heritage’; while others comprehend humanism as detached from the Christian tradition. There seems to be a discrepancy between Norway described as a secular society that is generally indifferent to religion on one hand, and frequent references to Christian cultural heritage as a persistent component of national identity on the other. The British sociologist, Linda Woodhead, claims that no religion’ is the new religion in the UK, but could the same be said for Norway? Considering that belief in god is decreasing and that the numbers of nonbelievers now have surpassed the believers – 39% vs. 37% (Ipsos MMI 2015), one could say so. The graphics below depict last year’s survey, which shows an explicit continuous trend:


Moreover, estimations from Pew Research suggest that the ‘unaffiliated’ is the fastest growing ‘religious’ group in Norway

In the same way as religion is a diverse category, so is non-religion. Non-religion as we know it in Scandinavia is made of a different fabric than i.e. the American one. This is mainly due to the different religious contexts of the societies.While lack of religion is uncontroversial in Scandinavia, it is a social and cultural deviance in the US, where non-belief is met with distrust and disgust. As non-religion and indifference to religion in Scandinavia does not appear abnormal, apostasy is not considered a massive and dramatic break for the individual. Nor does it make much sense to speak of social alienation, exclusion and discrimination of non-believers because nobody expects you to be a devout believer in the first place.

According to the statistics above, belief in god – and thus religiosity – is in decline in Norway, and that has been the trend for (at least) the past 30 years. However, the ‘religious stuff’ in the media clearly reveals that we are interested and involved at some level. This interest can play out as critique, curiosity and tolerance, but also as xenophobia, intolerance and suspicion. To a broad public of non-believing Norwegians, religion might not be much more than a companion of globalisation. Yes, there would probably be some ‘religious stuff’ to quarrel about if Norway continued as a relatively homogenous society, but to be fair – it’s much about Islam these days, isn’t it?

Cultural heritage as strategy of exclusion

As shown in Ingrid Vik’s Guds Lobby (2015) there are a considerable few in Norway who verbally attack Muslims and Nonbelievers alike with bibles in hand - a marginal lot, who generally ravel among themselves in their biblical safe havens (and once every second year at the ‘Oslo Symposium’). But to most of ‘us’ the bible, or any other ‘holy’ book for that matter, could never be raised as morally, politically or scientifically superior to other human constructs. In fact, most of us would probably respond with aversion if witnessing anything close to calls for religious supremacy.

Identity politics in Norway happens in relation to religion, but rarely explicitly based on it. Instead, there are rather vague references to ‘our Christian heritage’ as a cultural marker that allegedly is worth protecting, here illustrated by Christian Tybring-Gjedde, MP for the right wing Progressive Party (FrP) in a daily news show – Dagsnytt atten – 4. of February 2016:

FrP and KrF are united in belief in the family and the individual human being and – above all – the belief in the Christian cultural identity of our country.

FrP promotes a restrictive immigration policy in order to preserve a Christian cultural identity. [My translation]

Note that these quotes are part of a political strategy from FrP's an appeal to voters of the Christian Democrats (KrF). An alternative narrative is often provided by KrF, which emphasises compassion through the second commandment (‘love thy neighbour’) with respect to immigrant and refugee politics. The different usages of ‘our Christian heritage’ reveal how the term itself is key to narratives striving to define national culture, identity and politics.

It is not uncommon in Norwegian politics to refer to Christian heritage as a concept in need of protection. Most Norwegians are familiar with the terminology, but what the cultural heritage of Christianity is supposed to mean seems less pronounced. Tybring-Gjedde’s statements on the other hand, are quite blunt and even though ‘Christian cultural identity’ is not defined, it is conceptualised as threatened by (Muslim) immigration. This is not a unique response to globalisation, namely that increased immigration and cultural pluralisation might generate ‘revival of local cultural identities’ (Anthony Giddens) and even increased religiosity.

I find it hard to believe that Norwegians are likely to return to church because of pluralisation, but it is worth noting how religious concepts are utilised in identity politics related to immigration. We should pay attention to the victimisation of religion in Tybring-Gjedde’s arguments: ‘Our’ cultural (Christian) identity is under threat because of the presence of the cultural and religious ‘other’. Rigid demarcations are drawn in order to isolate and separate Norwegian culture from others. Rhetorically, Tybring-Gjedde’s coupling of immigration policy and preservation of Christian cultural identity portrays the current immigrant situation as cultural invasion.

It is a powerful rhetoric we are facing here, in which generating fear through dichotomies of ‘us’/’them’ and ‘good’/’bad religion’, draws public attention to religion that seems to contradict the general indifference to religion in Norway. It is also a strategy of suspicion that explicitly warns against a supposed danger of foreign cultural impact on Norwegian society. Moreover, it becomes an even more polemical dichotomy of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, considering that religion is given a central position in identity politics, as it is obviously another religious tradition that is named the challenge, which is Islam.

‘Our Christian cultural heritage’ carries different connotations and its usage is similarly varied. The concept appears in discussions on national curriculum, for preservation of church buildings and in current identity politics. Some even claims it to be core to our moral compass and in need of protection. Its role in Norwegian politics appears paradoxical alongside the general description of Norway as a highly secularised country, where religiosity is decreasing. In today’s identity politics it carries a potential force of alienation, exclusion and discrimination, but also a force of generosity and compassion. Nonetheless, juxtaposed with the nonreligious climate of Norway, it is curios how Christian heritage is depicted as central to Norwegian identity.