Compared with most other countries in the world, Denmark’s societal institutions and popular mentality have been shaped by Christianity to an exceptional degree. It can be asserted that religion is more firmly entrenched in Danish society than in many other countries.
In practice, Christianity today comes to the fore, however, primarily during solemnisations surrounding birth and death. That is to say like the other Nordic countries, particularly Sweden, Denmark is also among the world’s most secularised countries, in which religion and Christianity play only a minor, often indirect, role in public life.
A programmatic expression of the relationship between nation building and Denmark’s Christianisation is present on “Denmark’s birth certificate”, the Jelling Stone, which dates back to around 965 A.D. On this rune stone, King Harald Bluetooth describes his two great interrelated achievements:
“Harald King had these stones made after Gorm his father and after Thyra his mother – that Harald who won all Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian”
This trend continued with the Reformation in 1536, when the Danish church became Evangelical Lutheran and was integrated into the state, as well as in the religious revivals of the 1800s, the energy of which was to a large extent channelled into the cultural, social, and business developments that came to form the foundations of the 20th-Century Danish welfare state.
Christianity’s unique history in Denmark explains why the mutual interdependence of the people, the state, and the church has remained in place longer and more strongly in Denmark than in any other country. There has, quite simply, never been a break in this interdependence, as has occurred as a result of revolution, civil war, military occupation, cultural struggle, religious revival, and immigration in virtually all other European countries. This is not to suggest an absence of debate concerning this relationship, yet there is general popular support for Article 4 of the Constitution of Denmark, which sets forth that the Evangelical Lutheran church is Denmark’s People’s Church and is thus supported by the state. The new government of 2011 is striving for the Church of Denmark to become more independent, with a looser association to the state.
Christianity and other religions today
The state’s support for the Church of Denmark today is primarily managerial and administrative in character. Since the Constitution of 1849 granted citizens full religious freedom, membership of the Church of Denmark depends on individual free choice. The Church of Denmark, which to a certain extent operates as an association in 2012 has nearly 80% of the population as members. Other religious communities are supported primarily via exemption from taxation on donations to recognised religious bodies.
Denmark’s next-largest religious group consists of immigrants and others with Islamic backgrounds. Around four percent of the population has roots in an Islamic culture, with considerably fewer individuals actually being practicing Muslims. Globalisation and immigration has also led to significant growth in the memberships of Christian and Christian-oriented groups outside of the Church of Denmark, accounting for around three percent of the population today. There is also a large group of individuals, around 13%, without pronounced religious allegiances. This group contains individuals variously associated with, for example, Buddhism and Hinduism but consists primarily of non-religious individuals like agnostics. Similar beliefs are also common among members of the Church of Denmark.
The religious landscape has become more varied over the past decades, with a large number of religions being represented in Denmark. The general picture remains, however, one of homogeneous secularity since radical religious groups are few and small outside as well as inside the National Church. This is also the case with active atheists. Despite this, religion still has the potential to enter into political conflicts, as was the case with the Mohammed cartoon controversy of 2005‒06. In the so-called Arabian Initiative the Danish government is seeking to build positive relations with Muslim countries. This initiative also includes projects promoting religious dialogue which is supported by the majority of Denmark’s religious communities.
Hans Raun Iversen
Director of the Center for Church Research. Faculty of Theology, University of Copenhagen