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Lutheranism has provided the foundations of the Nordic welfare state

University of Helsinki

Religious and cultural Lutheran values have shaped Nordic societies for centuries. But instead of encouraging capitalism as in Calvinist Europe, Lutheranism promoted a social-democratic welfare state in the Nordic world.

As this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this issue is highly topical.

Robert H. Nelson, professor of economics at the University of Maryland, develops these arguments in Lutheranism and the Nordic Spirit of Social Democracy: A Different Protestant Ethic. He probes the large role a Lutheran ethic played in the development of the Nordic welfare state and the Nordic social-democratic political and economic system during its golden years from the 1930s to the 1980s.

Nelson sees this Lutheran ethic as parallel to the Calvinist ethic famously examined by the German sociologist Max Weber In his book the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Nelson also compares the American and Nordic ideas of the welfare state in a novel way, discussing the greater influence of Calvinism in the United States as compared with Lutheranism in the Nordic countries.

According to Nelson, fundamental Nordic values, such as a strong work ethic, complete equality between men and women, and others manifested in social democracy are all derived from Lutheran teachings as embodied in the Lutheran ethic.

The Lutheran ethic emphasized The Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," in the pursuit of an individual calling. This has been the foundation of the concept of 20th century Nordic social solidarity, in particular, states Nelson.

The challenges to the social-democratic welfare state

The book Lutheranism and the Nordic Spirit of Social Democracy: A Different Protestant Ethic offers interesting and novel approaches to the connections between religion, national identity, church and state, as well as the relationship of civil society and government in the Nordic countries.

In his book, Nelson describes Nordic social democracy as a modern form of religion, a "secular Lutheranism".

He shows how Lutheranism continued to have a large impact on national economic policy, as the social democratic adaptation of Lutheranism has sought to build a Paradise of sorts on earth. This is despite the fact that both religion and culture have undergone radical changes in outward form in the Nordic countries.

"Nevertheless, the true content of Lutheranism has remained surprisingly intact through the centuries," continuing through the 20th century, states Nelson.

According to Nelson, current challenges to secular Lutheranism and social democracy include the rising number of immigrants and difficulties with maintaining a high rate of economic growth to support a generous welfare system. Asking new immigrants to completely assimilate to Nordic values, he says, is like asking them to convert to Lutheranism.

"The Nordic countries should focus more on the fundamental values of their society on which their political and economic systems have been built. More reflection on the role of religion in building the Nordic society of the future is vital."

Henrietta Grönlund, university lecturer in urban theology at the University of Helsinki, wrote the foreword to the book.

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