Sometimes history repeats itself, but in an upside-down fashion.

    A man in southern Sweden was recently sentenced to one month in jail for discriminatory behaviour. In literal Swedish translation the legal definition of his offence sounds a bit more sinister : agitation against a group of humans (= hets mot folkgrupp).

    The man had spoken to a group of 50 people about the horrors of homosexuality (“homosexuality is a deep cancer in the body of society”, etc.) and had later distributed the text of his speech to the media. The district court found this a flagrant transgression of the “Protection Against Discrimination Act” and sentenced him accordingly, to 1 month in jail.

Sudden international interest

    The sentence was subsequently appealed to a higher court. Here the prosecuting attorney found that the district court’s sentence seemed far too light. He has asked the Court of Appeals to extend the sentence to 6 months in jail, instead of just 1 month. Sweden has rather strict laws against all kinds of discrimination, so all of this was nothing out of the ordinary. Every now and then a neo-Nazi, a racist or some other kind of unsavoury character gets sentenced for similar offences, for “agitating against a group of humans”.

    But this seemingly ordinary appeals case has suddenly and surprisingly entered the focus of international interest. When the Court of Appeals in Jönköping opened the case on January 19, 2005, a number of demonstrators with posters supporting the defendant were crowding the entrance, together with media representatives from abroad.

In the name of religious freedom

    What is so special about this particular nasty lout, a criminal who has been found guilty of speaking ill out of rancour for his fellow men? Well, as it happens, he (Åke Green is his name) is a pastor of a small parish of Pentecostals. His criminal speech was actually a sermon given in his church, where the Pastor expounded his views on the teachings of the Bible regarding homosexuality.

    The international (particularly American) interest in the case stems from the idea that a sermon about matters treated in the Bible should be seen as an expression of freedom of religion. So it doesn’t matter whether its contents are loutish and illegal.

    I would not give this line of reasoning much of a chance in a Swedish court. Here proven illegal agitation against “a group of humans” is just that, irrespective of whether it is done in the name of religion, politics or whatever. Still, it might be interesting to see if the culprit gets his lower court sentence increased. My prediction is that he will have to do more time in jail than just one month.

Scopes monkey trial in reverse

    The present case is a kind of “Scopes monkey trial” in reverse. In the Scopes trial a man was tried for illegally (according to the 1925 laws of Tennessee) teaching offensive non-fundamentalist science (regarding evolution). Here a man is tried for illegally (according to the 2005 laws of Sweden) teaching offensive fundamentalist "science" (regarding homosexuality). Obviously, there seems to be a wide gap between Tennessee of 1925 and Sweden of 2005.

    The case can be taken as an illustration of the present secular and anti-discriminatory mentality of Swedish society. It may seem to “infringe on the freedom of religion”, according to people in more religiously oriented societies, where very much is allowed under that general heading. But it pretty much reflects the consensus in present-day Sweden.

Legally Lutheran

    How then did Sweden, originally a staunchly Christian country, come to hold such secularised world-views? Paradoxically, the main cause of present-day Swedish secularism can be found in the strong, legally sanctioned position that the State Lutheran Church used to hold in Sweden for almost 400 years.

    The monarch who created the Swedish national state, Gustav Vasa (Gustav I) was a powerful 16th century nationalist king, not unlike Henry VIII of England. To finance his ambitions for Sweden he resorted to the same methods that most similarly minded monarchs in 16th century Europe did – abolition of the Catholic Church, confiscation of Catholic Church assets by the State, and introduction of a Reformed State Church. To Gustav Vasa this meant State Lutheranism. In 1530 the Catholic mass was forbidden. Luther’s Catechism was introduced; monasteries and all Catholic manifestations were strictly forbidden. Lutheranism was soon declared as the one and only Swedish State Religion, with all other forms of worship outlawed.

    Swedish institutional Lutheranism became even more entrenched by Sweden’s successful participation (on the Protestant side) in the Thirty Years’ War, which established Sweden as a Great Power in Northern Europe. It resulted in a string of Swedish colonies in Germany and the Baltics and brought glory as well as riches to a previously insignificant country in remote Scandinavia.

Obedient mouthpiece of the State

    The State Lutheran Church became just one department of the efficient Swedish state administration, for better and for worse. Making people literate was one of the beneficial tasks of the Swedish State Church. In 1686 the Church was given the additional task of carefully registering population changes. This has helped make Sweden into the country with the oldest and most reliable population statistics in the world. On the other hand, the Swedish State Church also acted as a conservative monolith, blocking social and democratic progress at the grassroots level.

    The strong ties between the Church and the State made the Church into an obedient mouthpiece of the State. State priests extolled the virtues of the King and the Authorities as much as those of God. Over time, when the population became less enchanted by the patriarchal Swedish Monarchy, the Church was recognised for what it actually was -- just one more oppressive State organ. During the democratisation process that began in the later part of the 19th century, the State Church –- and by implication God -- were considered as anti-democratic forces. Given the choice, most people preferred democracy to God.

Repeals and cranks

    The laws that exclusively limited all legal religious activities to the State Lutheran Church, and made monasteries illegal, were not repealed until the 1950’s. Finally, in the 1990’s, the Swedish Lutheran Church and the State were separated. By then in was far too late – secularism had already been firmly established in the minds of the overwhelming majority.

    Today Swedish citizens are automatically members of the new “non-state” Lutheran church (which is still financed by taxes). If they wish to withdraw, then they have to actively apply for withdrawal in writing. Church membership is dwindling, but remains relatively high, partly because of indifference, partly because many people still want traditional wedding ceremonies and funerals. But few are interested in matters of religion and theology or take part in religious activity. The clergy is trying to meet the new situation by presenting increasingly watered-down versions of the creed -- beliefs are no longer deemed essential.

    In the mid-1800’s some people started looking for religious alternatives to the oppressive State Church in so-called “free churches” – Baptism, Methodism, Pentecostalism, etc. These were combated by the State, but took nevertheless hold in some rural regions. Today most of the few actively religious people in Sweden belong to such “free-religious” groups. They tend to be fundamentalistically inclined and are mostly seen as “religious cranks” by the general population.

    Pentecostal pastor Åke Green certainly seems to fit the description.

Dagens Nyheter, January 20, 2005, p. 11

UPDATE, Feb 12, 2005:

Today pastor Åke Green was acquitted of the charges against him by the Court of Appeals in Jönköping (Göta Hovrätt).

This may appear to make an unseemly stain on montecarlo's infallibility as an oracle on Swedish legal matters. However, the appellate court's decision is hotly debated. The case will in all probability be appealed to the Swedish Supreme Court. So it ain't over, until it's over.

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