From Lutheranism to the crisis of the modern welfare state

By Torkel Jansson

"We must not divide people into winners and losers." This notion, in the best radical, Lutheran tradition was the key message of Dr John Vikström's sermon in Westminster Abbey in November, delivered on the day the Porvoo Agreement1 was signed in London. In his lecture the following day at the Finnish Institute, the Archbishop of Finland elaborated his views by giving a talk titled "The Welfare State at Stake".

Where should we look for the roots of the Nordic welfare state? In John Vikström's opinion, they are more or less purely Lutheran (although there are other ideological roots such as socialism and liberalism), and he might be right - I am not a theologian. But for me as a social and political historian, it is natural to look for them in very old social structures or forms of social organisation. The normal thing since the Middle Ages in Scandinavia, unlike East Europe and Russia, was the active collaboration of different social groups in parish and town affairs - to build churches and other common premises, to elect the clergy, which was officially recognised in medieval provincial laws, for example, and to take care of poor people. To illustrate the Nordic situation visually, one could remind the English that we did not have, and do not have, a bar between different social groups of the kind that we could observe in Westminster Abbey during Vikström's sermon.

The so-called parish meetings held directly after the divine services, in which such questions were considered, were often called "practical divine services". This collaborative system was already effective when Lutheranism was introduced in its practical Swedish- Finnish form in 1527, which, inter alia, meant a reduction in the capacity of parishes and towns to take care of destitute people: the king, the Crown, or the growing "military state" dispossessed the churches, i.e. the parishes (The Danes and Norwegians, in fact, were better off, since the Reformation did not have the same impact on the finances of churches in those countries). And I think we should also remember that Luther himself was inspired by and had respect for what he saw of agrarian freedom in the past.

If we look at the 19th century, when the old order had to be replaced by something new, the role of the state in welfare questions was debated the whole century through. After the Napoleonic wars, i.e. in an economic and financial situation resembling the one today, voices were heard to say that it was the task of the state to provide poor relief, but - like today - there was little or no state financing for such ideas, and liberalism and individualism - again like today - fostered ideas about British voluntarianism which, of course, failed or was insufficient. And, as John Vikström underlined in his analysis of conditions today, state intervention could destroy people's moral (the 1834 English poor laws differed a lot from the humanitarian ideas in the old Elizabethan ones). Consequently, poor relief and social policy were by law handed over to parishes and other municipalities. When, later, states became democratised, when representatives of the parishes found themselves in large numbers in national parliaments, the state took more and more responsibility for society, culminating with social democratic - and other - ideas about the folkhem, the people's home. State and society became highly intertwined, and it is typical that we in Sweden, when the welfare state was at its zenith, did not talk about the welfare state but about our beloved social democratic, Erlanderian or Möllerian welfare society - as long as it lasted.

And here we are again - without money, and with neo-liberal ideas, and with yuppie telephones covering towns and cities but not the economically uninteresting countryside where many of us really should need them. Of course, neo-liberal ideas will not prove any more helpful than in the previous century. The state, Lutheran or not, must take its responsibility for what undoubtedly is of common interest. Of course, I agree with John Vikström: we simply cannot and must not divide people into winners and losers. But, politicians are very seldom historians - history seems too difficult a subject for them - and, as always, if you do not learn from history, you will have to experience the whole thing yourself. Unfortunately.

Torkel Jansson is Professor of History at Uppsala University (Sweden). He was invited to comment on Dr Vikström's lecture at the Finnish Institute in November.


See: Excerpts from Dr John Vikström's talk at the Finnish Institute

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1 The Porvoo Agreement was signed between the Nordic and Baltic Lutheran Churches on one hand, and the British and Irish Anglican Churches on the other. The agreement allows members of one Church to be viewed as belonging to all the others. Also the clergy of one will be eligible to serve in any one of the others. The agreement creates a common practice of baptism, Eucharist and ministry.

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