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To Restore What Has Been Lost: The Case of Sweden by Clemens Cavallin, Johan Sundeen, Lars Eklund

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To Restore What Has Been Lost:
The Case of Sweden

"Celebrating Communion in a Swedish Parish Church" (1856), 134.5 x 173.5 cm oil on canvas by Bengt Nordenberg (1822-1902), located in the National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design in Oslo.

Photo: Public Domain.

Conservatism in its various forms attaches great value to continuity, to the history, organicism, and the particularity of a people and their culture. A conservative, cautious approach to change—resisting dramatic, utopian projects of revolutionary transformation—is viable only when traditions linking the present generation with its forefathers are still alive. But what does conservatism mean when a nation has been thoroughly ‘modernized’? What is there to conserve when a paternalistic state has undermined natural institutions to such an extent that enthusiasm for radical change—in other words, progressivism—has been internalized as the primary identity of the people?

In such a situation, conservatism inevitably becomes a project of restoring what has been lost—and retrieving what is of enduring value. What are, however, the criteria for choosing which traditions and values are to be restored when such traditions have no basis in lived experience? Does conservatism, in such a situation, merely become a secular ideology among others promoting a certain ideal of society—and, in this case, an outdated one?

These are questions that are increasingly pressing for the whole of the Western world as it radicalizes the core principles of modernity—such as individual autonomy, relativism, and secularism. This radicalization is particularly intense in Sweden, a country characterized by an alliance between individualistic atomism, materialism, and a Leviathan-like Welfare State. In Sweden, socialism and liberalism have been blended to produce a single mentality that values the acceleration of change, both technological and moral, and which, somewhat contradictorily, strives for an all-embracing security. 

The origins of the ‘Swedish condition’

The Swedish condition resulted from a development in which early-modern institutions were transformed from within into peddlers of radical ideologies. It began with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, when the secular power remade the transnational Catholic Church in Sweden into a national institution subservient to political power. Although the government introduced religious freedom in the 1950s, and the state-church system substantially changed in the year 2000, the Lutheran Church of Sweden is still governed by the political parties through special church elections, and is regulated even in its governance, beliefs, property, and geographical presence by a secular law.

The Social Democratic Party, which has been in power almost uninterruptedly for ninety years, decided early in the 20th century not to pursue complete separation of church and state but rather to secularize and radicalize society through the church. Like the Protestant kings before them, the social democrats realized the usefulness of a national church as an institution for legitimizing political power—but not as a witness of God and his eternal law that could stand in judgement over the present order. 

Beginning in the 1960s, left-wing radicalism decidedly transformed the Church of Sweden, as documented by Johan Sundeen in his book The Church of 1968 (68-kyrkan: Svensk kristen vänsters möten med marxismen 1965-1989). Leading Protestant intellectuals sought a synthesis between Marxism and Christianity. They presented the Cultural Revolution in China, the situation in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, and even the communist dictatorship in North Korea as ‘Kingdoms of God on earth.’ Although enthusiasm of this kind faded after the 1970s, the Church of Sweden remains uniquely politicized. In a recently published book, The Way of Reformism: On Social Democracy and the Church (Reformismens väg – om socialdemokratin och kyrkan), the Social Democrat Jesper Bengtsson notes with some pleasure that there probably exists no other institution in Western society that has been radicalized to the same degree as the Church of Sweden.

Alongside the ideological transformation of the national church in the 1960s, left-wing approaches conquered the Swedish cultural debate, affecting all spheres of society. Consequently, the public conversation did not center on whether the socialist ideology was correct but on what its best form was and how it should be implemented.

Although there was some opposition to socialism as an economic ideal, left-wing ideas soon left their mark on conservative party politics. In 1969, the old Party Högern, The Right, renamed itself as The Moderate Party (Moderaterna). During this period, the Moderates moved away from emphasizing the importance of small communities and the identity of the nation, as well as the social role of Christianity and the inviolability of human life. The remaining connection points with conservatism are, according to the political scientist Jan Hylén, anomalies in a party now characterized by liberalism and individualism.

The tidal wave of socialism in the 1960s, spearheaded by the ‘baby boom’ generation, is important for explaining why—for decades—Sweden has suffered from a lack of influential and confident conservative opposition. In fact, a significant shift had already taken place during the aftermath of the Second World War. Leading intellectuals and politicians distanced themselves from conservative, Christian, and neo-humanist views, deeming them tainted by association with National Socialism. 

Sweden did not participate in the war and therefore did not have to undergo the same moral and physical rebuilding project as other countries after 1945. This fact, taken together with the absence of a church with any independent role in public life, partly explains why Christianity and its civilization-building project was not, as in West Germany or Italy, central to political post-war development. Instead, the Social Democratic Party orchestrated a rapid ‘modernization’ of Sweden.

Moreover, after the long rule of Social Democracy (which had begun in 1932) was finally—but only temporarily—broken in 1976, and when the communist Soviet Empire disintegrated a decade later, it was liberalism that seemed triumphant, not conservatism or Christian democracy. The closed socialist state of Sweden loosened up and state monopolies in television, radio, telephone services, postal deliveries, train transportation, pharmacies, and casinos were abolished. In this way, the presence of liberalism increased in the liberal-socialist mix, but the basic principles did not change. 

That the Swedish mentality has remained intact is clear in the latest (2020) version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, which is based on the extensive World Values Survey. On the value map, Sweden still occupies the upper right corner, combining high levels of secular-rational and self-expression values. These are contrasted with traditional and survival values that characterize the opposite lower left corner, the area of many Muslim majority countries such as Egypt, Yemen, and Jordan. In the center is a mix of European Catholic countries like Croatia and Hungary, together with Asian and South American countries like Thailand, Singapore, and Chile. The most striking feature is how extreme the Swedish mentality is in a global comparison, which is in stark contrast to a pervasive self-understanding of Swedes as occupying a reasonable ideological middle position. 

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map (2020)

Photo: Courtesy of the World Values Survey (2005-2020).

Nevertheless, during the last ten years, a change of mentality slowly took place in Sweden when the results of sustained high levels of immigration eventually created a national moral crisis. The inexorable character of modernization, resting on the decline of religion and the weakening of family bonds, could no longer be taken for granted. In such a situation, some, of course (as in France), insisted on the sharper enforcement of modern values. Ironically, liberalism thereby becomes increasingly intolerant. Individualism and a modernist idea of freedom are mandatory and must be enforced. At the same time, a window of opportunity opened up for conservative attitudes and ideas, insisting on deeper cultural and historical bonds.

Twenty years ago, Svante Nordin, a professor of intellectual history, wrote in the national newspaper Svenska Dagbladet that, “[t]he intellectual conservatism that … has played such a prominent role in the debate in the United States and in Great Britain, but also in France and Germany, has hardly any equivalent in Sweden.” Even frequently used introductions in disciplines like intellectual history and political science treated sparingly—and condescendingly—the tradition that subsequently emerged from Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution. 

A reawakening on the Right

Presently, there are, however, signs of a conservative intellectual awakening. After several decades of slumber, high-quality literature is being published. For example, in 2020, Jakob E:son Söderbaum’s Modern konservatism: filosofi, bärande idéer och inriktningar i Burkes efterföljd (Modern Conservatism: Philosophy, Main Ideas and Orientations in Burke’s Aftermath) appeared, the first substantial overview of its kind in Swedish. It is the most thorough work in a wave of publications, including several anthologies and collections of essays presenting Swedish and Continental conservative traditions.

Nevertheless, there remains a duty to offer a note of caution. Conservatism in Sweden needs to be a constructive project in a way that is not necessary where there are still institutions and customs embodying the natural and transcendent principles of morality and human life presupposed by a conservative approach. Presently, however, an unreflective ethnic survival instinct takes for granted—oddly enough—precisely the traditions that are no longer alive.

Conservatism, if it is not merely to be a defense of a ‘Swedish way of life’ and of ‘our values’ needs, as Russell Kirk insisted, the “Permanent Things.” Kirk’s first principle of conservatism is crucial—namely that “the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.” The acknowledgement of such an “enduring moral order” is the core principle of civilization, subjecting all human power claims and ambitions to the verdict of what transcends political ambitions and decisions, even those taken with an absolute majority. The alternative is barbarism, for which ‘might is right,’ however elegantly phrased. But how can there be an order made for man if there is no God to make it?

Dr. Russell Kirk in the early 1990s, standing outside his personal library.

Photo: Courtesy of the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.

The other principles formulated by Kirk characterize the cautious nature of conservative reform: prudence, prescription, variety, imperfectability, freedom and property, voluntary community, and restraint. These principles are, however, less helpful when (as in Sweden’s case) the modernization of intellectual conversations, social institutions, and family life has been thorough and systematic—to a degree that even most European communist dictatorships failed to achieve. 

An important reason for Sweden’s present condition is the weakness of traditional religious belief and practice. According to the World Value Survey, only 10% of Sweden’s population consider religion important in their lives, and less than 5% think it is important for children to learn their religious faith in the home. 

For Kirk’s first principle—the enduring moral order—religion is irreplaceable. The transcendent authority of God is the supernatural anchor of conservative prudence. When religious institutions and their representatives opt to champion morality without an absolute foundation but rather as mere convictions changing with the twists and turns of late modern society—or, as in Sweden, when convictions actually drive this normative fluidity—then the conservative project becomes simply a mere preference for changing at a slower pace.

Hence, if conservatism is to be something more than another form of identity politics, it needs to attend to principles that transcend particular cultures. This is especially so when those perennial values are not part of organically developed forms of culture and, instead, must be restored or introduced for the first time. To proclaim, as Jakob E:son Söderbaum does in Modern Conservatism, that well-read conservatives generally agree that conservatism is secular; that Christianity, therefore, is merely one of many foundations of Western civilization; that Christian moral principles have no greater claim to universality than those of other religions, such as Hinduism, Islam, or Shintoism, is to embrace relativism and to ignore the vital question of ‘truth.’ According to such a position, conservatism only respectfully reforms the culture and civilization that happens to be dominant in a certain part of the world. In that case, religion cannot be of any help in undergirding an enduring moral order made for man but only affirms different moral orders made by man. 

That a conservative revival in Sweden would look to the Church of Sweden for support, since it signifies a cultural continuity bridging the flow of centuries, is natural. But it is important to remember that the Reformation—which was a revolution—nationalized it, thereby cutting off its connections with the universal Church by making it into a tool for political control. This severing of the Church of Sweden from the wider ecclesiastical community was continued by the Social Democratic Party during the 20th century and was eventually radicalized by revolutionary movements in the 1960s.

The condition of Sweden’s national church underscores our main point: namely, that Sweden, in a rather unique way, problematizes the conservative ideal of cultural ’embeddedness’ and continuity. The modernization of Sweden’s institutions—and of its low and high culture—has been so thorough that a conservative revival will largely have to be reconstructive. It is certainly easy to tear down; but much more difficult to rebuild. As a consequence, conservatism in Sweden, somewhat contradictorily, must focus on creating new institutions: schools, think-tanks, magazines, and publishers. And conservative thinkers will have to probe Swedish history for inspiration, in the same way that a scholar searches through a dusty archive for new insights. 

In this process of ‘conservative revival,’ religion must play an important role—especially the Catholic pre-Reformation heritage and the piety of the Protestant free churches. Both represent embodied forms of religion disconnected from political power and both suffered repression until the late 19th century. The return of Catholicism to Sweden, in particular, has the potential of providing a vital component of the larger story—that of recapturing what has been lost. In this context, pre-Reformation sacred architecture plays an important symbolic role even when only evocative ruins remain.  

The present interest in conservatism is largely fueled by the socially destabilizing results of large-scale immigration. In 2020, 19.7% of people living in Sweden were born abroad and in some municipalities this is as high as 50-60%. This, of course, further complicates the idea of local cultural continuity and highlights the role of transnational religions as carriers of embodied norms and ancient customs. For example, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll only 9% in Sweden thought it necessary to believe in God in order to be moral, while in Kenya 95% thought it necessary; in Italy 30%, and in Germany 37%. Once again, Sweden marks an extreme case.

Swedish Catholicism’s story of a return and rediscovery of a lost heritage is combined with the arrival of a bewildering number of linguistic and ethnic identities from all over the world. In contrast, the Church of Sweden is founded on the Protestant rupture, combined with the affirmation of modernist change and an idea of Swedish cultural homogeneity that is fast crumbling. Thus, the greatest potential for a religious dynamic to emerge—one that is suitable for the development of Swedish conservatism—lies in a ‘conversation’ between the civil society formed by Protestant free churches and the deep cultural roots and universality of the Catholic Church.

Clemens Cavallin is professor of Christianity, religion, philosophies of life, and ethics at NLA University College, Bergen

Johan Sundeen is senior lecturer in intellectual history.

Lars F. Eklund has a licentiate in classical studies. He was a political advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office (1991-94) and Deputy Mayor of the city of Gothenburg, Sweden (1999 to 2003).


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