The logo of the Social Democratic Party in Sweden.

Yes, I know that statement may seem contradictory at first. First of all, for those who don’t know me – perhaps you found this post through Google – I need to clarify that I am not in any way a socialist (though I am a Christian). I feel the need to clarify that because I know that a lot of people will scroll down to write angry comments after they’ve read the first one or two paragraphs, and I don’t really feel like participating in a flamewar today.

I can already sense what you must all be thinking: “If socialism needs Christianity, why do all socialists oppose Christianity so much?” – well, keep reading and we’ll get to it in a minute.

A lot of people like to point to the Nordic countries as examples of successful socialism. I’m from a Nordic country (Sweden), and I would disagree with this view. Instead of serving as an example of successful socialism, Sweden could in my view serve as an example of why socialism needs Christianity.

Back when the Social Democrats – Sweden’s main left-winged party – first grabbed power in 1932, Christianity was still dominating Sweden. Lutheranism was the main denomination, but the baptist and Pentecostal churches were growing rapidly and more and more Swedes identified as born-again Christians. That doesn’t quite sound like a good environment for socialism, doesn’t it? We like to think of socialism as an ideology that grows in countries where people are disillusioned and have lost their faith in God, but in Sweden, the exact opposite was happening.

In fact, the Social Democrats enjoyed great support FROM the born-again Christians! Most the born-again Christians were working class, and many of them struggled with alcoholism or knew someone who did – alcoholism at the time was a rampant social problem in Sweden, and the Social Democrats were the only party which recognized this and were willing to do whatever it took to eradicate it (and, to their credit, they did). This made them an attractive choice for Christians. We have to remember that the left at this time did not support the “progressive” ideas that we see today – such as gay marriage or free abortion.

But to get back to the topic: Once the social democrats were in power, taxes began to rise. Slowly at first, faster and faster after World War II. At the same time, Sweden introduced generous welfare programs for the ill, the unemployed and the retired. Logically, this should have been a disaster for the labour supply – standard economic models would predict that workers would choose not to work (at least not as much), leading to high voluntary unemployment, government deficits (from the decrease of income tax revenue combined with high outlays for the welfare programs) and just an overall lower level of growth.

Why didn’t this happen? Leftist academicians will cite a number of reasons, but personally, I strongly believe the main reason was because Sweden was a christian country.

Lutheranism like I mentioned was the main form of Christianity back then (it still is on paper), and Lutheranism happens to carry with it a strong emphasis on work: Working is good for the soul. Working is not simply something you should do to make a living (a means to an end), it is a good thing in itself.

The Swedish culture emphasized this even more than many other protestant countries. Swedes who emigrated to North America quickly gained a reputation as hard workers. Swedish people worked, not simply because of the money, but because they believed strongly that working was intrinsically good. Economists like to think of the salary as being the main incentive to work (together with any benefits offered by the employer), and so when salaries go down (which is what happens when taxes go up), there should be a smaller incentive to work, leading to less work being done. But, if the money offered for the work wasn’t the main incentive in the first place, then it’s easy to see why taxes could go up a lot with only a small negative change in the supply of labour.

Basically, Christianity – and Lutheranism in particular – offered an incentive to get up in the morning and go to work instead of collecting unemployment: You’ll risk eternal damnation if you don’t!

I realize that this is a huge simplification of Lutheran theology, but that’s essentially the message that regular people took away from what the church taught.

And now, it’s easy to see understand what happened when secularization took hold: Suddenly, a majority of Swedes believed in the notion that “You only live once”. And suddenly, getting up in the morning and going to work (and paying approximately 65 % of your salary in taxes) just didn’t seem so attractive any more when you could simply collect extraordinarily generous benefits. In Sweden, there is no time limit on government assistance – you can live on benefits for your entire life. While in theory this system should have been widely abused, that didn’t really happen as long as Sweden was a firmly Lutheran country with a population that possessed a strong work ethic.

Now, you’re probably asking: If socialism depends on Christianity to function, then why do socialists hate Christianity so much?

It’s a great question, with many possible answers. Personally, I believe it comes down to the fact that socialist governments like power a little bit too much: You see, a statist government is always going to compete with God for power over people’s lives. The more influence God has over a population, the less influence the government will have over that population. To give you an example: In a christian country, the government doesn’t get to decide when life begins. In a Christian country, the government doesn’t get to decide what constitutes a marriage. In a christian country, the government doesn’t get to decide when life ends.

It boils down to the fact that Christians believe in moral absolutes, and a socialist government can’t stand having moral absolutes restraining them. As long as the Swedish people believed in God, there was no way for the socialists to get the kind of unlimited power that they always dreamed of having. Because, socialists, unlike conservatives, do not simply strive to be in government; they seek to become like God. Something you may recognize as the motivation behind the original sin.

By promoting secularization in Sweden, the social democrats cut off the branch that the welfare state was sitting on. But for some reason, they had decided that their social agenda – promoting free abortion, homosexuality, promiscuity and the like – was more important, and that agenda just happened to be incompatible with the Christian ethics that made the welfare state function. In a socialist state, the government is the ultimate judge when it comes to ethics: If the government says that X is right, then X is right – no discussion! In order for the government to get this kind of power, the population must not believe in any kind of higher moral authority, like the word of God.

Today, less than 5 % of the Swedish population are christian, with 85-90 % identifying as atheist. And, predictably enough, the welfare state is slowly decaying and has been in decline ever since secularization began. Sweden’s welfare state today is nothing like it was just 20-30 years ago; we’ve even had to (partly) privatise our social security system and force workers to invest money on the stock market if they want a decent pension. Getting unemployment and disability benefits is much harder today than it used to be, because the authorities can’t trust people to be honest and not abuse the system (like they could when we were Lutheran) – today, you need to provide a lot more evidence to get benefits, and you are more likely to be suspected of fraud and investigated than before. It used to be the case that we could assume that people wanted to work, and so wouldn’t collect benefits unless absolutely necessary – but with today’s secular culture, that assumption just doesn’t hold anymore. Needless to say, the Swedish welfare state today has become an expensive administrative nightmare, with doctors having to spend as much as 50 % of their time arguing with the authorities to convince them to provide disability benefits to patients who are clearly unable to work.

Finishing up, I would like to admit that social democracy brought many positive changes to the Swedish society. I’ve already mentioned that they successfully reduced alcohol consumption, and there were many other areas were the social democrats – at least initially – had reasonable policies that improved the Swedish society. Sweden before the social democrats came to power was a country without even basic pensions and help for the destitute; it was a country without even the most rudimentary and basic regulations; and it wasn’t a country that I would like to go back to. However, once the social democrats rejected Christianity, their policies quickly turned destructive (In a later post I’ll explain why they did this), and that’s all that matters today.

Of course, even with Christianity socialism is far from a great system – an overly extensive welfare state grants too much power to politicians for the system to be ideal. If there is one thing that we can learn from the bible – apart from the Gospel itself – it is that power can corrupt even the best – see; Moses, Saul, David etc. Having a Christian government doesn’t mean that it won’t be corrupted if given enough power; and either way, socialism isn’t a very good way of allocating resources (but that’s another topic really).

I’m going to stop here and return to this topic at a later point. Thank you for reading.

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  1. Are you stating that unless you are a Christian, or more specifically a Lutheran, you are lazy? Or is it that when this group of people moved away from religion, they got lazy?

    Also, Monarchy governments in Europe worked hand in hand with the Church for centuries. They had quite the symbiotic relationship. The Church provided the royal families God’s authority to rule over the masses while the royal family gave the church unrestricted power to essentially do as they please. There were some dark times during this period such as the Inquisitions, the Crusades, and the Dark Ages. The Church dictated what you must believe – there was no discussion. To do otherwise resulted in being labeled a heretic by the Church and you were then tortured, imprisoned, and / or executed. You worked hard to pay your taxes out of fear of death.

    1. No, I’m not a lutheran myself – I grew up in a pentecostal church and while living abroad I’ve attended a presbyterian church. However, it is undeniable that lutheranism provided a great breeding ground for capitalism and for the industrial revolution.

      Also, your description of history is overly simplified – it really depends on which country we are talking about. It is true that the church generally supported the authorities – and the lutheran churches in particular were very loyal – and this obviously wasn’t always good. However, the crusades were done in defense so I don’t see anything wrong with them really (of course, like in any war, some soldiers went crazy and committed war crimes – but that doesn’t make the war itself illegal).

      But Europe was far from as unfree as you describe it – European culture and society has been the most successful that has ever existed. We gave the world science, an industrial revolution, and social progress (rights for women). There is a reason why Europe went from the poorest continent in the year 1500 to the richest in the year 1800 – I recommend you read Civilization: The West and the Rest.

      I’m simply saying that when you don’t believe in the “protestant work ethic” as it’s called, you have a smaller incentive to work and you are therefore more likely to, yes, be lazy as you call it. If you don’t think work is inherently good, then you may refuse to work and choose to collect benefits if taxes and/or unemployment benefits are high. That’s what happened in Sweden, and that’s why our welfare state is decaying.

      1. I like your take on the subject. Thank you. We are experiencing the same things here in America now. We are giving up our real rights for fake ones, and will end up with none at all pretty soon.

      2. Thank you! Later on tonight or tomorrow I’ll be posting a follow-up article to this one, discussing how the Social Democrats lost power in 1976 – after being in government for 44 years! – and what we can learn from that. Stay tuned!

  2. Correct me if I am wrong but what I take away from this article is that because of the peoples have turned away from religion (i.e. became atheists), they have lost the will to work for a living or something to that effect.

    Let me point out that some of the most successful self-made people in America are atheists, most of our leading scientists are atheists, and most atheists in America have a higher education level than the rest of the population. These are accomplishments lazy people rarely obtain.

    Here is my problem and I would appreciate your response. Back when George Bush Sr. was vice-president, he allegedly made a comment that he didn’t think atheists should be considered citizens or patriots since, “we are one nation under God.” Whether he actually said it or not, most Christians thought it was a perfectly reasonable remark.

    Now if I walk into a room and say something like Christians are not patriotic because back in 1954 they put under God into our Pledge and they continue pushing their religion onto everyone else, defying separation of church and state as laid out in the Constitution. I would immediately be attacked verbally if not physically, accused of attacking religion, and the old standby – be labeled an angry atheist.

    1. What I am saying is that Lutheranism provides an additional incentive to work that non-lutherans doesn’t have. The greater the incentive, the more you will work – that’s Economics 101.

      Atheists may be motivated to work for money, or personal fulfillment, or because they like their boss/colleagues or whatever. Lutherans are motivated by all those things too – but in addition to all of those reasons, Lutherans are also motivated to work because they believe that working is good for the soul. All other things held constant, Lutherans are more motivated to work, therefore work more, which creates a (materially) wealthier society.

      This doesn’t mean that all atheists are lazy – you can’t take an average and use it to judge individuals. And of course atheists should be considered equal citizens! I don’t know if George HW Bush ever said that of course, but if he did then that was stupid and I completely disagree with him.

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