Friday, August 13, 2010

Why Church and State Need to Separate in Iceland

For a long time, I've avoided this topic. Partly out of the fact that I grew up in a country with an official separation of church and state, but a great many churches actively involved in politics. One of the supposed upshots of a national church is that it sates the clergy with a sense of power, so they don't try to become activists. However, I think the national church of Iceland resides in a power limbo, exerting political influence and held together by a contradiction and a falsehood - that Icelanders want their taxes to pay for the church, but that they couldn't survive on donations alone.

About 65% of Icelanders are in favor of separation of church and state, according to a poll conducted by the Humanist Society in 2006. 43% said they never go to church. The next highest percentage - 17.4% - go two to three times a year. 15.9%, once a year [PowerPoint report]. The church would drastically shrink if it had to exist on donations alone. And when the bishop of Iceland alone makes nearly a million kronur per month, that's just not going to happen, even if registration has been steadily dropping.

And so the church fights to maintain the lifestyle that it's accustomed to. When the government says it intends to reduce their state revenues by 9%, the church makes a conditional counter-proposal of 5%. This is at a time when social programs across the board have had to take serious hits in the budget, so naturally, this makes people upset. For the church, which is given close to 5 billion ISK a year from the government, to say that they cannot handle a 9% decrease is ridiculous.

But the church contends that it is an independent body in a legal contract with the Icelandic government, and therefore has the right to negotiate terms. They also point out the charity work that's done under the church as another reason why taking a cut would be out of the question. And there's no question that the church does provide charity work.

But the state also provides the same social services the church does, so there's no reason why the funding of the church couldn't just be kept within government social services, which would in turn go directly towards the people who need them without an additional set of salaries subtracting funding from them. There'd still be nothing stopping the church from continuing to provide charities, as well as spiritual guidance (arguably the sole function of a church in a social democratic society).

And then there've been a few recent matters that've come up.

While the issue of gay marriage actually saw some clergy in full favor of the measure, it shouldn't be forgotten that the church still fought the passage of this law. Sure, that's fine. Not every Icelander has to fall in line and obey the word of the parliamentary majority. But it is odd for an organization, while living on tax money and declaring themselves to be a non-political body, to get politically involved in resisting the shaping of legislation. If it weren't for the billions the church gets from the state - if they were supported solely by their congregation - it's doubtful their opinion of gay marriage would carry as much weight.

Still, not a terribly extreme example. What is, however, disturbing is the church position when it comes to sexual assault within its walls. When a former bishop's daughter - with the support of the Feminist Society of Iceland - encouraged the church to come clean about cases of sexual assault involving clergy, church officials became very tight-lipped. Gunnar Rúnar Matthíasson, head of a special committee within the church that oversees incidences of sexual abuse within the congregation, would not disclose just how many instances of sexual abuse between clergy and members of the congregation have been reported, saying only that there has been more than one. Furthermore, the church's own self-made rule that it would keep such matters to itself is in direct violation of Icelandic law.

So basically, this is what we have:

An institution with little relevance to most Icelanders, whose second-greatest claim of importance (social assistance) is already covered by existing government offices, and costs us billions in precious revenue per year, has not only refused to agree to an exceedingly reasonable budget cut, but also flouts the law itself, despite the fact that most Icelanders no longer want this institution to be a part of their government.

Do understand that I am not anti-Christian. I'm not even anti-Lutheran. I understand that to many Icelanders, the church serves an important purpose in their spiritual lives. There's no reason why it couldn't continue to do that if it were cut free from the state. It is, in any event, what most Icelanders appear to want. The matter should be put to public referendum, and then parliamentary vote.

It's not just about the money. It's about the role of both the government and the church. The national church is an obsolete concept. It's time for the nation to decide where we go from here.


  1. The latest poll, done in November 2009, about separation of church and state showed that 74% of Icelanders are in favor of separation.

  2. As a anti-theist I whole heatedly concur.

  3. This is the one of the two things I've heard so far that is making me balk at considering moving to Iceland and becoming a tax paying citizen there.

  4. Hope: Really? That's pretty significant. Do you have a cite for that?

  5. Paul: Hope's 74% doesn't seem that wild considering the article describes a whopping 65%. . .

  6. Wouldn't say it's wild, no, but a 10% increase in 4 years is significant. And in any event, I'd love to see a source on that so I can update this piece accordingly.

  7. At last, someone has the guts to talk about a subject most people avoid!!
    I totally agree, the church has a righful place in society, as a choice for people who need an want it. But only as a choice, not as part of the state.
    If you do not agree with paying taxes for the church, you can sign a form which will direct that same portion of your tax to another religious institute of your choice, or to the university. you do NOT HAVE to pay the church if you do not want it.
    If more people knew this and did it, it might shift things quicker..

  8. Flore: Yes, you can divert a part of the government funding by registering as a member of another religious organization or outside all religious organization.

    But over half of the funding to the state church is not linked to membership of religious organizations and is paid for by everyone.

  9. I am also blogging on the church and more on my blogspot in english.