Rules Are for Schmucks: Church-State Separation Advancing in Norway and India

Humanists who expect to find Inauguration Day depressing may take some solace from events outside America’s borders. Two nations striding toward greater separation of church and state are profiled below.


Lutheranism has been the official religion of Norway since 1537 when King Christian III decreed it as such, banishing the Catholic archbishop to exile and stealing the Catholic Church’s extensive property. But religion in Norway has been in steep decline in recent years. More Norwegians say they don’t believe in God than say they do (with a large “don’t know” bloc as well), and only 5 percent of them attend church. When Norway’s official church offered an easy way for its members to resign online, 15,000 did so in just the first four days.

With that backdrop, does it still make sense for Norway to have an official state church? Of course not, says the Norwegian Humanist Association. They’ve been fighting for years to achieve a true neutrality of government toward religion, and on January 1, 2017, legislation implementing constitutional changes made in 2012 took effect. Here are some of the key constitutional changes:

  • Original Article 2: “All inhabitants of the Realm shall have the right to free exercise of their religion. The Evangelical-Lutheran religion shall remain the official religion of the State. The inhabitants professing it are bound to bring up their children in the same.”
  • New Article 2: “Our values will remain our Christian and humanist heritage. This Constitution shall ensure democracy, a state based on the rule of law and human rights.”
  • Original Article 4: “The King shall at all times profess the Evangelical-Lutheran religion, and uphold and protect the same.”
  • Amended Article 4: “The King shall at all times profess the Evangelical-Lutheran religion.”
  • Original Article 16: “The King ordains all public church services and public worship, all meetings and assemblies dealing with religious matters, and ensures that public teachers of religion follow the norms prescribed for them.”
  • New Article 16: “All inhabitants of the Realm shall have the right to free exercise of their religion. The Norwegian Church, an Evangelical-Lutheran church, will remain the Norwegian National Church and will as such be supported by the State. Detailed provisions as to its system will be laid down by law. All religious and philosophical communities should be supported on equal terms.”

The changes are substantial, but still fall short of disentangling the government from religion altogether. Kristin Mile, secretary general of the Norwegian Humanist Association, is fully aware of that: “Parliament came part of the way this time, but not far enough.” Still, as of January 1, the nation’s 1,250 priests and bishops are no longer be government officials appointed by the king or paid by the government, which is a major step in the right direction.


Meanwhile, four thousand miles away, the Supreme Court of India just issued a ruling that is probably too sweeping to be enforced. Then again, India is a strange place, so maybe there is some hope.

The ruling, quite simply, bans any appeal to religion (or caste) in political campaigns, classifying it as a “corrupt practice.” “Religion has no role in [the] electoral process, which is a secular activity,” the judges said. The relationship between a person and God is an individual choice, the court reasoned, and the state is forbidden from interfering in such an activity.

The case actually began in 1990, so you can’t accuse the court of a rush to judgment.

Have they been reading our stuff? The court’s statement is one most humanists would applaud. But it’s one thing to say it, and another thing to enforce it. What exactly is supposed to happen if a candidate goes around saying things like: “The Christians are being treated horribly because we have nobody to represent the Christians. Believe me, if I run and I win, I will be the greatest representative of the Christians they’ve had in a long time.” Or more likely in India, a candidate who substitutes “Hindus” for “Christians” in Donald Trump’s statement.

What would happen? Well, apparently what’s supposed to happen is that the losing candidate would run to court, like that annoying tattletale back in second grade, crying, “He said a bad word!” Or something like that. The court would then review the evidence, and say, “Yes, dear, he did. So his election is annulled.” Presto—President Hillary Clinton!

How cool is that! Especially if they can figure out how to take less than twenty-six years to do it.

A somewhat likelier (though still rosy) scenario is that a politician or two will be dragged through litigation hell over an allegation of “corrupt” use of religion in a campaign, and whiz kids thereafter who work on Indian political campaigns will start saying, “Hey, boss, maybe we should lay off the Hindu shit? Court’s a bitch, man.” Or the Hinglish equivalent thereof.

Maybe the likeliest case is that the court’s ruling will be a dead letter. No one will pay any attention to it, and Indian politics will continue to be as polluted by religion as they’ve been since Gandhi. In dark moments—like Inauguration Day—that’s what I predict. Then again, my predictions are often wrong. And I do sincerely hope I’m wrong, because India has been mutilated by religion more profoundly than I can describe. Anything that can move them off that dime, even a little bit, is a big deal.

And so, imperfectly, other parts of the world are gravitating toward keeping people’s fancies about the spirit world out of the serious business of politics and government. Unfortunately, Americans now have to face the reality of a new president and education secretary hell-bent on shoveling billions of dollars of your money into a bailout of the Catholic Church, via its schools. If neutrality can win in India and Norway, why not here?

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