Speech at the International Conference “The Positive Side of Religious Freedom" held at 7th of June 2019 in Romania
Dear European friends here in Romania and distinguished guests!
Thank you for inviting me to this very important conference. My name is Åke Göransson and I am the director of the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities. It is a governmental Agency under the ministry of Culture.
The Agency’s task is to promote dialogue between the state and faith communities as well as to contribute to knowledge about religion and faith community life in Sweden. The Agency is also responsible for distributing financial grants and other forms of support which is intended to make it possible for the faith communities to work actively with a long-term focus on worship, education, and spiritual and pastoral care The Agency’s task can be divided in five areas:
Continuous dialogue enables discussion of issues that affect the conditions that apply to faith communities and the religious minorities as well as their status in Sweden. This dialogue may involve central values such as religious freedom, tolerance, democracy and human rights, as well as practical issues of different kinds. We have during the last years specially together with the faith communities worked with questions regarding young leaders and female leadership.
Faith communities play an important role in civil society when revolutionary changes and crises occur. In recent years many state and municipal institutions have had their attention drawn to the importance of contacts with civil society and in particular with faith communities that have unique experience of helping people during crises and catastrophes. These contacts can be strengthened at an early stage through dialogues with the faith communities. In several parts of Sweden this cooperation is arranged today through interfaith councils.
Other forms of support take the shape of education or project activities that are intended to enhance the capacity of the faith communities. For instance, the Agency arranges continual professional development for religious leaders who have received their training outside Sweden. Supporting the administrative capacity of the faith communities is another aspect of this task, which is particularly important for newly established faith communities that need to acquaint themselves with Swedish society.
The Agency regularly produces reports, articles and material that deal with current issues relating to faith communities and religion in Sweden. In addition to this, the Agency takes part in a number of groups and contexts in which knowledge about this field is sought for, and also responds to official consultation documents and other requests.
Each year the Agency allocates state funding to the faith communities, around 60 different communities on national level with different size. Most of this takes the form of general organisational grants that are intended to support local religious activities. The Church of Sweden, former state-church, does also receive state funding – but not through the Agency for Support for Faith Communities.
One argument that is often heard in the debate about whether and why the Government in Sweden, or, for that matter, local authorities and county councils, should provide financial grants to faith communities is that the secular state should not subsidise religion. This is true, and even if what I would like to begin by saying here may jar in the ears of some religious leaders, it does not do so either. The government supports the role that faith communities play in civil society. The government supports the initiatives of individuals and groups whose social commitment and co-existence is warranted by and based on religion. I would like to claim that the government does not support sport but the individuals and groups for whom sport is the key to and basis for individual development and social co-existence. I do not deny, however, that civil society includes stakeholders that the state subsidises in order to serve its own intrinsic or instrumental interests. Examples can be found in popular educational or temperance movements, stakeholders that complement the state’s undertakings in the field of education or health. The challenge they face is to avoid being stifled by the state’s benevolence so that their prophetic voices are not silenced.
The Government Bill A policy for the civil society (2009/10:55) contains the following:
“It is impossible to imagine Swedish democracy with its cornerstones of universal suffrage, gender equality and the right of access to public documents without the voluntary endeavours of committed individuals. The history of Swedish democracy is largely the history of civil society in Sweden. […] By the end of the nineteenth century a number of national and local free church, temperance and labour movements had been established, as well as cooperative societies and popular education organisations. Sports associations and agricultural cooperatives are also normally included among the classical popular movements. These emerged as vehicles for protest that challenged the political establishment”. (pp. 24–25)
Our society and our democracy was not a concept floating in the air that suddenly landed on a meadow and engendered civil society and the popular movements. Indeed not, it is the product of people’s commitment and impatience. Frustrated by their own lack of power, they succeeded through their own actions in making their voices heard.
It is not odd that faith communities, like sport, popular education and culture, receive subsidies from the state as they form part of civil society, a civil society that in Sweden we have opted to support from tax revenues, as this is the way in which we have jointly created the society in which we live.
Now and then, the idea of subsidies for faith communities is questioned in public debate.
Before the reform that disestablished the Church of Sweden in 2000, the issue of state support for faith communities was also the subject of inquiry. In its bill (1998/99:124) the Government describes why state subsidies should continue to be provided:
“Faith communities participate, together with other positive forces, in the never-ending process of establishing norms that is necessary for the maintenance and enhancement of the fundamental values on which our society rests. Current social research also clearly shows that active associations and organisations help in many ways to strengthen the democratic system. It is therefore very important for the vitality of Swedish democracy to encourage and develop different ideologies and faiths that actively contribute to the maintenance of our democratic system of government so that they can make their voices heard. One of society’s tasks is to provide for the varied needs of its citizens. The activities of the faith communities help above all to meet their religious needs and to provide individuals with a fundamental identity and social and cultural affiliation. Resort to the activities of the faith communities may become particularly conspicuous in times of catastrophe and crisis. Active and robust faith communities also reduce the scope for various forms of religious extremism.” (p. 60)
The wording of the bill demonstrates continuity from 1971, when state subsidies for faith communities were introduced. The arguments are more or less the same. It is interesting to note, as well, that two other forms of state support were initiated at about the same time. Press subsidies were introduced in 1971, and in 1972 support for political parties in the form that we know it today.
It is important to remember that these forms of government support were established at the same time and focused on furthering democracy, the possibilities of individuals and the development of society.
In addition to the question of whether faith communities should receive any state subsidies at all, a question that is sometimes raised is what demands the state should make for entitlement to them.
The Act on Subsidies to Religious Communities (SFS 1999:932), an act that enjoys constitutional protection, distinguishes between the purpose of these subsidies and the terms on which they are granted. “The support should help to create conditions in which religious communities can pursue active and long-term activities of a religious nature in the form of services, pastoral care, religious instruction and social care.” This is what the agency has to take into account in allocating government grants. In laying down the terms on which a faith community is entitled to state support, the act stipulates that grants may only be awarded to a religious community that contributes to maintaining and strengthening the fundamental values upon which society is based, and is stable and robust. Faith communities apply to the Government for entitlement to state support and if this is granted, they are registered by the Government as laid down in the Ordinance on Government Grants to Religious Communities (SFS 1999:974 with amendments).
What has given rise to most discussion is the meaning of “contributes to the maintenance and enhancement of the fundamental values upon which society is based”. First and foremost, the wording says contributes to maintenance – not compliance. What this means is analysed in the text of the Government’s bill prior to the act: how the autonomy of a faith community and freedom of belief is to be observed, and the importance in a democracy of being able to take part in a dialogue on the basis of different standpoints. The conclusion reached is “that it is highly important for a faith community to act so that its members and those it serves play an active role in society and that it clearly shows its repudiation of anti-democratic tendencies in society” (Govt. Bill 1998/99:124, p. 64). The grants are to enable the faith community to contribute to the development of society and of democracy.
The government grants that are allocated are divided into three kinds: organisational grants, operational grants and project grants. The government bill states that a considerable proportion of the funding is to be awarded in the form of organisational grants. This is in order to reduce the influence of the government to merely deciding about entitlement to support. The reason for this is to make it clear that the Government has no control over the internal affairs of a faith community (Govt. Bill 1998/99, p. 68). When it comes to the smaller amounts awarded in the other two forms of grant, the bill states “that there are activities undertaken by the faith communities that may be of the kind that the state has a particular interest in supporting in different ways” (p. 68).
In conclusion, the contributions of the faith communities as one element in civil society could be described as creating social affiliation, complementing state undertakings, providing confessional alternatives to public services and as critical voices and shapers of opinion.
Let me end with quoting the Swedish constitution, it says right in the beginning in Chapter 1 Article 2:
“Public power shall be exercised with respect for the equal worth of all and the liberty and dignity of the individual. The personal, economic and cultural welfare of the individual shall be fundamental aims of public activity. In particular, the public institutions shall secure the right to employment, housing and education, and shall promote social care and social security, as well as favourable conditions for good health.
The public institutions shall promote sustainable development leading to a good environment for present and future generations.
The public institutions shall promote the ideals of democracy as guidelines in all sectors of society and protect the private and family lives of the individual.
The public institutions shall promote the opportunity for all to attain participation and equality in society and for the rights of the child to be safeguarded.
The public institutions shall combat discrimination of persons on grounds of gender, colour, national or ethnic origin, linguistic or religious affiliation, functional disability, sexual orientation, age or other circumstance affecting the individual.
The opportunities of the Sami people and ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities to preserve and develop a cultural and social life of their own shall be promoted.”
Therefor I believe that “Supporting faith communities is one way of building a strong society”
Thank you for listening!