Aftermath and Flourishing? The Role of Religion in a Post-Pandemic Public Square

By: Chris Baker

April 22, 2020

Religion and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Social Welfare

At the time of writing, there have now been in Europe over 1 million reported cases of COVID-19 resulting in nearly 104,000 deaths. There will be many variables contributing to these shocking and desperately sad statistics, but one that may well explain regional variations is the religious heritage of each European country. I am thinking in particular of Gøsta Esping-Andersen’s pioneering work in which he formulated three types of welfare system in Europe, and linked them directly to the religious culture that shaped each nation-state since the seventeenth century [1]. His work has been updated and built upon more recently by Bäckström and by Davie [2].

The three types are the liberal welfare model, typical of Anglo-Saxon societies such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada, and which emerge primarily from Protestant cultures. Historically, these countries share a predilection towards market solutions to welfare, especially in health and social care, and a narrow definition of what constitutes the risk of falling into unsustainable living. Then there is the conservative welfare model, which emerges from those countries with close historical and cultural ties to the Catholic and/or Orthodox Church. These would include countries like France, Austria, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Malta along with many Central and Eastern nation-states that were formerly part of the Soviet Union: Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovenia. The welfare characteristics of these states would include familialism—the centrality of the family as the main source of caregiving—and subsidiarity. In this regime type, state provision only comes into play when the family or civil society are unable to respond adequately.

The final type of welfare regime identified by Esping-Andersen is the social democratic—or Nordic—model. This model most resembles the original UK template of the post-war welfare state, and includes the notion of universalist access to social entitlements. The model also advocates creating conditions for full employment (or productivism), investing in high levels of well-paid public sector employment, and a de-familistic approach which is generally more progressive on issues of gender and social equality. Unlike Protestant or Catholic traditions, these nation-states emerge from an evangelical Lutheran culture, which has bequeathed a spirit of individual diligence, modesty, and intellectual rationalism within a theological understanding (now heavily secularized) of both the church and the state as legitimate contributors to a flourishing and well-run political economy. Thus typically, religious attendance is low, but religious affiliation and identity as expressed in paying the church tax is high (80% of Danes elect to pay the church tax, for example). 

The Nordic churches thus appear to express particularly well Grace Davie’s notion of vicarious religion whereby an increasingly committed minority of churchgoers continue to hold open the religious space on behalf of the majority, so that it is available in times of national need, tragedy, or celebration [3]. The lack of direct engagement by the majority is not necessarily a sign of indifference or hostility. On the contrary, Davie suggests, the attitude of the “secular” majority towards its religious legacy is imbued with a “sense of approval,” and a desire to keep the points of access open.

Applying this three-fold typology to early data emerging from the European experience of COVID-19, we find, broadly speaking, that Nordic countries with their Lutheran-imbued welfare polity appear to have higher indicators of epidemiological resilience. The research tracks data across 11 EU countries and finds that Denmark, Norway, and Finland appear to be more effective in containing the spread of the disease. Key to this success has been the rigorous simulation of responses to pandemic events and the imposition of draconian lock down models at earlier points in the infection curve.

But more germane to our argument is where the research speculates that it is perhaps the cultural proximity of Nordic countries to other successful cultures at tackling COVID-19—namely rich South East Asian economies such as South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and China—that could a major variable. These are countries which due to their Daoist and Confucian traditions set a high store on locating personal autonomy within strong ethical traditions that prioritize the needs of the collective over the individual, loyalty to family, and deference to tradition and hierarchy. 

These are all cultural norms that have been ideologically side-lined by Anglo-Saxon doctrines of neo-liberal deregulation and autonomy expressed as individual choice and access to privatized services. On current trajectories, the two most loyal exponents of this doctrine—the United States and the United Kingdom—will probably have the highest rates of infection, mortality, and therefore economic depression.

By contrast, the theological and cultural legacy of evangelical Lutheranism appears to offer a judicious vision of wealth creation and aspiration that is reasonably offset by deferring individual gratification to the wisdom and stability to the collective (as expressed in progressive tax systems and consistently high investment in public infrastructure). Is there something about the Lutheran tradition that operates in similar ways to those South East Asian economies with a strong affiliation to religious and ethical legacies and who also appear to be winning the war against COVID 19? Does Davie’s concept of vicarious religion play out in surprisingly powerful and effective ways in Nordic countries in the context of modern global pandemics? Is there something in the prophylactic power of religiously imbued ethical traditions that epidemiological science and policy needs to re-evaluate, alongside its traditional reliance on social psychology and big data modeling?

The Nordic outlier is of course Sweden, who has opted instead for a natural herd immunity approach. There is some speculation as to why this might be. Is there still an innate “Lutheran” modesty and personal maturity at play (plus an inbuilt preference to work from home) that allows Sweden to contemplate this bold policy of mass exposure? Or is it because Sweden has most consciously sought to distance itself from its traditional Lutheran roots, with a much deeper policy separation between church and state, in favor of a more “liberal democratic” (that is, free market) economic approach. Infection and mortality rates in Sweden are now much higher than their neighbors, and there are increasingly centralized attempts to increase social distancing and lockdown. 

Will the Swedish government regret putting its faith in the behavior of its own people? Or will it regret even more loosening the Lutheran cultural ties and norms that have served it so well in the past? In Sweden, only 68% of the population pay the church tax, lower than most European countries where the tax still exists. Only time will tell.

  1. ​Gøsta Esping-Andersen, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990). 
  2. Grace Davie and Anders Bäckström, eds., Welfare and Religion in 21st Century Europe (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010); Grace Davie, Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
  3. Grace Davie, Religion in Britain – A Persistent Paradox (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2015).
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