Luther and the roots of Nordic welfare states

Martin Luther reading from the Epistle to Romans (1:17) that “The righteous will live by faith.” was a eureka moment that changed the course of European history but its modern political implications can be found in the internationally desired Nordic welfare system. 

Luther challenged the idea that one could “earn” their place in heaven by acts of charity and when this was combined this with the idea that “There should be no poor among you (Deut 15:4)”, a principle founded in the Old Testament, it created a need for a collectively organised social care system. The combination of these two principles led him to reform social care in the Protestant cities of Europe.

To achieve this Luther worked to combine the numerous guild and parish alms funds into one local fund which was administered by the city council. He created the municipal social work when he put this principle into practice in the city orders of North Germany. Some cities, however, did not accept this responsibility and that led to the beginning of German deacon foundations that are still strong today.

Luther’s ideas laid the foundations of the legitimacy of the modern welfare state legitimising state intervention into welfare, which had been church territory before, but now nearly all issues of practical reason belonged to the secular authority with only divine issues belonging to the church.

On the other hand, although Luther’s ideas resonated with democracy, his attitude to please the nobility put him starkly against any distribution of power to the wider populace. This gave to the rulers a possibility to use the Reformation for their own purposes, (e.g. Gustav Wasa in Sweden, or Henry VIII). The outcome of the struggles in the era of the Reformation was the principle quius regio, eius religio (Whose realm, their religion: the principle that the lord would choose the religion of the populace, not religious freedom of the individual). Thus, the Lutheran churches became part of the state bureaucracy and much of the poor-relief of the society was organised through local parishes.

The Thirty Years War was another turning point for European history. It left a widespread ill-feeling towards high dogmatism and there was a trend away from church control. This trend took two forms, namely Pietism and Enlightenment,  which played important role in future developments. Pietism stressed individual devotion to God and Enlightenment emphasised reason, battling against ‘superstitions’.

According to Aage B. Sørensen, the influence of Pietism is threefold. First, it strengthened state intervention into fields that had previously been a territory of the Church, such as welfare and education.

This is another area where Luther’s theology came to forefront when reinforcing new ideas. His emphasis on everyone’s right to read and understand the Bible led to its translation to numerous languages and a resultant drive for an increase in literacy rates and subsequent educational institutions for the masses that would be naturally financed by the state. Pietism stressed that education was key to countering poverty.

Second, it established a Protestant tradition for small clubs and independent organisations. These organisations and their descendants formed the first nonprofit organisations in the Protestant part of the world. Third, Halle’s Institutions enabled the central administration to be less dependent on land-owning nobles by supplying educated civil servants to Prussia and Denmark, inspired by Pietistic idea of eliminating poverty. This educated staff created welfare state projects.

This trend was accompanied by the diminishing of the significance of universities because they had suffered from the religious wars and their curriculum had remained too classical. For these reasons the state sponsored academies took the lead in the field of sciences.

Halle Institutions in North Germany became significant in developing new models for education, the state and welfare. Being the leader of academic thought for the whole 18th century, Halle became a centre of new models for poor relief, as well.

Developments in Bismarcian Prussia, which has been generally seen as the early version of the welfare state, were an outcome of Halle Pietistism and its belief that poverty could be overcome by education.

Lutheran emphasis on the responsibility of the society created the Nordic welfare system in which the state is the major actor in health care, social care and education. Lutheran nations not only have enviable welfare states today but were also the first nations to achieve full literacy rates. 

Combined with old Scandinavian and Lutheran traditions of democracy, this led to state dominance in Scandinavia.

The ultimate model of the state supremacy has been Sweden and its folkhem (people’s home), which was created under the Social Democrats after the Second World War and from the 1960s to the 1980s Nordic countries believed that they had created the best social policy system in the world.

The main difference from other parts of the world is that where others see the state as outside and above civil society, in Nordic countries the state is the civil society.  Its influence and regulation reached to almost every sphere of human life.

Social Democracy is ergo, as Robert H. Nelson states in his Lutheranism and the Nordic Spirit of Social Democracy, “secular Lutheranism”.

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