This demands that Christians, instead of using politics as a theological shibboleth, listen—though of course not uncritically—to what has shaped individual convictions. For behind each conviction lies a story, and knowing it often leads not to consent but to some kind of understanding. But reductionism is always a temptation: to reduce individuals to their political convictions, and the church to a branch of a certain party. Withstanding it demands a richer anthropology, a deeper understanding of the church as the body of Christ and a realization that the political mission of the church is to work for unity. Not to keep quiet, but to keep the peace.
I left Sweden for the United States in the summer of 2000, and arrived in the middle of a captivating election cycle: the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. I was a young Pentecostal, and my newfound friends mostly belonged to the evangelical camp. We shared theology, and the globalization of evangelicalism had made sure that we sang the same songs and read the same spiritual writers. But politically, we were worlds apart. I had never before met Christians who defended the death penalty or desired a stronger military. And little did I know that the Bible could be read as supporting welfare cuts.
I have been back many times since, and during several elections—but the conversations have not become easier. In fact, the distance now seems so wide that we can barely begin a discussion on political matters. Back in the early 2000s, our divisions concerned financial and foreign policy. Today, white evangelicals are a key voting bloc for Donald Trump, whose populist politics horrify most Swedish evangelicals. The populist equivalent in Swedish politics are the Sweden Democrats, who, like Trump, desire a more homogenous society. But although they give Christianity a prominent place in their vision, they have been rejected by evangelical voters.
This is a riddle I have been trying to solve for decades: How can those whose theology and spirituality are so similar hold such widely different political opinions? There is a sense, especially among theologians, that differences between churches ought to have theological explanations. That is, after all, what should guide churches as well as individual Christians. But in this case it is not enough to explain the differences. Instead, we must look for the answer in the histories that shaped, and continues to shape, evangelicalism in Sweden and the United States.
When Alexis de Tocqueville set sail for the United States, he was not convinced. It was the early 1830s, and he was on his way to a young nation that was experimenting with democracy. Tocqueville, like most intellectuals since Plato, saw it as a high-risk project. His philosophical misgivings were compounded by the fact that his father had barely survived the French Revolution, strengthening his suspicion that egalitarianism would lead to disintegration and chaos, before ending in tyranny.
But his visit left him impressed. Tocqueville toured the nation for almost a year and concluded that the Americans seemed to have pulled it off. This was due to what he famously labeled “the art of associating”—their untiring practice of small-scale organizing: clubs, congregations, and associations. This fostered democratic virtues and shaped citizens able to achieve democracy on a national level. He was particularly fascinated by the churches that spread all over the nation, founded as it was on the idea of religious freedom. They contributed by preaching and practicing solidarity and patience, virtues necessary to sustain a democracy.
The story of democracy in Sweden begins in a similar way, albeit a century after the inauguration of democracy in America. Here too the art of associating was vital for the development of democracy—and evangelicalism was instrumental in fostering it. But it took time. In the nineteenth century, Sweden was one of Europe’s least democratic countries. Religious freedom was established only in the 1860s, and before that evangelicals were fined, imprisoned, or ostracized for their convictions. When the first Baptist congregation was founded, in 1848, it had to be done in secret. But this congregation was the very first democratic association in the country.
With religious freedom came a rapid growth of evangelical denominations—or free churches as they are called in Sweden—in contrast to the established Lutheran state church. This changed the political culture, for most evangelicals formed democratic associations. As a grassroots movement these free churches fostered civic virtue through the art of association. Many evangelicals also became involved in national politics and worked diligently for democratization, particularly religious freedom and other liberal reforms.
The free churches belonged to the democratic avant-garde of Swedish modernity. They introduced the organizational forms that the other popular movements—the worker’s movement and the temperance movement—would copy: democratic associations with protocols, budgets, and membership rolls. In Sweden it took until 1921 before women were given the right to vote in parliamentary election. By then they had already had this right in evangelical denominations for seventy years.
During the nineteenth century, evangelicals in Sweden and the United States had similar political instincts. As the late historian Donald Dayton and author Marilynne Robinson have both shown, large parts of evangelicalism in this era were politically progressive. They spearheaded the fights against slavery, economic injustices, and discrimination of women.
This is a sadly neglected chapter of American church history. The famous revivalist Charles Finney is mostly remembered for his revivals on the East Coast in the 1830s. But it is a less-known fact that he preached that personal salvation must be tied to social justice. “Revivals are hindered,” he wrote, “when ministers and churches take wrong ground in regard to any question involving human rights.” His revivals inspired the founding of Oberlin College, the first university to allow not only women but also people of all colors to study together.
But the United States was politically very different from Sweden, and seeing this will help us understand the political differences between evangelicalism that would eventually develop in these two countries. For while the United States was founded as a democracy—albeit a flawed one—Sweden was still in the late nineteenth century a monarchy with a parliament open only to the well-off. In order to be elected or even vote in elections, you had to own property or have a certain income. In 1896, a mere 6 percent of the Swedish population had the right to vote—figures in neighboring Norway and Denmark, as well as Great Britain, were almost 20 percent. Furthermore, Sweden had established a reputation as one of the most economically unequal countries in Western Europe.
To change this, a massive political mobilization became necessary—a struggle to replace the old regime of king, state church, and nobility with a democratic and more equal society. Evangelicals were part of this mobilization. They joined hands with liberals and Social Democrats and fought against the conservative establishment to shape a modern nation with democratic rights and economic justice. Evangelicals wanted society to imbue those democratic values and practices that they had come to take for granted in their churches. As the political scientist Lydia Svärd concludes, “For people who had gotten used to voting in their congregation, temperance association, or local union, it was a natural thing to seek the right to vote in state and municipalities.”
Evangelicals’ political instincts and historical circumstances placed them firmly in the liberal camp. They were pro-democracy and pro-solidarity, but against revolution. They wanted to change society through reform, and were highly involved in the process of doing so. In 1908, forty-three evangelicals had seats in the second chamber of the parliament, and the majority of those (twenty-five) belonged to the Liberal party. This meant that 20 percent of parliament and almost 30 percent of the Liberal party were evangelicals. Those are substantial numbers given that evangelicals at the time made up 5 percent of the population.
A few Social Democrats were radical Marxists who rejected religion of any kind, but most were ready to join hands with evangelicals for a common cause. Accordingly, liberals and socialists could work together for democracy and economic justice, united against a common enemy: the conservative establishment.
Swedish Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century
The struggle for democracy and economic solidarity shaped Swedish evangelicalism into a liberal, left-leaning political movement. This identity was strong and enduring. In the 1956 election, 58 percent of the evangelicals voted for the Liberal party (Folkpartiet), which was more than twice the figure for the party in the general election (24 percent). The second largest party was the Social Democrats, with close to 30 percent of the evangelical vote. The Conservative party gained 10 percent of the evangelical vote, a mere half of the support among the general electorate.
The politics of Swedish evangelicalism changed somewhat in the 1960s, when Lewi Pethrus, leader of the Pentecostal movement, founded the Christian Democrats. Pethrus was culturally conservative, and wanted to halt secularization, particularly of schools and entertainment. But he was still in favor of progressive economic politics. In their first official political declaration, the party began by affirming the “appreciation and respect” for the welfare state, and declared that it was ready to “wholeheartedly support and develop it further.” They described unions as “indispensable,” and warned against fiscal and corporate centralization. Pethrus, a theologically conservative Pentecostal, emphasized his whole life that “Christianity and social justice are intimately connected.”
Swedish evangelicals were skeptical of socialism, not social justice—even when that justice was mediated through state-sponsored welfare. Polls from the late twentieth century show that Swedish evangelicals continue to be against the death penalty, and for welfare, migration, humanitarian aid, and the environment. Compared to secular voters, Swedish evangelicals are more engaged in environmental issues, more supportive of migration and humanitarian aid, and more critical of military export.
White American evangelicals tend toward the opposite in all those issues. They are, as we shall see, shaped by another and very different story.