One in three cabinet members not in Church of Denmark

Non-believers in cabinet threaten to dismantle national church, says opposition

For the first time in the history of Denmark a significant number – nearly one-third – of the government ministers are not members of the state church.

Out of the 23 ministers in the left-of-centre, Socialdemokraterne-Radikale-Socialistisk Folkeparti (S-R-SF) government, just 16 are members of the Church of Denmark, also called the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark, or simply Folkekirken. In the previous, right-of-centre Venstre-Konservative (VK) government, by comparison, every single minister was a church member.

“For me, it’s a personal decision. I don’t believe in God, and I don’t think that you should be a member of the church if you don’t believe in God,” the defense minister, Nick Hækkerup (S), told Ekstra Bladet newspaper.

The finance minister, Bjarne Corydon, is another cabinet member who is not a member of the national church.

“I have great respect for the church, but I’m not myself a believer. Therefore, I think it’s natural that I shouldn’t be a member,” Corydon said.

Even the church minister Manu Sareen (R) admitted in October, just after assuming the post, that he was a religious “doubter”. Sareen is still a member of the Church of Denmark, however, he admitted that he had come close to leaving it, in protest against the ban on gay church weddings. 

Working to change the legislation and give homosexuals the right to wed in the church is Sareen’s first, ongoing project as church minister. The proposal has met with strong disapproval from a majority of the clergy, although a majority of citizens from the general population has expressed support for gay marriage in numerous opinion polls.

While less than five percent of Danes today attend church services on a weekly basis, 80 percent are official, tax-paying members. 

Members pay a supplementary tax for the upkeep of the state church. In 2011, this amounted to 5.9 billion kroner. However, in practice all taxpayers in Denmark – including non-members – pay for the state church, because it also receives a state subsidy equal to approximately 130 kroner per year for every single taxpayer.

Church membership has dropped significantly over the past few decades and discussions about whether the time has come for Denmark to separate its church from its state, as Sweden did in 2000, have become more frequent.

MPs from Dansk Folkeparti (DF), the far-right party that was an essential ally to the minority VK government, expressed dismay at the secular face of the new government.

“The disturbing thing is that the people in this government are so interested in tearing down the national church,” DF’s Søren Espersen said, referring to the general debate about separation of church and state.

While the government has proposed legalising gay marriage in the church, it has not proposed separation of church and state.

“It would be nicer if it was some people who cared about the church who were trying to change a few things,” Espersen continued, “but when we have a government filled with people who aren’t church members, it makes you wonder if we are about to see the church torn into pieces.”

Factfile | Ministers who arenÂ’t in the Church of Denmark

Culture Minister Uffe Elbæk (R)

Health Minister Astrid Kragh (SF)

Social Affairs Minister Karen Hækkerup (S)

Defence Minister Nick Hækkerup (S)

Education and Child Minister Christine Antorini (S)

Finance Minister Bjarne Corydon (S)

Business Minister Ole Sohn (S)