Acton Institute Powerblog

Denmark’s government wants to read your sermons

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

In the name of stamping out domestic subversion, politicians in Denmark have drafted a bill that would force clergy who preach in a foreign language to translate their sermons into Danish and send a copy to the government for review. Had they tried, lawmakers could not have come up with a bill that is simultaneously so invasive and ineffective.

The bill’s stated purpose is to “enlarge the transparency of religious events and sermons in Denmark, when these are given in a language other than Danish.” If it passes the nation’s parliament, the Folketing, it is likely to be signed into law by Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, a Social Democrat.

This legislation addresses a real problem. Denmark and the West suffer from the invasion of jihadist ideology, sometimes taught in fundamentalist mosques. Danes have endured terrorist attacks since Hezbollah bombed Copenhagen’s Great Synagogue on July 22, 1985. Thirty years later – on Valentine’s Day, 2015 – Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein murdered a Jewish man during a bar mitzvah at the same synagogue, as well as killing a 55-year-old man attending an event dedicated to “art, blasphemy, and freedom of expression,” which featured an artist who had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad. Since then, Danish authorities have thwarted numerous terrorist plots inspired by “a militant Islamic motive.” However, the right response is not to pass ineffectual laws that infringe upon unalienable rights.

This proposal would do nothing to keep Danes safe. Nothing about the Danish tongue prevents radicals from employing it to incite violence. And only an exceptionally dim terrorist would incite his congregation to violence and then turn the offending document over to law enforcement. Furthermore, many fundamentalist mosques remain unregistered. Essentially, the government would inconvenience the law-abiding while expecting voluntary obedience from lawbreakers. That is far from its only flaw.

This bill eviscerates religious freedom in the name of political correctness. It is aimed squarely at members of the nation’s 270,000 Muslims; however, it is broad enough to comprehend the Dalai Lama, fellow Scandinavian Lutherans, and Christian refugees fleeing Islamic terrorism. “All church congregations, free church congregations, Jewish congregations, everything we have here in Denmark … will be placed under general suspicion by this law,” said Sister Anna Mirijam Kaschne, the general secretary of the nation’s Roman Catholic body, the Nordic Bishops Conference. It applies, for instance, to Coptic Christians, who experienced both systemic exclusion and violent Islamist persecution in their native Egypt. Here, the law would revictimize the victim because of the oppressor.

The more unsettling aspect of the law is the foreboding sense that it indirectly casts a specter over religious liberty. “Something is happening here which is undermining democracy,” said Sister Kaschne. Bishop Robert Innes, who oversees Anglican churches in continental Europe, said the bill “goes in a concerning anti-liberal direction.”

The effort recalls the actions of then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker, a Democrat, who in 2014 issued a subpoena for pastors to turn over all sermons that dealt with the city’s transgender ordinance, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), and a petition to overturn it. “YOU ARE REQUIRED TO PRODUCE THE FOLLOWING RECORDS,” the subpoena said in screaming capitals. “All speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.” After legal action from the Alliance Defending Freedom, Parker withdrew the subpoena. Voters subsequently repealed the ordinance by more than 60%.

Unfortunately, there appears little likelihood of a Danish backlash, if this bill becomes law, because it affects so few citizens. Nearly three out of every four Danes (72%) say religion is “not too” or “not at all” important in their lives. Only 68% of Danes who call themselves Christians believe in God, according to the Pew Research Center. Regular church attendance plummets to the single digits.

This bill would harm religion indirectly in a number of ways. The government bureaucrats who read the sermons may find fault with a broad range of issues far beyond “extremism” – and engage in subtle, even subconscious discrimination while administering the ample benefits of a welfare state. (Denmark’s high level of wealth redistribution and one-size-fits-all bureaucracy reinforces its need to preserve cultural homogeneity.) Bishop Innes also emphasized how important it is to preserve “the freedom to worship in your maternal tongue,” one’s heart language, which this bill may discourage.

Only those with boots on the ground noted the economic lesson: The proposal would foist “significant burdens on economically weak, minority churches for no reason,” noted National Council of Churches of Denmark – which represents more than a dozen churches, including the Coptic Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, and members of the Church of Sweden in Denmark.

Many of these ministers don’t speak the native language (which is why they are preaching in another language in the first place); hence, they will require a third party to translate their sermons. If they believe “the workman is worthy of his hire,” they will have to compensate the translator. This represents an added and unnecessary financial burden during a time of reduced voluntary donations thanks to COVID-19. (The nation’s church tax, the kirkeskat, funds only the Church of Denmark.) This proposed Danish law would hamper the free exercise of religion by compelling congregations to divert scarce resources away from practicing their faith in favor of government regulatory compliance.

Unfunded government mandates impose real costs. In this case, one of them may be religious liberty.

The government has no business reading every sermons preached in the nation (although that may improve its policy). If intelligence officers have actionable intelligence, they should wiretap the suspect, find out what mosque he attends, and what sermons he listens to online, and trace the radiating nexus of terrorism and terror-incitement from there. There is no need to catch the entire nation’s homilies in the dragnet.

If it lacks the human intelligence to pinpoint terrorist radicalizers, perhaps Denmark could shift some of the resources that fund its overextended social (though not socialist) assistance state to investing in the HUMINT necessary to keep its citizens safe. Perhaps the United States could end the Cold War status quo that keeps U.S. taxpayers defending Western Europe from an impending Soviet invasion and incentivize European leaders to fulfill the most basic function of government: providing for the common defense against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Such a move might show Europe that economic incentives can be used both to violate and to preserve religious liberty, the most fundamental human right.

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson (@therightswriter) is an Eastern Orthodox priest and served as Executive Editor of the Acton Institute (2016-2021), editing Religion & Liberty, the Powerblog, and its transatlantic website. He has extensively researched the Alt-Right. Previously, he worked for LifeSiteNews and FrontPageMag.com, where he wrote three books including Party of Defeat (with David Horowitz, 2008). His work has appeared at DailyWire.com, National Review, The American Spectator, The Guardian, Daily Caller, National Catholic Register, Spectator USA, FEE Online, RealClear Policy, The Blaze, The Stream, American Greatness, Aleteia, Providence Magazine, Charisma, Jewish World Review, Human Events, Intellectual Takeout, CatholicVote.org, Issues & Insights, The Conservative, Rare.us, and The American Orthodox Institute. His personal websites are therightswriter.com and RevBenJohnson.com. His views are his own.