Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Religion in Swedish-America

The stereotypical Swedish-American is old. Has never been to Sweden. Claims Swedish ancestry through a long lost generation. And is Lutheran. Really Lutheran. There is a God with a capital G. There is plenty of religion in the US so maybe a Lutheran pocket isn’t all that strange.

But I still get tripped up by it all. The other day I saw three college aged kids sit down at a restaurant. They were big. Football player big (no word on their claimed European ancestry). They all had their food in hand; two of them took their hats off, elbows up on the table, folded hands, and bowed heads. They were praying. Or saying grace. I’m not really familiar with the parlance.

In three years in Sweden I never once saw someone bow their heads in prayer at a meal. In fact, I only saw heads bowed four times in my time there. Three times at weddings and once at a Christmas service in a small church in southern Sweden. It was so rare that I can count them all. On one hand.

I don’t walk into churches here for that very reason. In Europe I ducked in because I loved the buildings. The history. The architecture. The art. Here I feel like I might be recruited if I were to wander in.

Strangely enough, the buses right now are covered in an ad campaign that felt vaguely familiar. An ad campaign that I never would have expected in the US, especially considering the scene I stumbled upon above. An organization promoting atheism and freedom from religion has paid for 13ish different ads all introducing a local atheist and espousing the virtues of not believing in God. Like sleeping in on Sunday.

I expected uproar. Old people attacking the buses with crucifixes. Or at least poorly worded placards explaining the well-known fact that all non-Christians are going to hell. Duh. There has been nothing. At least nothing of note.

Maybe it is fitting that, despite the Swedish-American stereotype, a place that has a high Scandinavian-American population would entertain such an ad campaign. Maybe it’s a changing of the guard. Maybe it’s a slow process. Maybe it’s completely a publicity ploy and those 13 ads are the only 13 people in the area who support the cause. Or maybe the stereotype still is true and it just so happens that because they are old, they are dying and unable to work up the vitriol needed to protest.

Regardless, I was surprised. Both by the display of religion after three years without it. And also by the display of non-religion because of my own held stereotypes. Confusing isn’t it?

Welcome to Swedish-America. And religious tolerance. Or something like it.


  1. Really, those "Gud finns nog inte" ads appeared on a bus in the U.S. Midwest? That is shocking, because most Americans (no matter where they live) cling steadfastly to some sort of religious faith, even if they're not devout. And certainly, if atheistic-sounding ads appeared anywhere in most parts of the country, there would definitely be outrage. Maybe the recession has people so resigned that they don't have the energy or concern to protest...

  2. Perhaps you should give "A Prairie Home Companion" on NPR another chance now, eh? Good old GK makes I big thing of that - most entertaining :)

    Oh, and please don't stop writing again Hairy - we've really missed you! xo

  3. The ad campaign is very shocking, even here in liberal California I'm sure the majority of the population would be seriously offended. We would have mass protests and this would be the highlight of the news ;). And I definitely agree with you on going into churches and cathedrals in Europe, but never here in America, because yes, we would get recruited! I'm definitely not religious in the least bit(and American, wow), and proudly proclaim my atheistic beliefs. Go Atheism! haha

  4. There are a lot of people like that in the United States, the Irish equivalent is "Plastic Patties". It happens with people of German decent as well. They are SO proud of the fact that one of their distant relatives was from another country, even seven generations back, that they fly into a blind rage if you dare to insinuate that they are not the utmost authority on that Nationality.

    I recently had this happen to me and I doubt the person has ever even been out of the United States, much less all the way to Germany.

  5. One thing I don't miss from Sweden is the lack of religious BS, especially in politics.

    Oh and obviously the 13 people that support the ads are the 13 members of the local coven.

  6. Well what I have noticed is that immigrants hold on to old traditions/religions/beliefs way more than any other group from their home country. It's a way to ease some of the pain of leaving their home. I have noticed this both in Sweden and in the states on many occasions. For example the children of refugees hold grudges against the enemy nation much more than the same generation born in the "home country." Like me, I was never patriotic till I left home, now I'm all about telling my stepkids American history and tradition. I think thats why the US has people who cling to old ancestry and are so religious. Keeping up with the old religion (from the old country)is a big part of people's lives in the US, Europe however, has moved on...

  7. If there is an ultimate truth, will we ever be able to comprehend it all during our short tenure in this life? Will it help or hinder to have the compounding knowledge of many, many generations?

    And now, on a totally different tangent. I'm interested in improving my very slender Swedish language skills. In this part of the country(southeast Ohio) there are no universities that offer Swedish.

    I've tried Pimsleur, grammar books etc. with limited success. Haven't bought rosetta stone, but not hearing great reviews of it for Swedish.

    I'm wondering with skype, if a teacher/group could be found to do real interactive learning.

    Contact me if you have any interest at james.f.sundquist at hotmaildotcom.


  8. p.s. I was in Sweden in June, 2010 to visit family. We have an afs student from Sweden with us this year, and I hope to go back to Sweden next summer.

  9. One theory I've heard is that the Swedes that immigrated to the US a few generations ago may have been extra-religious in the first place. Another guess is that the religious diversity and competition that exists in the US makes people try that much harder. Plus most American Swedes missed out on secular, culturally enlightening experiences like Ingmar Bergman films and living in husvagns.

  10. I have a different tangent on this post. My Great Grandfather left Sweden for the USA because he saw no future living on the land in Sweden AND he strongly disliked the clergy of the Lutheran Church. When he was a young man, it was commonplace to "tip your hat" to the clergy and police in Sweden. My Great Grandfather wanted nothing to do with it. When he returned to visit Sweden as an American citizen, he specifically made a point of not tipping his hat to the Lutheran clergy and Police of Sweden. :O)

    That said, I could very easily fall into that category of a big football player type guy who prays before he eats a meal of food that God has so regularly supplied me to sustain my physical life. I think that God is pleased when I thank Him for my daily bread. Also, religious expression in the USA is protected by the Constitution.

    Coercion of religous responsibilities is one thing, but voluntary participation and expression shouldn't be a threat to anyone.

    Perhaps you should have asked those guys why they prayed before they ate? It might bring some light where darkness now reigns.

    Love your blog.


  11. A picture of the american ad please!

  12. This old lady I met in Fresno, CA, who claimed Swedish ancestry was just like that. She claimed the Swedish people who spelled there "-son" surnames with double S did so just to be special... Despite my being born and raised in Sweden, I couldn't convince her that that's how most such surnames are spelled that way in Sweden. Andersson, Larsson, Johansson... Not even the fact that I was born with such a name myself...!

  13. Hello, good to read from you again.
    I agree with m8surf, though the examples I have are not specifically religious. In my country, Brazil, especially the state I come from, we have a very strong African ancestry, because of the slaves who were brought to the "new world" (which has had a huge influence on the way we are and the way we live), but I have heard that the Africans who visit us nowadays are impressed at how some of the food that they had in their countries centuries ago has stayed the same here whereas in their home countries it no longer exists with those characteristics. Well, of course, obviously, self-evidently, this was (and is still) reinforced by the fact that they were slaves and struggled with keeping anything from their culture alive, under so much that was forced upon them, including religion. And I am talking about food, but because food in the African religions that made a stronger impact here (and the Afro-Brazilian religions that evolved from it, like "candomblé"a and "umbanda") is part of the religious expression. We make food for the saints (orishas), food is served in every religious party (which are many, with a lot of music). .... But hey, I am being over, extremely simplistic here and any anthropologist would have me beheaded for treating this subject so lightly. But this a blog, with limited writing space and many diverse interests from everyone and now I should stop. I guess I was "unawaringly" affected today by the fact that it is Republic Day :P
    Peace, everyone.

  14. Yay the blog is still alive!

  15. Hairy - Welcome back! Maybe where you go in the US depends how religious it is? Just like in Europe, or Sweden itself.

    In my experience, most people, religious or non, are in the middle somewhere and more tolerant than you'd think. It's the extremists (religious or non)who lead the charge and seek followers.

    Hej då!

  16. hej på dej! just randomly came across your blog and I instantly subscribed to it! never would have thought that someone would make a blog out of this because it seems so natural to me. I'm a swedish-canadian-german (it's complicated) that constantly reflects on his memories of living in Sweden (scania, to be precise, represent!). living in Ontario, my German side is comforted by the specific region that I live in. The Swedish part in me (I still have swedish citizenship), is quite lonely, but reading your blog, I now know that there is another person making observations remarkably similar to what I do. Since the Swedes are so scarce here, I have even thought of making a roadtrip to Minnesota, just to see what it is like in North America where there are actually other Swedish descendants. At last, due to my Swedish Jul cravings, I'm making Janssons Frestelse and Rödbetsalad as soon as I'm done with this nasty university-semester! Great blog! Tack ska du ha!

  17. greetings hairy swede!

    The democratic peoples of hairy scandinavians demand that you write another post on ze blog or you will anger the plebs. As a simple slave under the socialist democratic rule of drunken workers trying to forget about our lives (for a while) we demand that you put more text on ze blog!

  18. the religion thing in Nordic-America is kind of fascinating. Ive even done some field work up in Michigan and Minnesota about the connection people have to the church. It's just so very different from what I see in Sweden.