Dr. Jere Kyyrö is a researcher in the Study of Religion at the School of History, Culture and Arts Studies at the University of Turku, in Finland.

The author of a February 2019 doctoral thesis on Mannerheim and Changing Interpretations: Mediatized Civil Religion in the Cultural Disputes in the 2000s and 2010s, he focuses in his research on the intersections between religion, national identities and citizenship, especially when they take place within the media and politics.

In this exclusive interview with Novena, Kyrrö describes in detail features of the religious landscape in Finland today, which include the same politicization and culturalization of religion and the “hijacking of Christianity” found in other countries around Europe and beyond.

He also analyses for us other aspects of religion in the news, such as the split among Orthodox Christians over the independence of the Ukrainian Church and Pope Francis’ repeated condemnations of populism.

Tell us a bit about religion in Finland. What are the main religions? Do they attract many followers among the Finnish people?

Finnish statistics on religion are based on the population registry.

The main religion in Finland is Lutheranism. About 69% of the population are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Finland (ELCF). The membership rate has been in decline: in 1970 95% of the Finnish population were members of ELCF.

Roughly a quarter of Finns do not belong to any religious community.

The Finnish Orthodox Church (OCF) enjoys similar special legal status as the ELCF, although it is significantly smaller: around 60,000 people, which is roughly 1.1% of the population.

About 1.7% of the population belong to other registered religious communities.

The population statistics are a bit misleading: especially Muslims and other immigrant religious groups may be active in religious communities, even though they may not be official members of any community.

The position of ELCF is defined in the law: it has a right to charge a Church tax and maintain a population register of its members. In ELCF’s own parlance it defines itself as a “Folk Church”, following the German national romanticist tradition, while some scholars have rightly pointed out that the special position it enjoys could be better described as a State Church.

Those who want to emphasize the Folk Church status point out to the Church law of 1869, which defined the Church and State as separate. Whatever term one prefers, the ELCF has a privileged status in Finland.

Within the ELCF there are several Pietist-influenced revival movements that work within the Church, such as the Laestadian Movement that traces back to the 1800s and the Fifth Movement that emerged around the 1950s. In post-war Finland “folk-churchy” Lutheranism was often contrasted with different forms of revivalist Lutheranism. Additionally there are of course other Christian movements that work outside of the ELCF, which are often international movements such as Pentecostalism.

OCF’s special status dates back to the 1800s when Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire between 1809-1917. Before this, Finland was part of Sweden. Orthodox Christianity has also had a strong influence in Karelia, which has historically been a frontier between Russia and Sweden (and later independent Finland), and an area where conflicts between world powers have moved the border back and forth.

After World War II a large number of Orthodox, along with Lutheran Karelians were evacuated and resettled in Finland after large parts of Finnish Karelia were ceded to the Soviet Union.

The Finnish (Tatar) Muslim and Jewish minorities also date back to the time of the Grand Duchy. Currently there are probably 100,000 Muslims in Finland. The number is an estimate, as most of the Muslims do not belong to the registered religious communities. The backround of the Muslim population is mainly in Somalia, Iraq and Syria.

While a majority of the population are still members of the ELCF, this doesn’t tell us much about their religious beliefs and practices.

For example: between 2007 and 2011 the share of Finns not believing in the existence of God increased from 11 to 21% and those believing in God as taught by Christianity decreased from 37 to 27%.

In 2019 weekly participation in church services has been between 71,900-282,605 people, which is between 1,8% and 7,4 % of Church members. It has to be noted that at Christmas attendance is significantly higher.

Finnish Lutheranism may be described as vicarious religion and belonging without believing — terms coined by sociologist of religion Grace Davie. Vicarious religion points to a situation where religion is practiced by many on behalf of others, and it is seen as a public utility.

This public utility thinking is reflected in contemporary political platforms and manifestos I have analysed: the major parties such as National Coalition Party, the Centre Party and the Social Democrats welcome the ELCF as a third-sector partner of welfare services and a provider of a sense of community.

Another aspect of Finnish Lutheranism is cultural (or culturalized) Christianity, which is, for example, present in yearly discussions around a Summer Hymn, which is traditionally sung at school graduations.

For many this hymn symbolises the beginning of summer holidays, but its opponents point out that Christian hymns should not be sung in schools that should be non-confessional. The defenders of singing the hymn – the majority of participants in the discussion – emphasise that the hymn is part of Finnish cultural heritage, and not religious per se. This may be interpreted as a result of secularization, or on the other hand, of religion’s adaptation to a changing sociocultural context.

Religious Studies scholar Teemu Taira has pointed out that another side of the culturalization of majority religion is the ‘religionization’ of the minority cultures. For example, immigrants from Arab countries are seen predominantly as Muslims, disregarding other aspects of their culture.

The right-wing populist Finns’ party utilizes cultural Christianity by defending the Summer Hymn’s status and claiming to be a Christian Party. However, in their platforms and manifestos they hardly mention the ELCF. This reflects the fact that cultural Christianity may be appropriated as a political resource and used to define what/who is Finnish and what/who is not.

Another related term is the so-called hijacking of Christianity. Although I agree that Christianity plays a part in populist understandings of who should be allowed to become a citizen, I am not in favor of this scholarly term that judges certain types of Christianity as inauthentic.

However, insiders of religious groups often employ this kind of rhetoric, and often they do disagree about the contents of their religion with those they accuse of appropriating it. For example, representatives of the ELCF have opined against the use of crosses in anti-immigration protests, because such demonstrations are no place for a cross. At least in the context of Finland, I would emphasize the wider phenomenon of culturalized Christianity, which forms the basis which populist politics may build on.

What’s the reputation of the Finnish Churches like among non-Christians? Do non-Christians listen when Christian leaders speak?

The question depends on who the speaker is and who the listeners are.

When looking at the mainstream media presence of the ELCF, it is mainly treated positively, when the speakers represent mainstream, liberal Lutheranism. The media presentation of conservative Christianity is more negative.

Taira has pointed out that rather than being critical towards religion, the Finnish media seems to be favorable towards liberal Christianity.

Perhaps the most prominent criticism of religion comes from the quite marginal but vocal group of secular humanists and atheists who oppose, for example, religious education and the special legal status of ELCF and OCF. None of the parliamentary parties actively seeks to decrease the ELCF’s position or privileges. In the traditional media the ELCF gets their message through, but other religious groups are much less visible.

As several scholars have pointed out, Lutheranism is the religion of domestic news.

Another illuminating example is the case when a Christian Democrat MP, Päivi Räsänen, opined against the rights of homosexuals in a 2010 television debate show. There was a surge in ELCF’s membership resignations, even though the MP in question was by no means a representative of the Church.

On the other hand, when liberal archibishop Kari Mäkinen (who was in office between 2010-18) said in a 2014 Facebook post that he was happy about the parliamentary decision to allow marriages to same-sex couples, another resignation surge occured; this time the resigners were those that thought Mäkinen’s comment too liberal.

The ELCF is struggling to keep its church-tax-paying members, who include both conservatives and liberals. Both of these groups demand to hear the Church’s official views on several issues.

Mäkinen has also opined vocally against Finnish policies on asylum seekers which he deemed too strict. The views of the ELCF are important to many, even though they would disagree.

You’re particularly interested in the Finnish Orthodox Church. What kind of following does Orthodoxy have in Finland? Any thoughts on the ongoing controversy between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow over the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church?

While I am not an expert on the Ukrainian crisis, there are some historical analogies to THE Finnish Orthodox church, although, unlike in Ukraine, in Finland it is a minority religion in regard to amount of followers. As well as in Ukraine, the OC of Finland has been caught between the interests of States, the two patriarchates, as well as different factions within the Churches.

When Finland became independent in 1917, the Finnish Orthodox Church was an archdiocese within the Moscow Patriarchate. Within the archdiocese there had been struggles between Fennoman (early Finnish nationalists) and Russians, who dominated the clergy and monasteries.

After Finnish independence the church went through a ‘fennification’, which included a new autonomous status under Constantinople and started following the Gregorian Calendar. This process was supported by the Finnish state.

After WWII there were some attempts to return the OCF under the Moscow Patriarchate, which were supported by Finnish communists, but these attempts waned after the mid-1950s. Additionally, before and after the war the Orthodox were a target of russophobia, which caused many to leave the Church. From the 1960–70 the majority has been more approving towards the Orthodox.

People with a Russian background form about one-sixth of the OCF’s members, and in addition, the Moscow Patriarchate has at least seven congregations in Finland.

As a result of the 2018 Moscow-Constantinople schism and the rupturing of communion, some 50 members of the OCF with a Russian background resigned. This was reported in the national media.

Other than that the schism has not been very visible in Finland, but naturally the schism has been a concern within the OCF congregations.

You’re an expert on the intersection between nationalism, citizenship and religion. What contemporary trends in this area do you notice in Finland? In Europe more generally?

The Finnish trends presented above have parallels in other countries as well. The processes of politicization and culturalization of religion and hijacking of Christianity are themes that are studied widely in Europe.

While attending a sociology of religion conference a year ago, I noticed that many of the presentations dealt with some kind of ‘ization’ of religion: culturalization (which was already mentioned above), politicization, etc.

Although the conference focused on Nordic countries, there seems to be a growing academic interest in the ways religion is used to define who belongs to ‘us’ and who does not – which of course echoes the developments in the real world.

You’re currently working on a thesis entitled “Mannerheim in the 21st Century: A National Symbol and the Tensions in the Field of Cultural Production”. Can you tell us a bit about your project?

The project on field marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim’s (1867–1951) significance in the mediated controversies on the Finnish field of cultural production was my doctoral thesis, which I defended in February 2019, and it was published in Finnish (The title in English: Mannerheim and Changing Interpretations: Mediatized Civil Religion in the Cultural Disputes in the 2000s and 2010s).

I analyzed the media coverage of three film projects from between 2001 and 2014, which attempted to re-interpret Mannerheim in different ways.

Mannerheim has been a sort of a national hero. He served in the Imperial Russian Army in two wars, and was dismissed after the Bolshevik Revolution with the rank of Lieutenant-General. After this he returned to Finland, which had declared independence, and became the leader of the White army in Finnish Civil War of 1918. During WWII he was the commander-in-chief of Finnish army, and led Finland to peace with Soviet Union after being elected as president.

One of the film projects portrayed Mannerheim in A patriotic manner and attempted to make a high-budget film about his life but failed due to lack of funding; another one portrayed him as homosexual and executing Reds in the Civil War; the third was a Finnish cross-media production, which contained a film which was made by Kenyans and in which Mannerheim was played by a Kenyan.

The makers of the films also used different symbolic orders to legitimize their projects: the first one had generals, politicians and corporations as its supporter, the second one referred to the unmarked graves of the civil war Reds; the third one supported a multiculturalist version of Mannerheim against the nationalists and populists.

The reception of the three projects divided the media field: the first one was mainly supported by the yellow press and the latter two were reported in a scandalizing manner; on the other hand, in the culture pages the second one was pretty much appreciated, as the other not so much.

In the thesis I analysed the discussions with the concept of civil religion, which I understand to consist of those things (such as symbols, narratives, rituals, etc.) that different groups of people understand to have value in regard to the nation. (Note that civil religion understood in this way does not necessarily have anything to do with religions, e. g. Lutheranism, as such). I concluded, among other things, that different actors in the media field, as well as cultural producers such as film-makers, employ different forms of symbolic capital in support of, or to deny the value of different cultural products.

Civil religious or national capital is one form of capital that the conversants employed and sought to redefine. For example, the war veterans’ opinions of the films were something that mattered when evaluating the films’ national value; on the other hand, the attempt to replace the nationalist understanding of Mannerheim with a multicultural one was an attempt to transform civil religion.

In the future I am planning to continue the analysis of civil religion by focusing more on religion per se, and to look at the different relevance that religion has in the contested understandings of Finnishness. These are of course connected with the themes mentioned above (culturalization, hijacking, politicization).

Any thoughts, finally, on Pope Francis’ latest condemantion of populism in an interview last week with Italy’s La Stampa?

Pope Francis has criticized the populist movements on several occasions, said that President Trump is not a Christian, and spoken for Syrian refugees, raising mixed feelings especially in those clergymen in European countries such as Poland who talk about ‘islamisation’.

His comments follow these lines. It is noteworthy that he emphasizes the shared Christian identity of Europe, and also speaks about the need for one’s ‘own’ identity, which is a requirement for dialogue, although the identities should be kept open.

This is the part I find interesting. While he outspokenly criticizes the populists (and sovereignists) for appropriating the popular voice and making it an ‘ism’, he is also implicitly criticizing the idea of secular Europe.

I think Pope Francis’ opinions should be set into context of what Olivier Roy has said about Europe and the Catholic Church: the center of gravity of Catholic church has moved from Europe to other continents, making Europe an area to be converted, a mission land.

While populism is changing Europe and requires attention from the Pope, this opens a possibility to promote a more humane form of Catholicism which is connected to the idea of Christian Europe.

Kyyrö’s answers have been lightly edited for English expression.


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.