Robert Nelson on Lutheranism and Nordic Social Democracy
Date: October 8th, 2017

The Nordic nations of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden have long been known for maintaining quality governance, high levels of socio-economic equality, and high levels of happiness amongst the population.  While political economists have been pressed to explain the success of these countries, Prof. Robert Nelson, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, suggests that it may have something to do with its “Lutheran Ethic.”  We begin this discussion with a retrospective of Prof. Nelson’s career, which had him completing a PhD in economics and focusing on land use issues for several decades.  The curious question for listeners becomes how he began writing on issues related to religion, to which he gives a very interesting and introspective reply, including a bit of discussion of his own thinking on whether a god exists.  We then move into his definition of religion, which tends to be broader than used by other scholars.  The conversation turns to a discussion of the “Protestant Ethic” as famously noted by Max Weber, and Bob’s corrective which points out that Weber was really talking about a Calvinistic ethic, which was different than the theological culture that Luther himself gave rise to within Lutheranism.  We talk about who Luther was, what he considered to be important virtues, and how he viewed “free market capitalism” (to the extent that something like that was explicitly known in Europe at the time).  Prof. Nelson notes that Luther was hostile towards the idea of “self-interest,” had a strong sense of community (more so than, say, the Calvinists), emphasized the virtue of “calling” and the need to serve community, and was big on the Golden Rule.  He provides some insight into how this translates into Finnish culture about “general rights,” a notion of property that is different than what is thought about in the United States.  Bob covers a few other differences that Lutheranism  has with respect to Calvinism, including that Lutheranism was more “top down” in in application of community.  We also review Luther’s changing attitudes towards governmental authority, particularly in light of the “mob rule” of the Peasants’ Revolt.  The next topic up involves a survey of “social democracy,” and what that means in contemporary Scandinavia.  We briefly review the history of the Nordic social welfare states, how these nations jettisoned the class warfare mentality of early 20th century socialists, and how it is viewed culturally as “The People’s Home.”  Dr. Nelson notes that over time the notion of “economic progress” by way of social science came to replace many of the Lutheran ideas that were inculcated in those countries in centuries earlier, but how this new secular ideology has much in common with previous Lutheran theology.  We go through a number of key points within Lutheranism and compare them to contemporary social values and norms within Nordic society.  The interview concludes with some of Bob’s thoughts on where Nordic social democracy is today, and why it may be headed into crisis.  Recorded: October 2, 2017.


Prof. Robert Nelson’s bio at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

Lutheranism and the Nordic Spirit of Social Democracy, by Robert Nelson.  (Also available with e-book version at Aarhus University Press.)

God? Very Probably: Five Rational Ways of Thinking about the Question of a God, by Robert Nelson.

The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion versus Environmental Religion in Contemporary America, by Robert Nelson.

Economics as Religion: From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond, by Robert Nelson.

Reaching for Heaven on Earth: The Theological Meaning of Economics, by Robert Nelson.

Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government, by Robert Nelson.

Public Lands and Private Rights: The Failure of Scientific Management, by Robert Nelson and Sally Fairfax.

Mind and Cosmos, by Thomas Nagel (menti0ned in podcast).


The Protestant Reformation Series (including other podcasts from Goldman, Pfaff, Sorenson, Gray, and Stark).

Robert Nelson on Environmentalism as Religion.

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