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“Denmark’s Provincial Bias against Foreign Religious Languages

Matthew P. Cavedon

Denmark has proposed a new law regulating religion. Under it, all sermons and homilies must be translated into Danish. This is being billed as a national security measure. It is also being attacked as a burden on small religious communities, an affront to linguistic minorities and religious liberty in general, and an ineffective counterterrorism initiative. Of particular reason for concern is its being proposed by a secular government in a nation with ancient vernacular religious practices and little comprehension of the role other languages play in certain religious traditions. This entire debate echoes an earlier incident in American history, which happily ended in a victory for religious and linguistic freedom. The present controversy ought to come to a similar conclusion.

The proposal mainly targets Denmark’s 270,000 Muslims and hundred or so mosques, many of which deliver their teachings in Arabic. While the Islamic community is a small part of the national population, it is seen as a security threat. The most notable clash between Danish officials and local Muslims came in 2005–06, after a Danish newspaper published twelve cartoons depicting Islam’s prophet Muhammad and Muslims worldwide reacted with fury. Since then, the government has engaged in a number of counterterrorism activities. The translation measure is supposedly the latest of these. The government has obliquely summarized its goal as being to “enlarge the transparency of religious events and sermons.” But few deny that the specter of radical Islamic uses of Arabic is the ghost the law aims to exorcise.

Pushback has been intense. Much of it has come from local and international Christian groups concerned about how the law could impact them and other religious Danes. Denmark’s Council of Churches estimates that the law would cost congregations $6.2 million. Similar concerns raised the hackles of the Anglican bishop for Europe, Robert Innes, who described translation as both “a skilled art” and “an expensive skill.” He noted that particular practical difficulties would arise because preachers often write down only basic notes or deliver their lessons off the cuff.

Other Christians expressed concern about the ways that the law will trouble historic Danish linguistic minorities. This argument has been raised by Greenlandic and Faroese activists, who speak two languages indigenous to Danish territory but have been unable to secure exemptions. One exasperated German-speaking pastor similarly explained that his community has been using that tongue in services for 800 years, for everything from Sunday worship to marriage rites. The ecumenical Conference of European Churches also observed that Romanian and English-speaking congregations with established roots in Denmark would meet with new burdens under the law.

In addition to the practical problems and religious liberty concerns it raises, Denmark’s translation proposal reflects provincialism borne of Danish religious history.

Other critics have focused less on language issues and more on implications for religious liberty. The presiding cardinal of the Catholic Church’s European Union commission called the proposal “part of a broader, increasing trend of neglection for the fundamental right to freedom of religion in the EU Member States.” Leading American Evangelical theologian Albert Mohler was even more perturbed, discerning nothing less than an attempt at full religious censorship: “[W]hat you’re looking at here is actually something that is nearly unprecedented in modern church history. You’re talking about a Western nation that is threatening to require all pastors, that would include Christian pastors, to submit sermons in advance to pay for the transcription of the message, to make certain that the message is delivered to the government.” He was sympathetic to security concerns, but insisted that officials should limit their work to “some kind of criminal rubric having to do with incitement to violence.”

At least one local Christian leader likewise found a poor match between Danish dictation and public safety. Evangelical Alliance Denmark Chairman Thomas Mikkelsen said:

“The law aims to protect our community from the growth of radical Islamism, but the law will probably not be effective in that regard. Radical groups tend to establish themselves on the margins, in a parallel society, and never apply for official recognition.”

In addition to the practical problems and religious liberty concerns it raises, Denmark’s translation proposal reflects provincialism borne of Danish religious history. Denmark is highly secular: fewer than 20% of Danes consider themselves “very religious.” The country is primed to be a bit insensitive toward religious matters as a result. But its background slants it particularly strongly against understanding the role of foreign languages in religious practice. Three quarters of Danes at least technically belong to the nation’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Lutheranism, in turn, is the godfather of vernacular languages’ use in Western European Christianity. Martin Luther said simply, “In my translation of the Bible I strove to use pure and intelligible German. . . . I tried to speak in German, not Greek nor Latin.” This was no mere matter of style. It was one of deep religious conviction that the proper role of language in religion is plain communication, not pure transmission or the conservation of particular sounds.

To the extent Danes stop in to the church of which they are nominally members, they are unlikely to hear anything but proper Danish. Is it any surprise that they are threatening to give short shrift to those whose linguistic practices differ?

Danes are usually not Catholics, whose Church gives “primacy of place” to liturgical Latin. Nor Hindus, for whom Sanskrit features prominently in rituals. Nor Jews, who use Hebrew for many prayers. Nor Nichiren Buddhists, chanting the Japanese mantra, “nam myoho renge kyo.” Clearly, they are not Muslims either, who believe “the Quran is untranslatable” because it is the written Arabic words delivered to Muhammad by God. To the extent Danes stop in to the church of which they are nominally members, they are unlikely to hear anything but proper Danish. Is it any surprise that they are threatening to give short shrift to those whose linguistic practices differ?

What is perhaps surprising is that a similar controversy erupted in America about a century ago. It is informative for the modern dispute. Despite taking place decades before the rise of multiculturalism, the controversy ended in favor of liberty. In the wake of the First World War, Nebraska banned teaching students below the eighth grade modern foreign languages. Upholding this law, the state supreme court described “the baneful effects of permitting foreigners, who had taken residence in this country, to rear and educate their children in the language of their native land.” Much like Denmark’s government today, the court determined that such instruction was “inimical to our own safety.” The concern back then was not Islamist terrorism, but German political ideologies. Still, much like the Danish government today, Nebraska was afraid that parents would “naturally inculcate in” their children “the ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of this country.”

Hearing a case brought by a teacher at – of all places – a Lutheran school, the United States Supreme Court rejected the law as unconstitutional. (Perhaps most surprisingly of all? The opinion was written by Justice James Clark McReynolds, a thoroughgoing anti-Semite who regularly railed against “un-Americans.”) It found that parents have the right to control their children’s education, an issue irrelevant to Denmark’s proposed law. But the Court also threw cold water on the idea that foreign languages mask dangerous ideas. “Mere knowledge of the German language cannot reasonably be regarded as harmful. Heretofore it has been commonly looked upon as helpful and desirable.” Just as the parents had the right to raise their kids, so too did teachers have the right to teach an innocuous subject – including a foreign language. Even one used by America’s recent enemies. Much like how the Danish government has a valid interest in national security, Nebraska could “do much, go very far, indeed, in order to improve the quality of its citizens, physically, mentally and morally.” But it could not target entire languages simply based on wide-sweeping fears – like those implicit in Denmark’s concerns about “transparency” – that “certain communities commonly use foreign words, follow foreign leaders, move in a foreign atmosphere, and that the children are thereby hindered from becoming citizens of the most useful type and the public safety is imperiled.”

The Court held: “The protection of the Constitution extends to all, to those who speak other languages as well as to those born with English on the tongue.” Hopefully, Denmark will come around to the similar view that its own liberal and human rights norms stand against its proposed law. The measure is burdensome. It is biased. It should go to the same dustbin where lies Nebraska’s effort of yesteryear. ♦

Matthew P. Cavedon is a criminal defense attorney in Gainesville, GA. He graduated from Emory University in 2015 with a law degree and masters of theological studies.

Recommended Citation

Cavedon, Matthew P. “Denmark’s Provincial Bias against Foreign Religious Languages.” Canopy Forum, March 15, 2021.