I am happy to be a part of this blog and therefore need to apologize for the lack of posts over the last few months. With my family, I have been living abroad for the past 10 months in Copenhagen as part of a Fulbright. I taught and wrote at the Center for the Study of the Americas at the Copenhagen Business School and lived in the very delightful commune or district of Frederiksberg. And like many other Americans who get a taste of Scandinavian life, I was impressed by the quality of life most people in Denmark enjoy. The universal health care, public transportation, excellent pre-school care, and incredibly well-maintained bicycle lanes were simply made available to us for free. Of course, those services come with a price for the Danes in a tax rate that hovers between 50-60%. Well-nigh outrageous by American standards, or so friends and family exclaimed. And yet, I think I could learn to like taxes.
I had the rather strange experience of participating in a film made by a well-known Danish director for the national tax agency. It seemed that the agency was going through a period of re-organization and the morale of employees was a bit low as many had to shift positions and take on new tasks. The Danish government thought a film about the great good the tax agency does might boost spirits by showing the rather significant role taxes play in giving meaning to being Danish.
We might chuckle at this, ah-ha that was what Soren Kierkegaard had in mind! Man’s search for meaning is found in his tax bill.
Well, in a way, the Danes do seem to embrace a somewhat existential approach to taxes: paying them is a leap of faith but this faith is not blind; like Americans, Danes complain about their taxes as well. But they do so in a way Kierkegaard might have appreciated. Their faith in the taxes does not translate into an absolute faith in the government–they don’t leave the world up to their elected (and non-elected) officials. Danes constantly critique the results of the tax system but don’t doubt that it needs to exist more or less at the present level of taxation. In this way, they profess a faith in taxes that provides the kind of civil religious unity that Americans get from their faith in abstraction notions of freedom and liberty. Maybe they are Hamiltonian in this way–creating a nation through the burden of taxation.
I went to Copenhagen to work on a book about civil religion and war in post-1945 America. I gave quite a few talks about the general role religion plays in American life and politics, especially in regard to framing and understanding the nation’s role international affairs. What I came back with, though, was a new appreciation for faith in things that seem decidedly mundane. While my colleagues, students, and audiences rarely professed faith in an organized religion or an otherworldly God or even in great national myths (Danes joke that they are a country made by great military defeats), they often spoke profoundly about the stuff that binds generations of Danish folk together.
Danes have faith in taxes because their taxes support the welfare state–an entity that has a dual nature similar to the role served by the U.S. Constitution and the creed it embodies. While the Danish welfare system has not existed as long or with the kind of abstract power of the American Constitution, it has provided a surprisingly vibrant way for Danes to understand, debate and assess the dimensions of the common good. Quite unfortunately, the welfare state has also become something to guard, especially against what the Danish Right call the ‘new immigrants.’
Nevertheless, as I get deeper into the field of public theology and civil religion, I am intrigued by what might be gained by comparing two types of existential faiths that on the suface appear to be very different. To that end, I recommend a group of Danish scholars who have begun a transatlantic project on beliefs and offer some preliminary notes and questions about this matter: Peter Andersen, Peter Gundelach, and Peter Luchau, “Religion in Europe and the United States: Assumptions, survey evidence, and some suggestions,” Nordic Journal of Religion and Society (2008) 21 (1): 61-74.
As Americans enter into what will surely be a hot debate over universal health care, it might be of some benefit to consider how Danes (and others) have developed a faith in something as mundane as a tax system without losing their soul to the state it created.