Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Helsinki Votes: Christian Democrats

In the Helsinki City Council election this Sunday, one of the mainstream parties vying for my vote is the Christian Democrats (Kristillisdemokraatit). It’s a somewhat minor party, currently holding only two seats in the city council and only five in the national parliament.

The national party is led by Sari Essayah, a 50 year-old woman who I still more often think of as a champion race walker. She competed in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. She also enjoys, in a sense, some name-recognition due to having a decidedly non-Finnish family name, Essayah, which comes from her Moroccan father.

As I scanned the list of KD’s 123 candidates displayed on a placard at the end of my street last week, I was shocked to see among them Paavo Väyrynen, a veteran Finnish politician. Very veteran. He’s been around forever. What surprised me was that, as far as I knew, Väryrynen has always been a member of a different party, the Keskusta, for which he has been a parliament and cabinet member and two-time presidential candidate. And, I thought he lives in Lapland, at least officially, not Helsinki. As it turns out, in the KD list he is marked as sitoutumaton (unaffiliated), which means he’s attaching his wagon to the Christian Democrats only for this race.

As the name Christian Democrat implies – well not implies, but states outright – the party is based on a particular religion and reflects the concerns of the more religious elements of the Finland population. My sense is that KD supporters are drawn mostly from Lutherans, and not so much from the Russian Orthodox.

As an openly religious party, you might compare the KD to America’s Republican Party, which is now, more than ever, an implicitly Christian party, despite recently electing the most un-Christ-like president you can possibly imagine.

But there are big differences. On the KD’s website (available in Finnish, Swedish, and English), you’ll find that its concerns are mainly health and well-being for families and the environment.

Some of the specific aims detailed in what might be called its manifesto for the municipal elections, entitled in English “Called to Care”, are such goals as: 
  • Services for families must be increased to support parenthood and to help manage everyday life.
  • School performance must be improved. Finland succeeds with know-how.
  • We want mould resistant municipalities. [For Americans, this would be "mold resistant".]
  • We want a comprehensive [health] service promise. Treatment must be available quickly and neighbourhood services accessible. Health inequalities have to be decreased.
  • We defend smooth and affordable public transport
Missing from the list are many of the hot-button issues that get Republican Christians in the US so riled up. There’s no mention of abortion. There’s certainly no mention of same-sex marriage or which public bathroom a transgender person should be allowed to use. No mention of "religious freedom". (Of course, you might not expect such national-level issues to feature in local elections anyway.)

Now, I can’t say for certain that such culturally conservative topics aren’t, in fact, motivating issues for some Christians in Finland, and maybe even internally within the Christian Democratic Party. 

But, if so they aren’t widely discussed, perhaps due to the fact that such socially conservative views would be considered far outside the Finnish mainstream. Religious Finns don’t typically wear their faith on their sleeves the way Americans do and certainly don't political about it. You might say this reflect a general Finnish "live-and-let live" attitude.  Or maybe it's a reluctance to stray far outside a relatively narrow consensus of society.  

In any case, the word “Christian” (or any kind of reference to religion) appears only once in the KD "manifesto", in the following statement:
  • Let’s play Suvivirsi. We cherish the Christian cultural heritage of Finland.
Now, this is an interesting issue, and it involves a song. 

Suvivirsi, which translates to “Summer Hymn”, is a song about the end of the school year and the beauty of the approaching summer. As any parent who has attended a year-end grammar-school happening will tell you, Suvivirsi is a firmly embedded Finnish traditional. After the schoolkids have finished their little plays and musical performances, after the ceremonious handing out of certificates for graduating students, after the fidgeting of the kids in the audience reaches a critical mass, everyone in the auditorium stands up and sings Suvivirsi as a long-awaited denouement to the school year.

In years past, I took part in this sing-along many times but, as with any song in Finnish, I was able to only hum along, since I had no clue about the lyrics. Everyone else in the auditorium knew the words by heart. And it’s an issue over those words – including a couple of references to God, the Creator – that has caused the song to be specifically mentioned in KD’s manifesto.

I have heard that, as highly secular Finland has become perhaps more conspicuously less Christian than in years past, Suvivirsi has created a controversy of some sort. 

Some people have questioned why schoolkids who are non-religious or of another faith, for example Muslim, should have to sing a hymn that flatters a Lutheran deity. I think there may even be cases where schools have already dispensed with the song altogether. This, naturally, can rub some people the wrong way.

Since our kids left school some years ago I can't say if anything has actually changed at our local school. I'm guessing the song is still being sung at the end of the year, the lyrics unchanged. And, personally, I don’t see why this should be a big deal.

Okay, it’s true that it’s a Lutheran hymn, referencing Jumala (“God”) and Herra (“Lord”). So, the song obviously assumes some religious belief. Naturally, I can't say for certain how Muslims see it, but – wading into some tricky theological waters here – I’ve understood they worship the same “God” as the Lutherans do, so singing a line or two about that god shouldn’t seem so out of line. Perhaps they would take issue with Herra, which I assume refers to Jesus. Still, how much of an affront should this be to the average Muslim? Again, I can't claim any special insight to that question. 

In many ways, it's the atheists who should have more cause for objecting to Suvivirsi. and perhaps do. Yet, I know atheists, principally in my own family, who have no problem with singing it. They see it as more "cultural", than actually "religious". I tend to agree. Perhaps another example of the Finnish live-and-let-live attitude. 

In any case, Suvivirse may be a natural talking point for the Christian Democrats that sets them apart from most of the other parties, but I can't imagine it will be a big enough issue to garner another Helsinki City Council seat or two. Guess we'll see after Sunday's election. 


  1. An actual democracy. I can only wonder what that's like.

    As for religion mixed up in it--the less of it there is, the better

  2. KD is led by Pentecostal Christians and Lutheran revivalist Christians. It is actually pretty hostile towards mainstream Christians.