At the end of April, Pope Francis visited Hungary for the second time in the past two years, making it the only country other than Italy that he has traveled to more than once during his papacy. Some 50,000 faithful greeted him outside the parliament building in Budapest for the closing Mass of the three-day visit.
Hungarian President Katalin Novák, meanwhile, has been making some trips of her own to visit Catholics in the U.S. Speaking to students at Ave Maria University in Florida this March, President Novák – a member of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s conservative Fidesz party and the country’s official head of state – proudly declared that in Hungary “we emphasize our Christian identity and our Christian culture.” For a young American audience at a faithful Catholic university, hearing a national leader speak so openly and positively about faith and its role in society perhaps came as a surprise. Judging by their applause and standing ovation, it also came as a breath of fresh air.
The paradox and the history
There was nothing surprising, though, for anyone familiar with Hungarian politics and the Orbán government’s frequent references to the importance of Christianity. It would be easy to assume that Hungary is a very religious country, an oasis of Christian belief and practice untouched by the prevailing winds of secularism. The reality, though, reveals a rather puzzling paradox: the loudest voice promoting Christian values on the European political scene today comes from a country where the statistics on Christian practice are not especially impressive.
Novák, who helped make Pope Francis’ April visit to Hungary possible, gave similar speeches at other universities with strong Catholic identities, visiting Benedictine University and Franciscan University last fall. In the speech at Ave Maria, delivered a couple days after a meeting with Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Novák touched on the Hungarian constitution’s affirmation of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, the government’s concern for the unborn, and measures to promote marriage and family. The Hungarian government has also made significant efforts to restore much of what was confiscated from the Church during the communist era. An increasing number of state schools have become private Christian schools and in 2013 the government instituted religion classes into the curriculum. The government has extended its mission to Christians abroad too. Its Hungary Helps program, founded in 2017, provides support to persecuted Christian communities throughout the Middle East and Africa. Promoting faith has been a hallmark of Fidesz governance. Four consecutive election victories beginning in 2010 would suggest that they will not be changing strategies anytime soon.
It is a message directed to a country that is home to a variety of Christian confessions. Though the majority of the population is Catholic – 62% according to a 2019 Eurobarometer survey – Novák and Orbán are both members of the Calvinist Hungarian Reformed Church, which makes up most of the country’s 13% non-Catholic Christian population. In her inaugural address, Novák acknowledged Hungary’s religious diversity while pledging to fulfill her role based on “the values predicated on Christianity.” She made a point of including leaders of all of Hungary’s four primary Christian groups – Roman Catholics, Calvinists, Lutherans, and Greek Catholics – for the first time ever in a presidential inauguration ceremony.
While Christian faith has been on a steady decline in Western Europe, the experience of East-Central Europe challenges the notion that secularization is the continent’s inevitable future. In the thirty years since the fall of communism, rates of religiosity have remained stable or even risen in the region. Today, there is a clear divide in religious practice between east and west.
Hungary, though, is one of the region’s least religious countries. Monthly worship attendance is only 17%, according to a 2017 Pew Research survey of religious attitudes in Europe. Better than, say, Germany or Belgium, but unimpressive when compared to Poland and Slovakia, other predominantly Catholic countries in the region, where attendance is 61% and 31% respectively. The survey shows that Hungary scores relatively low for the region on other indicators of religious practice as well. 14% said religion is very important in their lives, 16% said they pray daily, and 13% see their faith primarily personal as opposed to a matter of national culture or family tradition. A recent poll by Ipsos shows that only 15% of Hungarians agree to the statement “my religion defines me as a person,” putting it at the bottom of the twenty-six countries surveyed. In the US, by contrast, 34% attend worship services at least once a month, 41% rank religion as very important, 45% pray daily, and 41% say that their religion defines them as a person.
The contrast between Poland and Hungary is especially telling. The two countries have long shared a close bond and both suffered under communism for roughly the same duration during the 20th century. Despite this, Poland is one of Europe’s most religious countries and Hungary is not much more religious than Western Europe. In Poland, the Catholic Church stood in opposition to the communist state, created a flourishing underground Catholic intellectual scene, and gave rise to St. John Paul II. Hungary may have followed a similar trajectory if the outspoken Venerable Cardinal József Mindszenty, who spent fifteen years in exile in the American embassy in Budapest, had remained at the helm.
Instead, the Church in Hungary largely cooperated with the communist regime and so-called “peace priests” acted as collaborators within the Church. Hungary was the first eastern bloc nation with which the Vatican restored relations. This “Ostpolitik” approach damaged the Church’s credibility. Hungary’s Calvinist and Lutheran churches were similarly coerced into compliance. The regime reluctantly tolerated religion, but practice of the faith declined.
Lilla Nóra Kiss, Hungarian visiting scholar at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, explains that her grandparents continued to attend church and practice their faith despite the risks and setbacks it entailed during communism. Her family was shocked to discover in 2011 that the pastor who had been a friend of the family for five decades, and had performed their baptisms and marriages, was revealed to have been an agent of the state.
After the fall of the communist regime in Hungary, there was a brief period of renewal in the Church as Hungarians returned to what had for many years been a sort of forbidden fruit, recalls Fr. Attila Lovassy, professor of theology at Apor Vilmos Catholic College. He argues, though, that the secularism of the West today has been nearly as destructive to the faith of the people as communism, which, though harsher, had stronger opposition.
And yet despite the lackluster figures of religious practice, the Fidesz government has positioned itself as a supporter of all things Christian. It has done so at no small cost, drawing criticism from western media and politicians for its stances on LGBT issues, its emphasis on Christian values, and the like. For many critics, the government’s approach to faith is an example of “Christian nationalism.” The fear is that Hungary is blurring the lines between church and state and may exclude those who do not share its beliefs. Kiss is concerned about the increasingly-prevalent rhetoric of Christian nationalism, seeing the term as a way to disparage Christian faith and patriotism for political gain. “It creates enemies of Christians and this should not be the case where the majority of the society is still Christian.”
In a country where relatively few go to church, why does the government go out of its way to promote Christianity? According to András Lánczi, professor of political philosophy at Corvinus University, Hungarians are religious “in their own way.” Participation in church institutions may be low, but most Hungarians believe in God and have a positive view of Christian faith. A certain cultural Christianity lingers in Hungary. It is not the cultural Christianity of several decades ago in which people went to church out of mere social custom or pressure, says Fr. Lovassy. That is gone. But there remains a widespread respect for the religion that has guided the nation for over a millennium. The 2017 Pew research showed that 59% of Hungarians believe in God, 76% identify as Christian, and 41% see Christianity as important to Hungarian national identity.
Though Hungary is a secular state, says Lánczi, Christian values absolutely influence policy-making, from its 2021 law aimed at limiting children’s exposure to pro-LGBT content to its use of financial incentives to encourage marriage and child-rearing. In 2016, the government instituted a requirement for shops to close on Sundays, a decision it reversed due to popular demand a year later. Like other European countries such as Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland, Hungary officially recognizes several churches and provides them with tax revenue. Abortion, which is widely accepted in society and is legal for any reason up to fourteen weeks, stands out as a notable exception.
“If we don’t want to get swept away by the tide of this time, it only will be possible through Christianity,” said Eduard Habsburg, Hungarian diplomat to the Holy See, in an April 24th First Things podcast. “A country won’t remain conservative if it’s just based on conservative ideas. You need a bedrock of faith under that or it will be blown away.”
The government’s approach to religion is about more than allowing Christian teaching to inform policy. Kiss emphasizes that the government’s approach to faith is to a large extent about nationhood, culture, and heritage. Hungary was founded as a Christian country in 1000 AD, and its national holiday commemorates the feast of Saint Stephen, the king that converted the pagan tribes of the region. As in other nations throughout the West, Christianity was a fundamental unifying force for the Hungarian people. Hungarians held onto that identity through 150 years of Islamic Ottoman rule and again under communism in the shadow of the Soviet Union.
What the government intends to do, argues Kiss, is to emphasize Christianity and Judeo-Christian values as a common heritage for Hungarians, a force for national unity in an era of globalization. While it may seem novel or out of place in a secular age, she argues, it is better understood as a return to the norm that communism disrupted in the 20th century.
Lánczi argues that to understand Fidesz’s actions, it is crucial to understand the country’s fierce desire for independence. Dominated at various points throughout its history by surrounding empires, the Hungarians have grown especially sensitive to threats to their nationhood. Many of the struggles in Hungarian politics today boil down to clashes between national sovereignty and perceived EU overreach. Christianity, then, is an anchor to the country’s history and national identity.
Fr. Lovassy notes that there is no single view on what the appropriate approach to religion should be even within Fidesz, whose members are often themselves not particularly practicing. Whatever the best interpretation may be, it does not mean that there is only room for Christians in society. Budapest, after all, has one of Europe’s most robust Jewish communities. Hungary has long been home to a variety of faiths. The first declaration of religious freedom in Europe, in fact, was the Edict of Torda, signed in Hungarian Transylvania in 1568.
Christian roots, emphasis on family
The country’s roots and heritage, however, are decidedly Christian. The 2011 Constitution ratified under Fidesz recognizes this, opening with an unambiguous proclamation: “we are proud that our king Saint Stephen built the Hungarian State on solid ground and made our country a part of Christian Europe.”
“We don’t question France and why it is secular. We don’t question England on why it has an Anglican church,” says Kiss. “Why do other countries question Hungary in its religious context?”
In the years since the European migrant crisis, the Hungarian government has gained a reputation for strict immigration policy. Pope Francis has alluded to his discontent with such measures during both his visits to Budapest. Lánczi argues that the approach comes in part from a desire to maintain the Christian character of the nation. There is a fear that mass migration from the Islamic world would significantly alter the nature of the country. Many Hungarians still refer to Hungary’s historic role as a bulwark of Christian society, defending Christendom, at times with their blood, at the border with Islamic civilization. In fact, the tradition of church bells ringing at noon dates back to a 1456 papal decree calling for Christians to pray for the Hungarians’ defeat of the invading Turks at Belgrade.
Beyond acting as a national unifier and a link to the past, its Christian foundation is also treated as a pragmatic solution to contemporary societal ills. The government’s emphasis on Christianity goes hand in hand with its emphasis on family. Promoting marriage and family has been a priority of the Fidesz government. The bigger the family the better, as East-Central Europe is experiencing some of the most significant demographic decline in the world. It is an emerging global issue that receives little attention and one that Hungary has been a pioneer in tackling. For practical politicians, the moral foundation that Christianity provides looks especially appealing in an age of postmodern rootlessness.
For the Church, Fidesz’s policy is timely. Given rising trends of secularization, Fr. Lovassy believes that now may be the country’s last chance to reclaim the Christian heritage it lost during communism. Most Catholic priests and bishops are happy with the support that the Church receives from the state, but it is no substitute for evangelization. “I don’t think a government or political party can preach the faith,” he says.
“If the faith [is] not practiced anymore for a long term, Christian culture cannot be maintained,” argues Norbert Filemon, contributor to the conservative YouTube channel Axióma and Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Veszprém. “It is good if a government supports Christian culture, just not enough without effective evangelization from the members of the Church.”
He argues that Hungary offers a successful model of government that Christian conservatives can follow around the world. “We have always been part of the West, but it is an alternative.”
Hungary’s government may not be on a mission to convert a post-Christian culture. But it may at least be tilling the soil from which good fruits – both temporal and spiritual – can grow.
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