CPAC Is Going to Hungary, Never Mind Viktor Orban’s Attacks on Churches

This new darling of the nationalist right is an enemy of religious freedom

In his Metamorphoses, written after the fall of the Roman Republic, the Latin poet Ovid promised to “tell of bodies changed into new forms.” Had Ovid lived in the age of Trump, he might have added a few more tales of transformation, including an East European tragicomedy about conservative intellectuals who fall in love with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Rod Dreher, Patrick Deneen, Stephen Hayward, Dennis Prager, and Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ top-rated agent provocateur, all made a pilgrimage to Hungary this past summer to sing the praises of this anti-liberal leader. Former Vice President Mike Pence was in Budapest just this past week.

And now the Conservative Political Action Committee, the biggest annual conservative gathering that is attended by the who’s who of the conservative movement including activists and elected officials from across the United States and beyond, has announced that it will hold its 2022 conference in Budapest. The choice of venue is an ominous signal of the direction that CPAC wants to nudge the GOP.

Orban’s power to seduce these American conservatives draws from his self-presentation as a defender of traditional values and Christian politics.  The American Conservative’s Dreher, perhaps Orban’s most enthusiastic fellow traveler, has even gone so far as to claim that Orban protects European Christianity better than the Pope. What apologists like Dreher don’t get is that Orban’s Christianity is a political product designed for the consumption of people like them. To look closely at Orban’s “Christian” politics is to discover his blatant hypocrisy. 

Appeals to Christian values function differently in Hungary than in the United States. In this country, Christian political engagement centers around issues of life (abortion, euthanasia) and sexuality (same-sex marriage, transgender rights). Neither set of issues animates Hungarian politics. Abortion features not at all in the nation’s political debate. It’s true that the new constitution Orban passed in 2011—using his supermajority in Parliament without any input from the political opposition or broader consultation with civil society—states that life begins at conception. But abortion remains legal, and no one is seriously pushing to change that. The matter of recognizing same-sex marriage does not feature prominently on the policy agenda of any political party—despite the fact that Orban recently passed an anti-gay law. The law was a stunt intended to help Orban frame upcoming elections, not a response to serious pressure from Hungary’s LGBT community. As for transgender issues, the only place Hungarians encounter those are on state-sponsored news. A preliminary investigation by the independent Hungarian weekly, Magyar Hang, indicated only 58 people requested gender reassignment surgery in 2018.

In Hungary, Christianity functions as a marker for national identity. This is apparent from sociological data. Judged by conventional measures of religious engagement, Hungarians are not especially religious. Weekly church attendance hovers around or below 10% of the population. Only 14% of Hungarians say religion is very important in their lives, according to data released by the Pew Research Center in 2018. Although 76% of Hungarians self-identify as Christian, only 59% of them say they believe in God. That 17% gap between self-identifying Christians and self-identifying believers points to something significant about the nature of Orban’s appeals to Christianity.

When Orban invokes Christianity before a domestic audience, he’s not appealing to a voting base of practicing believers (who are too small to constitute a political base), rather he’s appealing to Hungarian nationalism. This is apparent in the preamble that Orban added to the new constitution. Called the “National Avowal,” it states: “We are proud that our king Saint Stephen built the Hungarian State on solid ground and made our country a part of Christian Europe one thousand years ago.” The reference is to Hungary’s first king, who saved the Hungarians from oblivion by converting to Christianity and founding the Kingdom of Hungary with fixed territorial boundaries, as per legend, on Christmas Day, 1000 AD.

On the one hand, this kind of appeal to St. Stephen seems perfectly reasonable. Why shouldn’t Hungarians be proud of their national history? On the other hand, Orban is appealing to Hungary’s Christian history in ways that open space for darker kinds of nationalism. The “National Avowal” also includes a passage honoring “the achievements of our historical Constitution and the Holy Crown, which embodies the constitutional continuity of Hungary and the unity of the nation.” This is an allusion to a pre-modern Hungarian constitutional theory according to which St. Stephen’s “Holy Crown” embodied both the continuity and territorial integrity of Hungary. But St. Stephen’s kingdom was quite big, including territory that some Hungarians like to refer to as the “successor states,” namely, Slovakia, sections of Romania, as well as slivers of Ukraine and Serbia. Although Orban himself is not openly irredentist, Hungarians who are aggrieved by the country’s territorial losses at the end of World War I find Orban’s rhetoric appealing.

If Orban were really interested in the well-being of Hungarian Christianity, as Dreher, Deneen et al believe, he wouldn’t inflict harm on churches in Hungary that, for whatever reason, he doesn’t like. Consider Orban’s law on the “legal status of churches” that he passed as part of his 2011 constitutional “reforms.” This law stripped between 250 and 300 religious communities of “legal personality.” Respect for religious freedom, after all, is a liberal idea, and Orban’s vision for Hungary does not include religious pluralism. In a throwback to the early 19th century, his church law made legal recognition of every single church dependent on a specific act of Parliament. In the future, Parliament would bestow church status only through a vote securing a two-third majority.  

A year after this law went into effect, Hungary’s Constitutional Court struck down significant portions of it. It vacated the portion of the law which stripped churches of their legal status and was highly critical of the provision granting Parliament the power to bestow church status. But Orban ignored the ruling. The case went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. The ECtHR objected to the law for reasons similar to the Hungarian court. It ruled that Orban’s church law violated the right of religious freedom as enshrined in the European Convention. Orban waited four years to respond to the ECtHR and then essentially repackaged the original human rights-violating law.

I spent years researching the impact of Orban’s religion law on Hungary’s deregistered communities. What I found was not pretty: Small Christian churches were forced to sell property and shut down schools. Others ceased to exist altogether. Orban’s government began harassing a Methodist church headed by Gabor Ivanyi. Ivanyi is one of Hungary’s most prominent living dissidents from the communist era who, during that time, was allied with the democratic opposition. At 70, Ivanyi is a Hungarian icon. Orban asked Pastor Ivanyi to baptize his two children and marry him in the church. But Ivanyi, an unwavering proponent of liberal democracy, parted ways with Orban and has lamented that Orban’s politics will lead people to revile the name of Christ. In Orban’s Hungary, however, church leaders aren’t allowed to criticize the government. In 2011, Orban stripped away the legal status of the very church in which his first two children were baptized and where he celebrated his Christian matrimony!

One person who sees through Orban is Pope Francis. This was apparent during the Pope’s recent visit to Hungary. The Pope came to Budapest to celebrate mass at the 52nd International Eucharistic Conference, but spent only a few hours there before traveling on to neighboring Slovakia, where he spent three days. The Pope met with Orban, the deputy minister, and Hungary’s president for only 35 minutes. After the meeting, Orban released a statement saying he asked the Pope not to let “Christian Hungary perish.” The Pope, for his part, told reporters he hardly exchanged words with Orban, speaking instead almost exclusively with Hungary’s president. 

Clearly the Pope wanted to distance himself from Orban. Cognizant of how Orban uses Christianity for his narrow purposes, the Holy Father was not about to let himself become a political token. He came to Hungary to nurture and uplift the faithful, not to bless those who use the faith for political ends. For Orban, Christianity is a tool to help remove the obstacles that liberal democracy poses to his autocratic designs. Unlike Orban’s Christian conservative fellow travelers in the United States, the Pope gets that banking on Orban to save Christian values is a bad bet.

H. David Baer is the Pastor Gerhard A. and Marion Poehlmann Professor in Theology at Texas Lutheran University. Twitter: @h_david_baer.

Bonus Material: Mercatus Center’s August 24 panel discussion, “The Real Truth About Hungary.”