Why do many Hungarian Christians vote for Orban?
Ben Provoost, RD
Criticism of the Hungarian government is fierce. The country is no longer a democracy, says think tank Freedom House. Yet the majority of Christians in the country vote for the Fidesz party, co-founded by Viktor Orban. Why?
The victory of Fidesz is so big that you can see it from the moon and certainly from Brussels, Viktor Orban said. The Hungarian Prime Minister addressed his supporters after a resounding vote in early April. Orban lashed out at the EU, which criticises him for his lack of respect for the rule of law.
Orban's new cabinet took office in the second half of May. He has been in power since 2010. Previously, Orban was in power from 1998-2002.
Fidesz has a two-thirds majority. That is where the shoe pinches, because according to Brussels "Viktator" abuses his power. The government is said to be corrupt, restrict the rights of sexual minorities, interfere with the administration of justice and destroy the freedom of the press. Almost immediately after the elections, Brussels took steps to stop the billions in subsidies to the country if it did not change its ways.
Miklos Kocsev (Dean of the Theological Faculty of the Reformed Karoli Gaspar University) and the pastors of the Hungarian Reformed Church, Rev. Ferenc Harkai (Budapest) and Rev. Lajos Matyo (Zsambek), explain how Hungarian Christians view the government. All three lived in the Netherlands for some time and speak the language. The ministers are also frequent visitors of the so-called Matrahaza Conferences, annual meetings between a group of conservative Reformed ministers and their Hungarian Reformed colleagues.
On the eve of the elections, the Hungarian Reformed Church wrote to its members urging them to vote for politicians who would stand up for the traditional family, among other things. The statement can be read as a barely disguised call to vote Fidesz, especially since Bishop Zoltan Balog (government minister in the previous cabinet) was one of the signatories.
Here, Mr Matyo ("I speak in a personal capacity") disagrees. It is tradition for the church to issue such a statement, he says. The most important call, according to him, is for everyone to vote. "The letter was read out in our church. Only one church member had difficulty with it."
Church gets support
Asked what they like about the government, Kocsev and the two pastors mention several things. Calvinists are widely represented in the government, Kocsev notes. He points out that prime minister, parliamentary speaker and head of state are members of the Hungarian Reformed Church. "Only the deputy prime minister is Roman Catholic, remarkable since 60 per cent of the population is Catholic."
Mr Harkai brings up what the recent swearing-in of head of state Katalin Novak means to him. "She goes to church every week and insisted that her installation be accompanied by a church service. When she spoke, she quoted words from the Hungarian national anthem, among others, and ended with the conclusion of the Our Father. Wonderful!"
Churches receive a lot of government support. Already in the first Fidesz cabinets, under the slogan "The spirit of the countryside is the church", a lot of money went to churches and later it became even more. The idea was that facilities would wither away in an emptying countryside, but pastor and preacher would stay until the end. Churches maintain the quality of life, provided they have the means to do so. According to Kocsev, Christians can be happy with this policy. He also finds it positive that everywhere, religious and historical heritage is being renovated.
Already at the Budapest airport, Hungary welcomes the visitor with the statement that the country is "family-friendly". All three of them confirm that this is the case and that this can be attributed to Fidesz. For example, large families can get subsidies if they want to buy a bigger car or renovate their house.
A final major point for which Christians are grateful to Fidesz, according to the three, is that the government financially supports Hungarians abroad and gives them the right to vote. Since the division of Austria-Hungary after World War I, many Hungarian speakers have lived in countries such as Romania, Slovakia and Ukraine. They face discrimination there, Hungary says.
For example, the 150,000 or so Hungarian speakers in the Ukrainian province of Transcarpathia are prevented from speaking their mother tongue. Harkai knows that Hungarian speakers fled Transcarpathia because they did not want to fight in the Ukrainian army. Their homes are now taken by refugees from other parts of Ukraine.
What makes Christians especially happy about Fidesz's efforts for foreign Hungarians is that many of them historically belong to the Hungarian Reformed Church.
Criticism of Fidesz
What do Christians not like about their government? Corruption, the LGBTI policy, curtailed press freedom and interference in the judiciary are not things that Kocsev, Matyo and Harkai are the first to mention. Christians see the government's praise of the classical family (it defines marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman) as positive. Matyo calls the government's LGBTI policy "in line with the Nashville Declaration."
"The prison is not full of journalists," says Harkai about the alleged loss of press freedom, with a sense of understatement. "That was true in communist times." Kocsev thinks that in terms of media policy, there is something wrong in Hungary. "Government communication is worthless and reminds me of my youth when I lived under communism. On the radio and TV, you hear almost exclusively government propaganda."
The fact that Fidesz only started investing in healthcare and education just before the elections was not nice, according to Kocsev, and "very clearly" also intended to win votes.
Do Hungarian churches dare to address the government when policies are not in line with Christian values? Or do they refrain from doing so for fear of losing their privileged position?
Matyo recalls that a few years ago, the then bishop of the Hungarian Reformed Church compiled a booklet in which Christian scholars criticised Fidesz.
The money that flows from the government to the churches can be a temptation to remain silent, says the minister. Mr Matyo himself says that he will speak out critically if necessary. "For example, if Orban leans too much towards Putin or the government does not provide enough money for healthcare."
Kocsev also calls eating from the state's platter a risk for churches to remain silent about wrong policies. According to him, Lutherans are the most critical of the government, and it is no coincidence that they lean the least on public money.
The sometimes-strong criticism of Fidesz is not a reason for most Hungarian Christians not to vote for it. Matyo: "Should I give my vote to an opposition party whose language and political ideas, such as abolishing religious education in schools, go against Christian values and standards? Voting in Hungary is a matter of bad and worse."
Kocsev: "The late Desmond Tutu (South African bishop and anti-apartheid activist, BP) wrote somewhere about politicians in his country, "We elected you because there were no better ones. But we are ashamed of our choice and how you now govern." I could say something similar about Fidesz. But I have no faith in the opposition at all."
"Don't demonise Fidesz, but don't praise him either
The fierce election battle between the Protestant Viktor Orban and the Roman Catholic Peter Marki-Zay strongly divided Christians, says journalist Istvan Gegeny. "Fierce discussions, in which people who call themselves Christian expressed themselves hatefully, caused great harm to the church."
At least half of Hungary's approximately 10 million people are Roman Catholics. An expert on this community is Roman Catholic theologian Istvan Gegeny, founder of szemlelek.net. The online magazine sheds light on social and ecclesiastical themes, especially from the Roman Catholic tradition.
The united opposition went into the elections with Peter Marki-Zay. Gegeny estimates that, nevertheless, 80 per cent of Roman Catholics gave their vote to opponent Orban. "Because Roman Catholics appreciate the style of Fidesz or think that otherwise, all hell will break loose," he said.
The campaign message "Those who want a Christian Hungary should vote Viktor Orban" divided Christians, Gegeny knows. "In parishes, people disagreed with each other, but also bishops and priests sometimes openly attacked each other. A readers' poll showed that fierce supporters and opponents of Fidesz have little in common. There is an intermediate group, but it is significantly smaller. A non-Christian journalist said: "In the past, there was a gap in society between Christians and advocates of, for example, LGBTI rights and abortion. Now there is a gap within the church." We are watching this process with great sadness."
If you want to live in a Christian country, there is not just one party you can vote for, Gegeny believes. Referring to the Pope, the publicist says that political interests and motivations never fully coincide with Christian values. "Judged from a Christian point of view, you can say that Fidesz has good policies when it comes to, for example, the family, the development of poorer areas and the development of national identity. Hungary's good relations with Iran and China, countries where Christians are persecuted, are questionable. Also questionable is the attitude towards Russia because it is clear that Putin is the aggressor in Ukraine."
Clearly un-Christian, Gegeny calls the creation of enemy images, in which he says Fidesz excels. "In 2015, the Pope called on the whole world, including Hungary, to help refugees. The government reacted fiercely, calling the Pope the anti-Christ and an agent of George Soros. Recently, Pope Francis complimented Orban on Hungary's hosting of Ukrainian refugees. Since then, Fidesz has been trying to portray the image that the party and the Pope are good friends."
According to Gegeny, Christians would do well not to demonise Fidesz but should also not act as if this party is the "saviour".
This article was translated by CNE.news and was published simultaneously in Dutch in Reformatorisch Dagblad.
Series on Hungary (1): Protecting national identity at all costs
Series on Hungary (2): Churches are both supportive and concerned