Series on Hungary (2): Churches are both supportive and concerned


Central Europe

Lieke Pippel, RD

Gay Pride in Budapest, Hungary. Photo AFP, Gergely Besenyei

Fighting for Christian, conservative and traditional norms and values. That is what the Hungarian government says it is doing every day. Do churches and Christians in the country agree?

Debrecen is the heart of the Hungarian Reformed Church. Visitors to the city in eastern Hungary cannot miss it. Right in the city centre, the Reformed Great Church stands out. The church is surrounded by monuments, a memorial garden and a nearby Reformed Theological University.

Debrecen is the heart of the Hungarian Reformed Church. Photo RD, Lieke Pippel

Dr Laszlo Gonda works at the university as a missiologist and a coordinator of foreign affairs. Before visiting one of the oldest universities in the country, he gives a tour of the memorial garden. In the garden stays a monument from 2017 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. An open Bible with the text “The word of God endures forever” is visible for everyone to read in Hungarian and Latin.

Conference on democracy

Besides his work at the university, Gonda is also a pastor within the Reformed Church. He tells his story in Dutch. He has been coming to the Netherlands for about 25 years and has mastered the language quite well. The ties with the Theological University of Kampen in the Netherlands are good, he says. They organise joint conferences, for example on democracy.

A sensitive topic in recent years; Hungary has been repeatedly “lectured” by the European institutions about the violation of the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. In late June, the most recent outcry was when the Hungarian government introduced a new law stating that sexuality, gender reassignment, and homosexuality should not be promoted to children under 18 years of age.


A conference on democracy with the Dutch and Hungarians broadly exposes the different visions, explains Gonda on his way back to the university. He tells how in Hungary, the idea is that the people choose “pure democracy.” This also means that elected institutions do not have to be whistled back by non-elected bodies. After the elections, the majority should have free rein.

Gonda. Photo RD, Lieke Pippel

Gonda knows this is different in the Netherlands. According to him, the view there is that supervision of democratically elected institutions is desirable. But, Hungarians wonder, why let non-elected institutions control democracy? Just when the missiologist says he doesn’t quite agree with the views of some of his fellow Hungarians, his phone rings: the rector is waiting in his office.

Complex church history

Dr Levente Bela Barath is the rector of the university, professor of church history and pastor of the Reformed Church. He neither speaks English nor Dutch. Gonda, therefore, assists as an interpreter. Sitting on his green leather furniture, Barath points out the complexity of Hungarian ecclesiastical history: the different denominations of, among others, the Reformed, Lutherans and Roman Catholics; the outside influences by dominant powers; the persecutions; the effect of Communism. “Someone from the outside, as well as from the inside, can easily overlook this complexity.”

The church historian finds it difficult to interpret the presence of Christianity and the churches in Hungarian politics at this time. “The question is to what extent the presence of the Christian faith comes from society. Or is it an overrepresentation of the churches by the government?” Speaking mainly in a personal capacity, Barath believes that the current situation is not easy for the Hungarian churches because “the church’s position in society has changed in a relatively short time. It is difficult to determine to what extent that is organic or artificial.”

Barath. Photo RD, Lieke Pippel

Christian values

Once back in the hallway, Gonda can finally explain why he can’t fully support the views of other Hungarians. The Dutch-speaking Hungarian points out the dangers: emotions can run high, and if “checks and balances” are not valued, there is a possibility that painful events from history repeat themselves. “We have seen that it was possible once. Why could it not be possible now? In the current situation, the opportunity is here.”

The missiologist talks about singling out a minority, as is happening with LGBT people in the new law. He’s not quite sure why that happens. Is there sincerity in pursuing Christian values, or is it for easy and short-term political gain?

Gonda tends to the latter. He gives two reasons for this. First of all, certain Christian norms and values are highlighted, such as those around LGBT, while others are not discussed at all. “Think of abortion, corruption, Sunday rest.”

In addition, the pastor wonders what precisely Christian norms and values are. According to him, such a term has been simplified, especially given the complexity of Hungarian Christianity that the rector spoke about.

Church are involved in politics

About 230 kilometres away, in the Hungarian capital of Budapest, Gergely Prohle shares his views one minute as a political expert and the next as a Christian. Prohle is lay president of the Lutheran Church, former ambassador to Germany and Switzerland and former deputy secretary of state of foreign affairs. He is known for being loyal to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government. Still, he himself indicates that he has never been a member of any political party.

The lay president has no doubt that the current government is better for the churches than any other Hungarian government could be. “If in politics one tries to propagate Christian values and look after the interests of the churches, which church says no to that?” He believes, however, that it can be dangerous if churches become too involved in politics. “The churches do not have the task to repeat political messages.”

The former ambassador is behind the government’s course of action, including the policies on LGBT issues.

The Lutheran Church states “very clearly” that marriage consists of a union between one man and one woman. “We must approach everyone with love and respect. There is no doubt about that. However, we should not design and vote for laws that normalise things that are probably not according to Christian values.”

Grist to Orban’s mill

However, Prohle is concerned about the style and atmosphere in which things are debated. “The modern way of communicating is partly to blame for this because simplifying complex matters is very popular. Those black-and-white arguments are a danger to everyone.”

According to the former diplomat, how criticism is expressed outside Hungary, for example, from Brussels and the Netherlands, is also not helpful. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s response to the new law –that Hungary would be better off leaving the EU if the country does not adapt– is only grist to Orban’s mill.

Hungary series

This is the second of three features about the new controversial law in Hungary.

This article was published previously in the Dutch Reformatorisch Dagblad on July 24th 2021.



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