Faith, Family and Fidesz? Why Some US Catholics Are So Intrigued by Hungary’s Populist Government
With Prime Minister Viktor Orbán facing reelection this weekend, some say the Central European nation he’s led for the past 12 years provides an example for how Catholics should engage in politics in the U.S. — but others caution against overlooking its flaws.
In late January, Tucker Carlson, host of America’s most-watched cable news show, invited the Catholic political theorist Gladden Pappin to appear as a guest. Pappin, who is currently on sabbatical from his teaching post at the University of Dallas, explained to Carlson’s audience of roughly three-million viewers that “so many things we used to take for granted in the United States — the importance of family life, the identity of men and women, the strong borders of a country, the confidence in its national identity … are still present here.”
“Here,” for Pappin, is Budapest, his home away from home since September 2021. Long interested in European conservative politics, the Harvard-educated academic’s attention has shifted to Hungary. The Central European country of just under 10 million people has been led since 2010 by populist conservative prime minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party, who is seeking a fourth consecutive four-year term in the Hungarian parliamentary elections that will take place this Sunday.
Conservatives in Hungary started noticing Pappin, too. In October 2020, after writing a Newsweek article criticizing then-candidate Joe Biden’s insinuation that conservative European nations like Poland and Hungary were totalitarian states, he was invited to spend a year in Budapest as a visiting fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium, an educational institution supported by the Hungarian government whose mission, in the words of an October 2021 New York Times article, is to “train the conservative elite.”
Pappin accepted, and has spent the 2021-2022 academic year speaking on U.S. politics to students across the country and building bridges for the MCC with other conservative intellectual institutions. His experiences in Hungary have also given him ample material for writing on his favorite subject: harnessing the power of the state to not merely protect, but actively and explicitly promote, a Christian vision of the common good — and bringing that approach to U.S. politics.
A Growing Interest
Pappin is just one example of Hungary’s growing appeal among a set of American Catholic political thinkers who can be described as “postliberal,” or critical of the idea that individual liberty should serve as the organizing principle of society. Others include Patrick Deneen, the Notre Dame political scientist and author of the influential 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed, and Sohrab Ahmari, cofounder of the new anti-establishment magazine Compact and a visiting fellow at Franciscan University.
Like Pappin, both have made a point of coming to see Hungary for themselves.
“It seems to be a pretty widely-shared interest at this point,” Pappin told the Register.
It’s an interest that extends beyond just Catholic conservatives in America. In fact, though Hungary is a historically Catholic country where Catholicism is still the single most practiced religion, two of its most influential American proponents are non-Catholic Christians: Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who spent a week in summer 2021 broadcasting from Budapest, where he visited with Orbán (also a non-Catholic Christian), toured the country’s southern border fence, and made the case that Hungary has valuable lessons to teach America; and Rod Dreher, the American Conservative blogger and author of The Benedict Option, who spent four months last year in Hungary with the Danube Institute, a conservative think tank, and is currently visiting the country.
U.S. Catholics’ interest in Hungary is also a product of a growing frustration with the approach of mainstream conservativism back home. In a 2019 interview with the Hungarian conservative magazine Mandiner, for instance, Deneen said that Hungary offers an antidote to a kind of “defeatism” that haunts U.S. conservatives, which gloomily suggests that all religious people can do is merely slow down the culture’s inevitable move toward secularization and progressivism by appealing for religious liberty protections and limiting the reach of government.
“But these political battles can be won if we prepare for them and fight them,” Deneen said at the time. “Hungary is a living example of this.”
Similarly, Pappin says conservative interest in Hungary has coincided with “the air going out of the balloon on the American right.” For social conservatives who have been “looking around for other models” than the typical genteel, “winning the public discourse” mode of engaging in U.S. politics — something Pappin’s confrere Ahmari has previously disparaged as “David French-ism”— Orbán’s Hungary has emerged as an attractive alternative.
A Christian Model?
Pappin sums up the attraction simply, describing Hungary as a country “that is oriented broadly around a Christian conception of the human person.”
This orientation isn’t an accident; it’s a feature, explicitly supported by Hungary’s constitution. Drafted in 2010 after Fidesz came to power and presented as a fundamental break from 50 years of communist rule, the document affirms Hungary’s founding by “our king Saint Stephen” as part of “Christian Europe,” and recognizes “the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood.” The constitution also affirms that individual liberty is only complete “in cooperation with others,” and explicitly calls for the protection of marriage “as the union of a man and a woman,” and of the family “as the basis of the survival of the nation.”
The constitutional rhetoric cashes out in the form of assertive government action, perhaps most notably in the form of Hungary’s unique family policy, which promotes family formation and child raising through a variety of measures. Couples can, for example, receive government subsidies for buying or building a home that increases with the birth of their first, second, and third children. The government also offers loans to families that do not have to be paid back on the condition that the couple has three children. Mothers who have four or more children are given a lifetime income tax exemption.
Prior to the reforms, birth and marriage rates had been collapsing in Hungary. But from Pappin’s perspective “bring[ing] the perspective of the family to every piece of legislation” has produced a rebound — even if, as others like conservative demographer Lyman Stone have noted, the Magyar nation didn’t see a significant bump in the fertility rate until 2020, after its natalist policy shifted from complex populist programs to simple cash incentives, the kind that have worked in places like Poland and Scandinavia. And Hungary’s fertility rate — 1.52 in 2021 — still lags considerably behind even the United States’ rate of 1.78.
Even so, Pappin’s point about Hungary’s overall approach remains: “It’s a country that values the traditional family and wants to give it pride of place,” he told the Register, noting that these sorts of policies don’t just provide concrete assistance, they also send the message publicly that the family is a “prized” institution in Hungary.
For U.S. Catholic admirers of Budapest, Hungary hasn’t merely modeled how a country can be proactive in promoting family values; it’s also served as an example of how to withstand the advance of progressive and secularizing agendas.
The country made international headlines in June for passing a law prohibiting the teaching of LGBT ideology in schools. Billboards with messages like “let’s protect the children” and “does the sexual propaganda make you worried for your child?” have filled the country over the past year, and Orbán is confident enough that the law represents the will of the people that he has put the question to a national referendum coinciding with the April 3rd election.
Hungary’s government has faced swift and harsh blowback from fellow EU members in western Europe over its stances. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte went so far as to say that Hungary must “be brought to its knees” regarding its prohibition of pro-LGBT content for children.
But Hungarians supportive of the measures say they’re used to foreign powers attempting to influence domestic affairs with agendas contrary to Hungarian values. The country has endured Islamic rule under the Ottoman Empire and communism under the influence of the Soviet Union. Now, some simply believe the cultural threat is coming from a different direction.
“What we see both in Western Europe and in the U.S. is a shift towards a radical leftist agenda,” says Ferenc Hörcher, professor of political philosophy at the University of Public Service in Budapest, who shares that he was taught the basics of the Christian faith in secret as a child, for fear of reprisal in the then-communist country. “Certain ways of speaking are not allowed, certain ways of thinking are not allowed, certain practices are not allowed. And that experience, in this part of the world, reminds people of earlier totalitarian regimes.”
Fidesz is not shy about linking its policies to Christian values. In a 2018 interview with EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó stated that “we have been a Christian country for a millennium now and we are proud of it. We don’t hide it. Our Constitution starts [with] ‘May God bless the Hungarians.’”
The government has been generous in its financial support of Christian churches and the constitution also declares that “the protection of the … Christian culture of Hungary shall be an obligation of every organ of the State.”
It may come as a surprise, then, that Hungary is not a particularly religious country. Only 17% of the population attends worship at least once a month, according to the Pew Research Center, ranking 20th out of 34 European countries surveyed, and far behind still staunchly Catholic Poland, where that number is 61%.
Pappin acknowledges this “ambient” Christianity may not be the fullness of the faith. But along with Ahmari and fellow Catholic postliberal Chad Pecknold, a theologian at The Catholic University of America, he argued in a November 2021 American Conservative piece entitled “In Defense of Cultural Christianity” that the kind of public Christianity present in largely secularized European countries like Hungary, while imperfect, can bear good fruit. From the time of the Roman empire, the authors argue, the Christian faith has played a role in shaping politics and society.
“This didn’t guarantee the salvation of every soul,” Pappin, Ahmari and Pecknold wrote, “but it laid down structures that made such a thing easier.”
Critiques of Hungary — and of U.S. conservatives’ fascination with it — are frequent from the U.S. mainstream press. In the New York Times article “How the American Right Fell in Love With Hungary,” Orbán and his Fidesz party are portrayed as dictatorial and power-hungry, and their U.S. admirers as willfully ignorant, or at least naïve. Earlier that fall, a Washington Post columnist wrote that U.S. conservatives “yearn” for Orbán’s Hungary, with the prime minister’s authoritarian tendencies representing “the fever dream of the American right.”
Pappin says such critiques aren’t worth taking seriously.
“The Western liberal media is trying to basically bring Central European countries to heel and it uses a variety of techniques in doing so,” he said. “Anything that occurs in these countries it calls authoritarian and corrupt.”
But progressive liberals aren’t the only ones critical of Fidesz’s leadership in Hungary. István Gégény, director of the Hungarian Catholic magazine Szemlélek, tells the Register that “The Orbán regime is not conservative … and it is not Christian. Even if it says … that it’s based on a Christian ethic, it’s not, if you see the fruits of the leadership of Hungary.”
In particular, Gégény points to measures Orbán’s government has taken to limit media freedom and opposing perspectives, by pricing out, shutting down, or otherwise eliminating independent publications. Reflective of this shift, Hungary’s press freedom ranking according to Reporters Without Borders has fallen from 23rd in 2010, when Orbán first took office, to 92nd in 2021, though conservatives like Dreher, while not in full alignment with the prime minister’s steps, argue that the measures were more about resorting a balance of viewpoints in the Hungarian press than suppressing all dissent.
Gégény also describes a system of nepotism and tight party control, within which “you have to be a friend of the system” to have any kind of leadership position in civil society. He says Hungarian Christians who are critical of the Orbán regime, of which he says there are many, have their faith called into question. In such a climate, in which even some bishops and priests say that criticizing Fidesz amounts to being an enemy of Christianity, the Catholic journalist says “you have to choose always [between] black and white. There is no room for debates or dialogue.”
Orbán has also received what many observers characterized as veiled criticism from a far more important Catholic figure: Pope Francis. During a brief visit to Hungary in September 2021 to celebrate the closing Mass of the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress, the Holy Father urged Hungary to “extend its arms to everyone” — a statement that was widely viewed as a critique of the restrictive immigration and refugee policies of Orbán, whom the Pope had met with just before.
Gégény makes it clear that his issues with the Orbán government are not with conservative or Christian principles. And the past 12 years under Fidesz, he acknowledges, have included positive achievements, such as the government’s recognition of the true nature of marriage. Whatever the good results may be though, he believes they are tainted by abuses of power and attacks on freedom.
For this reason, Gégény will somewhat reluctantly be supporting Orbán’s leading challenger in this weekend’s election, Péter Márki-Zay. Márki-Zay is campaigning on the promise to scrap the 2011 constitution and start from scratch, and has criticized Orbán as an authoritarian ruler whose regime is “built on propaganda hate campaigns,” and a “servant” of Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister.
A Catholic father of seven, Márki-Zay was chosen to represent a united coalition of six opposition parties and is often represented by Western media as a conservative Christian “alternative” to Orbán — though as Hungarian conservatives like Hörcher suggest, that portrayal isn’t necessarily taken seriously in Hungary, noting, for instance, the candidate’s support for legally recognizing so-called “same sex marriages.”
On this side of the Atlantic, Ave Maria University political theorist and postliberal Catholic critic James Patterson says he doesn’t find the U.S. Catholic interest in Hungary surprising.
“A lot of conservative Catholics — as with religious Americans generally — feel like they are under constant siege for their beliefs,” he said. “It makes sense that these people, as well as illiberal Catholic scholars, would go in search of something with a more aggressive posture.”
However, Patterson, who cites 20th century American churchmen Ven. Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray as his main political inspirations, worries that the Catholic shift to forms of political engagement with what he describes as a more “militant edge” is ultimately inconsistent with the faith it purports to promote.
“The fact is that the Cross by nature entails suffering in the name of Christ,” he said. “The rebellious nationalism of Barabbas was not how God saved us, but the passion, death and resurrection of Our Blessed Lord.”
An Ongoing Impact
U.S. conservative admirers of Orbán’s Hungary are often clear that they don’t view the country as some kind of blueprint to be replicated in the U.S, and certainly not as a source of salvation. Instead, proponents like Rod Dreher stress how some of Fidesz’s family-friendly policies could inspire similar approaches in the American context.
For Pappin, the most significant lesson that Catholics can glean from Hungary’s 12 years of governance by a populist, conservative Christian political party may simply be that such a thing is possible.
“It shows that history doesn’t just move in one direction,” says Pappin. “By every metric that causes American conservatives to become dispirited, Hungary had bad metrics too. And on those metrics, there’s been a turnaround.”
The momentum of American conservative interest in Hungary looks to continue in 2022. In May, Budapest will host CPAC Hungary, the first European iteration of the Conservative Political Action Committee.
But by that point, it’s possible that the political figure and party that have inspired so many U.S. Catholic and Christian conservatives to look to Hungary may be out of power in Budapest. Although recent figures show that Orbán maintains a slight lead in his contest against Márki-Zay, 16% of voters remain undecided, and war in neighboring Ukraine has made guessing the outcome of the April 3rd vote more difficult.
One thing’s for certain, though: whether Orbán and Fidesz maintain control or not, the impact of what they’ve done already will be felt for years to come — in Hungary, of course, but also in the U.S.
Jonathan Liedl contributed to this report.
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