Viktor Orbán and the Role of Religion in Hungarian Politics

Seminar Paper, 2019

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. A concept of identity and reshaping self-awareness

3. Viktor Orbán and the relation to Christianity

4. Reinterpreting Christianity in the Orbánean context

5. Conclusions

6. References

1. Introduction

Hungary is often cited as a model student in post-1989 Central/Eastern Europe, excelling with save economy, a consolidated democratic political system, a diverse and relatively open society and on a very good path in blending in with Europe. (e.g. Shevchenko 2018, Majtényi et al., 2019; Buzogány, 2017). Under Communism, Hungary managed to obtain a special status to the Soviet leaders, allowing it to make the first steps into market economy, as well – the combination of planned and market economy later became known by “goulash Communism” and made Hungary one of a kind at that time (cf. Shevchenko, 2018, p. 65).

Today’s image of Hungary, especially in the European context, is quite a different one, compared to the post-Communism transition period. It went through an array of hardships, of contemporary importance are especially the entry into NATO and the OECD in the late 1990’s, the EU accession in 2004, the “speech of lies” of the Socialist Prime Minister Gyurcsány in 2006 (cf. McLaughlin, 2006, online), which led to first violent demonstrations, a period of a depolitisized Hungarian society, soon after, though, to the repolitization and polarization of the same, fueling the success of a virtually transformed Fidesz party and a re-inauguration of Viktor Orbán as Hungary’s Prime Minister in 2006. Little was left of the revolutionary leftist, aiming at social diversity, equality and liberal values in Hungary. The opposite happened: Mr. Orbán and his party won hugely thanks to populist programs, anti-Soros campaigns, the forging of enemies like ‘The West’ or ‘The evil Muslim immigrant’ by putting the conflicts introduced by the new situation at the center of the discourse. But besides these right-wing populist frames of what came to be known “the long summer of migration” (della Porta, 2018, 2), the main driver for many European populist successes in the second decade of the 21st century, Viktor Orbán uses a tool, which, at least in political discourse, had relatively little relevance in Hungary, yet now serves marvelously for his purpose of redefining Hungary and its international status: the reference to Christianity and Christian heritage of Hungarian history.

The aim of this research report will be to explain, why Viktor Orbán and his Christianity-fueled public statements are not vehemently rejected, as one could suspect from the country’s secular and secularized past, but instead very much appreciated by the general public, which was before Mr. Orbán unused to political profiling through religious affiliation. For this purpose, I studied articles on Hungarian current affairs specifically trying to find a pattern to understand on the one hand, the governmental success of the redefinition, on the other hand the societal acceptance and encouragement of the former, finally combining it with ideas of Francis Fukuyama’s (2018) recent thoughts on identity politics, as to me it seems to be a strong shifting and crafting of a new identity, which happens in Hungary, one that happens in ways deemed inappropriate in Europe and utterly despicable in democratic societies.

2. A concept of identity and reshaping self-awareness

Hungary and Hungarians are in a struggle concerning their own being. The culturally widely shared field of internal conflict consists of three poles or narrative branches. Firstly, Hungarians find themselves historically and more so linguistically in a certain paria position within Europe, i.e. the Magyar peoples migrated from the far Eastern Ural Mountains to what today is known as Europe, whereas the rest of European peoples did not have such a big migration distance in their CVs. Linguistically, Hungarian language belongs to the Finno-Ugrian language family, not to the field of (proto-)indo-European, which is why it is very unlikely to find any similarities to the language from a no-knowledge stance (cf. Pamlényi 1973 Ch. 1, esp. pp. 15f.; Novembre 2015, pp. 164f.). For instance, knowing bits of Italian or German will lead a person to the recognition of French articles, at least topic wise.

Secondly, the “trauma” of the Trianon peace treaty after The First World War 1920 resulted in Hungary’s loss of two thirds of its erstwhile territory, which is still framed as a criminal theft and a deep violation of national sovereignty (cf. Ablonczy, 2011, p. 303).

Thirdly, Mr. Orbán likes to portray the country as the defender of Europe and its Christian values from outside enemies, namely Muslim immigration and bases this claim on its geographical situation (cf. Thorpe, 2018, online).

At the very basement of identity and its formation, Fukuyama starts with the concept of Plato’s thymos, the third part of the soul in his trilogy and “[…] the seat of anger and pride” but also it is “[…] the seat of judgements of worth” (Fukuyama, 2018, p. 18) and thus finds the intrinsic need for recognition already in ancient Greek philosophy. Fukuyama states that modern times European identity struggle on an individual level became most noticeable with the Industrial Revolution and thus the streaming of village residents to make a living in bigger cities. Deprived of a preplanned life and routine, e.g. sons following their fathers’ footsteps on their lands, arranged marriages, taking over the parents’ house after their passing; deprived of such security, many young people at that day and age found themselves lost in a multitude of options to choose from (cf. ibid., p. 63f.). Being forced to live with people from all over the country, all over the geographic neighborhood, in fact, such former village farmers came to realize there is more than one priest to be baptized by, one job to possibly do, one woman to eventually marry according to the parents’ choice, more than one valid living reality, the question of the very nature of one’s self began to arise (cf. ibid).

This pattern can, in my opinion, be translated onto the national level, as well. If we stick to this very example, Hungary serves as the village resident in this story. Under Communism, it had security concerning what to expect from the Soviet leadership in Moscow, it was granted certain privileges, and undoubtedly there were uprisings against the system, the 1956 uprisings or the young Orbán’s demand for the Red army to leave Hungary and the call for free elections in a public speech in 1989 (cf. Mayer, 2018, p. 189; Lendvai, 2018, online), for instance, but the certainty of the status quo was undeniable. After 1991 and having claimed independence, Hungary found itself in a situation that most generations could not relate to: independence and total responsibility for inside affairs – as Hungary was first paralyzed by the Austro-Hungarian monarchy until 1918, then by Trianon regulations and Horthy and finally by Communist forces. Hungary in independence, in our picture, depicts Hungary coming from its village into the city, the question of the national nature now was up to Hungarians to be answered.

Mr. Orbán helps them find an answer to this question, combining Christianity and Hungarian mythology. As Adám/Bozokí say: “This refers to the idea of “two Hungarys”: the Western Christian, and the Eastern pagan, tribal one.” (Ádám/Bozóki, 2015, p. 18), thus: “When Orbán talks about the reunification of the Hungarian nation, he intends to re-balance power relations between the two camps.” (ibid.). Here, the main pillar of Mr. Orbán’s identity forging becomes clear: framing a homogenous Hungarian nation, which consists of all those who support him and his party. The next section should shine a light on the necessity of a redefinition of Hungary’s identity and, most importantly, how this can be as successful as it is for Viktor Orbán.

The societal need for a different stance of Hungary as an independent country arose with the post-1989 transition from Communism, when Hungarians saw the way into democracy and independence almost as an automatism for prosperity and wealth and general improvements of the living conditions, which also explains the eagerness in the process that gave Hungary the praises mentioned in the introductory section of this report. However, the Hungarian public soon became less euphoric about the regime change in the post-transition days. There was a revival of the sentiment that democracy and, thus, sovereignty was robbed off Hungarians and that another form of transition, a Hungary-based transition needs to take place if Hungary was to free itself from past centuries of oppression and malicious imposition from outside powers in the past (cf. Ádám/Bozóki, 2015, p. 7).

The feeling was that the success of the transition was understood as the doings of other now EU-member states in Western Europe, that economic prosperity and a democratic system, for instance, were demands in order to get recognized in the ‘grown-up’ sphere of consolidated European democracies. That is also why Ádám/Bozóki consider populism to have managed to gain ground in Hungary (cf. ibid., 9), a paradox as they say, that exactly this success led to the emergence of post-transition populist powers.

In 2009, a Pew Research report revealed that the majority of the questioned Hungarians were strictly opposed to the way Hungary was ruled, democracy and especially the EU-accession can be regarded as two highly important factors for this assessment (cit. after Ádám/Bozóki, 2015, p. 7), shortly after, in 2010, Fidesz won the national elections with a constitutional supermajority and a nationalist, protectionist course.

3. Viktor Orbán and the relation to Christianity

In his article, Magyar describes the most noticeable systemic change from the first Fidesz-reign 1998-2002 to the second in 2010, the omition of a party as such – László Kövér, Tamás Deutsch or János Áder, for instance, who were some of the Fidesz-top men behind Mr. Orbán, were banished into less directly connected positions, which left Mr. Orbán as the only Fidesz-face in the public, the party was personalized with Orbán’s conterfie (cf. Magyar, 2011, pp. 89f.). Further reduction of personnel took place, when after the elections 2010 members of the party refused to support the right-wing turn, they also were made to leave (cf. ibid, pp. 91f.). Since then Mr. Orbán has the power to initiate and pass laws undisputedly. In terms of Christianity, in the following I will give four examples of how he uses references and symbolism in order to fight and succeed in his cause: the homogenous, Christian, pure Hungarian people.

Religious reference was recently expressed also by re-/mis-interpreting historical facts. When in 2014 a new monument was erected in central Budapest at Liberty Square, depicting the Arch Angel Gabriel (= Hungary) being attacked by a massive eagle (= German Reich). Equalizing Hungary with the Arch Angel is both tellingly megalothymic in religion and blasphemously close to the Lord Himself. The message is that Hungary was, if at all, only marginally responsible for the horrors happening on Hungarian soil during WWII, it was fiercely attacked by the Germans and dragged into the horrendous war, no sign of own activity or responsibility (cf. Györi, 2018, p. 294). Similarly, the public landscape of the city was reshaped: statues of progressive politicians like Mihály Károlyi or George Lukács were dismantled, the Horthy statue, however, remained unmoved well noticeable behind the monument of Gabriel and the eagle; the Kossuth tér and its monuments were rebuilt like it was in 1944 (cf. ibid., pp. 294f.).

In early 2019, Mr. Orbán urged other rather anti-immigrant governments in the EU to work more closely together, as otherwise there will be two civilizations in Europe: “There will be two civilisations in the EU. A mixed Muslim-Christian one in the west and a traditional European-Christian in central Europe […]” (McLaughlin, 2019, online), also here claiming a homogenous Christian Hungary.

Another method of forging a Christian frame around his party and the country, is by stressing the circumstance that the current political system is God’s will:

“God’s teachings have led us to see not a mere coincidence or whim of fate in the fact that, here and now, there is a Christian government of faith leading Hungary, but to see in this a manifestation of God’s mercy.” (Fagan, 2018, online), he said during a speech for thousands of interested people in 2017. Further, Mr. Orbán emphasizes Hungary’s role in fighting for Christianity in an atheistic Europe, combined with anti-Semitic and Islam-critical undertones and the fact that Hungary even now is “‘living our lives as members of a community under siege.’” (cf. ibid.)

These quotes sum up the main straw by which Mr. Orbán retells the Hungarian history: Hungary as the victim of history, of suppression by its neighbors, Communism, Fascism, as threatened by outer forces and in constant danger of losing its Christian identity. There seems to be a discrepancy between the biblical Christianity and Orbán’s understanding of it regarding his response to criticism on his anti-immigration stance. The gospel of loving others and the weak becomes re-emphasized: “Zij vergeten het tweede deel van het gebod, zichzelf liefhebben”1 (van Berkel, 2017, online). This justifies protectionism and exclusive policies and every aspect of political and social life might be interpreted to fit this claim: the de-factoGleichschaltung of the Hungarian media system can be understood as controlling foreign corruptive influence onto the pure Christian people, the new Fundamental Law 2011 as the re-definition of Hungary in the best interest of that pure Christian people, yet it is evident that there is this wide gap between Viktor Orbán’s terminology of Christianity and what it says in the Bible. In the following, it needs to be discussed how then this Christianity, as it is to be understood in Mr. Orbán’s public political discourse. In this sense, DeHanas/Shterin’s observations on Roy’s work for the French Front National also apply to Hungary:

“Christianity as national identity is so ‘thin’ that, as Roy puts it, it can be easily ‘hijacked’. Christian identity has the dual purposes of building nostalgia for a golden national past and rendering Islam an intrinsically foreign culture. In Roy’s words, populist movements that employ Christianity are ‘Christian largely to the extent that they reject Islam’” (Roy cited in: DeHanas/Shterin, 2018, p. 178), only that Orbán’s Islam-critical statements are relatively new, however, any minority, that does not fit into a family-based, heterosexual, non-Jewish/Muslim, nationalist, patriotic image. The actual Christianity with its values and gospels becomes secondary, although it is not to deny that there are continuities with a Christian worldview, just there is cherry-picking in favor of the political agenda and some biblical aspects become marginal. In a populist context, ‘the people’ are noble and pure with an absolute right for their national heritage and culture, jobs, social benefits etc. from their political systems (cf. DeHanas/Shterin, 2018, p. 179), others, those who are not regarded as the pure people (in the Hungarian case that applies for example for Roma, Muslim immigrants and liberals/progressives) have a secondary importance and are even considered enemies of the nation by political leaders.

4. Reinterpreting Christianity in the Orbánean context

As also Ádám/Bozóki point out: “Christianity in this context rather signifies a degree of social conservatism and traditional nationalism than expressing any substantive religious reference.” (Ádám/Bozóki, 2015, p. 17). Christianity in Mr. Orbán’s understanding, thus, is not to be understood as a substantial fidelity to the words in the Bible, but as a new form of religion. The secondary importance of biblical religion for the party also becomes evident when regarding the book on Fidesz’s party history in a publishing house very close to them: the shift from their opposed views on clerics in the 1980s towards an openly embracing stance to religion is not at all mentioned (cf. ibid. pp. 17f.), which strengthens the impression of religion being a technical tool in order to gain public favor.

The authors also argue, that right-wing populism and especially the Fidesz is to be understood as types of religion in themselves, as they give their supporters an object to worship (cf. ibid., p. 24). The creation of a Hungary as the promised land, the nostalgia and illusion of a point in the past, when Hungary consisted of a homogenous, Christian, value-sharing people and the constant fights that Mr. Orbán claims Hungary is battling – it all adds up to the worship of exactly that image of Hungary, the country as a historical hero, as the people’s savior, as something that needs to be kept whole and healthy, even though it is highly improbable this Hungary ever existed. The relation between politics and the Christian churches is a win-win situation, on the one hand, churches benefit public finances in education and healthcare, run church schools and hospitals, on the other hand they need to fulfill party-friendly public work during masses or advertising (cf. ibid., p. 25).

Regarding Christianity not as an instrument to secure power, but as the actual faith in the words of God, Hungarian society seems to take it less seriously than proclaimed by their leaders or expressed by their supporters. The Report by the Pew Research Center in 2017 on “ Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe” reveals that between 2015/16, 43% of the questioned Hungarians considered belonging to the Catholic faith as being an important feature of being a national (cf. Pew Research Center, 2017, p.13), more than 50% consider themselves to be Catholic or Christian in other variance (cf. ibid., 21), in 2011, a national census found about 40% to consider themselves Catholic (cf. KSH, 2013, p. 23). The constant religious rhetoric of Viktor Orbán seems to have found a fertile ground, although it is debatable whether an actual intrinsic change of belief took place or rather, as I take it, religion came to be understood as a distinction of Hungary from the rest of Europe, a means of creating a sense of superiority. Shevchenko calls this social creativity, when countries2 find a new arena in which they can achieve a certain superiority towards others, as they did not yet take part nor aspired to or felt a need to take part in this arena (cf. Shevchenko, 2018, p. 64).


1 “They forget the second part of the gospel, to love one’s self.” [own translation, RN]

2 This typology originates in Social Identity Theory and was initially intended for social (minority) groups (cf. Shevchenko 2018, 63).

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Viktor Orbán and the Role of Religion in Hungarian Politics
University of Vienna  (Institut für Politikwissenschaft)
BAK15 Osteuropastudien
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Viktor, Orbán, Religion, Hungary, Christian, Christianity, Polpulism, Role, Society, Transition, Communism, post-Sovjet
Quote paper
René Nieland (Author), 2019, Viktor Orbán and the Role of Religion in Hungarian Politics, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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