Dispatch

Hungary’s Orban Tries to Snatch Mantle of Christian Democracy

Europe’s “illiberal democrat” is on a quest to remake the continent’s politics.

By , an international correspondent based in Vienna.
The Hungarian prime minister is at a press conference.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban participates in a press conference during the Visegrad Summit in Lublin, Poland, on Sept. 11, 2020. Omar Marques/Getty Images

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has created a Frankenstein-esque creature out of what was Europe’s tradition of Christian democracy. But although the mad scientist was ultimately repulsed by his creation, the 58-year-old leader of the ruling, far-right Fidesz party is on a mission to export his contradictory ideology, much to the ire of Western politicians who guard the Christian democratic tradition.

Christian democrats, spearheaded by parties like Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, were the drivers of European integration following World War II. The movement’s cornerstones were a wariness of nationalism, a firm belief in democracy, and an embrace of pluralism. In contrast, Orban’s Hungarian brew, while seeking to appropriate the mantle of Christian democracy, is being used as a shield against growing criticism from Brussels, a vehicle to introduce discriminatory laws against minorities, and a convenient narrative to supercharge Fidesz’s nationalism.

“These people are not Christian democrats in the historical sense of the term,” said Olivier Roy, a French political scientist. “In Hungary, what you have is a populist party who claims to be Christian. It’s purely about Christian identity.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has created a Frankenstein-esque creature out of what was Europe’s tradition of Christian democracy. But although the mad scientist was ultimately repulsed by his creation, the 58-year-old leader of the ruling, far-right Fidesz party is on a mission to export his contradictory ideology, much to the ire of Western politicians who guard the Christian democratic tradition.

Christian democrats, spearheaded by parties like Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, were the drivers of European integration following World War II. The movement’s cornerstones were a wariness of nationalism, a firm belief in democracy, and an embrace of pluralism. In contrast, Orban’s Hungarian brew, while seeking to appropriate the mantle of Christian democracy, is being used as a shield against growing criticism from Brussels, a vehicle to introduce discriminatory laws against minorities, and a convenient narrative to supercharge Fidesz’s nationalism.

“These people are not Christian democrats in the historical sense of the term,” said Olivier Roy, a French political scientist. “In Hungary, what you have is a populist party who claims to be Christian. It’s purely about Christian identity.”

In Orban’s Hungary, symbols matter. Taking the European Union’s founding ideology and recasting it in the prime minister’s image is not only a signal to Brussels, but it’s contributing to Orban’s authoritarian persona—that of a fearless leader protecting his flock from the wolves of the West. His hijacking of the term “Christian democracy” is also further fuel for ongoing tensions between Budapest and Brussels, and it taints the legacy of Europe’s multi-decade tradition. Hungary is not alone; this manipulation of a Christian narrative for political gain has also flared in the United States and played a role in the deadly Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6. 

Hungary is not alone; this manipulation of a Christian narrative for political gain has also flared in the United States.

The biggest difference between Hungary’s new approach and traditional European center-right politics is the belief in democracy itself. Since retaking power in 2010, Orban has pushed through constitutional and legal changes to undermine the country’s democratic institutions. The courts have been stacked with Fidesz loyalists, free speech was curtailed, and the autonomy of the nation’s universities was put in jeopardy. The dismantling led think tank Freedom House to downgrade the country from “free” to “partly free” in 2019. None of this bothered Orban, who declared in 2014 “the new state that we are building is an illiberal state.”

“What stresses Christian democrats today is that they understand themselves as democrats, and Orban is talking about illiberal democracy,” said David Elcott, a professor at New York University. “He is essentially threatening the integrity of their parties, and that puts them in an awkward position.”

Fidesz’s divorce from mainstream European Christian democratic traditions was made patent earlier this year. In March, Fidesz quit the powerful center-right European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament before it was kicked out over Budapest’s poor rule-of-law record. Established by Christian democrats in 1976, the EPP—which is currently the largest faction in parliament—traditionally sees itself as the guardian of the Christian democratic tradition. 

After Fidesz’s departure, outgoing EPP President Donald Tusk tweeted: “Fidesz has left Christian Democracy.” Orban hit back in April, saying: “the European People’s Party has apparently a long-term commitment to cooperation with the left … and Christian democracy has no real representation in Europe today.” The comments came in a meeting between Orban, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and Italian politician Matteo Salvini, who gathered in Hungary to discuss a new European alliance to counter the EPP’s influence.

Hungary set out to demonstrate it’s the defender of its own particular vision of Christian identity in June, when the Hungarian parliament passed a law that included a ban on showing homosexual content or gender reassignment to minors. The move was part of a series of bills against the LGBTQ community, and it received fierce backlash from Brussels, which began legal action over the measure. Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president and Orban’s former partner in the EPP, criticized the move, tweeting: “I believe in a Europe which embraces diversity, not one which hides it from our children.” Budapest returned fire, claiming children’s futures were at stake and Christian values had to be protected from Western liberalism.

As Hungary moves into crucial parliamentary elections next year, these bust ups with the EU have allowed Orban to cast himself as the defender of “traditional Christian values,” a narrative he hopes will rally his rural base. 

“What’s happening with this [LGBTQ] law in Hungary is objectionable on all levels, but it’s not a conspiracy theory to argue Orban has set a very particular trap, and actually, the plan is working out beautifully,” said Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University. However, it’s not clear just how deep Hungary’s religious roots run: Only 9 percent of people who identify as religious in Hungary say they regularly attend religious services, a statistic that has cast doubt on the effectiveness of Fidesz’s campaign to appropriate Christian values.

Hungary has also diverged from traditional Christian democracy in two other ways. “What’s fundamentally incompatible with Orban’s [version of Christian Democracy] is that he sells nationalism, and historically, that was always anathema to Christian democrats,” Müller said. At the same time, Orban has centralized power, moving Fidesz loyalists into key offices from the State Prosecutor’s Office to the office of the media watchdog—which runs counter to the pluralist strains that long defined Christian democracy.

Orban has cast himself as the defender of traditional Christian values, a narrative he hopes will rally his rural base. 

One big moment in Hungary’s efforts to claim leadership of Christian democracy will come next month, when Pope Francis will meet Orban at the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest. Many key Fidesz members have criticized Pope Francis’s liberal stance on migration and his preaching of Christian values like love and tolerance. In 2016, one of the co-founders of Fidesz, Zsolt Bayer, wrote the pope is “either a senile old fool who is totally unsuitable to be the Pope, or a scoundrel” after the pontiff decried discrimination of the Muslim community in Europe. 

On a flight back from a trip to Iraq in March, the pope stressed he will go to Hungary not for “a visit to the country” but for the final mass of the International Eucharistic Congress, sparking speculation he wouldn’t even meet with Orban—although at the end, they will have a 30-minute chat. Regardless, the image of Orban with the head of the Catholic Church will be a boost for his Christian campaign. 

“None of this is about religion,” Elcott said. “It’s about religious identity being used as fuel to ignite the nationalist revolt.”

The Vatican faces another challenge from Poland, Hungary’s illiberal ally, where the ruling Law and Justice party has pursued a similar pattern of state dismantlement with the help of the Polish Church and ultraconservative groups. Throughout the 1980s, the church played a key role in the so-called Solidarity movement, which paved the way for the end of communism. But since 1989, the church has been unable to maintain its image as the lines between church and state have blurred, especially since Law and Justice’s victory in the 2015 parliamentary election. Although churchgoers are more numerous in Poland than in Hungary, only 16 percent of people under age 40 consider themselves devout today.

“The Vatican is not concerned because it’s liberal. It is concerned because the Polish church has sided with one party,” Roy said. “If Law and Justice loses power, the Vatican fears it could lose the country in the same way it lost Ireland.”

One similarity between traditional Christian democracy and Orban’s project is a focus on the trans-Atlantic relationship—though with different emphases. Although the founders used it as a tool for integration, including the creation of NATO and the European Union, Orban has used it to give legitimacy to his nationalist campaign and controversial migration policies. During a visit to the White House in May 2019, Orban was keen to bring up the issue of protecting Christian communities, eliciting commendation from former U.S. President Donald Trump. In recent years, key figures from Trump’s orbit, such as former strategist Steve Bannon, have traveled to Europe to help illiberal governments construct successful narratives. And it’s a two-way street: Illiberal European leaders, especially Orban, have become a lodestar for the U.S. right, which feels besieged by secular, cosmopolitan values. This week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, a longtime admirer of Orban, met with the prime minister in Budapest while he was in town to speak at a conservative conference.

Although Orban has taken some hits, such as departing from the EPP and a drumbeat of lawsuits from Brussels, his push to bury traditional Christian democracy and replace it with an illiberal alternative will only continue. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the last standard-bearer of Europe’s traditional center right, set to exit the political stage this fall, the path will be cleared for Orban to keep swinging his wrecking ball.

Amanda Coakley is an international correspondent and Milena Jesenska journalist fellow at the IWM in Vienna. She covers Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Twitter: @amandamcoakley

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