Push pause before valorizing Hungary
The central European nation is not a model for American governance
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In 1851, Hungarian independence leader Lajos (Louis) Kossuth arrived in the United States and received fanfare the likes of which had not been seen since the Marquis de Lafayette made his return tour to the United States 27 years earlier. Kossuth’s arrival thrilled Americans because, like Lafayette, he appeared to citizens of the United States as a freedom fighter and rebel willing to challenge the autocrats of Europe’s old regime. Kossuth drew massive crowds in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.
Americans saw in Kossuth a champion of liberty and democracy who would overthrow Austria’s Hapsburg emperors who ruled Hungary and institute an American-style constitution for Hungarians. Looks, however, were deceiving. Kossuth’s dream of independence did not mean he was interested in the expansion of democracy or even a general embrace of liberal freedoms as Americans understood them. Kossuth’s movement found support in the oligarchy that maintained aristocratic privileges for the nobles, or magnates, as they were called in Hungary.
In the 21st century, a new Hungarian leader has captured the imagination of another generation of Americans. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, increasingly serves as a model for the generation of conservatives identified as the new right. Like Kossuth, Orbán’s program certainly includes aspects that can be celebrated in their own right, but Orbán is problematic as an example and Hungary is not a model for conservative governance in the United States. Disparities in demographics and history between America and Hungary make a decided difference. Hungary can’t serve as a model for American governance.
Orbán’s Fidesz party has made much of the place of Christianity in society and particularly the crucial role of Christianity in Hungary’s history. Under Orbán’s leadership, Christianity was made the official—although not state-established—religion of the country. While some academics (and some American Christians) certainly sensationalize the threat from so-called Christian nationalism in the United States, the situation in Hungary indicates that Christianity in that country is almost entirely political.
Georgetown’s Berkley Center estimates that only a small minority of Hungarians attend church weekly, which means that Hungary is actually less religious than some other European states. Orbán himself identifies culturally with the historic Reformed Church in Hungary, though his wife is a Roman Catholic. Katalin Novák, Hungary’s ceremonial president, is a devout Roman Catholic. Certainly, the legacy of communism hurt religious practice in Hungary, but the president and prime minister being prominent religious spokespersons for Christianity is hardly ideal in a country where actual church attendance is so anemic.
What I think American religious conservatives appreciate most about Orbán is his willingness to oppose cultural forces that aim to dissolve Christian culture. Nothing about that role is distinctly Hungarian as much as it is the rare example of showing a spine.
In the United States, even as secularism and irreligiosity rise, active church attendance remains among the highest in the Western world. In Hungary, roughly half the population identifies as Christian. Nearly three quarters of Americans do. One out of three Americans attends church weekly, and in some regions that number swells to over 60 percent.
Family size and family policy is another aspect of political life in Hungary that the political right in the United States sees as a model. Orbán’s aggressive incentivization of large families was a response to Hungary approaching a demographic cliff. It remains on that cliff. Like most of Europe, Hungary’s birthrate is causing concern for its policy makers. But the idea that the Hungarian birthrate—like Hungarian religion—was artificially suppressed during the communist era is false. The highest birthrate Hungary experienced in the last 60 years occurred in the mid and late 1970s, when it was roughly 50 percent higher than in 2020. Orbán’s program has restored Hungary’s birth rate moderately, but even after a decade of Fidesz policies Hungary’s birthrate remains so low that it is exceeded by all 50 states of the American republic.
Finally, and perhaps most worrisomely, doubt over the constitutional order’s ability to maintain family and religion in the United States has led some conservative Christians—Protestant and Roman Catholic alike—to idealize more autocratic aspects of Orbán’s administration of Hungary. Orbán remains extremely popular with Hungarian evangelical Protestants who view him as a patriotic conservative Christian. Given Hungary’s consecutive history of despotic Roman Catholic monarchy, oligarchy, fascist dictatorship, and then communism, it is understandable that Hungarian evangelicals see Orbán as a politician who is none of those things and who gives Christians a greater measure of freedom and influence than they have historically experienced.
The United States, however, isn’t Hungary, and the experience of conservative evangelical Protestants in the United States has not been that of Hungarian evangelicals. Until very recently, American evangelicals have enjoyed the freedoms of a liberal constitutional order that allowed their faith to flourish even as mainline denominations waned. Orbán’s Hungary is simply not the United States and the Hungarian example, taken as a whole, is inconsistent with the American constitutional order and evangelical conceptions of religious liberty.
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