The Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) in Hungary has a mission: to change the religious attitudes of Hungarians. Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the party, makes no secret of the party’s very close ties to the Hungarian Catholic Church. At one point he called KDNP the fighting arm of the Church in the political sphere. And it seems that Viktor Orbán gave the green light to the ambitions of the Catholic Church and the party that represents it in the government.
Having been socialized in large part in the United States, I am a strong supporter of the separation of church and state. I found objectionable even the decision of the Antall government to allow religious education to take place in public schools, albeit after the close of the school day. I would prefer the American system of restricting such activities to parish churches.
I wasn’t terribly happy about the designation of August 20 as the chief national holiday either. After all, it is basically a religious holiday, the name day of a saint, even if that saint happened to be the first king of Hungary. It is therefore a Catholic holiday not representing all members of the nation. I find Hungarian politicians taking part in the procession of the Holy Right Hand (Szentjobb) inappropriate in a secular state.
Moreover, Hungary has a rather large Protestant minority, whose rights were somewhat diminished by the overpowering presence of the Catholic Church in all spheres of life prior to the war. It was especially oppressive when it came to its role in education. For example, the city of Pécs before World War II had three gymnasiums: all three were in the hands of the Catholic Church. Thus, those youngsters who were not Catholics were at the mercy of the priests and nuns. They were not obliged to take non-Catholics.
Something similar is being contemplated again. Not long ago it was discovered in Brussels that the new Hungarian law on churches has a section that regulates employment by church-owned organizations. Of course, the minister of a Calvinist church must be a Calvinist, but the law goes further than that. It stipulates that a given church, in order to maintain its “specific identity,” can demand a particular religious affiliation from its employees. Thus, a school run by a given church could insist that all its employees belong to that church. If the school were private, in the sense that it received no support from the government, it might get away with this religious “clubbiness.” But in Hungary’s case it is employment discrimination pure and simple, which is not permitted according to the laws of the European Union.
The Hungarian government was caught red handed by nine members of the European Parliament, including the three Hungarian members of the socialist delegation who discovered this particular passage that pointed to potential discrimination hidden in the law. Naturally, the government indignation that followed was considerable. How dare these Hungarians go against their own country? That was the reaction.
But this is a very serious problem because there are more and more schools that are being taken over by the churches, especially the Catholic Church. First of all, the subsidies given per student to church-run schools are higher than those given to schools in the hands of the municipalities. And since the maintenance of these public schools is in many cases an overwhelming financial burden for localities, one city after the other simply offers its schools to the churches. And the churches gladly accept them.
The Christian Democratic Rózsa Hoffmann, in charge of Hungarian education, discovered the blessings of compulsory ethical or religious education in school. It seems that for twelve solid years students will have to take either “morality” (erkölcstan) or “religious education” (hittan, literally study of belief). Since one hears more and more about the general fear of consequences if a person goes against the wishes of the government, I wonder how much pressure there will be to opt for religious education instead of the more neutral ethics classes.
The goal is to change the population’s religiosity. Miklós Réthelyi, Hoffmann’s superior in the ministry, made no secret of the government’s mission. He said in one of his recent speeches that “the aim of religious education in schools is to reprogram our lives with the sanctity of our days.”
All that sounds rather frightening to me. Especially the “reprogramming” part. I’m of the generation who had no choice: we all had to take religion once a week. Although ministers were entrusted with our religious education, the intellectual level of the instruction was pitifully low. Here and there we learned a few Bible stories and sang some hymns. Later we had to memorize passages from the New Testament. One of my worst memories in elementary school was of the instructor, one of the ministers of our church, calling out a little boy, making him pull up his jacket and ordering him to lean over the desk I was sitting at. The good minister pulled out a cane and hit him at least ten times rather hard. I wonder what this boy learned in religion class that was useful to him in later life. Perhaps a hatred of all cruel ministers.
Church attendance is pretty low in Hungary. Some claim that only 12% of the population attend church regularly while others come out with a higher figure of 22%. According to the latest study, “Beliefs about God across Time and Countries” by Tom W. Smith (University of Chicago), only 9.6% of the population has a strong belief in God as opposed to 35% in the United States and 25.8% in Ireland. Hungary is closer to Great Britain, Sweden, and the Czech Republic as far as religious devotion is concerned. At the same time the percentage of atheists is relatively high: 23.1%.
Thus, reprogramming might be a long, arduous process. And it might be very superficial. I somehow don’t think that semi-compulsory religious education is the answer to anything. Especially not teaching morality.