Tag Archives: Reformation

Viktor Orbán’s government: “The manifestation of God’s grace”

While the Catholic Church celebrates November 1, All Saints’ Day, Protestants this year are remembering October 31, when Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses challenging the Catholic Church to the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church five hundred years ago. Celebrations of the event abound, not just in Germany but everywhere that Protestantism has sprung up since.

Historical Hungary is the eastern bastion of Protestantism, so remembrances have taken place in Slovakia, Hungary, and the Transylvanian part of Romania. A committee was set up to stage a “national” celebratory gathering to commemorate the event in Budapest. As far as I could ascertain, only the Magyarországi Evangélikus Egyház (Hungarian Lutheran Church) and the Magyarországi Református Egyház (Hungarian Reformed Church) were involved. The Catholic prelates stayed away, unlike in Germany where both Lutheran and Catholic clergy participated in church services and celebrations and vowed to do more for the unity of Christianity, according to the Associated Press.

The event took place in the László Papp Budapest Sports Arena that can seat 12,500 people, but the organizers slightly overestimated the interest. Quite a few seats were empty. Mind you, attendance was not free. It cost 500 forints (about $1.50), though for that one also got a sandwich and an apple. Before Zoltán Balog and Viktor Orbán delivered their speeches, a Lutheran bishop gave an invocation and a Reformed bishop a full-fledged service, called “istentisztelet” (veneration of God) in Hungarian.

But let’s move on quickly to Viktor Orbán’s speech because, let’s face it, most of the people paid the 500 forints to hear him. As far as Orbán speeches go, it was short, but it raised quite a few eyebrows among those who find Orbán’s governing style increasingly intolerable. The sentence that created the greatest stir was the prime minister’s claim that it is no accident but an “expression of God’s mercy” that Hungary currently has a Christian government. Hungary Today, an English language internet news site that is financed through hidden channels by the Hungarian government, reported on the speech in the briefest possible manner, which might have something to do with the fact that there were some truly unacceptable statements in his text.

“Impetus for Renewal” / MTI / Photo: Zoltán Máthé

Orbán defined himself as a Calvinist prime minister and said he was asked by the church leaders to deliver a speech to this crowd solely because of his religion. But surely, at a “national” celebration of the Reformation the prime minister’s religion is irrelevant. He is there as the political leader of the country. Just as Angela Merkel was at the German celebration not as the daughter of a Lutheran minister but as the chancellor of Germany. Orbán continued the Calvinist theme by recalling that “exactly 99 years ago anti-Christian forces killed our pre-eminent Calvinist prime minister, István Tisza [1861-1918].” This statement is untrue. Tisza’s death had nothing to do with his Calvinism. His murderers didn’t kill him for his Christian religion but because they considered him responsible, rightly or wrongly, for four years of brutal war. But such minor details don’t bother Viktor Orbán.

That was just the warm-up. He claimed that “our lives and our work are determined by a higher force and power.” It was God’s decision to place the Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin just as it was God’s ordinance that he is the prime minister of Hungary today. One mustn’t see the existence of a Christian government leading Hungary today as the “caprice of fate” but as “the manifestation of God’s grace.” He doubled down on this theme by saying that “we consider it a privilege that in this renewal [of the country] Providence has used us, our churches, the government and the free community of Hungarian citizens in the whole Carpathian Basin as instruments [of His will].” He added that Hungary will be a country “where all forms of work, from street sweeping to governing the country, serve the glory of God.” What can one say?

The final thought of the speech is perhaps the hardest to interpret. Orbán was talking about the unification of the nation across borders, which is a very difficult undertaking. But “the Biblical force that five hundred years ago received an overwhelming impetus entrusts us with one more task,” which seems to be “the ultimate and great unification of the nation.” What this ultimate and great unification means exactly, it is difficult to say. It might be a spiritual union of Hungarian souls, but I still don’t know what do with “the recognition of truth which frees us,” which is supposedly necessary for the accomplishment of this task. I really wonder whether he himself knows what he is talking about.

Hungarian newspaper articles more or less came to the same conclusions I did, except that they didn’t even try to solve the puzzle of “the ultimate and great unification of the nation.” But György Gábor, a philosopher of religion who is always enlightening and often amusing, commented on Orbán’s “laughable ignorance” in matters of religion. Orbán described his government not only as Christian but also as “hitvalló,” literally “professor of faith.” The problem is that in Hungarian “hitvalló” means “confessor,” which originally meant someone venerated as a saint, Christian martyrs, people who were known for their moral perfection or who lived an ascetic life. Gábor added: “So, imagine now for a moment the pure and moral members of the government who are beyond reproach.” And, of course, there is the additional problem that “confessor” is a strictly Catholic title associated with sainthood.

I think it might be instructive to read what Angela Merkel had to say on this day. She stressed the importance of tolerance toward the wide variety of beliefs. “Those who embrace plurality must exercise tolerance—that is the historical experience of our continent,” she said. “Tolerance is the basis for peaceful togetherness in Europe.” This is exactly what Viktor Orbán rejects. Instead, he asks for “assistance in the form of prayers from [his] Protestant and, naturally, Catholic brethren” for his work for a Christian and Hungarian Hungary.

November 1, 2017

How did Calvinism survive in Hungary?

Foreigners are always surprised when I tell them that I am not a Catholic. People who are only superficially acquainted with Hungary assume that, just like in Poland, every Hungarian is a Catholic. These same people would be surprised to learn that in the second half of the sixteenth century about 80% of the country’s population was Protestant–mostly Calvinists and to a lesser extent Lutherans. The situation was the same in Poland, where 90% of the nobles who were members of the sejm, the Polish parliament, were Protestants. But then came the counter-reformation, which in Poland’s case was so successful that, according to the latest statistics, 87.5% of the population declare themselves to be Catholic. The rest either refuse to answer or claim to be non-believers.

In Hungary the situation is different, due mostly to the semi-independent Transylvanian Principality (1570-1711) and the Ottoman occupation of the central parts of the Kingdom of Hungary (1541-1699). In the principality, the elected princes were either converts to Calvinism, as in the case of János Zsigmond, the first prince of Transylvania (1565-1571), or were already born as Calvinists and were therefore promoters of freedom of religion. In the case of the Ottoman-held territories, Catholic aristocratic families fled north or west into so-called Royal Hungary, and therefore their former serfs could follow their own religious inclinations. Just to give you an idea of how widespread the Calvinist and Lutheran denominations were, the great Hungarian churchman Péter Pázmány (1570-1637), the towering figure of the Hungarian counter-reformation, was born into a Calvinist family in 1570. He converted to Catholicism while attending a Catholic school in Kolozsvár/Cluj.

Martin Luther’s teachings reached Hungary very early. Luther’s famous Ninety-Five Theses were published in 1517, and two or three years later his teaching spread to those Hungarian towns that were inhabited largely by German-speaking people.

From 1540 on, however, the teachings of John Calvin became much more popular, especially in the villages. The changes in religious affiliation came about in an ad hoc fashion. In the early days individual parish priests attracted to the reform movement began to change the liturgy, slightly or more substantially. They began conducting services in Hungarian. Depictions of saints were painted over in white, in keeping with the puritanism of Calvinists. And when there was no priest ready to change his religion, wandering preachers went from village to village to spread the teachings of the new Protestant churches. Initially these people were ordinary tradesmen without much education, but soon enough highly educated men who had returned from western universities began working as missionaries. One of the early foreign-educated preachers was Mihály Sztárai (d. 1575?), who was active on both sides of the Dráva River. He established 120 Protestant congregations in Baranya County and in Slavonia (the northern part of Croatia) between 1544 and 1551. It was most likely under his influence that my ancestors became first (perhaps) Lutherans and later Calvinists. At the time the dividing line wasn’t that clear.

During the seventeenth century the Catholic Habsburgs used drastic measures against Calvinist and Lutheran ministers, and pressure was exerted on aristocratic families to convert to Catholicism. Once that was accomplished, the Crown used the principle of “cuius regio, eius religio” (whose land it is decides the religion), which was an alien concept in Hungarian constitutional law. Thus masses of common folk were returned to the fold. Until the majority of the inhabitants became Catholic again.

Because of the ardent Catholicism of the House of Habsburg, Calvinism became a “Hungarian religion.” With it came an anti-establishment attitude. Hungarian Calvinists believed that they were second-class citizens, a persecuted minority, which they certainly were until Joseph II’s Toleration Act of 1781. This edict put an end to more than 100 years of religious persecution of non-Catholics. But even it imposed restrictions on Protestants. For example, their churches couldn’t have a steeple, and no gate of a Protestant church could open onto the street.

Hungarian Reformed Church with the typical Star of Calvin instead of the cross

Hungarian Reformed Church with the typical Star of Calvin instead of a cross

The number of Calvinists in Hungary today is difficult to ascertain because at census time the declaration of religion is voluntary. According to the 2011 census, 39% of Hungarians declared themselves to be Catholics, 11.6% Calvinists, 2.2% Lutherans, 16.7% non-religious, and 2.5% atheists. The number of Jews is practically impossible to determine because they are leery about declaring their Jewishness. They most likely can be found in the non-religious category.

This 11.6% translates into 1,622,000 people. In addition, there is a large number of Calvinists (almost all Hungarians) living in Transylvania. Of the 1,227,623 people who claim Hungarian ethnicity there are 600,000 Calvinists. In 2009 they became part of a single Hungarian Reformed Church.

Reading the official history of the Hungarian Reformed Church, I was struck by the pent-up resentment against the authorities who through the ages looked upon the church and its followers as second-class citizens. The Catholic church and the state lived in a symbiotic relationship which the Calvinist hierarchy couldn’t share, even during the interwar period when Miklós Horthy, the governor, was a Calvinist. They hoped to find some “redress of past injuries and great losses” which, they feel even today, they didn’t receive.

As for the present state of the Hungarian Reformed Church, I would say that they are still “trying to climb into the position of being a second-tier state religion,” as the official history claims about the interwar period. But they are on the losing side when the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), which was described by Zsolt Semjén, its chairman, as “the political arm of the Catholic Church,” is in coalition with Fidesz. The centuries-old symbiosis between the secular power of the state and the Catholic Church is far too strong.

Here is one example. Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, is a Calvinist minister. Prior to his appointment, the undersecretary in charge of church affairs was also a Calvinist. When Balog took over the ministry, Semjén insisted on the resignation of the Protestant undersecretary. Having two Calvinists in this ministry was unacceptable to the Catholic Church.

I don’t follow the affairs of the Hungarian Reformed Church very closely, but my impression is that its leaders are inclined to sympathize with the far right, or at least they tolerate the presence of such ministers as Lóránt Hegedűs, Jr. This anti-Semitic minister, whose wife is a member of Jobbik, has been delivering the most horrendous sermons, but the official church has been unable to muster enough courage to throw him out of the church. Or they may in fact sympathize with his ideas. It was only in October of this year that he was “disciplined” for such offenses as having no biblical message whatsoever in his objectionable sermon and for being “unprepared.”