Tag Archives: separation of church and state

Church and State in Orbán’s Hungary

Let me return briefly to Hódmezővásárhely because, since we left this Fidesz stronghold, the city has acquired a special significance. Péter Márki-Zay’s decision to stand as an independent against the Fidesz candidate for the post of mayor has had a greater impact than a local campaign in a provincial town of Hódmezővásárhely’s size would warrant.

As an offshoot of this seemingly ordinary local election, a national discourse on the role of the churches in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has emerged. The relation between church and state has been seriously out of kilter in Hungary, an allegedly secular state, for some time. People simply needed a catalyst to begin challenging the incredible amount of taxpayer money that is being spent on churches, not just in Hungary but in the whole Carpathian Basin. And, perhaps more importantly, to ask how appropriate it is to sell the churches’ good will for hard cash. Márki-Zay’s parish priest provided this catalyst.

We knew from the beginning that Márki-Zay is a religious Catholic. Given his close association with the church, he certainly wasn’t expecting what he got from László Németh, whom he calls Father Laci. As Father László promised, on Sunday he delivered a short speech to the congregation in which he made it clear that his flock must vote for the Fidesz candidate because “not since World War II have the Hungarian churches, not just the Catholic Church, had such opportunities as they are getting now—in education, healthcare, social services, publications, and the list goes on. In Hódmezővásárhely we already have the money in our bank account; we are just starting construction of a third Catholic church in town. People knowing all this, knowing the facts, can make the right decision regarding whom they will vote for when they enter the voting booth.” Many people in the congregation were shocked and disgusted, especially because of the implication of the speech: the Orbán government had bought the Hungarian Catholic Church lock, stock, and barrel. Márki-Zay wasn’t expecting “all the hate and evil which erupted in the last ten days.” He and his friends apparently prayed at a Eucharistic Adoration last night for Father Laci, who must be having a hard time after his performance on Sunday.

György Gábor, an expert on the philosophy of religion, has a devastating opinion of Father László’s attitude toward his own religion and his church. “He put a price on the teachings of Jesus. The first person who valorized the teachings of Jesus was Judas; he asked for thirty pieces of silver for the betrayal of him.” In Hódmezővásárhely, as Father László revealed, there is a symbiosis of church and state that is the result of a dirty financial deal.

Let’s take a look at a few recent cases of large sums of money showered on the churches. Defense Minister István Simicskó and Undersecretary Miklós Soltész, who is in charge of state-church relations, just announced a two billion forint grant to two Catholic gymnasiums in District XI. This is over and above the 2.5 billion that had already been dispersed among religious organizations, mostly Catholic, in the district. They explained that giving financial assistance to churches is especially necessary now that “Christian civilization and the lives of Europeans are threatened by other civilizations.” Simicskó added, quoting Carl von Clausewitz, that without faith one cannot have a strong army. We can ponder the meaning of this strange remark.

The same Miklós Soltész proudly talked the other day about the renovation of 5,500 churches in the Carpathian Basin on Hungarian taxpayer money over the last four years. I don’t know how many of these churches are in Hungary and how many in the neighboring countries. And of course, a lot of brand new churches have been built since Fidesz won the election in 2010. Not that Hungary is in dire need of new churches. We know from statistics that the number of regular churchgoers in Hungary is very small. For instance, from the article about Father László’s speech in his church we learned that there was such interest in the event that the number of attendees was about three times normal. As one of the parishioners said, the size of the congregation could be compared only to mass on Christmas Day. So, one cannot help wondering why Hódmezővásárhely needs another Catholic church.

I assume that the situation is no different with the Protestants, yet a number of new church buildings have been erected lately with generous government assistance. The Hungarian Reformed Church is especially favored. After all, Orbán is “református” and so is Zoltán Balog, whose ministry is in charge of church affairs.

Here is one example from the many. The prime minister is apparently a member of the Svábhegyi Református Gyülekezet (Reformed Congregation of Svábhegy), which received a new building seven years ago. Svábhegy/Swabian Hill is one of swankiest parts of Buda. But the congregation had larger plans. It wanted a church center, and its most famous parishioner promised to help. He kept his word. In December the Magyar Nemzeti Vagyonkezelő (Hungarian National Asset Management) purchased two lots adjacent to the church to the tune of almost 650 million forints. One was owned by the City of Budapest and the other by District XII. On the one was a workers’ hostel and on the other, two small apartment buildings. No problem. The workers were moved into another building somewhere in the city and the tenants were given new apartments elsewhere. The two lots, free of charge, will be at the disposal of the Hungarian Reformed Church for the Svábhegyi Református Központ for 50 years. I assume that the money for the construction of the center will also come from the taxpayers.

The church of the Reformed Congregation of Svábhegy

Finally, about a week ago Index reported that the government is launching a scholarship program for priests and ministers who will be serving communities in the Hungarian diaspora in the Carpathian Basin as well as in Western Europe and the Americas. Apparently there is a shortage of clerics who can serve Hungarian parishes abroad.

A member of Index’s staff questioned the constitutionality of this planned program. She quoted from the new Basic Laws’ Article VII(3), which states that “the State and religious communities shall operate separately. Religious communities shall be autonomous.” The trouble is that she overlooked Article VII(4), which reads: “The State and religious communities may cooperate to achieve community goals. At the request of the religious community, the National Assembly shall decide on such cooperation. The religious communities participating in such cooperation shall operate as established churches with regard to their participation in the fulfillment of tasks that serve to achieve community goals.” So, forget the unconstitutionality of launching a “clerical scholarship program.”

I might add that the 1989 Constitution read very differently. In it one cannot find the kind of loophole Fidesz put into its own constitution. Article 60(3) says that “The church and the State shall operate in separation in the Republic of Hungary.” No ifs, ands, or buts. Fidesz made sure that everything in the new constitution would serve its plans for reshaping Hungarian society from the ground up.

January 16, 2018

What does the Demokratikus Koalíció stand for?

On September 3, I wrote about an opinion piece by Tamás Bauer, vice-chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Its title was “Electoral mathematics: The Demokratikus Koalíció’s position.” Bauer argued for DK’s right, based on its numerical support, to receive at least 8 or 9 electoral districts. He added that DK’s positions on many issues differ from those of both MSZP and Együtt2014-PM and therefore it deserves a parliamentary caucus.

At the end of that post I indicated that I would like to return to DK’s political program because relatively few people are familiar with it. I had to postpone that piece due to DK’s very prompt answer to MSZP. On the next day, September 4, I posted an article entitled “The current state of the Hungarian opposition: Negotiations between MSZP and DK.”

Over the last few days it has become obvious to me that Ferenc Gyurcsány has already begun his election campaign.  Zsolt Gréczy’s appointment as DK spokesman signaled the beginning of the campaign, which was then followed by several personal appearances by Ferenc Gyurcsány where he began to outline his program. Surely, the amusing video on being a tour guide in Felcsút, “the capital of Orbanistan,” was part of this campaign. So, it’s time to talk about the party program of the Demokratikus Koalíció, especially since only yesterday Attila Mesterházy answered Ferenc Gyurcsány’s letter to him. I elaborated on that letter in my September 4 post.

You may remember that one of the sticking points between the two parties was whether DK is ready to have “an electoral alliance” as opposed to “a political alliance.” Gyurcsány in his letter to Mesterházy made light of the difference between the two, but as far as the socialists are concerned this is an important distinction. Yesterday Attila Mesterházy made that crystal clear in his answer to  Gyurcsány which he posted on his own webpage. According to him, a “political alliance” means the complete subordination of individual parties’ political creeds to the agreed upon policies.  In plain language, DK “will have to agree not to represent its own political ideas during the campaign.”

Since DK’s program thus became one of the central issues in the negotiations it is time to see in what way DK’s vision of the future differs from that of MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM. Here I’m relying on Tamás Bauer’s list of the main differences.

(1) An MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM alliance following an electoral victory will only amend the new constitution and the cardinal laws that are based on this new constitution. The Demokratikus Koalíció, on the other hand, holds that the new constitution is illegitimate because it was enacted without the participation of the opposition. Therefore, according to DK, the new constitution must be repealed and the constitution of the Republic must take its place.

(2) MSZP-E14 by and large accepts the policy of Viktor Orbán on national matters and would allow people living outside of the borders to vote in national elections. The Demokratikus Koalíció rejects this new law and would put an end to these new citizens’ voting rights.

(3) MSZP-E14 does not seem to concern itself with the relation of church and state or the Orbán government’s law on churches. DK would restore the religious neutrality of the state and would initiate a re-examination of the agreement that was concluded between Hungary and the Vatican or, if the Church does not agree to such a re-examination, DK would abrogate the agreement altogether.

(4) MSZP-E14 talks in generalities about the re-establishment of predictable economic conditions and policies that would be investment friendly but it doesn’t dare to reject such populist moves as a decrease in utility prices or the nationalization of companies. Only DK is ready to openly reject all these.

(5) MSZP-E14 accepts the tax credits that depend on the number of children and therefore supports an unjust system. DK, on the other hand, wants to put an end to this system and to introduce a system that treats all children alike.

(6) Együtt2014-PM opposes the concentration of land that is necessary for the creation of  a modern and effective agriculture. The policy of small landholdings was the brainchild of the Smallholders Party, which was largely responsible for the collapse of Hungarian agriculture after the change of regime. MSZP is against foreign investment in Hungarian agriculture. The Demokratikus Koalíció intends to liberalize the agricultural market. DK thinks that agricultural cooperatives should be able to purchase the land they currently cultivate. It also maintains that foreign capital should be able to come into Hungary in order to make Hungarian agriculture competitive again.

(7) The attitude of MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM toward the conflicts between the European Union and the Orbán government is ambiguous, while the Demokratikus Koalíció unequivocally takes the side of the institutions of the Union against the Orbán government.

These are the points that Tamás Bauer mentions. But as the Gyurcsány campaign unfolds more and more differences will be visible. For example, only yesterday Gyurcsány talked about his ideas to abolish the compulsory retirement age and to financially encourage people to demand higher wages in order to maximize their pensions after retirement. During this talk in Nyíregyháza Gyurcsány made no secret of the fact that his party is working on its election program.

So, it seems to me that the Gyurcsány campaign has already begun. Maybe I’m wrong and Gyurcsány will give up all his ideas and will line up behind MSZP-E14, but somehow I doubt it. Even if he tried, he couldn’t. Temperamentally he is not suited for it.

Meanwhile, an interesting but naturally not representative voting has been taking place in Magyar Narancs. Readers of the publication are asked to vote for party and for leader of the list. DK leads (52%) over Együtt 2014 (29%) and Gyurcsány (54%) over Bajnai (32%). Of course, this vote in no way reflects reality. What it does tell us is that the majority of readers of Magyar Narancs are DK supporters. Something that surprised me. If I had had to guess, I would have picked Együtt2014.

As for Ferenc Gyurcsány’s visit to Felcsút, I wrote about it a couple of days ago. The video is now out. This morning I decided to take a look at it because from Zsolt Gréczy’s description on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd the whole scene of Fidesz cameras following them everywhere sounded hilarious . At that time the video had been viewed by about 5,000 people. Right now the number of visitors is over 53,000.

Clips from The Godfather are juxtaposed with scenes from Felcsút. The video ends with the wedding of Vito Corleone’s daughter. While Gyurcsány is narrating the enrichment of the Orbán family, two people, one of whom is the Fidesz regional secretary and the other perhaps the cameraman of the Puskás Academy, follow him everywhere and record his every move and word. Definitely worth seven minutes of your time.

Since I am no fortune teller I have no idea what will happen. A couple of things, though, I’m pretty sure of. DK will never agree to drop Gyurcsány as their party leader. And Mesterházy indicated that this might be one of the MSZP demands for an agreement. Or at least that Gyurcsány not be DK’s top candidate, or possibly any candidate. Otherwise why would he have asked: “Are those media predictions that the Demokratikus Koalíció plans to nominate the chairman of the party, Ferenc Gyurcsány, for the second slot on the list true?”

At first reading I didn’t notice this linguistic oddity. The letter is addressed to “Dear Mr. Party Chairman, dear Feri” and continues in the second-person singular: “te.” Now that I returned to the sentence in order to translate it, suddenly I noticed that Mesterházy switched from “te,” which in a personal letter would have been normal, to “Ferenc Gyurcsány” in a letter addressed to Ferenc Gyurcsány.

What will the final result be? I have no idea. Let’s put it this way, it’s much easier to predict the outcome of Hungarian soccer matches than the outcome of opposition politics.

Introducing religion as part of the curriculum in Hungarian public schools

A few days ago I noticed a new attempt by the Christian Democratic People’s party (KDNP) to shove religious education down the throats of a basically secular Hungarian society. As things stand now, the law on public education stipulates that all schools must offer both religion and ethics classes. KDNP suggests that “under certain circumstances” schools belonging to the state but run by the churches can offer only religion.

Zsolt Semjén, the chairman of KDNP, makes no secret of the fact that his party is the political arm of the Catholic Church. Since the number of practicing Catholics is diminishing, the Church is trying to find new recruits among the young. I found a Catholic website dealing with the subject of  teaching religion in schools where they state that religion classes in state and municipal schools are part of the church’s “missionary activities.” The same website also stresses that the Catholic Church finds the teaching of religion especially important in kindergarten because “at this age the children are very impressionable.”

Religion class / Népszava Archív

An energetic priest, bored students / Religion class –Népszava Archív

Personally, I’m dead set against teaching religion in schools. I’m also against maintaining “parochial schools” at the taxpayers’ expense. If any religious organization–Catholic, Protestant or Jewish–wants to get involved in the education of children, they should do so from their own resources and from tuition fees. I’d wager to say that the current enthusiasm for parochial schools in Hungary would wane if parents had to pay for the privilege of sending their children there. I am also a great believer in secular education. If parents want to bring up their children according to the precepts of one of the organized religions they can do so in the parish to which they belong.

Unfortunately, during the right-of-center government of József Antall the parliamentary majority made a “compromise” arrangement. Religion classes were held after official school hours but in the school building. It was an arrangement I didn’t like then and still don’t like. But now even this arrangement is not enough for the zealots who are running the country. The government insists that everybody should take either ethics or religion as part of the regular public school curriculum.

Let me tell you my experiences with “religion” when it was taught in Hungarian schools. I took religion for eight solid years and don’t remember a single thing that was useful or enlightening. Instead, we were taught to hate the Catholics, who worship idols. Impressionable as I was early on, I used to tease my younger cousin who was Catholic about her idols.

As for the separation of church and state, I spent my first four years in a state school. Great was my surprise when on the first day of school the whole student body was herded into the closest Catholic Church for mass. They never asked the religion of the children. Since I had never been in a church before, I had not the foggiest idea what was going on.

Then came the other surprise. The religion class. I knew that I was supposed to identify myself as a Calvinist. Since there were very few of us, our class was held after hours. While in ordinary classes the girls and boys were separated, in religion the class was mixed: both boys and girls attended. There were maybe five or six of us. One of my vivid memories from those days was that the first “kind” minister who taught us religion regularly caned the boys. From grade five on a nicer minister taught us but the quality of religious education didn’t improve. By grade seven a revolutionary change occurred: we had a woman teacher. Aside from her sex the same old practice continued.

I was even confirmed. Our preparation for confirmation consisted of memorizing passages from the Bible. The grand finale was a public examination. Each of us was called on to recite a long passage from the New Testament. To the horror of the family who gathered for the occasion I got stuck in the middle of the story of John the Baptist. No prodding helped.

That was my last encounter with the Hungarian Reformed Church. In grade eight I announced that there was no way I would ever cross the threshold of a church again. I guess my parents weren’t exactly heartbroken. It seems that in fact I liberated them. As far as I know neither of them ever attended church again. So, the Hungarian Reformed Church’s missionary work certainly wasn’t successful in my case.

My feeling is that the quality of  the new religious classes will be just as poor, if not poorer than those of my childhood. After all, in those days religion was a compulsory subject in every school and the churches had extensive experience teaching the subject. In addition, the number of schools was relatively small in comparison to the situation today. There were also more priests and ministers. Now there are more children, more schools, and fewer priests and ministers.

Aside from the quality of the teaching there are more substantive worries about the introduction of religion as a regular part of the curriculum. Critics of the law point out that, depending on the school administration’s ideological views, parents who opt for their children to take ethics instead of religion might find that their children are discriminated against in school. Moreover, the new constitution specifies that an individual has the right to keep his religious beliefs private. Requiring parents to choose encroaches upon this right. Moreover, the schools will send a list of children to be enrolled in religion classes to the churches. Admittedly, the churches ought to know how many children they will have to deal with. But the law says nothing about how long these lists can be kept and what they can be used for besides keeping tab on the number of students requiring religious education.

Knowing something about the Bible and world religions is important. “Hittan,” by contrast, as the Hungarians call it, is useless. “Hit” in Hungarian means “faith.” “Tan” “subject, class.” One cannot learn faith! It is impossible.