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The troubling Christian roots of Orbán’s rhetoric

19 August 2022

The language about not being a ‘mixed-race people’ relates to a history of Christian anti-Semitism, says Alexander Faludy

THE Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s use of openly racist language in a speech at Tusnádfürdo (Baile Tusnad), Romania, on 23 July, sparked international outrage on a scale unfamiliar even in his notorious career. The religious background to his remarks has, however, been missed.

Speaking at his party Fidesz’s annual “Summer University” in the heart of the Székely Land (a Hungarian-speaking enclave in Romania), Mr Orbán asserted his commitment to saving Hungarians from becoming “mixed-race”. In Western Europe, he said, “European peoples are mixed together with those arriving from outside Europe . . . a mixed-race world.”

Conversely, in the Carpathian Basin, “there is our world, where people from within Europe mix with one another . . . we are not mixed-race [vegyes faj]: we are simply a mixture of peoples living in our own European homeland. . . This is why we have always fought: we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed race.”

After the speech, desperate efforts were made by sympathetic American conservative Christian apologists to rescue Mr Orbán’s reputation. Some, such as Dr Gladden Pappin and Professor Patrick Deneen (Roman Catholic scholars at the University of Dallas and Note Dame respectively), said that “faj” did not mean “race” in Hungarian. This view is linguistically indefensible — especially given that “race” appears in the official English transcript issued by Mr Orbán’s office.

A subtler approach was tried by the Russian Orthodox intellectual Rod Dreher (the author of The Benedict Option).

While regretting the word’s use, Mr Dreher insisted that “He [Orbán] is using ‘race’ as a symbol for religion and culture” in contradistinction to Islam, in view of the risk that “if Europe continues to allow mass migration from the Islamic world, the religion of Europe for 1500 years will be displaced.”

Mr Dreher is partially correct: use of “race” (“faj”) as shorthand for “religion and culture” has a long tradition in Hungary. Unfortunately, that history is a dark one in which Hungary’s churches are deeply implicated.

In 1920, Ottokár Prohászka, the RC Bishop of Székesfehérvár, sitting in the Upper House of Hungary’s Parliament, successfully moved an amendment to the Higher Education Law. His amendment was a provision restricting the access of Jews to universities.

Bishop Prohászka asserted that a “Numerus Clausus” (“closed number”) policy was needed as Jewish presence — bolstered by immigration — risked the “de-Christianisation of Hungary”. Anti-Semitism, he said, was a matter of “racial self-defence” (“faji önvédelem). Hungarians, he had earlier warned, should trust only “the blood of your blood”.

The Reformed Church (Mr Orbán‘s denomination) developed its own inter-war racialising tendencies. As it was the most ethnically homogeneous of Hungary’s historic Churches, its members were naturally prone to describe themselves as “fajmagyar”: “pure Hungarian”.

In the 1930s, the Reformed Church held serious discussions about creating a separate, subordinate Church for Jewish converts, modelled on the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa’s segregated structures for Black and Mixed-Race adherents. Presiding Bishop László Ravasz was a key parliamentary speaker in support of Hungary’s “First Jewish Law” (1938), limiting Jewish participation in the learned professions.

The laws of 1920 and 1938 form essential background to the Hungarian Holocaust (1944), when, in 52 days, 434,000 Jews were deported and murdered with enthusiastic assistance from Hungary’s state apparatus.

Deportations would not have occurred without the Wehrmacht’s entry into Hungary (19 March). The unusual zeal of civil servants, however, in co-operating with the deportations — and the indifference of wider society to them — is linked by historians to the foregoing years of church-sponsored anti-Semitism and the reluctance by church leaders to condemn deportations.

Unfortunately, this pattern has now been repeated. Symbolically, Mr Orbán spoke while sitting between his fellow Calvinists László Tokes, a bishop emeritus of the (Hungarian) Reformed Church in Romania, and the Fidesz MP Zsolt Németh, an eminent lay figure in the Hungarian Reformed Church.

Neither has distanced himself from Mr Orbán’s remarks. Indeed, Mr Németh dismissed international criticism of them as “predictable” and “based on misunderstandings”, a report carried by the Hungarian news outlet Telex said.

One person whom it is difficult to imagine “misunderstanding” Mr Orbán’s remark is the Chief Rabbi of Hungary, Róbert Frölich, who made a rare intervention in public controversy in reaction to the speech.

Responding in a Facebook post on 24 July, Rabbi Frölich wrote a verse which in rough translation reads:

I wonder
When will there be reason enough
to dig up the file that infringes my rights?
And the heart beats, the heart inside.
Between my two ribs already straining, a bad pain awakens.

Leaders of the Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran Churches in Hungary have left him unsupported: all have declined to comment.

Western commentators usually conflate Mr Orbán’s public religiosity with Matteo Salvini’s and Marine Le Pen’s shallow “Christianism”. They could not be more wrong. Paradoxically, the problem is not that Mr Orbán is unconnected with Hungary’s Christian tradition, but that he has absorbed certain parts of it too well.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.

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