Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

The philosophy of Orbán’s misguided Christian friends

Eminent conservative Christian intellectuals in the west look to new illiberal regimes for succour. Their disappointment is inevitable.

Alexander Faludy
16 September 2020
Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Viktor Orban after the Turkic Council meeting, in November 2019.
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Attila Volgyi/PA. All rights reserved.

‘Nationalist International’ is a counterintuitive phenomenon. Viktor Orbán has become a darling of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, of Geert Wilders and Tommy Robinson.

But the fandom of Mr Orbán does not thrive only on characters famous for their ability to gather a mass following. It also includes Christian thinkers known as solid intellects who would probably rather die than don ‘Make America Great Again’ caps. In the US, we have a journalist like Rod Dreher and a political scientist like Patrick Deneen; in Britain, there are the political theologians John Milbank and Phillip Blond.

Why have these intellectuals backed Mr Orbán?

On June 3, 2018 in a tweet that may as well stand in for the thought of all four writers, John Milbank, a theology professor at Nottingham University, asserted:
“We too readily accuse Poland and Hungary of authoritarianism. Liberals underrate the degree to which their leaders have to take a strong approach both to resist the residual power of corrupt ex-communist crony networks and to prevent their cultures being undermined by consumerism.”
Milbank expressed this opinion shortly before the Hungarian Parliament finally passed the so-called “Stop Soros” bills, a legislative package which put pressure on the operation of humanitarian non-profits and effectively criminalised the provision of legal assistance to asylum seekers.
Quite how this policy has helped root out residual communist fraternities is obscure. Perhaps László Kövér, once Vice-President of the Hungarian communist party’s student wing and today the Fidesz-installed Parliamentary Speaker, could explain this. Or, one might ask Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has a higher share of former communist party members among its MPs than does any other grouping in the parliament.

In Hungary, at least, the reference to “residual communist networks” constitutes a barely coded anti-semitic trope, historically derived from rhetorical allusions to “Jewish Bolshevism”.

Procedural liberalism in oblivion

While some of the thinkers’ sympathy for Orbánism is due to a knowledge gap, more important may be what these writers choose not to see.

According to V-dem, the most rigorous project tracking democracy standards globally, Hungary has become the EU’s first non-democratic country. Already a decade has elapsed since the last parliamentary elections that were classified by OSCE’s observers as both “free” and “fair”. Since late 2016, not only state broadcasters but also much of the private media market has circulated propaganda, directed by the Prime Minister’s closest associates. Much of the nominally independent civil service has been captured and the Constitutional Court packed with loyalists.

These are the kinds of realities Orbán’s fans skip over. Our four thinkers belong to the loosely defined grouping of “post-liberal” intellectuals who favour ‘grand narratives’ over the primacy of reason in public discourse. Rebelling against the Enlightenment’s perceived spiritual aridity and excess of rationalism, they prescribe reinstatement of Christendom as a medicinal tonic to cure the social ills of today’s culturally fractured West.

While some of the thinkers’ sympathy for Orbánism is due to a knowledge gap, more important may be what these writers choose not to see.

This conception finds outworking in the denigration of civic pluralism and of technocratic knowledge which begets ‘disconnected’ liberal elites. Post-liberal hostility to specialist expertise extends to the scorn of the legal competence which underpins judicial review. Though not as blunt, post-liberals ultimately converge with the same conclusion as Mr Kövér who last year advised trainee civil servants in Budapest that “the system of checks and balances is crap, forget about it”.

Advertising this philosophy, Phillip Blond, a think-tanker formerly close to the British Prime Minister David Cameron, asserts: “extreme liberalism is the precursor of Fascism so to oppose one is to oppose the other”.[4]

Using more subtle language, Mr Dreher, a co-editor of The American Conservative, claims: “Enlightenment liberalism contained the seeds of Christianity’s undoing.” Liberalism’s modern version, according to this view, inexorably led to privatised anarchic nihilism. When it became dominant in public life, believes Mr Dreher, liberalism itself become coercive: above all by its unwillingness to allow Christians faithfully to live out, and articulate, traditional teachings on sexuality, gender and reproduction.

Like other right-wing post-liberals, the four commentators typically place “duty and virtue ahead of rights and liberty” and do not shrink from using state power to enforce the duties and virtues they favour. By their logic, recovery from contemporary ills requires the reconstruction of a hegemonic values system with limited space for the political views of others.

Mr Deneen, a professor at Notre Dame, praises Hungary for having accomplished this vision. “Conservatives have always been haunted by defeatism. But these political fights can be won… Hungary is a living example of this” he told Mandiner, a pro-government Hungarian weekly, in November 2019.[7]

Recovery from contemporary ills requires the reconstruction of a hegemonic values system with limited space for the political views of others.

Dreamed-of Christian credentials

Mr Dreher, an accomplished interpreter of Dante, acknowledges Hungary’s rampant problems with financial corruption. As with other post-liberals, however, he sees a ‘greater good’ in the vision of Orbánism: Fidesz’s ethical lapses along the way are ultimately immaterial.

Mr Dreher paints contemporary Hungary as a ‘Benedict option’ country: a national community unafraid to incubate ‘Christian Virtue’ in a hostile secular Europe. Even if the Hungarian Prime Minister is flawed, Mr Dreher suggests, Mr Orbán “can at least keep the public square open and favourable to the ancestral religious beliefs of the nation, [so] religious leaders can step into the space politics creates, and do their work of recovery.”

Such trust in the Hungarian ruling party’s commitment to Christian order rests on shaky ground. Mr Dreher appears to nurture an anachronistic misconception that the Christian faith of Fidesz leaders engendered inner strength during the anti-communist struggle. Fidesz, in fact, came to identify as a Christian democratic party only in the late 1990s. The party’s accommodation with the Catholic Church coincided with the Church’s endorsement of the party on the eve of the 1998 elections.

Far from growing out of church roots, Fidesz’s leaders were “anticlerical rebels who in parliament mocked the clergy, protested against the introduction of religious instruction in schools and the restitution of Church property in 1992-3”, says journalist Igor Janke. During legislative debates, Fidesz deputies would goad the MPs of the then-autonomous Christian Democrat party (KDNP) with catcalls of “kneel priests”.

Today, Mr Orbán’ not only charms post-liberals but also woos the Turkic Council, an association of countries most of which manifest a dismal record on the treatment of Christian minorities. Re-christened as “Macaristan”, Hungary sits among these states as an observer, aspiring to full membership. The result of Orbán’s partnership with President Recep Erdoğan is the upcoming opening of a Muslim school operated by the Turkish state-sponsored Maarif Foundation in Budapest. The school’s mandate will include the promotion of Islamic “universal values” as understood by Erdoğan’s autocratic ruling party.

For Mr Orbán, religion is a versatile tool of electoral consolidation and diplomatic gesture.

For Mr Orbán, religion is a versatile tool of electoral consolidation and diplomatic gesture.

Alternative strategy for post-liberals

Post-liberal Christians who feel squeezed by rapid cultural change can choose better counter-approaches than the endorsement of the Fidesz method.

One potential strategy was pointed to variously by writer George Orwell and historian Tom Holland. Though each of them is a religious sceptic, both came to acknowledge that, morally speaking, they had “no eyes to see” except those that Christianity had given them. That means their ostensibly secular affirmation of human dignity and freedom of expression was inescapably grounded in the Christian doctrine of the incarnation and a post-Reformation understanding of personal conscience.

Thus, the most effective repost to the hauteur of some contemporary progressives may be to show them through argument how much they unwittingly owe to Christian tradition. Conversely, reliance on state power to propagate favoured values betrays insecurity about the ability of those same values to hold their own in the marketplace of ideas.

Christian intellectuals are called to holy “foolishness” (1 Cor 1.18) in the name of Christ, not to useful idiocy in the name of Mr Orbán.

This article was originally published by Datalyrics, a Prague-based investigative boutique dedicated to divisive topics like migration.

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