PC Explains

PC Explains: Religion, Politics and the State in Hungary

Szilárd István Pap analyses the issues surrounding religion and the state in Hungary as part of the new PC Explains series, which aims to highlight and explore common problems in East-Central Europe.


With “PoliticalCritique.org Explains”, we want to explore common topics within the field of politics, economy, and culture in the East-Central European region that lack transnational coverage due to the single nation-state focus that many media tend to adopt. Reaching out to local experts, PC Explains highlights and investigates common problems and topics that resonate within the neighbourhood and offers an alternative voice from the region.

In this edition, we zoom in on the relationship between the state and church. Each day, we will be bringing an analysis from a different country.

by Szilárd István Pap

To what extent does the church have influence over the government and other political forces in your country?

Hungary does not have a single dominant denomination. However, according to the 2011 census, 37.15 percent of Hungarians belong to the Roman Catholic Church, 11.61 percent to the Calvinist Church and 2.16 to the Lutheran Church, while the other Christian and non-Christian denominations make up an even lower percentage of the population. These figures suggest that the Catholic and Calvinist churches have the greatest influence over Hungary’s politics and these two churches are certainly the most visible in the public sphere.

The conservative government, in power since 2010, has an overtly religious rhetoric and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) is a member of the governing coalition alongside the dominant Fidesz party. In reality, however, the KDNP’s position is artificially augmented by its senior coalition partner. The party has no statistically significant support amongst the electorate, its members enter parliament on Fidesz’s electoral lists and it has a much bigger parliamentary group than its practically non-existent electoral base justifies. Therefore, the Christian Democrats mainly play a decorative role, designed to enhance Fidesz’s religious and Christian credentials.

In this context it is important to question whether Christian clergy and religious political groups influence the governing party, or whether Fidesz actually has control over such institutions.

Considering the phenomenology of the Hungarian regime, as well as the complete absence of autonomous groups within the governing politico-economical complex, the latter scenario seems much more realistic.

For this reason, the various churches and religious political groups in the country cannot be considered autonomous entities in a pluralistic power model. Instead, they simply underpin the legitimacy of Fidesz on a macro-political level. Within an admittedly narrow range of options, the churches and other religious groups try to represent their own interests, and are helped in doing so by the social conservatism of the cabinet. However these attempts at self-promotion can only succeed insofar as they correspond to the interests of Fidesz. In the spring of 2015, for instance, the government instituted a ban on shops and supermarkets opening on Sunday. This measure was viewed as a symbolic victory for KDNP but was also widely interpreted as the government’s attempt to weaken transnational supermarket chains while helping its own national clientele. The measure was very unpopular and sparked serious social opposition, so much so that this summer Fidesz withdrew the ban, dealing a humiliating blow to its junior partner, which was caught completely off guard by this decision.

In accordance with their role in boosting Fidesz’ legitimacy, the most important churches also provide public support for the party’s policies, including its longstanding campaign against refugees. Indeed, top members of the Catholic and Calvinist churches came out in support of this government policy. There are of course significant dissenting voices, showing that the churches themselves cannot be considered as completely homogeneous entities. Within the Catholic clergy, bishop Miklós Beer, among others, has repeatedly criticized the government’s social policy, its unwillingness to help the poor and its aggression towards refugees. The leadership of the Lutheran church has also taken a contradictory stance towards the government on the topic of migration.

On a micro-political and social policy level, there are significant areas in which the government and the churches work in a mutually beneficial way. In recent years it has become clear that the cabinet is unwilling to invest in the educational system. As state-run schools consistently deteriorate, many local communities are placing their schools under church stewardship; a move that they rightfully hope will increase the quality of educational conditions. The government is encouraging this transfer of the educational system to the churches and in the last six years the number of church-run schools has increased by 60 percent and the number of pupils attending them has reached 200,000.

This tendency raises alarming questions about the access to education for those children who do not wish to be taught in a religious environment.

Furthermore, the transfer of state-run schools to religious institutions intensifies another frightening tendency: the educational segregation of Roma and non-Roma children. More privileged, “white” families flock to the newly opened religious schools, while Roma children are not admitted and so remain in the poor working conditions of state-run schools. The government calls this process “affectionate segregation” and, despite protests, the Constitutional Court has ruled it to be an acceptable practice.

What role does religion play in public debates?

Hungary is the least religious country in the entire region. According to data from 2008, only 13 percent of the population practises regularly i.e. by going to church at least once a month. Moreover, there is a chronic shortage of Catholic priests in the countryside.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Hungarians are not very keen on following the teachings of the church.” user=”krytyka” hashtags=”politicalcritique” template=”quote”]

According to the 2011 census, almost 35 percent of Hungarian families live in so-called non-traditional settings, in which either the parents are not married or only one parent raises the children. Interestingly, the number of divorces has been higher than the number of marriages for the last three decades. Data from 2014 suggest that the proportion of married people has decreased from 61.2 percent of the population in 1990 to 42.5 in 2014.

Despite all these data, the government’s socially conservative rhetoric, underpinned by frequent references to Christianity and the Judeo-Christian tradition, seems to be working well. Religion is an important argument in public debates about women’s rights or LGBT rights. Similarly, the refugee crisis has intensified references to the traditional Christian values of the Hungarian people.

Because of this powerful religious rhetoric, more and more debate is sparked about the “true” essence of Christianity. These discussions have been facilitated by Pope Francis’ comments concerning the treatment of refugees that directly contradict the position of the government. As in other countries of the Visegrad region, the Pope’s words are met by criticism, to which significant sections of the Catholic clergy readily subscribe. On the other side of the debate there is a smaller, but growing camp of people, incorporating a minority of the clergy, progressive theologians and pundits, that proposes a more universalistic conception of Catholicism, much closer to Francis’ views.
If this tendency continues, an ever-deepening rift may emerge in Hungary between the proponents of a nationalistic understanding of Christianity and the supporters of a more universalistic conception of religion. This debate may facilitate the re-evaluation of the ruling right’s Christian credentials, potentially undermining this important pillar of its legitimacy.

How would you reshape the state-religion relationship in your country? What needs to be fixed in the first place?

The separation between state and church is certainly not complete in Hungary. The secularization of public discourse must be encouraged or liberty of conscience will continue to be eroded. The introduction of a legislative framework that strengthens the separation of church and state whilst protecting this freedom would also be welcome. Hungary currently has a very restrictive legislative framework that limits the formation of new religious churches, thus allowing the maintenance of a group of recognized institutions that, in practice, enjoy privileges dependent on government recognition.
A move towards fewer such government privileges and a more open relationship between religion and the state is  therefore greatly needed.

Read more in the series:



Szilárd István Pap
Anthropologist and political analyst. He is member of the editorial team of Mérce, an independent blog of young journalists and authors and an online platform of young activists | www.merce.hu