Hungary

The Most Anti-Woke Country in Europe: Viktor Orban’s Hungary

31 August 2023

9.2 MINS

‘Where’s your name from?’ asked the male nurse behind the counter.

I was in Katoomba Hospital for a checkup, and when I gave my details, the nurse saw that my name wasn’t exactly vintage Anglo. ‘I was born in Hungary,’ I replied, as I often do in these circumstances.

‘Oh, Viktor Orban is the Prime Minister there,’ he said.

I was taken aback. Only a few people in Australia know Viktor Orban, although he is notorious among Left-leaning European elites. ‘He’s an authoritarian,’ continued the nurse, ‘and just like Putin.’

‘Some would say that,’ I replied, not exactly wanting to upset someone with my health and wellbeing in their hands. I gave my details, then sat down in the waiting room. But it did bring to mind what a bad name the Hungarian Prime Minister – and Hungary itself – has among some people in the West.

As I write this, I’ve just spent two weeks in Hungary with my daughter Luci, and it’s been a whirlwind of activity:

Family gatherings, tourist visits around Budapest, going to the ‘Sziget’ music festival with Luci and half the young adults of Europe (things we do as dads!), not to mention visiting a refugee camp housing refugees from Ukraine. But throughout it all, I’ve tried to get a sense of what Hungary is like, what the people believe, and what life is like here in the country of my birth.

Yes, I’ve followed things relatively closely from a distance. From Hungary’s conservative (and, at times, solidly Christian) stance on issues like marriage and family to immigration and the war in Ukraine. But being here, and talking to the people, is different from hearing interviews and reading articles.

And here are my reflections thus far:

1) Tim Keller’s ministry has extended into Hungary

Tim Keller’s ministry was truly global, reaching across language barriers even into Hungary.

I was surprised to hear from one Reformed Pastor just how well-known and famous he was among other (Reformed) Pastors here in Hungary. His works have been translated and have taken off because his teaching speaks to Hungarian culture as much as it speaks to modern Western culture.

2) Hungarians take their politics very seriously

‘Don’t talk about politics,’ my cousin told me as we pulled up to our extended family gathering. ‘People have strong views, and it’s not worth getting into arguments about it,’ he continued.

And boy, was he right. Hungary is cleanly divided along political lines: those who are conservative and are supportive (overall) of Viktor Orban, and those who are against him.

And as a relative told me, political decisions have a much bigger impact on people here, than they do in Australia. The stakes are higher. [1]

3) While much Western media criticises Hungary as authoritarian and undemocratic, the reality is different

Like the nurse I met at the hospital, a widespread view among many European and Western elites is that Orban is (almost) like Putin, and Hungary is almost like Russia, i.e. a democracy in name only, with weak civil liberties.

But from what I’ve seen on the ground, talking to real Hungarians (including anti-Orban Hungarians), Hungary is democratic, and Orban is a far cry from Putin. Yes, he’s won several elections with a massive (often 60+% majority). Still, even those who hate him don’t accuse him of rigging elections. [2] And when it comes to Hungarians feeling free to criticise the government publicly – a litmus test for political freedom – even those I talked to on the left said there was no problem doing that, whether on social media or otherwise.

So why are so many secular Western elites against Orban? Well, partly because of partisan political differences.

But I think another reason is that he’s anti-woke:

4) Hungary is going against the flow of the EU; it is ‘anti-woke’ in so many ways.

Hungary is part of the European Union, yet is bucking the EU’s ideological bandwagon.

While the official EU documents have removed any reference to Europe’s Christian heritage, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party (and its long-serving Prime Minister Viktor Orban) consistently and unashamedly refer to Hungary as a Christian country.

So, for example, as the Black Lives Matter movement was sweeping sporting stadiums across the US and Europe, with athletes kneeling during national anthems, Orban said that Hungarians only kneel for two reasons: when they propose to their fiance and before God Himself.

Now, I hasten to add when the current government calls Hungary a ‘Christian nation’, it’s not referring to a theocracy, but Christian in the sense of informing Hungary’s laws, customs and traditions.

And as a Western Christian, I can see the pros and cons of calling your nation ‘Christian’.

On the one hand, there’s intellectual honesty in saying that your laws are (and should be) informed by Christianity above other religions (and ideologies). There’s always a religion, or beliefs, at play in shaping and informing laws and public policy – whether obviously or more subtly. In the West, and Europe, up until recently, this religion was traditional Christianity (as non-Christian historians like Britain’s Tom Holland happily point out). And as we see Christianity leaving the Western building, we see other ‘religions’/ideologies beginning to inform and shape our laws (e.g. Queer and various critical Theories). This seems to be how the government understands Hungary as a ‘Christian’ nation.

And so, for example, the current government pushed – and succeeded – in amending the Hungarian constitution to affirm marriage as between one man and one woman.

It has pro-family policies that are unique in the world, intending to reverse the demographic decline that is plaguing many (if not most) nations of the world.

It banned the teaching of gender ideology and LGBTIQ sexuality to children.

And the government unashamedly gives churches money for things like new buildings. Church schools are entirely free for Hungarians. Orban’s government recognises churches’ vital role in civil society and is happy to support them financially.

(These changes haven’t escaped the attention of Western conservative commentators: see this interview between American commentators Rod Dreher and Dave Rubin.)

On the other hand, calling a nation ‘Christian’ is not something the Bible ever does. Nations aren’t ‘Christian’ in the Biblical worldview: people are. Yes, nations can and are influenced by Christianity. But the danger in calling a nation ‘Christian’ is that you dilute the meaning of the word. I’ve seen this in older generations (Hungarian and Australian), where ‘Christian’ was synonymous with being a good person (perhaps even believing in God), but did not include a personal trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. [3]

5) While Hungarians have thrown open their country to Ukrainian refugees, mass immigration is anathema to the Hungarian people.

As soon as the Ukrainian war broke out, Hungary threw open its borders 24/7 to allow Ukrainians to flee to Hungary, with or without passports.

Since the war began, millions of Ukrainians have come across the border. Some have stayed – and are given various supports by the Hungarian government and society – while many have moved on. (I had the privilege of visiting a refugee camp in Eastern Hungary run by a Christian Hungarian aid organisation, Dorkasz ministries, and partly funded by the Hungarian government).

Hungarians have been extremely welcoming to these neighbours fleeing war. 

And yet, when it comes to immigration in general, Hungarians take a different view, which I found somewhat jarring.

You see, I came to Australia as a migrant (or, more particularly, a refugee).

I grew up with and work with other migrants. Around 25% of us Aussies were born overseas. Australia is a highly successful migrant, multicultural nation. Most migrants have integrated well, and we have migrants at all levels of Australian society. The Christian denomination I belong to – the Sydney Anglican denomination – now has an overseas-born Archbishop, my friend Kanishka Raffel, of Sri Lankan descent. In Australia, migration is overwhelmingly a positive story. 

And so, with this background, I found it a little jarring at first to hear Hungarians talk about the importance of keeping Hungary ‘Hungarian’. [4] Hungarian identity is significant for many Hungarians, and there seems to be a view that you can’t take on a distinctly Hungarian identity while being a migrant.

Here in Australia, we believe you can have an Australian identity alongside your ethnic identity. Aussie identity is (no longer) race-based in the same way that Hungarian identity is. I can call myself an Aussie while also holding to my migrant ethnicity – a ‘dual identity’, if you will. [5] But this concept of ‘dual identity’ is not widely held in Hungary.

Furthermore, we in Australia have little by way of distinct mainstream Aussie culture (although we do have values, like a fair go, free speech, freedom etc.). Whereas Hungary has over 1100 years of rich culture, which they value, and want to keep and pass on. [6]

Add to this the anxiety of many Europeans as they see the difficulties and complexities of large numbers of Muslim migrants that remain unintegrated into Western European societies, and are overrepresented in crime and terrorist statistics. Looking at their Western neighbours, Hungarians say, ‘We don’t want those problems in our country,’ which translates to ‘We don’t want large numbers of Muslim migrants in our country.’ [7]

(While I see immigration in a different light to many Hungarians, I believe each country should have the right to decide its own immigration policy for itself.)

6) Many Hungarians see the Ukrainian war differently from us in the West

While we in the West view the Ukraine war as a straightforward narrative of good versus evil, of a bully Russia attacking an innocent Ukraine, I’ve found that many Hungarians have a much more complicated view of the Ukraine war.

While the Hungarians I’ve spoken to see Russia as the aggressor and are hospitable and welcoming toward Ukrainian refugees, they are less than supportive of Ukraine’s fight against Russia.

For starters, there is a sizeable ethnic Hungarian population across the border in Ukraine (around 150K Hungarians). This is because that territory (‘Trans-Carparthia’, as it’s known) was taken from Hungary after the First World War and given to the Soviet Union (Ukraine) after the Second World War. Ukraine – including under Zelensky – has oppressed this minority by restricting the speaking and teaching of Hungarian, and taking other oppressive measures we Westerners would find disturbing.

(I spoke to one ethnic Hungarian refugee from Ukraine, who said he has no desire to fight for Ukraine, seeing as it didn’t treat his people as equal citizens.)

Furthermore, Ukraine is rated as one of the more corrupt nations around. Most Hungarians see Zelensky as little better than those who came before him.

And so, the Hungarian government’s position – and the view of many Hungarians – is that this is not a war worth supporting. The best thing that could happen is the parties are brought to the negotiating table ASAP, and the war ends. A Hungarian government official said that Hungary doesn’t even allow NATO (and Australian) arms to cross into Ukraine, because it would potentially make Hungary a target of Russian attack.

Many Hungarians view Western support of the war – including Australia’s $500 million package of arms – as fueling a pointless war.

(I see the war as driven by Russia’s geopolitical considerations more than anything else. This means Putin won’t give up fighting until it has Ukraine under its thumb. Thus, I think it will be very hard to bring such a Russia to the negotiating table).

7) Hungary is a strange mix of post-Christianity and yet strong traditions.

I’ve been struck by the city/country divide here in Hungary.

Or rather, the Budapest/rest of the country divide. Budapest is a cosmopolitan capital city with progressive political and social tendencies. People tend to be more secular and more left-leaning in their politics. In the categories of British author David Goodhart, the people in Budapest tend to be ‘anywhere people’, who would feel at home in many other capital cities in Europe. Whereas the country people tend to be ‘somewhere’ people who are more conservative in their outlook, rooted in place, culture and tradition.

The ‘somewhere’ people tend to have a semi-religious outlook on life and seem comfortable calling Hungary a ‘Christian’ country, which explains why most of the Orban’s supporters are based in the country, rather than in Budapest.

___

[1] While Australians have their political views, they hold onto them more lightly than Hungarians.

[2] For example, many EU election monitors were present to supervise the elections at the last election. There were no accusations of rigged elections. However, one controversial change is the government’s redrawing of electoral boundaries, ostensibly making the electoral districts more equal.

[3] The other danger in calling a nation Christian is that you risk diluting religious freedom. Religious freedom (I would argue) is a strongly Biblical concept, stemming in part from the gospel itself (which is only ever to be commended to people’s consciences, which they are responsible – and yes, free – to accept or reject, 2 Cor 4), and from God’s role for government (upholding law and order, but not coercing people to believe in Christ Rom 13:1-6). While I haven’t heard any critique of Hungary diluting religious freedom (e.g. there’s a strong Jewish community here), history shows that when a government (over?) identifies with a particular religion, there is the risk of religious freedom being weakened.

[4]  One government official we spoke to said Hungary should remain ‘Christian and white’.

[5] I should say that I’m a very proud Australian. I served in our military and would happily give my life defending this great nation. And I’m not alone in that.

[6] It’s also important to remember that most nations are not immigrant nations, like Australia or America. Most nations are built on their ethnic identities and groups, even though they allow some migrants in. Having 25% of your nation born overseas (like Australia) is not the norm; it’s the exception among most countries of the world.

[7] The current government did build a wall to stem the massive flow of migrants from the south (many of whom, strangely enough, were unaccompanied military-age males). The Orban government’s position is that it was fulfilling its responsibility as a member of the EU in upholding the EU’s external border as per the EU’s Schengen Agreement, which means not letting in undocumented migrants without first processing them.

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Originally published at AkosBalogh.com. Photo by Timi Keszthelyi.

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One Comment

  1. Barbara 31 August 2023 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    What a great country Hungary is. There is such a turnaround. Countries whose laws were based on the Judeo-Christian ethical law base are becoming more communistic and woke and Hungary is becoming less woke in their values and more leaning towards the Judeo Christian ethical law base. Well done Viktor Orban.

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