Orbán, the student of American history

It was on July 1 that the United States Embassy celebrated Independence Day. Such events are very important in the life of the American colony abroad. The diplomatic corps and the most important government officials of the host country are invited. According to the American ambassador Eleni Tsakopulos Kounalakis, "it was a special privilege … to welcome Prime Minister Orbán as our guest of honor."

The ambassador's speech was short and sweet and didn't dwell on the glorious war of independence or the declaration that proclaimed the severance of ties with Great Britain. Instead she talked about the good relations between the two countries. The United States is "proud to call Hungary an ally, a partner, and friend."

Orban with US embassador

Then came Viktor Orbán. A Hungarian politician simply can't pass up the opportunity to interpret the historical event that is being remembered. While Americans enjoy the long weekend picnicking without spending a moment on "1776 and all that," a Hungarian feels compelled to dwell on the intricacies of history. And, unfortunately, they usually get it wrong. This time Orbán got it very, very wrong.

Let me quote the relevant passages. "A great philosopher of the 20th century wrote that this nation has been built on credo, which means strong faith. This faith is celebrated here today as indeed the opening and closing lines of the Declaration of Independence formulate clearly and unambiguously the spirit of this faith by referring to the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" or to the "Divine Providence." The only problem is that these references are not unambiguous. On the contrary, historians have debated their intent for centuries.

I don't know who that great twentieth-century philosopher is, but his interpretation of the intentions of the Founding Fathers is anything but mainstream. As we know, it was Thomas Jefferson who wrote most of the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson's beliefs were certainly not based on "strong faith." Jefferson, for example, didn't believe in the divinity of Jesus but viewed him as a "human teacher." His knowledge of science led him to reject all miracles, including the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Jefferson felt that religion was a deeply private matter and therefore he didn't see any need for ministers or priests. Although Jefferson never gave a label to his set of beliefs, they are consistent with the ideas of deism, a religious view very much in vogue in intellectual circles in the 18th and 19th centuries in America. Deism holds that although God created the universe, He doesn't intervene in its functioning in any way. Moreover, for deists, a belief in God should be based only on reason.

Some historians, among them Paul Johnson in "The Almost-Chosen People," actually claim that by including God in the Declaration of Independence Jefferson helped to lay the foundation for a civil religion in America. In the United States people were concerned with "moral conduct rather than dogma." So, says Johnson, Jefferson helped to create a society in which different religions could coexist peacefully because of the emphasis on morality over specific beliefs. Jefferson was also an advocate of what we call today "the separation of church and state." That view again derives from the teachings of deism where God and the world are totally separate and worldly events proceed according to the laws of nature and not by the will of God. Jefferson's clearest reference to the separation of church and state can be found in a letter he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association where he spoke about "a wall of separation of church and state."

The interpretation of the beginnings of the United States that Orbán referenced in his speech has been the mainstay of the religious right. For a long time American fundamentalists have argued that the Founding Fathers intended to establish a Christian nation. So, it was not Locke and the French Enlightenment that shaped the Declaration of Independence; rather, God (through Jefferson) held the pen that wrote the Declaration of Independence. For some time now these kinds of historical texts have been used in so-called Christian schools, but lately the topic surfaced in the national media because of the Texas State Board of Education. Its majority belongs to the "religious right" and insists on rewriting all history books according to its own interpretation of history. Not long ago a lengthy article appeared in The New York Times with the title "How Christian Were the Founders?" I'm afraid Orbán's interpretation of American history is a carbon copy of the ideas of the "religious right." Not the best tack to take while talking about the origins of the United States of America at an official event. In this view the Enlightenment never reached the American shores; instead, some strongly committed religious fanatics wanted to establish a Christian nation in North America.

If someone thinks that I exaggerate let's read further in Orbán's speech. "No political and economic interest, nor a rational, scientific line of reasoning is the base of declaring in this document that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is unquestionably faith that is behind the idea that all human beings are creatures with a free will." According to scholars of Jefferson the use of the phrase "all men are created equal" in the Declaration is actually a rebuttal of the going political theory of the day: the divine rights of kings. As for "the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" it also has little to do with religious fervor and devotion to the Creator. Instead one can turn to John Locke who in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding wrote that "the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness." Leibniz also talked about a "natural right" to happiness. William Wollaston in his only finished book, The Religion of Nature Delineated, described the "truest definition" of "natural religion" as being "the pursuit of happiness by the practice of reason and truth." So Orbán is wrong in assuming that this phrase has much to do with faith.

In brief, Orbán was led astray by someone who was greatly influenced by the teachings of the "religious right," someone who wants to reject the teachings of the Enlightenment and replace them with religious faith and fervor. I doubt that Orbán really knows where he positioned himself on the political spectrum when he delivered this speech. I'm just hoping that few people present really understood the meaning of his interpretation.


  1. “As we know, it was Thomas Jefferson who wrote most of the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s beliefs were certainly not based on “strong faith.” Jefferson, for example, didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus but viewed him as a “human teacher.” His knowledge of science led him to reject all miracles, including the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Jefferson felt that religion was a deeply private matter and therefore he didn’t see any need for ministers or priests.”
    Jefferson’s beliefs were not an orthodox form of Christianity, it does not follow from this that they were not a “strong faith”; he seems to have held to his beliefs quite strongly.
    The Declaration of Independence could have been written in non-religious language, it wasn’t. It is possible that the religious language was used as a mere metaphor, but this seems unlikely given that many of the Founding Fathers did have strong enough religious views; some orthodox Christian, others Deist.
    The pursuit of happiness line seems more typical of Francis Hutcheson than John Locke. Hutcheson seems to have been more of an orthodox Chistian in the Presbyterian mode.

  2. I was there, and I agree with you that Orban’s speech was a confused and lame effort to interpret the American founding and to then apply those lessons to Hungary. Interestingly, what Orban also seems to have missed, is that even in his interpretation of the Declaration the power of Government is limited by fundamental, unalienable rights of the individual (whatever the source may be). In Hungary today, it appears that is not a lesson or a principle that Orban or FIDESZ are particularly invested in.

  3. “Some historians, among them Paul Johnson”
    Well Paul Johnson is only an historian in the senses that his BA is indeed in History, and he has written some works that are historical. His professional career has been as a journalist of fairly hard-line right-wing views (he has praised right-wing dictators like Pinochet and Franco in print). If Orban is indeed using Johnson has his historical reference point, one can only expect some fairly strange interpretations of History.

  4. Many of the founding fathers were outright atheists. If nobody else, at the very least we can be sure that Franklin and Pain were.

  5. I’m not sure if Thomas Paine counts as a “Founding Father”, but he was a deist, not an atheist. Franklin was nearer being a highly unorthodox Christian.
    I doubt that any of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were atheists.

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