I don’t want to bore readers with a history of Protestantism in Hungary, but I often find that at least in the United States people are surprised to learn that there is a sizable Protestant minority in Hungary. They are convinced that all of East-Central Europe is Catholic.
We have only estimates on religious affiliation of the current Hungarian population, but these estimates indicate that about 20% of Hungarians were at least baptized in a Protestant church. About 17% are Calvinists (Magyar Református Egyház) and 3% are Lutherans (Magyar Evangélikus Egyház).
I’m sure that people will also be surprised to hear that at the end of the sixteenth century 80-90% of the inhabitants of historic Hungary were Protestant. And Hungary was not alone in the region: Poland, now the most Catholic country in the area, was solidly Protestant. Ninety percent of the members of the Polish parliament, the szejm, were Protestants. Such a rapid spread of the teachings of Martin Luther (1483-1564) and John Calvin (1509-1564) in this particular part of Europe was indicative of serious societal and political upheavals and general dissatisfaction with the status quo. The new faith was spread by itinerant preachers, both Calvinists and Lutherans. At the time the two branches of early Protestantism were not separated. It was only in 1567 that the Calvinist and the Lutheran churches went their separate ways.
One could ask how it was possible that while the Counter-Reformation managed to completely eradicate Protestantism in Poland, in Hungary the Catholics were less successful. Despite the efforts of the Catholic Habsburg dynasty, large pockets of Protestantism remained. In fact, the answer is quite simple: during the sixteenth century historic Hungary was divided into three separate entities. A smaller part in the north, an area called Royal Hungary, remained in Habsburg hands while Transylvania became nominally independent, only paying tribute to the Ottoman Empire. The rest, a large chunk of today’s Hungary, was occupied by the Turks who had no interest in converting the population to Islam. It didn’t matter to them whether the infidel was a Catholic or a Protestant.
After the expulsion of the Turks Vienna tried to reconvert Protestants, and they often used rather brutal methods to make Protestant worship impossible. The Protestant communities were beleaguered and persecuted; Calvinists in particular came to represent the true Hungarian spirit against Catholic dominance in the Habsburg Empire. And that differentiation of Calvinist and Catholic Hungarians didn’t end with the Compromise of 1867. Voters in Calvinist areas were more apt to vote for the Party of Independence. Given this history, one shouldn’t be terribly surprised that today’s Hungarian Reformed Church is even more nationalistic than the Catholic Church.
While I’m not surprised by the Church’s nationalism, I am surprised about their right-wing rhetoric. I gained the impression from my readings and also from personal experience that Protestantism at one time was more enlightened than the official line of the Catholic Church. Less bigoted, more open-minded. What I see now is a shift of Hungarian Calvinist leaders toward the extreme right while the Catholic leaders are just deeply conservative and wholehearted supporters of the current government party.
Perhaps my views are influenced by the prominent political roles played by church leaders as László Tőkés, who gained worldwide fame as a key player in the events that eventually led to the Romanian “revolution” and the removal and execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Nominally he is considered to be a Fidesz man, but in fact his ideology puts him to the very right edge of the Fidesz spectrum where the differences between Fidesz and Jobbik are blurred. The other person who is much more obviously a man of the extreme right, in fact an outright neo-Nazi, is Lóránt Hegedűs. He has been in the limelight for at least fifteen years and his views should be unacceptable to the church by any standards. His own wife is a member of the Jobbik parliamentary delegation. Yet the Reformed Church refuses to expel him from the church. There were attempts but no final resolution.
In 2007 Gusztáv Bölcskei, the clerical president of the Synod of the Hungarian Reformed Church and the bishop of Debrecen, tried to remove him but failed in an internal legal procedure. Then came the erection of a Horthy statue, but Bölcskei himself was guilty of having too tender feelings toward Hungary’s governor between 1920 and 1944. Bölcskei unveiled a plaque of Horthy in Debrecen. It seems that the Church either can’t or doesn’t want to act.
The latest upheaval in Hegedűs’s church in the heart of Budapest again prompted calls to do something with Hegedűs. It was in early November that Horthy’s bust was unveiled and placed close to the entrance to be seen by all passers-by. This time the church leaders promised real action. A serious investigation of the case was going to take place, they promised. Attila Jakab, who often writes on church affairs, predicted more than a month ago that most likely nothing will happen because if Hegedűs is considered to be guilty of political activities Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, will also have to be investigated. After all, Balog is also in politics. On paper he suspended his religious activities and can’t use his title “minister” (lelkész), a status that allows him to conduct religious services only occasionally and only by special request. But, in fact, Balog regularly holds services in his old church.
Jakab turned out to be right. Nothing will happen to Hegedűs but not because of Balog’s services in his old church but because the Hungarian Calvinist Church doesn’t really want to pursue the case. A few days ago Index reported that György Horváth, who is the legal counsel to the Hungarian Reformed Church, resigned his position in disgust because the diocesan court refused to take up the case, claiming a conflict of interest.
Horváth suggested expelling Hegedűs from the Hungarian Reformed Church. This was not the first time that Horváth recommended such an action, but each time the members of this particular diocesan court refused to hear the case. After his third attempt, Horváth had had enough. He announced that he “will not assist in this opportunistic practice.” He claimed that the church leadership is afraid of Jobbik and that members of the court are worried that their names might appear on kuruc.info, the virulently anti-Semitic neo-Nazi internet site.
This is not the end of the story. The case will be transferred to another diocesan court. But don’t hold your breath. The same thing happened in the earlier investigations as well. Clearly, the Hungarian Reformed Church refuses to deal with the problem and in my opinion not only because they are afraid of Jobbik. Rather, because they sympathize with this clearly neo-Nazi party. This is a sorry end to a church with a glorious past of fighting for freedom of religion and suffering persecution over the centuries. It is a real shame.