We all know about Viktor Orbán’s infatuation with the spiritual in the last few years. Maybe I just don’t remember properly, but I can’t recall much piety in his speeches during his first premiership between 1998 and 2002. Today, by contrast, his speeches are teeming with Biblical quotations and Latin religious phrases. And his generosity toward the “established” churches, especially the Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches, is substantial.
At the time of the formation of the Orbán government in June 2010 Gusztáv Bölcskei, the Calvinist bishop of Hungary, told a conference that the Hungarian Reformed Church “is looking forward with great expectation to the work of the new government.” He added that the Catholic, Hungarian Reformed, and Lutheran churches will join forces to “rethink the question of the churches’ educational and social activities in addition to their finances and their compensation.”
These churches haven’t been disappointed. The famed Hungarian Reformed College, actually a gymnasium, received 10 billion forints for its renovation. The generous gift was announced by Viktor Orbán at a church service in the famous Great Church (Nagytemplom) of Debrecen where the prime minister said: “The communist dictatorship stole the collection box in which Hungarians for centuries had contributed their pennies” for the churches. I happen to have a different recollection, at least of the Hungarian Catholic Church’s accumulation of wealth: it didn’t come from collection boxes. In any case, Orbán promised that the government will return “the stolen wealth to the churches and the Hungarian people.” An interesting equation of the churches with the Hungarian people.
Yesterday Viktor Orbán again had an opportunity to deliver a speech in a Hungarian Reformed church. This time in Rimavská Sobota (Rimaszombat), a town of 25,000 in south-eastern Slovakia. The majority of the inhabitants of the town are Slovaks, almost 60%, but there is a significant Hungarian minority, about 36% of the population. Rimavská Sobota doesn’t seem to be a particularly religious place. Approximately 25% of the population claimed no religious affiliation at the last census. Only 10% purport to be Calvinist.
The church service was meant to express the locals’ gratitude for all the gifts that made the renovation of the church possible. The renovation, by the way, cost 270,000 euros. We don’t know how much the Hungarian government contributed, but it had to be substantial. After all, besides Viktor Orbán, several other government officials were present: Zoltán Balog, minister of Human Resources and himself a Hungarian Reformed minister; Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry; Zsuzsa Répás, assistant undersecretary in charge of policies connected to national issues (nemzetpolitika); Csaba Balogh, Hungarian ambassador to Slovakia; Éva Molnár, née Czimbalmos, Hungarian consul-general in Košice; and Pál Csáky, one of the leading politicians of Magyar Közösség Pártja (MKP), the favored Hungarian party in Slovakia.
From the speech it is not entirely clear whether the faithful in Rimavská Sobota had already received money during the first Orbán government, but it is likely. Orbán referred to the eight-year hiatus in the renovation effort. What was clear from his speech is that between 2011 and 2013 the Hungarian government financially assisted in the renovation of 119 churches and church buildings beyond Hungary’s borders. Twenty-three of them in the Uplands (Felvidék), i.e. Slovakia. To the chagrin of Slovaks, Hungarians still cling to the old designation for the Slovak territories.
We also found out, and I must say this was entirely new to me and I suspect to everyone else in Hungary, that “the publicly declared motto of today’s government which is civic, national, and Christian, is “soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) as opposed to the other political camp which declares that ‘glory is to man alone.’ I don’t think that I have to say more about the conditions at home,” Viktor Orbán added.
“Soli Deo gloria” is associated with Protestantism and was the name of the Hungarian Reformed Church’s student association between the two world wars. The five “solae,” one of which is soli deo gloria, encapsulate the basic theological beliefs of Protestantism: sola scriptura (by scripture alone), sola fide (by faith alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). Perhaps Reverend Balog neglected to mention the origin of Orbán’s new motto because, at least historically speaking, the association is too close to the Protestant churches whose followers are in the minority in Hungary.
The editor-in-chief of Galamus, Zsófia Mihancsik, gathered some information about the sums the government spent on the renovation of churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Subsidies from the European Union cannot be used for anything directly connected to religious activities, but some of these projects were and still are being financed from subsidies set aside for projects promoting tourism as well as educational and social services. Thus, for example the Hungarian Reformed Church in the Northern Plains, in the vicinity of Debrecen, will receive 4 billion forints in the next six years from the European Union. Similar but less spectacular projects are under way in a very poor area of Baranya county called Ormánság, and in Tolna county twenty village churches will be renovated with the help of the European Union.
One possible reason that the Hungarian Reformed Church is doing so well under the Orbán government is that at its General Convent in 2010 it declared itself to be one and indivisible in the territories of the Carpathian Basin. In other words, in the former territories of Greater Hungary. There was only one bishop, László Fazekas, the representative of the Slovak Hungarian Reformed Church, who announced that for the time being his church would not join the “convent.” He added that his congregation is bilingual and they therefore have reservations about the merger. By May 2011, Fazekas changed his mind. The Slovak Hungarian Reformed Church joined the one and indivisible Hungarian Reformed Church but promised to pay special attention to defending the minority rights of its Slovak brethren.
One of the two ministers who delivered homilies in Rimavská Sobota was Bishop László Farkas. The other was retired Bishop Géza Erdélyi whom Viktor Orbán described as a man who has for many years been his family’s spiritual guide. I guess it was a long distance affair. The special mention of Erdélyi was most likely intended as a sign of Orbán’s recognition of his political work in MKP, the party Fidesz recognizes as the only Hungarian party in Slovakia. Most-Híd, a Slovak-Hungarian party, doesn’t exist as far as Fidesz and the Orbán government are concerned. In fact, Fidesz as well as the Romanian-Hungarian RMDSZ voted against Most-Híd’s application for membership in the European People’s Party. They were admitted against the wishes of their brotherly co-nationals. By the way, MKP did remarkably well in the first round of local (county) elections a week or so ago. I’m sure that it’s not only the churches that get a lot of money from Budapest. MKP is also a major beneficiary of the printing press in Hungary.
I should add that it was announced today that the Government Debt Management Agency (ÁKK) mandated four banks to manage a 10-year USD bond issuance to the tune of 2 billion U.S. dollars.