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America's Christian Nationalists Play Out Their Cynical Fantasies in Orban's Hungary

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Prime Minister Viktor Orban waves during the final electoral rally of his successful 2018 campaign for his Fidesz party in Szekesfehervar, Hungary
Prime Minister Viktor Orban waves during the final electoral rally of his successful 2018 campaign for his Fidesz party in Szekesfehervar, HungaryCredit: Darko Vojinovic,AP

Hungary is a small, landlocked country in Central Europe. It has a population of 10 million. Its official language is Hungarian and its capital is Budapest.

And for many American conservatives – including Tucker Carlson, the popular Fox News host who visited the country last week – it is a paradisal land of traditional values, religious uniformity, and ethnic homogeneity, all of which are upheld through proudly illiberal means by Hungary’s strongman Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán

How did Hungary (of all places) become a shining city on a hill for the United States (of all countries) for American conservatives (of all people)?

A giant promo poster of Fox News host Tucker Carlson on the News Corporation building in New York, U.S.Credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/ REUTERS

To begin with, and considering the matter only from a detached and coldly analytic perspective, it is a bit odd for the richest and most powerful country in the world (at least for now) to look with envy on a far less prosperous country that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain only a few decades ago.

In many fields and industries, American institutions and companies lead the world in prestige and innovation, and many of the technologies that are key to humanity’s future, from electric cars to mRNA vaccines, are largely developed in the United States. The dynamism and productivity of the United States vastly exceed Hungary’s, leading to the high standard of living in which many Americans, not least conservatives, have historically taken pride.

America is the land of prosperity and abundance; our cup runneth over. Why exactly should the United States seek to emulate Hungary?

Of course, economic activity is in many ways a crude way to judge a country, and something as elusive as quality of life cannot be measured by a simple metric like per capita GDP – although, for what it’s worth, the average American makes four times as much as the average Hungarian.

I say this not at all to belittle Hungary, which is beautiful country that needn’t concern itself with comparisons to the U.S., but only to highlight the oddity of an American conservative like Tucker Carlson falling head over heels for Hungary as he bemoans the state of his own country. 

After all, this is a man who claimed that Democratic leaders "hate America" because they are critical of the country’s (very obvious) historical failings on matters like racial justice. Carlson is also never shy to flaunt his own American patriotism – he even did it as he simultaneously declared Hungary a freer nation than the United States. 

The claim that Hungary is "freer" than the United States is especially odd because this is not even what American conservatives – and especially religious conservatives, one of my research interests – value about Hungary.

Instead, what they value is the cultural coherence of Hungary, the fact that Hungarian national identity is, at least purportedly, unified, stable, and intact. This is achieved through Orbán’s notoriously strict immigration policies, as well as by Orbán’s explicit insistence that Hungary is a "Christian democracy." The intertwining of national and religious identity in Hungary is one of the characteristics American conservatives most admire about the country.

Rod Dreher, a conservative Christian author and one of Orbán’s most prominent supporters in the United States, made precisely this point when I spoke with him last summer for an audio documentary I produced on Hungary’s Illiberal Democracy: "One thing I like about Orbán is his understanding that the Christian religion is deeply tied into Hungarian national identity and this is not a bug, it’s a feature."

Dreher said there are limits to this, and that the state should not coerce religious belief, but he nevertheless saw no problem with Christianity assuming a privileged position in society. This is precisely what Orbán has done in Hungary, to the delight of American religious conservatives, who not only praise Hungary but also lambast the moral deterioration of the United States.

Their wandering eye has landed on a new and exotic European beauty, and now they wish their old lady, the land of their birth and allegiance, could be a bit more like their new object of affection. They long for a country that is more culturally and religiously monolithic.

But this is precisely what the United States cannot and should not become. It cannot become more homogenous because at the foundation of the country is the guarantee of religious liberty. It is in the very first clause of the First Amendment. The United States cannot be a "Christian democracy," and nor can it "recognize the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood," as the Hungarian Constitution does. 

The United States should not want to do this either because the nation’s strength lies in its pluralism, diversity, and openness. The American project centers on a diverse set of peoples, with conflicting beliefs and values, reasoning together to make decisions that bear on all. These decisions must be justified in terms that are intelligible to all citizens, and do not merely express the whims of a dominant ethnicity or a privileged religion.

As scholars of religion like Jeffrey Stout have argued, the American tradition, which pulls from both secular and religious voices, is animated by a unique moral energy that has driven our greatest accomplishments, such as the establishment of civil rights. The diverse cultures and backgrounds of the American population have also given rise to a culture of profound creativity, generating a stunning array of artistic and scientific achievements.

Of course, in a pluralist society, people can find themselves on the losing side of societal transformation. Religious conservatives in particular often lament the way that the modern world deviates from their moral vision.

But every person who belongs to a group, whether a small community or an entire nation, understands that not all collective decisions go their way. Personal disappointment is an intrinsic feature of any form of social existence.

This is obviously true in Hungary as well. American conservatives would in fact be deeply unhappy about many features of the country, including its strict gun laws and its government-run healthcare, and I doubt any of them, least of all Tucker Carlson, are rushing to emigrate from the U.S. to Hungary. (Dreher may be an exception. He really seems to like it there.) 

The Right’s embrace of Hungary therefore appears largely performative and cynical: it isn’t really about Hungary for the same reason their embrace of Donald Trump isn’t really about Trump.

It is about advancing a cultural, racial, and religious agenda by any means necessary. Or any person necessary, whether that person is an unhinged lunatic in the White House or an aspiring authoritarian in Central Europe.

Evan Sandsmark is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, working at the intersection of religion and politics. Twitter: @EvanSandsmark

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