The Rise of Post-Christian Conservatism in Eastern Europe | Opinion

In a year of contentious protests, last summer's gay pride march in Budapest was a relatively tame affair. A sizeable crowd rallied in front of Parliament to protest legislation from Hungary's ruling Fidesz Party that restricts the teaching of gay and lesbian issues in public schools. The inevitable counter-protest was organized, not by a church or religious group, but by Mi Hazánk Mozgalom ("Our Homeland Movement"), a far-right nationalist party that has also led marches against COVID-19 lockdowns and alleged "no go zones" in Roma neighborhoods.

The electoral success of conservative parties and the resurgence of religious rhetoric from the Baltics to Belgrade suggest that Eastern Europe is in the midst of a Christian revival. However, last summer's pride counter-protest in Budapest is a far more telling indicator of the region's political makeup than the Christmas markets, festivals and other traditional holidays that still mark the changing seasons. That the march was organized by a far-right nationalist group and not a church suggests that secular conservative impulses, and not religious ones, explain Eastern Europe's rightward tilt.

Lately, Hungary has gained a surprising hold on the imagination of American social conservatives. This is partly due to its outspokenly conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and partly to a host of social conservative policies, including pro-natalist tax subsidies and generous funding for religious schools. Over the past year, several conservative luminaries have made pilgrimages to Budapest, from cable television host Tucker Carlson to author Rod Dreher to former Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke in September at a forum on demographics and family values.

It is perhaps understandable that conservatives would gravitate to countries like Hungary and Poland, which combine recognizably Western political traditions with certain deeply ingrained conservative instincts. Despite economic integration, reciprocal tourism and the rise of cosmopolitan enclaves like Budapest, polling data reveal a persistent gap between Eastern and Western European attitudes on a range of issues.

However, it is unclear how much of Eastern European conservatism can be attributed to religious sentiment. A simple look at church attendance reveals that habitual religious practice plays very little role in most Eastern Europeans' lives. In 2018, 17 percent of Hungarians said they attend religious services at least monthly. In the Czech Republic, the figure was 11 percent, in Estonia 10 percent and in Bulgaria 19 percent.

Despite a recent decline in religious observance and an overtly secular public square, the United States remains considerably more pious than most Eastern European countries when measured by actual church attendance. This reality is sometimes obscured by the pomp and circumstance of Eastern European holidays, but these events persist because of tradition, tourism and the absence of vocal religious minorities who might object.

There are exceptions to this secularizing trend. Sixty-one percent of Poles say they attend mass every month, a legacy of Pope John Paul II's special relationship with his home country and the Polish Catholic Church's unique role as a defender of national independence, most recently during the Soviet Era. In general, Orthodox countries seem to have stronger religious attachments than their Catholic neighbors to the West, although according to Pew survey data, calling yourself Orthodox doesn't mean you regularly attend church.

Generations of persecution behind the Iron Curtain and youthful indifference have combined to sap Eastern European churches of their political vitality. Meanwhile, the secular ideologies of the 20th century have also receded. Communism and the Soviet Union are long gone. Western liberalism, though still potent, has lost some of its luster in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, internal EU divisions and repeated foreign policy debacles. In Eastern Europe, conservative and nationalist politics have rushed to fill this ideological vacuum.

Dominican nuns hold education lessons
Dominican nuns hold education lessons and prayer for the school children of Liszt Ferenc primary school of their convent in the St. Stephan church of Hódmezővásárhely on Sept. 1, 2021. ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

Instead of religion driving conservative politics, the resurgence of conservative and national sentiment in Eastern Europe has contributed to a revival of symbolic Christianity. Something similar happened in Hungary at the turn of the last century, another ideologically unsettled age. By 1900, according to the historian John Lukacs, the word "Christian" was adopted by members of the Hungarian gentry who wished to advertise their conservative—and in some cases, antisemitic—sympathies despite not caring all that much about Sunday Mass.

Conservative flirtations with non-Christian symbols and traditions suggest that any romantic narrative will serve national and patriotic purposes. In Hungary, a popular annual festival called the Kurultáj celebrates Hungary's pre-Christian history, an era that still has a considerable hold on the popular imagination (the medieval Hungarian invasion of Europe, described by Western chroniclers as a terrifying steppe irruption, is sometimes referred to as "The Time of Adventures" in school textbooks). Monuments, memorials and even tattoos often feature rovás, the Hungarians' pre-Christian runic alphabet. Not coincidentally, the Kurultáj is enthusiastically supported by Fidesz and other conservative groups.

In neighboring Slovenia, the country's right-wing prime minister has adopted the panther as a patriotic emblem. Despite its dubious historical provenance, the animal supposedly represents modern Slovenia's medieval Slavic precursor, another example of conservatives' creative appropriation of whatever symbols happen to be at hand.

On the other end of the spectrum, liberal Budapest is dotted with the flotsam and jetsam of New Age spirituality, from Buddhist-themed coffee shops to yoga studios. In an uncertain age, Eastern Europeans from all walks of life are in search of spiritual and ideological meaning. For liberals, this might mean gay rights activism or hippy spirituality. For the more traditionally-inclined, social conservatism, nationalism, or even neo-paganism are more likely to fit the bill.

Pence's visit to Budapest is particularly interesting because there are certain parallels between his old boss' instrumental approach to the religious right and Orbán's brand of Hungarian conservatism. Donald Trump, arguably the Republican Party's first post-Christian leader, opportunistically seized on social conservative issues to mobilize his political base. When Trump discusses religion, he speaks in generalities or focuses on culture war flashpoints. Similarly, Orbán vaguely gestures at Hungary's "Christian traditions'' or Europe's "Christian heritage" because his political agenda, while conservative, is unmoored from specific theological commitments. Just as American conservatives occasionally make reference to the United States' "Judeo-Christian heritage," Orbán speaks in sweeping generalities. These rhetorical sleights of hand are confessions of organized Christianity's weakness.

A memorable viral video from last summer showed a group of Georgian protesters climbing onto a balcony to tear down a rainbow pride poster. They replaced it, not with a cross or an icon, but with the Georgian flag, to the cheers of the accompanying crowd. Georgia is still more religious than Hungary or the Czech Republic, but the video is representative of broader cultural and political shifts within the region.

In Hungary, marching against gay pride is just another battlefront in a broader right-left culture war. In Poland, nationalists rally to defend churches from anti-abortion protesters. Perhaps rhetorical appeals to Christian tradition will eventually inspire younger Eastern Europeans to return to the pews. For now, Christian rhetoric is mostly just window-dressing for secular conservative politics.

Will Collins is a teacher in Budapest, Hungary.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.