President Katalin Novák and the Christian Reformed “revival” in Hungary

Christianity, especially the Calvinist variety, is booming in Hungary — in stark contrast to western European and North American societies that are destroying their own churches. That’s President Katalin Novák’s most recent speech in a nutshell. Regrettably, but not surprisingly, what she had to say isn’t true.

Photo: MTI / Noémi Bruzák

The Fidesz politician, currently fulfilling a ceremonial role that on paper ought to transcend party politics, was invited to speak at a Sunday service in the town of Kunszentmiklós, central Hungary. Ms. Novák is a member of the Reformed Church. When she was elected by parliament, the Reformed Church of Hungary pointed out that she is the country’s first “freely-elected” Calvinist president. In an earlier interview, Ms. Novák shared that she begins each day by reading Scripture and she can’t imagine her day starting any other way. Speaking about the Our Father, Ms. Novák once said:

The kingdom, the power and the glory are not mine, nor ours, but God’s alone. It is clear from this sentence that power, office and position are by grace. And this idea gives me strength, energy, a real sense of security. I know that the kingdom belongs to God, and that does not make me idle, but rather liberates me, because I have the opportunity to participate as a servant in his world, and so my work and my life have meaning.

Being reflective and recognising the presence of grace in one’s life are both positives. But in a more immediate way, as a politician, Ms. Novák’s office comes from the people. And to utter the words above within the context of Viktor Orbán’s grip on power in Hungary, and the abuse of power in which Ms. Novák has participated, is distasteful.

In her speech on September 10th, Ms. Novák noted that in the last 13 years (since Fidesz returned to power), the Reformed Church has restored some 1,300 places of worship in the Carpathian Basin and has built 55 new churches. And as part of the expansion of Christian Reformed kindergartens, 450 news places of employment have been created — offering jobs that the president described as being “in the Christian Reformed spirit.” More people are applying to work in Christian Reformed early childhood education too.

“In Western Europe and everywhere in the Western world we see churches being demolished,” she said. In contrast, “the Reformed Church in Hungary has a leadership that is not content to survive, but wants to thrive, and has the capacity to do so, along with concrete ideas.”

If Ms. Novák is truthful, what the Reformed Church in Hungary is content to do is obtain state funding and leverage its connections with the current ruling Fidesz party, in order to build and restore churches, and to expand its denominational educational footprint. The Church isn’t thriving independently of the state and its lavish support. That’s the first inaccuracy to point out in Ms. Novák’s speech.

The second pertains to this image of a western world that simply demolishes churches as adherence to the Christian faith collapses. Much of western Europe is certainly in rough shape in terms of church attendance. Of course, it’s hardly just the west. Estonia is Europe’s most atheistic country, with 58% having no religion — the highest proportion anywhere in the Western world. But the real problem is Ms. Novák’s sweeping generalization. In the U.S. the Catholic Church, for instance, has declined in the mid-west and northeast, but is growing in the southwest. The largest Catholic church in the U.S., St. Charles Borromeo in Visalia, California, was just built at a cost of over $18 million. It’s a megachurch and can accommodate over 3,000 people. The Catholic church is growing elsewhere in the south too — in Knoxville, Tennessee, a new cathedral was built and consecrated six years ago. The situation is more nuanced with Protestant communities too. According to one estimate, each year 4,000 new small Evangelical-style churches are “planted” in the U.S., while 3,700 close each year.

The third misleading element of Ms. Novák’s speech is drawing a parallel between the restoration or construction of churches in Hungary and the strength and engagement of the faithful. The Hungarian government has pumped state funding into the construction of churches, including for national vanity projects overseas, such as the First Hungarian Baptist Church of Toronto. Without government subsidies, these church building projects wouldn’t be possible. The collection plate is hardly sufficient.

It isn’t sufficient in large measure because the number of Hungarians identifying as Reformed has been shrinking — a statistical fact that Ms. Novák fails to mention. The proportion of Christian Reformed Hungarians stood at 21 percent in 1992. By 2011, the proportion fell to 12 percent. Catholics also saw steep declines (from 68 percent to 37 percent in the same period), as did Lutherans (from 4 percent to 2 percent).  The proportion indicating no specific denomination or irreligious grew from 10 percent in 2001 to 27 percent ten years later. We’re still awaiting the results of the 2022 census pertaining to religion. With major denominations (Catholic, Reformed and Lutheran) having urged Hungarians during the census in fall 2022 to self-identify with their church, it’s possible that there may be a modest upswing. Yet Pew Research showed a decline in the number of Hungarians Christians overall, from 8.1 million in 2010 to 7.7 million in 2020.

The Reformed Church in Hungary has a history of affiliation with nationalism and with nationalist governments. Reformed leaders have formed a self-image of being the denomination most aligned with Hungarian patriotism. Yet alignment with Fidesz, including with the president who is a Fidesz politician through-and-through, won’t serve them well in the long-run. While we don’t have any ability to truly know Ms. Novák’s faith life, anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear knows that the current regime is divorced entirely from Christian principles.

One Comment

  1. Avatar Andras Boros-Kazai says:

    This publication has steadfastly praised any political movement or government that is “divorced entirely from Christian principles.”

    So why don’t you praise Novak?

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