From Budapest to Texas (via Oxbridge): The Echoes of Populism and Modern “Culture Wars” 

Today we seem to be living through a new ‘culture war’ – a term born from profound tensions between young states and some of the old established churches in 19th century Germany and France. Claiming “Christian values” (pro-family, anti-Islam, anti-LGBT), populist leaders of the likes of Trump, Orbán, and Putin have indeed revived controversies over the ultimacy of political authority. This time, it is not between church or state, but about the relationship between the will of the people and the accountability of the will of the people before the law. 

Several careful studies call our attention to the role of churches and church leaders in speaking out against the Far Right. These include The Claim to Christianity: Responding to the Far Rightthe recently published The Godless Crusadeand the forthcoming collection The Christian Right in Europe. However, some Christian thinkers, mostly of the post-liberal variety, have rather cozied up to such populists, perhaps out of a naiveté that the balance of authority might shift again towards Christianity.

The populists’ claim on “Christian values” is, however, only one part of polarization between so-called “conservatives” and “progressives”. In reality, they challenge not just certain liberal values – the stuff about LGBT rights, abortion, and so-called “family values” – they challenge entire structures of political security and mutual protection. Through the compromise of judicial independence and attempts thereto (lately under Benjamin Netanyahu), among other things, they put the rule of law under the demands of national culture. 

The National Conservatism conference, hosted this week in London, is a clear example of this. On behalf of the Edmund Burke Foundation, figures such as former advisor to Netanyahu Yoram Hazony and Orbán admirer Rod Dreher try to make a case for a conservatism that is rooted in a peculiar idea of nationhood. Hazony’s argument is that the modern nation is part of the created order, similarly to Stephen Wolfe’s argument in The Case for Christian Nationalism

In the lead-up to NatCon 2023, well-known post-liberals like John Milbank and Adrian Pabst have expressed their profound criticism of national conservatism. As Milbank points out, there is an errant reading of scripture that takes Babel as the created order, and not Genesis 1-2. Both Wolfe and Hazony produce misleading interpretations of scripture that many evangelical theologians and biblical scholars have already rejected. 

Indeed, in “National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles”, references to the nation mix up the normative and the descriptive in an account that reads as neither theology nor law. It asserts that the Rule of Law is about the acceptance “of the laws of the nation” (normally the Rule of Law binds a political community to state law and international law…) It’s a narrative and network that takes “a grim view of Western liberal democracy”, as Anne Applebaum reported as early as 2020. 

Within the British context, it appears that emeritus professor Nigel Biggar (McDonald Centre at Christ Church, Oxford) and Cambridge lecturer James Orr (Chairman NatCon UK) have bought deeply into the case of national conservatism. Last year, Nigel Biggar also lent his name to Hungary delivering a keynote at the launch of the well-funded Hungarian Mathias Corvinus Colegium chapter in Brussels. Although ideas within these circles can diverge, their interests in the British empire, national sovereignty, and their Christianist preferences will find a home there. 

In April 2023, the Prime Minister’s political director Balázs Orbán tweeted a deal with the MCC and the Roger Scruton Legacy Foundation (of which James Orr is a trustee) to increase the presence of the MCC at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. This will likely complement the activities of the Trinity Forum and Scriptoria geared up at several UK universities and the Scruton Memorial Lectures put on at Oxford’s Sheldonian – convening a mix of people who are in some cases committed, and in other cases ambivalent or even unaware of its ties to the Far Right.

At last year’s political festival Tusványos, an annual event of Fidesz-propaganda in Romania, Reformed bishop Tőkés László and Reformed lay leader Zsolt Németh flanked Viktor Orban in the speech that made the international headlines for his comments against racial mixing. Orbán also suggested that no Hungarian blood should flow in a Slavic war (in the official translation: “as one of which we want to stay out of”) – referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the role of the Ukrainian-Hungarian minority. 

Orbán argued that Europe was divided in good and evil – much in the spirit of the rhetoric that Patriarch Kirill and President Putin used to legitimize the war – but with the boundary moved slightly further West. Whereas Putin claimed that the “Russian World” will save Christian Europe, Orbán echoed it would be the “Hungarian World” that carries the burden thereof. 

In the Tusványos panel “Christianity in the Western World”, featuring Hungarian deputy Prime Minister Semjén Zsolt and three Christian bishops (Reformed, Catholic, Unitarian), it was claimed that liberalism (here vaguely meaning LGBT-rights, migration, and feminism) had “poisoned” and “polluted” Europe, and that it needed to be “eradicated” and “extinct” for real (Christian?) values to flow back into the mainstream. With that, the West and its liberalism became a symbol of evil.

The Danube Institute, a well-funded think tank in Budapest where Hazony and Dreher are visiting fellows, was an official co-sponsor to Tusványos. Its chairman, John O’Sullivan and many of its fellows are noted for their attendance at the NatCon conference in London this week. These connections are not accidental. 

Last year, James Orr published an interview in the Hungarian magazine Mandiner on the back of a conference organized by the Danube Institute and the National University of Public Service. In it, he spoke about the moral decline of liberalism, especially through the disregard for family values. The German chancellor Angela Merkel, he argued, had not understood the importance of family values because she does not have children herself. 

Connections also extend across the Atlantic. In early 2023, the Hungarian President, Katalin Novák addressed a circle of “Christian realists” in the USA. This follows an existing pattern of Hungarian-American relationships. The New York Times Magazine reported in 2021 on the activities of Rod Dreher and former Fox News host Tucker Carlson in promoting Viktor Orbán to an American conservative audience. Viktor Orbán delivered the opening speech at the Conservative Political Action Coalition (CPAC) in Texas in 2022, and again at CPAC Hungary in May 2023 – with the fitting slogan “United we Stand”.

This variety has acquired a taste for political leaders that like to compromise the structures that hold them accountable – as well as for the resources they have on offer for transnational network building. Aligning with politics that weaken courts, discredit free press, and elevate their personalities above the responsibilities of their office will however do few if any favors to the Christian tradition. 

Cover image concept by Dr. Tornike Metreveli, developed with the assistance of OpenAI.

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