Putting the Critique of Christian Nationalism Back in the Praxis of Ethnographic Research

Ethnographers of Christianity have become increasingly vocal in our opposition to Christian nationalism. What difference does this critique make to our ethnographic praxis, which for many means a commitment to studying Christianity not only in particular locations but also in socio-historically situated relationships? What consequences will we face (or avoid) on account of our critique, and what might this say about the ethical character of critique itself? 

In 2019, Pope Francis, head of the global Catholic Church, celebrated Mass for half a million at the Our Lady of Csíksomlyó shrine during his official visit to Romania. Our Lady of Csíksomlyó is the Hungarian national shrine, but is located in one of Romania’s ethnic Hungarian enclaves in the Transylvania region. On official maps, the site has the Romanian name Șumuleu Ciuc. 

Csíksomlyó is also my ethnographic fieldsite, the subject of my book, Hungarian Catholic Intellectuals in Contemporary Romania: Reforming Apostles. For three years between 2009 and 2013, I lived there and observed everyday life by conducting interviews, joining prayer groups and choirs, and participating in rituals. I even lived with the Franciscans who have had a friary at Csíksomlyó since the 15th century.

For many Transylvanian Hungarian intellectuals, the pope’s visit was historic. One local schoolteacher, Emil, sent me a celebratory email soon after news broke. “You can imagine,” he wrote, “The entire region is preparing to welcome the pope.” I could picture his excitement; Emil had become a caring mentor to me during the year I rented a room in his house and lived with his devoutly Catholic family. 

A month before Emil wrote to me about the pope, Central European University (CEU) announced that Hungary’s right-wing Christian nationalist government, led by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party, had forced it to relocate. I had been in residence at CEU in 2013 in the Sociology and Social Anthropology Department. While CEU bent over backward to comply with the government’s demands, Fidesz officials approached these negotiations in bad faith and eventually CEU’s administration announced it was moving to Vienna, Austria.

Like many others, I mourned this loss from Hungarian intellectual culture. But I felt a special kind of emotional whiplash when, amid Hungarian intellectuals’ public grieving, my Transylvanian friends were trumpeting the pope’s decision to honor all Hungarians with this upcoming visit.

In February, I reached out to America: The Jesuit Review, a century-old magazine known as the primary voice of the US Catholic progressive intelligentsia. I had never pitched an editorial before, but the editors invited me to submit an article about the pope’s visit to Csíksomlyó. I called it, “A message to Pope Francis: Be wary of right-wing populists when you visit Romania.” 

In the years leading up to this piece in America, I had published several flagrantly critical articles in social scientific journals—including pieces in Hungarian translation—and fielded no responses from Catholic Church officials. In contrast, within two weeks of appearing on America’s website, “A Message to Pope Francis,” was covered by journalists for secular and Catholic publications in LithuaniaHungaryRomaniaItalyBrazil, and France. The leader of Hungary’s Jesuit Order published a rebuttal. 

I have not heard from Emil since publishing my article. While I was living with him, I also sang in the bass section of the Csíksomlyó shrine’s volunteer choir. When my article about the pope’s visit went viral, a man in the bass section sent a Facebook message: “I hope this isn’t true,” he wrote alongside a link to a right-wing Hungarian magazine that had covered my article. “If it is, then I hope that you never set foot here again.”

After American voters elected Donald Trump to the country’s presidency in 2016, many anthropologists who study evangelical Christians and right-wing Catholics in North America and Europe were disturbed, even disgusted. In many informal conversations, we shook our heads and wondered quietly how so many Catholics and Evangelical Christians could feel such an affinity for a right-wing nationalist and authoritarian. Since then, this headshaking has turned into critique. A number of academic books have sought to unmask the structures of power that grant right-wing Catholics and Evangelical Christians privileges not afforded to historically marginalized communities. 

Based on my jarringly disparate experiences publishing in anthropology journals versus Christian magazines, I am skeptical of the stated goals of this new turn to critique among anthropologists of Christianity. I suspect that what I discovered is already widely known to social scientists: that our articles in anthropology journals and books in university presses reach only a small group of like-minded scholars. 

Put bluntly, for exhortation’s sake, why bother to criticize Christian populist nationalism in publications that everyday Christians and church leaders will not read? Do critical anthropologists of Christianity really want to change the minds of churches’ decision-makers, raise Christians’ awareness about moderate, progressive, radical, anarchist, and other voices, and more broadly change the public conversation in these institutions? Have those anthropologists, so disturbed and disgusted by right-wing Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity, received feedback from their ethnographic interlocutors whom they thus critique? What professional and personal consequences – as ethnographers committed to participant observation in and through relationships with religious others – have they suffered as a result of their critiques? Until ethnographic social scientists publish their critique in journals that Christian church leaders will actually read, I fear that the critique of Christian populist nationalism will remain a riskless and solipsistic endeavor.

*The piece is a condensed version of the Conclusion of Loustau’s book.

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