Christian Democrats Must Defend their Liberal Identity

June 2020

In this time of crisis, the Christian vision of politics has enormous potential. But its democratic proponents must act boldly as the populist right wing is occupying its values. In Hungary, in the name of Christian Democracy Viktor Orban has transformed the country into a 21st-century-style authoritarian regime - and a model for others.

by Zsuzsanna Szelényi


On a hot summer’s day in July 2019, hundreds gathered to hear Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán at the Tusványos Summer Festival in Romania’s Hungarian-populated Transylvania region. His main message was positive: “We are Christian Democrats” and he mentioned the word “Christian” 31 times. He concluded saying: “Liberal democracy is liberal. But Christian Democracy is by definition not liberal but, if you like, it’s illiberal.”

Today, Orbán sees himself and his Fidesz party as the vehicle of a ‘new European Christian Democracy’. This vision is so popular among his Hungarian followers and to many abroad that it’s worth examining what he means by it – and consider how western Europe’s Christian Democrats can outflank it.

The legacy of Kohl and Antall

Orbán, once a young liberal politician and mentored by Otto von Lambsdorff, turned to the right after József Antall, the first freely elected prime minister of Hungary and a Conservative, died in 1993. Orbán quickly took on Antall’s Conservative profile. He successfully attracted Antall’s supporters and became the leading center-right party chief in Hungary by 1998.

Despite his short political career, Antall left a significant political legacy. Nurturing a close relationship with Helmut Kohl, his dream was to build a strong, CDU-type people’s party in Hungary. In 1991, he said: “We declare ourselves liberal Christian democrats as we can only imagine a Christian democracy that deeply believes in parliamentarism and liberal values…  Liberalism and democracy become so strongly intertwined in the 19th century that when we speak about liberalism today, we mean rule of law and market economy.”

Antall followed in the footsteps of the postwar Christian democratic movement in Western Europe, which laid the building blocks of European political culture: democracy, ordered liberty, and human rights based on God-ordained human dignity. Christian democrats represented freedom and cared about social protection. They rejected nationalism and sovereignism, which they perceived as the major threat for a just and healthy community. Their politicians cherished institutions that check and balance power in order to avoid its abuse. The movement was essentially internationalist, believing deeply in subsidiarity and multilateral cooperation.

As in each and every small nation liberated from repression in 1989, national feelings naturally came to the front in Hungary. Antall was aware of both the nationalist yearnings and the threat of nationalism. He emphasized in his 1991 speech: “No nationalist ideals can be tolerated which do not internalise liberal values such as rule of law and market economy”.

At first, Orbán seemed to follow Antall’s legacy and he expanded his base by attracting voters with the idea of building a bürgerliche democracy. In 2000 his party left the European Liberals and joined to the European People’s Party. As his power was consolidated, so he demonstrated hegemonic aspirations. Following the devastating financial economic crisis, in 2010 he gained 52% of the popular votes in the general election, which gave him a constitutional supermajority in parliament. Orbán used his exceptional strength to further increase his power ever since.

Just a political product

In our extraordinary times, just as Liberalism and Social Democracy are in flux, the reinterpretation of Christian Democracy is also on the agenda: it must be made fit for the twenty-first century. So far, it has not been the classical European Christian Democratic parties that have offered a new vision. In September 2018 Orbán addressed the European Parliament, stating, “We think differently about Europe’s Christian character and the role of national cultures. We interpret the essence and mission of the family in different ways, and we have diametrically opposed views on migration.”

Claiming that the West is in decline, Orbán has transformed Hungary into an authoritarian regime for the 21st century. The aim of his ten-year-long regime has been to strengthen his power by centralising the state, weaken the institutions of checks and balances and the rule of law, and paralyse the political opposition. He erected a “system of national cooperation” in which the ruling party is equal to the state. The constitution was rewritten accordingly, as were laws governing the media and elections. State functions were rapidly filled with the prime minister’s friends; an independent judiciary, and the division of state and church was thrown into question. By pushing foreign media owners out of Hungary, Orbán’s cronies accumulated hundreds of media outlets and turned them into party propaganda machines. Orbán’s Fidesz party’s fiscal conservatism has been overshadowed by rampant corruption and protectionist economic policy.

One of the secrets of Orbán’s popularity is that he promises to elevate Hungarians to being the ‘winners of history’. He gestures back to the times of national grandeur that were lost after World War I. He talks about what Hungarians “deserve.” This national recovery should happen as a result of the heroic fight of Orbán’s system against the “enemy.” The plot against the nation, he claims, is orchestrated by the US-financed, cosmopolitan, European left-liberals who are organising masses of Muslim migrants to invade Europe and rid it of its Christian identity.

A few years ago, Gábor G. Fodor, a key ideologist of Orbán revealed in an interview that “conservative intellectuals were all in the delusion that the slogan of ‘bürgerliche Hungary’ was political reality, however, it was only a political product. Good politics is neither post-romantic, nor ideologic, it’s simply action-oriented”- he said.

Orbán, who has been criticised extensively by progressive European circles, needed to re-engage his followers and allies in his personal fight. This is why in his summer speech in Tusnádfürdő, he started to sell another political product. Orbán concluded his speech claiming that the only thing that can push back the detrimental liberal dominance and save Europe, was Christianity – Fidesz-style. He stressed that European conservatives have betrayed traditional values and accepted the left’s cosmopolitanism, and he called for a new movement of illiberal Christian democrats.

Orbán’s definition of Christian Democracy flies in the face of traditional European Christian Democracy, which represented decency and civilisation in Europe. His “Christian identity” is a fundamentally negative creed that separates “good people” from “bad people.” Christian Democracy, for him, is not about Christian belief but about belonging to the group of ‘the good people’. This legitimizes the discrimination of Jews, Muslims, Socialists, and Liberals. In the name of Christianity, he creates a justification to attack and repress his critics and political rivals, ultimately undermining democratic institutions and demoralizing society. This Christianism, as used first by Andrew Sullivan, means Christianity as a political identity denuded of ethical content.

The poisonous mix of ethno-nationalism and exclusion in the name of Christian Democracy provides the framework for the far-right populist culture war that is played out today across Europe. Ever since Orbán’s takeover in 2010, his political influence has spread in Europe both among the extreme right and conservative political circles.

Crisis demands bolder politics now

The Coronavirus pandemic is a dramatic social experience: it bolsters social anxiety that has already been generated by globalisation, technological revolution, and climate change. This mixture of nervousness could well be exacerbated by the economic problems following the epidemic. Orbán, who has been shouting about existential threats for years, has finally proved to be ‘right’. As prime minister, he must now really protect people from a deadly epidemic, and he can finally fill his lies with substance. When the crisis hit Hungary, Orbán did not hesitate to use his power and announce an unlimited state of emergency with a carte blanche rule for his government.

Despite the coronavirus crisis across Europe, thirteen party chiefs of Fidesz’s own party family, the European People’s Party (EPP), expressed their deep concern about Orbán’s power grab and the rule of law and human rights in Hungary. Donald Tusk, the leader of this political grouping said that „Governments using the coronavirus crisis to stage an executive power grab would be "politically dangerous, and morally unacceptable."

Orbán’s response was fast and straightforward. “With all due respect, I have no time for this!” he replied on 3 April to the secretary general of the EPP. At the same time, he wrote to CDU President Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer complaining on Donald Tusk and blaming him with seeding division in the party family of the European People’s Party. So far, CDU remained silent.

German Christian Democrats have long hesitated on how to treat Orban and his troublesome politics. The guiding German diplomatic paradigm of dialogue with partners and adversaries alike, and the primacy of smooth economic relationships has stopped them from developing an unequivocal strategy with the provocative ‘family member’.

The acute coronavirus crisis focuses our attention to existential questions. Good crisis management and mitigation of harm are essential for successful survival. Non-ideological, action-oriented politics is the norm of the moment. It’s difficult to see when the time will be ‘appropriate’ to discuss issues like the rule of law. On the other hand, in crisis period, when people must adapt quickly to new situations, there is special opportunity to shape or reshape people’s mindset. Political leadership is tested far beyond the daily crisis management.

In Europe, we have an exceptional chance to fix our damaged democracy and create more resilient communities for the long-term. This is the perfect time to demonstrate how we want to live together in the future in a pluralist society. Christian democracy has the potential to show its strength in the 21st century and German Christian Democrats, who are at a turning point, can lead this change. Unless it demonstrates its liberalism, fake Christian democrats will pack their crude power-politics into a Christian democratic wrapping that offers room for the far right to gain yet more momentum in Europe.

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