Robert Benne is Jordan Trexler Professor Emeritus and founding Director of the Center for Religion at Roanoke College, USA. He has spent his scholarly career studying the relationship between religion and politics and is the author of ten books, including, most recently, Good and Bad Ways to Think about Religion and Politics and Reasonable Ethics: A Christian Approach to Social, Economic, and Political Concerns. He has spent extensive time in both Germany and Britain and follows European affairs with interest. In light of the heightened attention Hungary has received in the Western media after Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech at Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő), Principium asked Prof. Benne to share with us his impressions of the speech.
Viktor Orbán’s speech at Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) has received a lot of attention in the Western media. You’ve read the English translation of the speech available on the Hungarian government webpage. What did you think?
Benne: I can understand some of Mr. Orbán’s grievances: the danger that nations will lose their independence to a large bureaucratic state, i.e., the EU; the cultural decadence of Western popular culture; powerful foreign forces buffeting a small nation; and domestic political deadlock. But the solutions Orbán offers are abhorrent because they will lead to authoritarian nationalism. His list of “models” for Hungary is truly appalling: Russia, China, and Turkey being the most outlandish. All three are authoritarian states with few freedoms. The other two don’t fit: India is moving toward a more open-market democracy, and Singapore is more like a libertarian city-state that has its own demographic problems.
What do you think of Prime Minister Orbán’s ideal of an “illiberal democracy”?
Benne: I found it truly worrisome. There is a whiff of fascism in the vision–direct knowledge and mystic representation of the people, strong racial nationalism, xenophobia, an impulse to co-opt and coordinate civil society (Gleichschaltung?), and a rejection of human rights. Truly an illiberal state. But like strong-men before him, Orbán underestimates the power and resilience of Western democracies, especially the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Although 2008 was damaging for democracies, it was not a historical paradigm-shift. An American President like the current one, who wants to retreat from foreign affairs, will not be in office forever; and Europe, though weakening, is not exactly dead.
But in Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) Orbán said he wanted to build a nation on Christian values. Shouldn’t Christians respect him for that?
Benne: One is tempted by his respect for Christianity, but I fear Orbán’s would be a “tamed” Christianity subservient to political power. Orbán is right that Christianity can provide the wholesome values needed to sustain a good society, but Christians need to be free to speak out and act according to their own vision of the truth. Religion co-opted by the state soon becomes dishonest, impotent, and, when it abandons its commitment to transcendent truths, even demonic. Co-opted religion quickly becomes compliant or complicit with evil. Co-opted religion isn’t truly free. Orbán should show greater respect for the First Freedom, namely, freedom of religion.