The importance of religion at different societal levels in contemporary Hungary

How does Prime Minister Viktor Orbáns emphasise on the importance of Christianity in Hungary’s history effect recent politics? An analysis of new regulations concerning religious freedom and churches, which redefine the relationship between the state and certain churches.

Recent articles and publications about Hungary have focused on the special relationship between Christianity and the state, as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán often emphasises the importance of religion (more precisely the role of Christianity and the Hungarian Catholic Church) in Hungary’s history. The following are two short examples from his speeches, one in a Hungarian context and one in a European context:

Our perception is that the Christian culture is the guideline of the history of Hungary. I am led by the firm conviction that only on the basis of these traditions – these national, Christian and European traditions – can a strong and successful Hungary be built. (14 March 2014)

The fact that Christian roots, traditions and philosophy do not receive due recognition in the institutions of the European Union is an open wound for millions in Europe to the present day. Christianity is not just a religion, but a culture on which we have built an entire civilisation. This is not a question of choice, but one of facts. (8 May 2014)

This paper addresses the background of this issue, concentrating in particular on new regulations concerning religious freedom and churches, and the importance of Christianity in the new Hungarian constitution, which – through these regulations – forms an implicitly defined new relationship between the state and certain, mainly Christian churches. Recently, religious and ethics education in public schools has also become an important issue that will be addressed here as well.

Some important Statistics[1]

Based on the 2011 census, 39% of the population are Catholic, 11.6% are Reformed and 2.2% are Lutheran, while 18.2% responded “I do not belong any religious community or denomination” and 27.2% did not answer the question concerning religiosity in Hungarian society. A notable change can be seen in these figures compared to the 2001 census, where 54.5% were Catholic, 15.9% Reformed, 3% Lutheran, 14.5% said they did not belong to any religious community or denomination, and 10.8% did not answer the question. Meanwhile, it must be mentioned that the number of respondents claiming affiliation to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and “Faith Church” (“Hit Gyülekezete” – both are considered to be Christian charismatic sects) has almost doubled in the same period.

The increasing number of people who do not want to answer the question also suggests that religious affiliation has become a more private, personal issue in the last ten years. We can explain this process through secularisation theory, which describes similar characteristics (decreasing number of religious practitioners in historical churches, the “privatisation” of religious belief, growing numbers of adherents to new religious movements, etc.), but we must also take into consideration other theories such as those of deprivation and relative power, which examine the positive correlation between growing numbers of religious people (in this case people belonging to new religious movements) and growing inequality and poverty in the given society[2] – as these processes can be seen in contemporary Hungary.[3] From a more practical point of view, however, what has happened concerning religion at the public and political levels in the last few years and how is this reflected in societal changes?

The appearance of Christianity in official documents

The National Avowal

In 2011, a new constitution, the Fundamental Law of Hungary, was formulated and – after many critical debates – entered to force on 1 January 2012. The first part of the document is the preamble, entitled “National Avowal”, which emphasises the importance of Hungarian history, national identity and Hungary’s role in Europe. The title itself, the Avowal, is religiously symbolic, but Christianity also appears explicitly in the document:

We recognise the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood. We value the various religious traditions of our country.

One of the basic criticisms of the preamble is this direct inclusion of Christianity as a tool for preserving nationhood, thus the direct interconnection of nationality and Christianity, whereas other religious traditions are considered “outsiders” with respect to national identity. The responses to this criticism have emphasised the importance of Christianity in the past, as well as its role as a tradition and not merely a religion. Such explanations remain problematic, however, if we look at one of the last sentences of the preamble:

Our Fundamental Law shall be the basis of our legal order; it shall be an alliance among Hungarians of the past, present and future. It is a living framework which expresses the nation’s will and the form in which we want to live.

Christianity is thus not just the framework of the past, but a basis of the legal order under which we wish to live today and in the future.

The Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religion

After the democratic transition, a new Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religion (Act IV of 1990) was formulated based on earlier Western practices, recognising 232 established churches and religious communities in Hungary. In 2011, the political explanation for the need to create a new Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religion was based on the desire to reduce the number of so-called “business churches”, i.e. communities which exist solely for the purpose of collecting state support without providing any form of religious service.[4] The new law, which entered into force in 2011, initially defined only 14 recognised churches – essentially the historical churches of Hungary plus the Faith Church.[5]

The main criteria for recognition of an established church were sharply criticised due to positive discrimination in favour of Christian churches (100 years of international activity, 20 years of activity in Hungary, membership of at least 0.1% of the population) and negative discrimination against world religions such as Islam and Buddhism, as well as smaller religious communities – including those with historical roots in Hungarian society. Official status as an established church enables a community to receive material support from the state or the EU for maintaining institutions and providing social care and education, as well as the opportunity to receive tax relief. In short, there are many benefits to being an established church, and radically cutting the number of such churches caused serious harm to those who were excluded.

Politicians and religious leaders challenged numerous aspects of the law, and thus at the end of 2011 it was changed: the list of established churches was expanded, and from 1 January 2012 the number of such churches was increased to 27.[6] Criticism was levelled not only against the conditions for becoming an established church, however, but also against the process itself (e.g. the decision on becoming an established church must be approved by the parliament – a provision which has been ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court), and thus there are still some parts of the law which are being reconciled.

The critics focused mainly on the lack of a clear separation between the churches and the state at the legal level – one of the basic tenets of the constitution – as the parliament has disproportionate decision-making power regarding the legal status of religious communities, as well as on the provision of excessive support to Hungary’s historical churches. The positive discrimination in favour of recognised churches can be seen in changes to the material support provided to them, as well as in the growing number of state schools being maintained by churches since 2011–2012. A similar phenomenon can be observed regarding ethics and religious education in connection with changes to the Law on Public Education, to which I will turn the next section.

Church-owned schools, ethics education and religious education

Since 2011, the number of church-owned schools has increased significantly due to the special financing system in force until 2013. Public schools were maintained financially from two sources: normative financial support from the central budget and contributions from the municipalities in question – namely a supplementary subsidy – which was automatically provided by the state to church-maintained schools under a 1997 agreement between the Holy See and the Republic of Hungary. Consequently, financially disadvantaged municipalities placed public schools under the supervision of official churches. Starting in 2013, both the financing and operational functions were centralised, although this only applied to the salaries of public servants.

Thus, church-maintained schools enjoy a certain amount of freedom at a reduced cost to municipalities through savings on building maintenance. The new law also changed the financing of schools supported by private foundations, where the trend toward church-maintained institutions can be observed as well. In 2009–2010, the number of students attending church-owned schools was around 109,000 out of 1,763,000, while in 2012–2013 this figure was 190,000 out of 1,711,000. Most of these schools are owned by the Roman Catholic Church, but also the Reformed Church and Evangelical-Lutheran Church play an important role. Churches which lost their official status also lost their right to maintain schools.

This increasing number of church-owned schools has other consequences as well, however, in conjunction with the new Law on Public Education (Act CXC of 2011) which addresses ethics education and religious education. Evidently, religious education is compulsory in religious schools, and thus the growing numbers of such schools go hand in hand with the growing numbers (more precisely, the growing proportion in society) of students receiving religious education.

Another important novelty is compulsory ethics education – a new part of the National Curriculum which has been criticised from many sides. Before presenting the core issues levelled by these critics, however, it is important to point out two things. First, although ethics is strongly interconnected with religion, we should not forget that there are different religious traditions, and thus general ethics education should not be based on just one of them – even if Hungary is part of the so-called Judeo-Christian culture. Second, the critics have not called into question the importance or relevance of ethics education as such, but rather the method in which it has been introduced, as well as general doubts about the curriculum’s contents and potential confusion with religious education.

The main critics targeted two issues: the competence of the teachers, and the contents of ethics education – including how ethics is conceived. As for teacher education, in the higher grades an only 60 hours of additional training is required to become an ethics teacher if the applicant lacks a relevant degree in the field; this means that practically anyone can become an ethics teacher, which obviously calls into question the quality of ethics education. Since in public schools parents can organise religious education for their religious children as a substitute for ethics courses, ethics education is considered a kind of “profane” religious education. This has also been strongly criticised by religious leaders, because the basic contents of these religious courses are the dogmas, teachings and history of a given religion or religious denomination, which cannot be compared to general ethics education.

The critical voices were even louder when ethics textbooks were introduced, as their contents were based exclusively on Christian ethics, without taking into consideration any other conception of ethical issues. For example, the acts which are considered sins are introduced from a biblical point of view, but an explanation of sin itself is lacking, as are other approaches to such acts. It is therefore no exaggeration to state that this form of ethics education is actually quite close to Christian education, which in turn can have implications with respect to tolerance of different religious and ethical traditions. Despite all of these doubts and criticisms, however, compulsory ethics education entered into force in September 2013 – its contents justified by Christianity’s historical role in Hungarian society.


The basic statistics on religion in Hungarian society show a visible decline in traditional church-related religiosity. In contrast, the decision-makers at the political level are placing disproportionate importance on Christianity and certain historical churches at both the public and – through education – private level of society. Research on religiosity has defined the role of socialisation as one of the most important factors in becoming religious, and thus religious and Christian ethics education among youth could have a huge effect (as well as a possible counter-effect) on future generations. What is quite evident here is a form of compulsory “Christian” socialisation of society, without taking into consideration its actual religious composition, and most importantly at the political level a strongly emphasised connection between Christianity and the Hungarian nation.

Proofreading by Evan Mellander


[2] Glock, Charles Y. 1964. ‘‘The Role of Deprivation in the Origin and Evolution of Religious Groups.’’ in Robert Lee and Martin E. Marty, eds., Religion and Social Conflict. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 24–36;

Solt, F. – Habel, P – Grant, J. Tobin, 2011. Economic Inequality, Relative Power and Religiosity, Social Science Quarterly, Volume 92, Number 2, June 2011.

[4] The broad definition of “church” made it possible for many types of religious communities to become officially accepted and thus to receive support from the 1% of yearly tax paid by citizens in Hungary.

[5]The 14 churches recognised initially were: Western-Christian: Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist; five Eastern-Orthodox churches; three Jewish churches, a Unitarian church, a Baptist church and the Faith Church, the major Pentecostal church in Hungary.