David Baer on religious freedom in Hungary

February 3, 2015

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Professor H. David Baer belongs to a unique group. He is among a handful of American scholars with expertise on Hungary. His criticisms of the current government, and its laws on religion in particular, have received international attention.

Aside from his position as an associate professor of theology and philosophy, Baer has a personal connection with Hungary. His wife, whom he met while they were both attending Emory University, is Hungarian. In the early 1990s, they moved to Hungary where Baer researched the effects of communism on religious life. Later, with the help of a Fulbright Fellowship, he taught for a semester in Budapest at Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church. While there, he saw the effects communism left on the country.

“The first time I was in Hungary was 1992,” Baer said. “The Berlin Wall had fallen only a few years before, and you could still see the effects of communism throughout Eastern Europe. Hungary was considered one of the more advanced post-communist countries and there was a lot of optimism about its future. Unfortunately, over the past 20 years things didn’t go as well as people expected and the country has started slipping into something like a managed, authoritarian democracy. It’s a little like Russia under Putin, only not as extreme.”

Recently, Baer completed a sabbatical in Hungary supported by the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) with funds from the U.S. Department of State. His research focused on how “deregistered” religious communities have been affected by the new laws. He studied many different kinds of groups, including a Methodist church that works with the homeless, and other churches which focus on educational outreach in gypsy ghettos. Overall, Baer said, the results of his research were fairly discouraging.

“In 2012, Hungary’s political regime introduced a new law on ‘religious freedom’ that stripped most small religious communities of their legal status. My research involved a lot of fieldwork with marginal groups, like nondenominational Christians and Pentecostals, who are considered ‘sects’ or ‘business churches’ in Hungary. Because these groups aren’t recognized as churches, they don’t receive certain kinds of assistance from the state, and people have trouble donating money to them. Many deregistered churches appealed to the Hungarian Supreme Court, but when they won their case the government just changed the constitution. After that, they took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, and won again. But so far the Hungarian government refuses to acknowledge the decision. A lot of these deregistered churches are now having trouble supporting themselves financially, and it’s getting difficult for them to maintain congregations and continue their missions. It’s really sad to see.”

Baer said the current government appeals to Christianity to justify its ideology. The government claims to represent Hungary’s national traditions, and invokes the authority of St. Stephen, Hungary's first Christian king. At first, this rhetoric won the government a lot of support among Hungary's historically established churches. More recently, however, those same churches have started to distance themselves. When the new government came into power Baer wrote an open letter to the people of Hungary asking them to protest the government’s law on religion. Baer never imagined that letter would go viral.

“Because I have a lot of personal connections in Hungary and know lots of people in Hungary’s historical churches, I felt compelled to respond to what I considered a misuse of the Christian name,” Baer said. “A Catholic Archbishop responded to my letter, and his response was posted on the webpage of one of the governing political parties. But instead of discrediting me, the archbishop inadvertently created a national scandal. His letter was so outlandish that a leader of the political opposition, the former prime minister, decided to respond to it. After that, all the national media in Hungary were reporting on the exchange between the archbishop, the former prime minister and me. For two or three months I was a public figure in Hungary. I even got some threatening emails from angry Hungarians who said they were prepared to defend their country’s national honor. After all this, I became a kind of point person for people wanting to know about the state of religious freedom in Hungary. It was quite an experience.”

Baer said most Hungarians feel culturally isolated because of their language being unrelated to almost all other European languages. This further isolates their churches. As a result of years and years of communist oppression and dwindling membership, the churches were separated from larger, international intellectual trends. In 2014, Baer founded a nonprofit called Christians Associated for Democracy that works to help overcome some of that isolation within Hungary’s churches. Its primary mission is to heighten awareness of the role religious faith can play in strengthening democratic civil society.

“Christians Associated for Democracy promotes this mission by publishing the bilingual English-Hungarian periodical, Principium, and by translating literature addressing the relationship between Christianity and democracy into and out of the world’s less frequently spoken languages,” Baer said. “The quality of public discourse in Hungary is pretty poor. It’s more like propaganda. That’s why I wanted to publish a journal, to introduce a broader, international perspective to Christians in Hungary.”

While there is concern for the issues of religious freedom, Baer said there is even more concern for freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary, and the centralization of political power. While he’s uncertain about Hungary’s future, Baer doesn’t think the forecast is very bright.

“I don’t think what the government is doing in Hungary can be sustained,” Baer said. “No one really knows what will happen, but it looks like the country is heading for a crisis. Hungary belongs to NATO and the European Union, but its relationship with both of these is increasingly strained. The situation in Ukraine also puts pressure on Hungary’s prime minister. Sooner or later, there will be a day of reckoning, and I worry things might not end well. Hopefully, though, I’m just a pessimist.”

H. David Baer is the author of The Struggle of Hungarians under Communism, Recovering Christian Realism: Just War Theory as a Political Ethic and A vallásszabadság védelmében / Essays in Defense of Religious Freedom. His personal webpage features his research and activism, as well as sections addressed specifically to students.

Dr. Baer discusses his research on religious freedom in Hungary. Watch the video on YouTube.

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