In Hungary, Croatia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, a pro-family, pro-life revolution and a rediscovery of Christian roots is occurring. While few in the American media have noticed, this trend should challenge those who simply lament Europe’s moral malaise. Unnoticed in the shadow of a secularized west, religion’s public role has been growing in the east since the collapse of communism.
Since taking power in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orban—a charismatic veteran of Hungary’s anti-Communist underground—has victoriously stood at the forefront of what Americans call the culture wars. In 2011, Orban’s government ratified a new constitution that defines marriage as the union of a man and woman, speaks of the rights of unborn Hungarians, and ties Christianity to Hungarian nationhood. In 2013, Orban’s government reintroduced—for the first time since before Communism—religious education in public schools. Meanwhile, Orban (the father of five children) has made the Hungarian tax code friendlier toward large families.
Orban himself can be said to symbolize Hungary’s reawakening. Born in 1963 to a nominally Calvinist family (Hungary is a mixed Protestant-Catholic country), Orban had no religious upbringing aside from being baptized. His father was a devout Communist, and while Christianity played a crucial role in the collapse of Communism across the Eastern Bloc, it did not in Hungary.
After the Vatican failed to protect Hungary’s courageous Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty and replaced anti-Communist bishops with collaborationist toadies as part of its 1960s policy of Ostpolitik, the Catholic Church (followed by its Protestant brothers) was either driven underground or collaborated with the regime. Hungary’s anti-Communist dissidents were largely anti-clerical.
Yet since the collapse of Communism, Hungarian society, like Orban, has started to rediscover its roots. Orban began to reclaim his Calvinist roots, thanks to his Catholic wife. He read voraciously about Christianity and in the 1990s received confirmation.
Another figure symbolizing Hungary’s spiritual renaissance is Cardinal Peter Erdo, one of the youngest members of the College of Cardinals, born in 1952 to a devout family that practiced its faith secretly. Since becoming the archbishop of Budapest, Erdo has enlisted young volunteers to knock on doors across Hungary, encouraging lapsed Catholics to return to their parishes. His voice has become influential in Hungarian society, as he has vocally condemned secularism, consumerism, poverty, anti-Semitism, and discrimination against Hungary’s Roma.
Evidence of the strength of Hungary’s spiritual renaissance is that Pope Francis has so far planned few foreign visits in the future, yet he has accepted an invitation to visit Hungary in 2016.
Hungary’s Christian, natural law revolution is primarily top-down (while a growing number of Hungarians are rediscovering their roots, church attendance remains low). By contrast, neighboring Croatia is a society where the people have defended the family in defiance of secularist politicians. Since gaining independence in 1991, the Croats have rediscovered their Catholic identity largely thanks to the role the Church played in fighting for Croats’ rights under Yugoslav rule.
Francisco Javier Lozano—the Vatican’s former nuncio in Croatia—has called Croatia “Europe’s most Catholic country.” It was not so twenty years ago. According to sociologist Anica Marinovic-Bobinac’s research, the proportion of Croats believing in God has risen from 39 percent in 1989 to 75 percent in 1996 and 82 percent in 2004. In the past two decades, Croatia’s population has sharply declined by about a half a million out of 4.8 million, with a declining birthrate mostly caused by high unemployment and large numbers of youths seeking better material prospects abroad, with large Croat communities in North America, Chile, and Australia. Yet despite this demographic slump, the number of young men studying for the priesthood in Croatia has been remarkably stable. Since 1991 it has been virtually unchanged, between four hundred and five hundred.
Yet the strength of Croatia’s revolution was seen last month, when an overwhelming majority of Croats—65 percent—voted to amend their national constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. This occurred after 700,000 people—one-fifth of Croatia’s adult population—signed a petition “In the Name of the Family” for the referendum to be held. Croatia’s bishops robustly supported this. Although Ivo Josipovic, Croatia’s president, was more concerned with pleasing the EU than with defending morality, he was forced to change Croatia’s constitution after the referendum.
Unfortunately, leaders in Brussels and Washington attack Hungary (Hillary Clinton has expressed “concerns” about democracy in Budapest) yet polls indicate Orban will be reelected in next year’s elections. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians have taken to the streets defending their government. The U. S. State Department now routinely pressures Eastern European nations (including other deeply Catholic ones like Slovakia and Poland) to sanction and encourage public expressions of homosexuality. In the wake of Croatia’s vote, Western media claimed the supermajority actually reflected “deep polarization” and quoted observers explaining this “radicalism” as the result of “economic troubles.”
While it is true that anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma have increased in Hungary in recent years, the nation’s government cannot be blamed for this. Nationalistic passions are inflamed by the far-right Jobbik party, which is in opposition. Orban’s government, by contrast, has taken ambitious measures to fight racism, including subsidizing vocational education for Roma and building strong ties with Hungary’s Jewish community. Blaming Orban for far-right radicalism is intellectually lazy.
While many academics speak of Europe as a uniform secularized continent, two decades after the collapse of Communism it is more accurate, if still too simple, to speak of two Europes: a West that has largely abandoned its religious roots, and an East that is rediscovering its heritage.
Hungary and Croatia are only two examples of post-Communist societies where the public role of religion is growing. Whereas Hungary and Croatia are experiencing a rebirth of Western Christianity, the Orthodox Churches are also booming east of the Elbe. Russia is rediscovering Orthodoxy. Patriarch Kirill’s influence is growing, more monasteries and parishes are reopened, growing numbers of Russians profess belief in God, and more young Russians are choosing a religious vocation. Meanwhile, Orthodoxy is also resurgent in neighboring Georgia. Evidence of this can be seen in the success that Georgia’s bishops had in encouraging their compatriots to have more children. After the bishops’ campaign, Georgia went from having one of Europe’s lowest birthrates to one of the highest among post-Communist countries. Meanwhile, Romania is currently building the world’s largest Orthodox church in Bucharest, a city once dominated by Nicolae Ceausescu’s totalitarian aesthetic.
Could a similar revival happen in Western Europe? Optimists might point to the millions of French Catholics—but also Jews, Muslims, and non-believers of good will—took to the streets to protest President Francois Hollande’s redefinition of marriage. Yet Western European nations took a very different political course from Eastern ones in the twentieth century, so analogies may be difficult.
Whether or not Hungary, Croatia, or other nations pave the way for a religious revival across Europe remains to be seen. However, this gives hope, especially for the East. Perhaps God is not quite dead in Europe.