Christianity as a tool of authoritarianism – the case of Viktor Orbán

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Christianity as a tool of authoritarianism – the case of Viktor Orbán

Viktor Orbán has become internationally recognised as an autocratic leader, but how has he used Christianity to legitimise his power?

Since his election as Prime Minister in 2010, Viktor Orbán has transformed Hungarian politics. The country has changed from the liberal democracy that was created after the fall of communism to becoming the first EU member state to be described as ‘partly free’ by the NGO Freedom House.[1] During this process, Orbán has implemented a series of strategies that represent an alternative model of government, gaining him support from the far right across the globe.[2]

For Orbán, Christianity has become an important tool in creating legitimacy for his regime and defining its image both inside Hungary and abroad. In the first part of this two-part article, we will look at how Orbán has done this. In the second part, we will look at how in upcoming elections, according to analysts, Orbán will face his first real electoral challenge since 2010.[3] This challenge comes from Peter Marki Zay, a devout churchgoing Catholic, who has a very different understanding for the role of Christianity in politics.

Hungary – an unlikely candidate

In recent history, when compared to neighbouring countries such as Poland, Hungary does not appear to have a particularly religious society. In the 2011 census, 45% of the population did not list any religious affiliation. Of Hungary’s Christians, two-thirds are Catholic and one-third Calvinist. Surveys have estimated that around just 9% of Hungarians regularly attend church.[4]

In many ways, Orbán is a reflection of this. When he started in politics, Orbán was an atheist. And like many Hungarians, when communism fell and religion was no longer oppressed by the state, he did not suddenly start going to church.[5]

However, despite both his personal detachment and the largely secular nature of Hungarian society, in 2018 Orbán described his system of government as a ‘Christian democracy’.[6] To understand how this has occurred, we need to look at how Orbán’s relationship with Hungary’s churches has formed a key part of consolidating his power.

Alliances and alienation

Between 1998 and 2002, Orbán served his first term as Prime Minister of Hungary. After his defeat, he vowed that if he ever returned to office, he would never lose power again . Therefore, prior to the 2010 election, he stated that “we need to win only once, but we need to win big,” referring to how a large majority would allow him to consolidate his power.[7]

Part of his consolidation of power has been to secure the support of major religious institutions whilst suppressing those who may criticise his government’s religious credentials. This was clear from early on, when in 2011 Orbán’s government stripped 300 mostly smaller churches of their legal status, many of whom had been critical of the government. This meant they could not receive funding via income tax, as they had in the past.[8]

Meanwhile, Orbán allied with the Catholic and Protestant churches. These churches have both historically suffered under communism and were suspicious of liberals. Therefore, Orbán’s conservative values were of a clear appeal, with the hierarchies of both churches showing their support for him.[9]

Defending ‘Christian Europe’

In the early years of Orban’s second premiership, his policy towards religion focused on controlling and ensuring the support of the Church for his leadership. However, in 2015, geopolitical circumstances provided him with an opportunity to take things a step further.

In the summer of 2015, as a result of the Syrian Civil War, a massive influx of refugees began to enter the European Union via Greece. Orbán was clear that he rejected the argument that Europe had a moral obligation to help these people. But rather than express his opposition purely in terms of the national security of Hungary, Orbán went further by alleging that the “exodus” of migrants was a threat to undermine Europe’s culture and way of life.[10]

Orbán stated that “the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim.” He went on to ask, “is it not worrying that Europe’s Christian culture is already barely able to maintain its own set of Christian values?”[11]

For those who track the far right in Europe, Orbán’s comments were viewed as part of his adoption of the ideas related to the Great Replacement Theory.[12] This theory is a far-right philosophy that suggests that Christian culture is at threat by the migration and demographic growth of non-European peoples, in particular Muslims.[13]

Whilst Orbán pushed this view, in particular during a referendum on rejecting EU migration quotas in 2016, he was supported by leading religious figures. In particular, Bishop Kiss-Rigo directly criticised the pope’s calls for compassion, calling refugees “invaders” and saying he “completely agreed with the Prime Minister.”[14] Whilst other churches were less extreme in the language, instead opposing migration due to supposed fears about encouraging people trafficking, there was widespread support for Orbán’s anti-migration line.[15]

From illiberal to Christian democracy

Orbán’s incorporation of the idea of a defence of Christian culture also marked a change in the way he has described his form of government. In the early part of the decade, Orbán openly referred to his autocratic form of governance as an “illiberal democracy.”[16] But during the campaign for the 2019 European elections, Orbán alleged that the European “elite,” who had failed to protect Europe from Muslim immigration, wanted to “transform Europe, to ship it into a post-Christian era.”[17]

In response, Orbán said that his alternative to a liberal Europe was what he called “Christian democracy.” He then claimed that this system of governance rejected multiculturalism and immigration whilst being anti-communist and standing for Christian values. Evidently, from a man who was previously an atheist, the reference to Christianity to legitimise his political model has become crucial.[18]

Contrasting visions

Over the last decade, Orbán has utilised Christian churches and the idea of a defence of Christianity to consolidate his authoritarian system. However, in April 2022, he will face a challenge from a unified opposition led by a candidate, Peter Marki Zay, who follows a more traditional style of Christian Democrat politics. In the second part of this article, we will therefore look at Orbán’s political influence across Europe and the potential impact of the challenge against him.

Freddie Scott

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[1] Hungary election: outsider from the right backed by left to beat Viktor Orbán| Hungary | The Guardian

[2] Viktor Orbán’s Far-Right Vision for Europe | The New Yorker

[3] Hungary election: outsider from the right backed by left to beat Viktor Orbán | Hungary | The Guardian

[4] Viktor Orbán’s use and misuse of religion serves as a warning to Western democracies

[5] Viktor Orbán’s use and misuse of religion serves as a warning to Western democracies

[6] Viktor Orbán’s Use and Misuse of Religion Serves as a Warning to Western Democracies | American University, Washington, DC

[7] Viktor Orbán’s Use and Misuse of Religion Serves as a Warning to Western Democracies | American University, Washington, DC

[8] Orbán’s deploys Christianity with a twist to tighten grip in Hungary

[9] Papal Visit to Hungary Highlights Fidesz’ Religious Complex

[10] Orbán says migrants threaten ‘Christian’ Europe – POLITICO

[11] Orbánsays migrants threaten ‘Christian’ Europe – POLITICO

[12] Viktor Orbán and the Great Replacement Theory – Hungarian Spectrum

[13] How France’s ‘great replacement’ theory conquered the global far right

[14] Bishop Kiss-Rigó: The Pope has no idea what he’s talking about – The Budapest Beacon

[15] Orbán’s ‘war of attrition’ against churches

[16] CIDOB – Illiberal Democracy in Hungary: The Social Background and Practical Steps of Building an Illiberal State

[17] Hungarian PM sees shift to illiberal Christian democracy in 2019 European vote | Reuters

[18] Hungarian PM sees shift to illiberal Christian democracy in 2019 European vote | Reuters