Monday, January 7, 2019

Christianity and Nationalism in Eastern Europe

If you follow events in Eastern Europe, you have heard a lot about political Christianity, along with opposition to Muslim immigrants as dangerous outsiders. But how much Christianity is there in these countries? Will Collins writes from Hungary to say that while Christmas is celebrated in spectacular fashion, it seems a bit hollow:
What Christmas markets and colorful lights can’t hide, however, is the underlying weakness of Hungarian Christianity, which is gradually degrading into a collection of shallow cultural signifiers. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán often speaks of building a “Christian Democracy” as an alternative to Western European liberalism, but such grandiose pronouncements raise the question: what does Christian Democracy mean in a country that is gradually forgetting its Christian heritage? . . .

In Eger, a mid-sized Hungarian town two hours northeast of Budapest, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are the most visibly active religious communities. The native denominations have their traditions, history, and the town’s beautiful old churches, but energy and conviction are on the side of the foreign imports (Orbán’s own son is a Pentecostal preacher). Meanwhile, local enthusiasm for the Christmas season masks widespread indifference to anything that might be described as regular religious observance. In Eger, Christmas means lights, music, and festivals, not Midnight Mass.

Data on church attendance confirm this picture of a rapidly secularizing society. Although a majority of Hungarians identify as Catholic, only 12 percent regularly attend church. Less than 15 percent of Hungarians say religion is “very important” in their lives. Christmas markets, generous public subsidies to religious schools, and beautifully preserved churches have done little to arrest this steady decline.
In understand why people opposed to Western European norms might focus on religion as part of a conservative, anti-liberal identity, but I wonder how much staying power it will have in a society without actual faith. American religious conservatives have had little success limiting the changes in our society, largely because even most Republicans just don't take arguments based on religious teaching seriously. I keep thinking of something conservative television personality Bill O'Reilly said at the height of the battle over gay marriage:
The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals. We’re Americans, we just want to be treated like everybody else. That’s a compelling argument, and to deny that you’ve got to have a very strong argument on the other side. And the other side hasn’t been able to do anything but thump the Bible.
So a thousand years of theology is just "thumping the Bible," even to the Fox News set. But if you reject theology, what ground do you have for opposing the pressure for personal and sexual freedom that has wrought such changes in the west? Will the opposition of grouchy old folks simply be swept away by new generations who have grown up thinking of the sexual revolution as normal?

Szopen, are you still reading? What's your take on the state of religion in Poland, and its political importance?


G. Verloren said...

In understand why people opposed to Western European norms might focus on religion as part of a conservative, anti-liberal identity, but I wonder how much staying power it will have in a society without actual faith.

It depends. For example, the Nazis made striking use of Christianity to spread their cause, and won at least tacit support from mainstream German Christians, despite there beiing virtually no real belief among those truly dedicated to the regime. This alongside their propagandic use of myth and the occult without real faith in it, and a striking trend among Germans of all stripes at the time to describe themselves as "apolitical", in an intensely political climate.

I think the explanation is that while religious belief itself may not be strong, the language and terminology of religion itself often still is, and it makes for a powerful and familiar rhetorical tool.

Calling an opponent the devil isn't effective because people actually believe the accused individual is literally Lucifer himself - it's effective because it is powerful and nigh-universal symbolism with a message that can be communicated and understood nearly instantly. Ditto for describing a threat (real, imagined, or fabricated) as apocalyptyic, or calling someone a Judas, or calling for a crusade against some villified people or cause. These words and phrases have become so embedded in our literature, speech, and culture, that they stand on their own, even totally absent of actual faith.

Nationalism doesn't have much in the way of actual faith, but it is more than willing to adopt the language of faith as a means of giving greater impact to its arguments, and cloaking itself in an air of tradition, legitimacy, and morality.

It's basically the modern day equivalent of proclaiming oneself the true heir to Rome. People as wildly removed from actual Roman culture as Muscovite princes and Turkish sultans clambored to tell the world that THEY were the the rightful heirs to an empire and society that had vanished over a thousand years prior, despite their own socities looking almost nothing like Rome of old. You need not actually be Roman to benefit greatly from invoking the language, mythology, and prestige of Rome.

Unknown said...


I would entirely agree with your general point, especially about the use of language like "crusade" and "devil." But I'm not familiar with any Nazi use of Christian imagery that I would call "striking." Can you point me to what you're thinking of?

Hitler always insisted that his hatred of the Jews was racial, not religious, and indeed says in MK that the Jews' "first lie" is that they are a religion.

I know Rosenberg was deeply anti-Christian, and there was a faction that had to be called off from giving the German churches trouble, from time to time. On the other hand, my impression is Himmler really was attracted to the occult stuff.

Hitler's non-German allies did put out a lot of stuff about the war against the Soviets as a crusade to protect Christianity from Bolshevism. Maybe Goebbels used that some (especially once the war was going badly)?

szopen said...

Well, I am not sure I can answer the question, because I am a bit biased and definetely very atypical (atheist conservative, there not many of us in Poland). I do not think you will be happy reading my answer.

Christianity in Poland traditionaly was different from American one. For example, I knew many religious people who complained loudly about bishops, will openly declare their support for the most liberal causes while at the same time will declare themselves catholics, defend their local priest and attack any evil atheist who comes their way. It seems to me that church attendance goes down, but there I have an impression, which might be wrong, that for many the catholicism became something of a tribal mark. Sometimes I think I know bible better than my wife, who is regularly attending church (and that's already a minority in Poland).

Also, since the 1990s we have loud politicians who declare that all the other politicians are wrong by trying to appease the church and the way to political success is anticlericalism. Then they form the parties and lose spectacularly. The last attempt by Palikot got 10% of votes.

OTOH, while many seem to think that Church has a lot of power over the Polish voters, a party which tried to openly embrace the Church and fundamental catholicism, also got something like at most 10% of votes. Many think PiS got a lot of support from Church and this explains its success, but I am not sure whether it's true.

Most Poles, in my impression, treat a Church as a company which should provide them with nice sermons about love, which should flavour family evenings with spiritual touch and... pretty much that's it. I remember quite recently how angered were people from my wife's family, all ardent catholics, traditional, living in the countryside because the priest dared to preach to the newlyleds instead of just blessing them.

Because of them I am quite sure both people declaring that Church has huge influence on Polish voters and people declaring Poles just wait for truly anti-clerical party are wrong.

But I could be wrong, because I observe the radicalisation from the both sides: there seems to be groups who can be described as fundamentalist Christians, and anticlericals declaring they are fed-up with catholicism and its influence on Poland and both groups are very loud, creating the impression they have huge follow-up. I think both will lose badly in the next european elections, but I am not sure. Moreover, some time ago I stopped watching TV and people I deal with on daily basis are not representative of Poles in general.

As for nationalism and religion, Polish nationalism traditionally always was very religious, and the exceptions like Zadruga never got any serious following.

If you have any specific questions to ask, go ahead.

szopen said...

CBOS 48/2018 "Boskie i cesarskie. O stosunkach między państwem i kościołem" (God's and Caesar's. About relationship between the state and the Church).

CBOS is state polling institute.

Rys 1 page 5
"There are many discussions in Poland about religion's role in public life. Please mark whether the following situations irks you or not"

The first number: 2013, the second: 2015: OK/NOT OK
Cross in public space (e.g. in schools, offices): 88,88/10,11
Religious character of military oath: 85,83/10,9
Religion lessons in schools: 82,82/15,16
Participation of bishops/priests in state events: 80,81/16,14
Dedicating (wrong word, but can't remember English for "poświęcić" buildings by priests: 76,78/20,18
Priests in public TV: 74,75/22,20

Priests speaking publicly about morality: 61,60/33,33
Church taking position about laws: 39,35/55,55
Priests telling people how they should vote: 15,12/82,84

Page 7 you have table 1 which shows that this attitudes are rather stable, with random changes in both directions.

Recently we have a movie about paedophilia in Church and this caused down tick in general attitude towards the Church, but only time will tell whether the tick was temporary or not.

Unknown said...


Thank you for your careful, detailed description. Your analysis makes sense, and certainly tracks with what John quotes Collins as saying about Hungary.

If you have time, I'm wondering if you could tell me about the sacraments in Poland now. Do all babies still get baptized? Is it required by law? What percentage of young people learn their catechism, get confirmed, have their First Communion? Do many people of any age still go to confession?

szopen said...

> Do all babies still get baptized?

No. Hard to say, because the official Church data claims more children were baptized than were born alive; the explanation could be that parents may go back from abroad to get their children baptized (e.g. in Polish look here

> Is it required by law?

No :D We have formal separation of Church and State.

> What percentage of young people learn their catechism, get confirmed, have their First Communion?

Can't find exact data, except claims the number is "stable" - also, I can find data per parish, but parishes do not always have exact relation to the counties. Anecdotally, in both classes of my daughter and my son (Poznań, one of big cities), ALL children got First Communion. All children in my daughter's class got confirmed, though my daughter complained that (a) there were too many meetings (b) frequency on meeting dropped with time.

At least in my case, the school was more than understanding about both "Rekolekcje" (another religious event) and even more about the First Communion.

> Do many people of any age still go to confession?

Yes, though many only on special occasions. My wife and my children usually go every week, but when there is Christmas etc they go back complaining that there are queues.

> tracks with what John quotes Collins as saying about Hungary.

Yeah, though in our case the mass attendants is about 37% of Catholics, while people who regularly accept communion is about 16% (of Catholics, not of all Poles).

(btw, if you will look at the maps in the wikipedia link, with [i]communicantes[/i] (people accepting the communion) you can once again clearly see the prewar borders of Poland...)

Unknown said...


Thanks for another careful, detailed reply. Most interesting. It looks like one could say that Catholic practice is still, all things considered, alive in Poland. It's a minority that still goes to mass, but not a small one. Large numbers of kids still go through the confirmation process, even if very, very few people just wait for their priest to tell them how to vote. Is that a reasonable summary?

I'm fascinated by that map on the wikipedia link that replicates the prewar borders. I wonder if maybe there was, say in the 1950s, a shortage of local Catholic churches in these (formerly German Protestant?) border areas, and that meant people lost the habit of churchgoing. Or did the Communist government also discourage churchgoing in the new areas? I know very little about what happened after the postwar border shifts.