Christianity and Politics 2023 (Conference)

This October, the University of Public Service organizes an international conference on Christianity and Politics. The topic seems a little too broad (or ambitious, if you like), but there will be some interesting speakers.

There is still some time left for applications. The cfp can be found here:

(I wonder if anyone can figure out what this picture is about and how it is related to Christianity and politics. Please send solutions in a private message.)

The Nation as a Sacred Communion

And now I am in Belfast (at least virtually), talkin’ about the secular religion of the nation. As the Hungarian prime minister felt it necessary to repeat no less than three times in a short passage (in 2018):

”In these elections we must demonstrate that there is an alternative to liberal democracy: it is called Christian democracy. And we must show that the liberal elite can be replaced with a Christian democratic elite. Of course in Central Europe there are many misconceptions related to Christianity and politics, and so here I must make an incidental observation.  Christian democracy is not about defending religious articles of faith – in this case Christian religious articles of faith. Neither states nor governments have competence on questions of damnation or salvation. Christian democratic politics means that the ways of life springing from Christian culture must be protected. Our duty is not to defend the articles of faith, but the forms of being that have grown from them. These include human dignity, the family and the nation – because Christianity does not seek to attain universality through the abolition of nations, but through the preservation of nations. Other forms which must be protected and strengthened include our faith communities. This – and not the protection of religious articles of faith – is the duty of Christian democracy.”

“Between two pagans:” a political theology of defeat

I’m at a conference in Copenhagen. The topic is “Nationalism, War, and Defeat.”

A brief outline of my presentation:

“Few other nations in Europe have such an illustrious history of defeats as Hungary, and even fewer that would treat such defeats as part of a full-fledged political theology. When I say “political theology” it is to mean that there is more to it than just a bunch of myths, rites, and symbols; it has in fact become a more or less coherent system of ideas that serves as a transcendent explanation and grounding of the existence of Hungary as a political entity.

The first part of my paper describes the antecedents of this system. It should be noted that the latter is of relatively recent origin: although there were some tragic defeats in medieval Hungarian history (such as the Mongol invasion of 1241 or lost battles against the Turks at Varna in 1444 or Kosovo in 1448) these were usually followed by more successful wars (such as the repulse of the second Mongol invasion in 1283 or the defense of Beograd in 1456). What I call a theological reflection on the meaning of defeat only began during the 16th-17th century invasion of Hungary by the Ottoman Empire, when the remaining parts of the country became part of the Habsburg Empire. There was, originally, an overtly theological dispute about who (and what sort of sin) was responsible for the disaster, which gradually turned into a dominantly Protestant narrative of the “two pagans:” Catholicism and Islam (identified with Austria and Turkey), against which “true” Hungarian identity was defined as Protestant, mostly Calvinist.

The second part aims to show how this (Protestant and national) idea was developed into a more overarching political theology from the late 18th century, in an attempt to rise over denominational differences. The most prominent example of this is the Hymnus of Ferenc Kölcsey, which remains the national anthem of Hungary, and which retells the history of Hungary as that of a chosen nation. This time, the series of defeats (from Mongols, Turks, Austrians) and civil wars is emphatically presented as a salvation story, in which repeated divine punishment is also a sign of chosenness. That God has a specific plan of salvation for Hungarians is also shown by many contemporary (literary and rhetorical) references to the ambiguous figure of the “God of Hungarians.” It is also notable that the nationalist wave culminated in another defeat, that of the war of independence in 1848-49, which finally established not just a political theology but a political religion with its martyrs, relics, shrines, and ceremonies that survived well into the 20th and 21st centuries. Moreover, since the war of independence was suppressed by the joint efforts of Austria and Russia, it also reinforced the “between two pagans” or “standing alone between West and East” image of Hungary. An even larger trauma was caused by the Treaty of Trianon that ended the First World War for Hungary: forged mainly by France and favoring East European countries like Romania or the newly created Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovens, it was naturally viewed as another example of a hostile union of Western and Eastern powers against Hungary, whose martyrdom was in turn often likened to that of Christ (“the Christ of Europe” or “the Christ of Nations”). The Allied victory and the Hungarian defeat in the Second World War further enhanced the feeling that Hungary was a victim of a West-East conspiracy, and even the crushing of the 1956 anti-communist uprising by the Soviet Union was routinely seen as something made possible by the “betrayal” of the West, this time mostly the United States.

For those who think that all this is of merely historical interest, the third part argues that the politico-theological understanding of the Hungarian state and nation is alive and well in the 21st century; moreover, without understanding its deep embeddedness in Hungarian national consciousness, it is impossible to explain much of today’s political events. An astonishing example is the prime minister’s 2020 speech at the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon which outlined a complete eschatological vision of Hungary’s salvation story with ten epochs (“ten Trianons”) and several sub-epochs, once again reasserting the unique position of Hungary between East and West and its history of defeats and tribulations as part of a great salvation story.”

Rethinking the Secular

As I said before, I am now part of an international research project called “Rethinking the Secular,” with participants from Scotland, Norway, Sweden, the United States, and Hungary. Here is our mission statement:

“Once, there was no ‘secular’… the secular as a domain had to be instituted or imagined.” With these words, John Milbank’s influential Theology and Social Theory (1990) launched the idea of the “secular” as a complex, unstable, contingent imaginative construction still steeped in religious languages, histories, and debates. Since then, a number of genealogies of secular modernity that trace its paradoxes and challenges back to much older theological debates have been added to the scholarly arsenal. This interdisciplinary working group will probe the question of how and why the “secular” was invented historically, as a basis for a critique of how this ideological construction influences contemporary cultural, social, and political debates. The work of the research group thus includes both historical studies of the secular and analysis of contemporary debates on secularity, both in a scholarly context and as applied to areas such as education and religion.  

Our reading seminar will focus on the exposition of key theoretical readings in this broad field, in order to ensure that our methodological toolkit is well-informed, up-to-date, and critically assessed.  The aim of the year as a whole is to use these seminars as a conduit for developing specific projects, and in our discussions, we hope to identify fruitful common areas for specific working groups, with further plans for seminars, publications, public dissemination, and grant capture emerging from this common core.

(NB. Anyone who would like to join us can send an enquiry to me in a private message.)

Patriotism as political religion

My latest article on a secular (political) religion, this time on patriotism. It starts with the French Revolution, cites some examples from other European countries, and finally arrives to Hungary. The main message is that patriotism is neither secular nor religious: whether it is anti-Christian as in France or poses as Christian as in some Eastern European countries, it remains both similar to so-called “traditional” religions and profoundly different from them.

Military flag from the Hungarian revolution and war of independence 1848-1849 (From the Museum of Military History, Budapest, Wikimedia Commons)

Last thoughts on 2022

This was a busy year, for sure. I spoke about the problems of Christian just war theory at the University of Helsinki; about religious nationalism at New College, Oxford; the tyranny of the majority at Károli Gáspár University, Budapest; about a forgotten source of secular religions’ theory at the Institute of Hungarian Studies; Pope Benedict XVI’s idea of secular religions at the University of Public Service, Budapest; about the political theology of Rousseau at the University of Helsinki; about Russian religious nationalism at Saint Louis University, St. Louis; about religion and politics at the Metropolitan University, Budapest; not to mention roundtable discussions, book presentations, and university courses on similar topics.

I also organized a conference on political theology at the University of Public Service, where – to my great pleasure – many young scholars (from undergraduate students to post-docs) presented papers on a variety of topics from Christian conservatism to postmodern religiosity. It would be an exaggeration, of course, to say that a “new school of political theology” is on the rise, but it’s certainly good to know that so many early-career researchers share the same interest.

In the meantime, I joined an international research group called “Rethinking the Secular” (with participants from Norway, Sweden, Scotland, and the United States) which also looks exciting and involves regular meetings throughout next year, ending with a conference in Edinburgh in November.

As for publications, I wrote a lot, but most of those will only appear next year. In April, I finished one on the concept of “political religion” for the University of Trento (Italy) and another one on religious laws and the definition of religion for the Avicenna Institute (Hungary). I also wrote on the medieval origins of natural law for Mathias Corvinus College and on 19th-century French apologetics for Tomori College. I contributed with two entries (Political theology and Subsidiarity) to the “Hungarian Philosophical Encyclopedia,” but this is such a huge project that its completion is impossible to predict.

What actually appeared in print was my review of Csaba Kiss’s book on Tocqueville and Marx; an article called “Dying with Europe” about political eschatologies from Joseph de Maistre to Francis Fukuyama; an essay on Maistre’s “St. Petersburg Dialogues,” and most of all, a long-awaited paper on “Conservative Orators in Restoration France” in the European Review of History.

At a more personal level, it was my pleasure to have been invited by students to perform at several faculty events and summer camps, singing my own old political songs as well as classics with a political (or theologico-political) message. And this is just the beginning!

Political violence and the just war tradition

I am at a conference on political violence at Helsinki University. My presentation is about the theory of just war, and its title is Fratelli tutti and the just war tradition: lists vs. theory.

Here is a short abstract:

Although the Christian theory of just war had long been viewed as a lasting contribution to political thought, Pope Francis’ encyclical Fratelli tutti in 2020 seemed to abandon the concept itself, declaring that its original Augustinian formula was something that “we no longer uphold in our own day.”

Reducing the theory of just war to a list of “rational criteria,” as the encyclical says, may indeed reinforce the suspicion that the latter showed a continuous decline throughout the centuries. While Augustine’s justifications of war included many references to the “holy wars” of the Jewish people, and medieval canonists regularly used these as the starting point of their investigations, most philosophers of the Middle Ages already tended to construe ever simpler (and more “secular”) criteria lists, until – in the early modern age – Francisco de Vitoria explicitly excluded “religious difference” from the possible causes of a just war. The examples of “just cause” have become even rarer over time, until the 1944 Christmas message of Pope Pius XII explicitly named self-defense against aggression the sole possible reason for waging war. The proliferation of nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s also contributed to this decline, until the number of criteria – as it seems – reached point zero in Pope Francis’ encyclical. What is less obvious is whether all this was only an adaptation to the changing nature of warfare or the result of a continuous reflection on the tradition. In either case, it might be asked how such a radical change might affect other elements of the tradition; whether it is possible to reconcile pacifism with just war theory under a label like “conditional pacifism;” or it is perhaps better to give up lists and conceive just war theory as it originally was; a description of the ontological essence of the civitas terrena.

guy, de, lusignan, battle, 1187, Saladin, Guy de Lusignan, battle of Hattin, Crusades, Hattin

St. Javelin

The current war in Ukraine also has its seculo-religious traits, like the symbolism of “St. Javelin.” Javelin is an anti-tank missile launcher, called the “protector of Ukraine,” a sort of patron saint, or rather the Holy Virgin herself, at least that is how she’s usually depicted:

This is a typical postmodern case of mixing so-called “secular” and “religious” elements, “sacred” and “profane”, whatever. Its essence exactly is that you cannot tell whether it should be taken ironically or seriously, as a parody of religiosity or as a new form of it that also expresses an attachment to the tradition. And in this case, which tradition: the tradition of Orthodoxy, or to the national tradition, or are these completely inseparable? The fact that the symbol is already omnipresent in the social media, on T-shirts and posters, and consequently on many commercial websites as well also demonstrates how contemporary “secular religiosity” (or non-secular non-religiosity, which makes about just as much as sense) is a combination of many cults like that of the nation, the fatherland, art, the media, or the market.

From 2021 to 2022

In 2021, I published some papers on the religion of human rights, on secular religions and the religious-secular divide, the myth of the secular state, and the proliferation of secular religions. The latter is also part of a special issue I edited with Ferenc Hörcher and contains many interesting contributions by such authors as William Cavanaugh, Hans Otto Seitschek, Phillip Blond, Valerio Severino, and Bogdan Szlachta.

As for conferences, I had the pleasure to attend two Central Slavic Conferences at Saint Louis University, first with a paper on the secular religion of “actually existing” socialism in March, and then with another on Bertrand Russell’s and Reinhold Niebuhr’s account of communism as a religious idea.

I also presented a paper on transhumanism’s prophetic future at the IPSA world congress, on patriotism as a political religion in Tartu, Estonia, and on the interconnections of secular religions in Warsaw. The last two will also appear in print next year. As well as a former paper of mine on conservative orators in Restoration France, Louis de Bonald and François-René de Chateaubriand.

I will also present a paper on the Christian just war tradition at the University of Helsinki in March, and on religious nationalism in the 19th century at the University of Oxford in April. I am also invited to write a contribution to the “Yearbook of Political Theology” (published by the University of Trento) about the concept of political religion.

2022 is also the year when I will hopefully complete my catalog of secular religions, which seems all the more urgent since the topic seems to be everywhere nowadays. But this should be obvious to anyone who has been following this blog so far.

Until then, a happy new year!