Public Religion in 2021?: What Hazony Said in Budapest

I’ve spent the last few days among the rising generation of Sweden’s conservatives—the people around the think tank Oikos. A lot is happening in Swedish right-wing politics, with an election on the horizon next year that could bring a broadly conservative government to power—but for that summary, you’ll have to wait.

For now it’s time for a Saturday dispatch from Budapest, where Yoram Hazony—who was also in Sweden—is spending a few days visiting my own Mathias Corvinus Collegium. The other afternoon, Yoram gave one of MCC’s marquee Budapest Lectures, interviewed by Professor Sándor Gallai on his upcoming book Rediscovering Conservatism.

Yoram and I approach the role of religion in public life from different confessional backgrounds. But both of us have faced a typical, tired line of questioning which goes something like this. “You talk a lot about why religion should be an important part of public life. But when religious attendance has declined, how do you intend to get from a to b? And what’s the goal anyway—isn’t it . . . religious monoculture and rank oppression of religious minorities?!”

In Budapest Hazony made a forceful argument for publicly honoring and respecting Christianity in countries where Christianity is the cultural inheritance—even where church attendance itself may be low. Indeed, Hazony’s remarks at the MCC were one of the most passionate pleas for public Christianity, or for a political form of “cultural Christianity,” that I have heard. (For my own case made with Sohrab Ahmari & Chad Pecknold, see the American Conservative.)

Not only that, but he specifically directed his argument against the liberal claim that establishing Christianity within the public life of a country necessarily entails oppression of minorities. It is precisely this liberal claim that has once again reared its head in the latest edition of the “integralism debates.” And, as you’ll see, it’s one Yoram is well positioned to rebut.

In a particularly inspired remark, Hazony tied the removal of religion from American public schools to the sweeping cultural travesty that has unfolded since then.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen the context of Budapest draw forth a based take on the future of Western politics. But I’ve scooped enough of his argument thus far, and you’ll have to read the rest yourself (with a few comments of mine at the very end).

Sándor Gallai: You can accept conservatives who are not believers. How do you see what can a conservative believer or nonbeliever do to reach Christian values?

Yoram Hazony: Well, let me say—I’m sorry to bore you with all this American history, but it is so misunderstood and then it’s used by people all over Europe in order to claim, “Look, the Americans think this way.”

Separation of church and state is not part of the American founding. It was not advocated by anyone who was involved in framing the American Constitution. Years later, when Jefferson is president, he writes a letter advocating separation of church and state, but it’s not part of American government policy to separate, to remove all religion from the public life of the state, until it begins in the 1940s. It’s a reaction to World War II, like we discussed before. It’s part of the trauma of World War II. The Germans treated Jews badly, so there should be no religious considerations in public life. It’s that kind of reaction.

In the United States, the first time that the Supreme Court intervenes to make unconstitutional anything on the grounds of separation of church and state throughout the country is 1947, when the Supreme Court says, separation of church and state has always been a value here (which wasn’t true, because it was invented in 1947). But that’s what they say: it’s always been a value, and now we’re going to ban religious teaching in government schools—we’re going to eliminate it.

And the kinds of teaching that they’re eliminating—it’s astonishing to see what they eliminated. In the Chicago schools it was made illegal in 1947 to teach religion. They brought in a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister and a Jewish rabbi; they gave the students a choice—you could go to each, to any of the three to learn something about the religions that are important in our country and in our city. And if you didn’t want to go to one of those classes, you could say “my beliefs are different, out of conscience I don’t want any of them” and you didn’t have to go.

Today we look at this—it’s so moderate, it’s so willing to open itself up to different traditions and different ways of thinking, and to allow people who are objecting because of conscience to not participate. That’s what the American court struck down and said, no, we can’t have any of this because we have separation of church and state. And by the 1960s they had eliminated all prayer from schools throughout the United States—the public schools. And they had eliminated any instruction in Bible so that the students could know something about their religious heritage.

It takes two generations—we did this experiment—it takes two generations. From the time you ban God and prayer and Bible from the schools—from the time that that happens, it takes two generations until people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman. I’m sorry to be so provocative, but this is what happened.

I think that what we need to do, to go to the practical question, is first, the liberals tell us that anytime that Christianity is established somewhere as the public life of a country, like in Hungary, it’s oppressing the minority. OK, so here I am. I’m an Orthodox Jew and I’m telling you: that’s not oppressing anyone. Here in Hungary, this is what the Jews who live here tell me—I’m repeating what I’m told by the Jews here in Budapest. Here in Budapest, they say that the government supports Judaism, it supports Jewish schools, it supports Jewish ritual baths, Jewish cemeteries, there’s no ban on kosher slaughter, there’s no ban on circumcision. Jews can lead a free, dignified life here. And also, I walk down the street wearing my Jewish head covering, and I’ve never once had anyone stop me on the street and say, what they say up in Paris or in London, when you walk around—“you dirty Jew.” I’m serious. In Paris and London, I’ve experienced it. Here in Budapest I don’t. The Jews in Budapest are respected and honored by the government. I’m not saying there’s no mistakes—I’m not saying there aren’t things that couldn’t be improved. But as a general matter the Jews here in Hungary are respected and honored by the government.

There is no contradiction between having a Christian nation with a Christian majority, which honors Jews and honors other minorities. In fact, my proposal is something like this: that anywhere where there’s 80 percent of the public sees itself—I’m not asking about whether they go to church—I’m asking whether they see themselves as part of a Christian heritage. In a place like that, there should be honor and respect to the Christian religion—it should appear in public, Bible and prayer should be available. If someone doesn’t want to participate they don’t have to; if they’re Jewish and they have a different way, as long as it’s honorable and respectful, it’s all to the good.

Why am I saying this, as an Orthodox Jew? Because what we’ve learned is that the liberals and the Marxists—if you just give them a few decades, they will come to the point where they make it impossible to be a Christian—they make it impossible to be an Orthodox Jew. Jews are much more likely today to get a fair, respectful, honored place in society from Christians than they are from these revolutionaries. I think that some kind of discussion needs to be had—we’ve begun doing it at our National Conservatism conferences—a discussion needs to be had between the Christian majority and minorities about what can be done.

But I don’t see any reason why a 2 percent minority or a 5 percent minority or a 10 percent minority has to clear the public space and eliminate it from Christianity in a country where that’s the inheritance. I don’t see any reason for that. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s unjust, it’s unfair, it’s reckless, and it doesn’t work.

Yesterday at Postliberal Order, our own Adrian Vermeule pointed out the limits of conservative imagination in envisioning political possibilities and pursuing them. Sometimes, it seems, the critics of postliberalism can’t even envision basic improvements—like the possibilities of public religion that Hazony describes.

Stepping outside the American tradition can be helpful for considering ways to reintegrate religion with public life in a corporate manner. To be sure, church attendance has suffered in ways that make reintegrating public religion a delicate matter. Yet in places where cultural Christianity still resonates, it can play a positive political role in justifying attachment to traditional values, cultural practices and national identity. In return, it can be publicly honored, protected and encouraged by conservative governments.

If such a return has been possible even in lands ravaged by Communism, it can certainly be possible too under the yoke of liberalism. But it will never come about if conservatives remain within the prison of their own thought.