By knighting Viktor Orbán for ‘defending Christianity’, the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch demonstrates that the ‘culture war’ is the only theology that matters to the global right
On September 5, Patriarch Porfiry of Belgrade, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, awarded the highest degree of the Order of Saint Sava (the highest chivalric order of the Patriarchate) to the Hungarian Prime Minister. Victor Orban. According to a statementthe prize was awarded”for his efforts in the defense of Christianity in Hungary and throughout Europe, the promotion of Christian values, as well as for his personal contribution to the friendship between the Hungarian and Serbian peoples.
In the past, the idea that the Orthodox Patriarch of Belgrade, without even a wink to sectarian differences, would honor Orbán for “defending Christianity,” would have seemed odd to many. You see, Viktor Orbán is nominally Protestant-notnot that you would necessarily know. Despite Orbán’s frequent appeals to “Christianity”, he does not provide many clues about his particular theology.
In fact, long before writing this article, I simply assumed that he was Catholic, based on the fact that Hungary has a slight Catholic majority and the extent to which he sought and obtained the support of the Hungarian Catholic Church—even when the pope subtly reprimanded him. Furthermore, I had assumed (it turned out to be incorrect) that while a Catholic could receive the Order of Saint Sava, a Calvinist would be a bridge too far for Patriarch Porphyry. Besides, what kind of Calvinist accepted knight of a bishop with a literal crown on his head?
Turns out I was wrong, because we live in a very different world than one in which divisions between Catholics and Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, etc. were real and sometimes led to real wars. We live in a world in which the theological differences that once animated the debates and divisions of the Christian world are seemingly irrelevant to the so-called culture wars.
The day after Patriarch Porphyry essentially knighted Viktor Orbán, he freed a statement condemning the celebration of EuroPride in Belgrade. Then on Sunday he led a prayer service for the “Sacredness of Marriage and the Family” while thousands of Serbs, largely inspired by the patriarch, took to the streets to protest planned EuroPride events. These events and Orbán’s feast are not unrelated.
Remarkable throughout the week, the patriarch regularly underlined the idea that it was foreigners coming to change Serbia’s values that posed the threat. This was clearer in his homily after the Sunday prayer service, in which he said:
“…we don’t impose our way of life on anyone, but neither do we want anyone from any part of the world to come and impose their values, worldview or way of life on us. Brothers and sisters, I repeat: we are not going [accept this]. Since we do not impose our way of life on anyone, we will not allow anyone to impose their rules, their worldview and their way of life on us, even if they think they are better than us.
If the words of Patriarch Porphyry seem to echo the sentiments of Patriarch Cyril, it is because the two allied clerics speak the same language. The instinctive interpretation of their words is to understand “outsiders” as the West– who shouldn’t be shocking in light of Orthodoxy’s long fight for survival and distinction against Western Christianity—but the recognition of a Hungarian Protestant as Orbán suggests that even this old division is fading away.
Increasingly, it is clear that the real, and perhaps singular, fault line that runs through the world is between those who are committed to a liberal and pluralistic future and those who seek an illiberal world in which the ideas of Lights on personal freedom and autonomy are firmly defeated.
In many Christian historical and cultural countries, this latter ideology has taken the form of Christian nationalism. Contemporary Christian Nationalists (CCN) are most certainly Christians; they are part of a decidedly unique and arguably quite revolutionary Christian movement whose most revolutionary and historically idiosyncratic characteristics are evidenced by the activities and words of Patriarch Porfiry last week.
For CCNs, there is a total lack of interest in doctrinal and theological differences. It is the feature that represents the most dramatic departure from what we have seen historically within Christianity and is almost certainly the product of efforts by white American evangelicals to build a post-civil rights era coalition that includes longtime theological enemies such as Latter-day Saints, conservative white Catholics, Orthodox Jews and Orthodox Christians.
The sublimation of theological difference more than anything else has enabled the rise of the global culture wars. It arguably also signals how successful the Enlightenment and Marxist paradigms have been even among their ideological enemies: We live in a world in which political differences are the significant markers of identity, even for self-proclaimed traditionalists. Nothing is more modern than that.
For NCCs, the issues that matter most are those that relate to gender and sexuality and are articulated through a glorification of the nuclear family. Of course, as a product of the Industrial Revolution, the nuclear family itself, like the individual, is largely a modern invention. But even setting aside this historical drawback (history, for CCNs, is nothing if not a drawback), the idea that the family, and in particular marriage, would become the center of some form of Christian identity is equally strange.
Early and medieval Christianity was staunchly hostile to marriage and even the family, seeing both as a sometimes necessary, but decidedly poor, substitute for celibacy. It is therefore clear that the exaltation of the family among the NCCs stems more from their nationalism than from the normative Christian tradition. Nationalism, after all, has its roots in Romanticism, itself a reaction against industrialization. Nationalism inherited Romanticism’s glorification of the domestic sphere as a stronghold of virtue against an increasingly corrupt and corrupting world.
It is in romanticism that we first see the family celebrated as “natural”, sanctified and optimal. Nationalism takes this romantic celebration of family and extends it, arguing that one’s nation (and more specifically one’s ethnic or racial group) constitutes a kind of extended family imbued with all the sanctity now attributed to the biological family.
Therefore, it should not surprise us when Viktor Orbán vilifies marriage between Europeans and non-Europeans; or when US NCCs defend the Confederacy; or when Patriarch Porphyry begins to fan the genocidal flames of anti-Kosovar sentiment (his comments about a “one Orthodox faith without borders” are essentially code for the idea that Kosovo belongs to Serbia).
Nothing of the sort excuses the Christian tradition—extremely diverse as it is—for its role in this contemporary phenomenon, but it deprives the NCCs of one of their most important claims: that they represent a historically normative, traditional form of Christianity defending itself against revolutionary modernizers. Like the Wahhabis in Islam, the CCNs imagine themselves to be the most committed reactionaries, when in fact they are the most revolutionary of all. There is power to be gained by reframing the fight as a fight between two types of modernity, not between a time-tested past and an unknown future.
EuroPride is happening this week as planned, although it was officially canceled by the Serbian President who cited pressure from far-right groups and the Serbian Orthodox Church in his decision. Those who join in the festivities are undoubtedly advocating for a future that breaks with the past. But so are their CCN opponents– that they don’t know it or simply refuse to accept it. Either way, it might help the latter’s efforts to remember it.