The Calvinist minister who is in charge of education, culture, health, and the Roma

Until this morning we all thought that the government decree on the number of tuition-free places at Hungarian colleges and universities was final. The word came down almost two weeks ago, but yesterday we heard from Viktor Orbán that no decision had been made after all. As several observers pointed out, Orbán doesn’t remember the decision of his own government. Or, and that is more likely, he doesn’t want to remember it. Whatever “the” announcement is, we are promised that “it will be a decision that will be good for everybody.” Well, that is a worrisome prospect because we were told the same thing before the introduction of the flat tax system, that it would be advantageous to everyone. And then it turned out that it wasn’t.

One has to agree with HVG  that there is total chaos in government communication when it comes to higher education and the question of tuition fees. One blogger called Viktor Orbán’s Thursday interview in Brussels on the subject mumbo-jumbo (halandzsa). He quoted a few choice sentences from the interview: “On the one hand, the problem is already solved” while “on the other hand, there is no decision yet.” Also: “there is no significant difference between the intentions of the government and the students.” An interesting observation.  He added that “by Saturday we will solve the reform of higher education.”

At the same time Rózsa Hoffmann in Kecskemét promised that the final decision would be made only next Wednesday. By today Orbán also changed his mind and promised an answer for sometime next week.

It seems that Zoltán Balog envisaged a different scenario. He promised an announcement by Viktor Orbán tomorrow. However, the office of the prime minister didn’t confirm this announcement. So, we have no idea what’s going on. There is a very good possibility that the members of the government involved with higher education also have no clue what to do.

While the people involved are contemplating how to get out of this sticky situation let’s talk a little bit about one of the actors in this drama, Zoltán Balog, and his church.

Balog, who is an increasingly important member of Orbán’s entourage, is a Calvinist minister. Calvinism remained a vital part of the religious scene in Hungary thanks to the Turkish occupation of the central parts of the country and to the existence of the semi-independent Principality of Transylvania. So-called Royal Hungary, those parts of the country under the jurisdiction of the Habsburg kings, remained mostly Catholic. Until 1848 the Calvinists were discriminated against and therefore they usually ended up on the side of those who had a strong aversion to Vienna.

Hungarian Reformed Church with the Star of Calvin

Hungarian Reformed Church with the Star of Calvin

The Hungarian Reformed Church is exceedingly puritanical. The walls of the church are unadorned with the exception of a list of numbers designating the psalms and hymns to be sung on that day. The psalms were composed in the sixteenth century by Theodore Beza, a discipline of Calvin. There is no choir in a Hungarian Calvinist Church because “God must be praised in singing together.” Praise and Calvinist singing are an odd couple; Hungarian Calvinists have a knack for turning every piece of liturgical music into a dirge. The bulk of the hour the faithful spend in church is taken up with two readings from the Bible and a fairly lengthy sermon. The Calvinist homily is usually an exegesis of one of the readings the congregation heard earlier.

The minister is called “lelkipásztor,” a leader of souls. As Ágnes Huszár, a linguist, wrotein Galamus, the word suggests that the men who fill this position are blessed with exceptional morality, benevolence,  and a deep understanding of human nature. Calvinist ministers often greet their flock with  ”Blessing and peace” (Áldás és békesség), but Huszár claims that in the mega-ministry Balog is leading there is neither blessing nor peace.

Balog, who was one of the advisers of Viktor Orbán between 1998 and 2002, made a spectacular career for himself in the past few years despite the fact that he is not a member of Fidesz. When he was appointed to head the Ministry of Human Resources Orbán explained that Balog was fit for the post because of “his deep Calvinist faith.” The ministry is supposed to supervise health care, culture, public education, and higher education. Balog knows next to nothing about any of these fields. The training of Calvinist ministers focuses on exegesis and homiletics.

The mega-ministry’s activities don’t reflect a Christian understanding of issues. Balog is quite capable of saying extremely harsh things about his fellow minister, Gábor Iványi, whose church was for political reasons not recognized by parliament. And this despite the fact that Balog is supposed to be the chief promoter of Gypsy integration and that Iványi’s church’s charitable and religious activities focus on the Roma. Balog makes occasional comments against anti-Semitism, but he always adds that “it is sinful to accuse people of racism who are not racists.” When it comes to his attitude toward the Roma, he said in one of his interviews that “poverty is common, but it has a Gypsy face. There are crimes that can be attached to this group.” With respect to Márton Gyöngyösi’s suggestion of making lists of Hungarian Jews Balog announced that “we categorically reject” all forms of discrimination, but he immediately added that “during the communist dictatorship the exclusion of certain groups–for example the peasantry–was ordered.” This is the origin of hate speech and “it is our job” to stand up against it.

I don’t think that I have to dwell on the absurdity of either this comparison or the suggestion that the communist dictatorship is somehow responsible for Gyöngyösi’s anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile Balog’s ministry shows an incredible lack of sympathy for the sick, the poor, and the homeless. As for culture and education Balog and his staff are working hard to ruin both. In brief, the Calvinist pastor is doing a mighty poor job of caring for his flock.

 By: Eva S Balogh / Hungarian Spectrum

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