Sunday, October 26, 2008

Religion and Nationalism

Late in September, our class took a trip to Transylvania. Transylvania was once part of Hungary, and following the First World War, the territory was given by the victorious powers to Romania. Though now part of Romania for over 80 years (the territory was briefly given back to Hungary by the Nazis during WWII), Transylvania continues to contain a large number of Hungarians.

Hungary, not surprisingly, is composed largely of Hungarians who speak Hungarian; about 97 percent of those living in Hungary today are Hungarian by ethnic background. On the other hand, Romania contains a large number of Romanians who speak Romanian, but it also contains a fair number of other ethnic groups as well (such as the Hungarians in Transylvania). However, prior to First World War, before Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory, Hungary also contained a substantial number of different ethnic groups; in 1867, only about 40 percent of those residing in the “historic territories of the Holy Crown of Hungary” were Hungarians.

In terms of religious heritage, Hungarians are predominantly members of either the Roman Catholic Church or the Hungarian Reformed Church, while Romanians are overwhelmingly members of the Romanian Orthodox Church. And, while many Hungarians living in Romania speak Romanian, many also continue to retain their Hungarian language and customs and, when they worship, continue to do so in Roman Catholic or Reformed churches in which services are conducted in the Hungarian language.
When language, nationality, religion, and state are basically the embodiment of different facets of the same underlying sociological entity, it is difficult to discern just where culture, religion, nationalism, and loyalty to the state begin and end. This linkage of national identity, language, and religion has important consequences. Probably two of the most basic, and firmly rooted, identities that can be forged in human beings are one’s religious and national identities.

Sometimes, these identities begin to overlap to such an extent that the two become linked together—making it is difficult to separate them without some serious, and concerted, effort to do so. This is particularly the case when, embedded in one’s particular culture, one seeks to discern just where one’s fundamental loyalties lay—whether to one’s nation or to one’s religious faith. This is difficult enough in the American context, but when culture and language get added to the mix, it becomes even more difficult.

Consider the current state of Hungarian Reformed Churches in Transylvania. On our excursion, we visited a number of Hungarian Reformed Churches in various villages in Transylvania. During the era of communism, Ceausescu, the former communist leader of Romania, sought to industrialize portions of Transylvania, moving those in the region away from their more traditional, agricultural way of life to a more urban, and industrialized, way of life. In addition, Ceausescu forced various non-Hungarian ethnic groups to move into Transylvania, partly to serve as industrial workers for such factories but, more importantly, to diminish the distinctively Hungarian nature of such communities. Finally, as an avowed communist, Ceausescu sought to weaken the hold of religion on the lives of the people.

The net result today is that Hungarian Reformed Churches conduct worship services in Hungarian to a limited number of people in villages who continue to speak Hungarian; other villagers who speak Romanian are hardly potential parishioners in such congregations. Moreover, because of industrialization and the allure of urban life, many younger Hungarians (and Romanians) have moved to the cities for work. Consequently, there are many Hungarian Reformed Churches in Romania today that continue to function (in part, through financial support from the state—more on that in a later blog) in which there may be only 5 or 6 people worshipping on a Sunday morning service.

So, getting back to the issue of the overlap of religion and national identity, the question is this: When members of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Hungary seek to preserve and invigorate congregational life of churches of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Romania are they doing so to preserve and promote their religious faith, their cultural heritage, or their national group? This was a question that arose in my mind as I heard our Hungarian hosts talk about these churches. Sometime I thought their concern was religious, but at other times I thought their concerns were more cultural and nationalistic in nature. I never was able to discern which was their primary motivation; perhaps even they might not be able to discern for themselves which was their major concern.

Every institutional arrangement has certain advantages and disadvantages. Just how closely should the church and nation be linked together? Clearly, theologically, Christians recognize a broader, universal, church that transcends national boundaries. Yet, ecclesiastically, churches are organized in somewhat different ways. There is the Roman Catholic Church, within which all authority moves hierarchically up to the Pope who resides in the Vatican; as a result, there is, for example, no national Catholic Church of Hungary or no national Catholic Church of Spain—only the Roman Catholic Church located in Hungary or in Spain. Other forms of Christianity have other kinds of ecclesiastical arrangements. The Orthodox Church, for example, is organized on the principle of autocephaly, in which the head bishop of the church does not report to any higher-ranking bishop and where administratively the church is typically organized according to the particular country in which it is located. Thus, there is the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, and so on, with the head bishop of these churches not falling under the authority of any other higher-ranking bishop. Finally, the various denominations that fall within the category of Protestant churches are organized in various ways, but many are organized on the basis of the country in which they are located. For example, while there are Presbyterian churches found in various countries, organizationally there is also the denominational structure of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

Such ecclesiastical matters are more than matters of academic interest. When thinking about how the various churches either tended to resist or tended to cooperate with the communist government in their different national settings, one comes away with the impression (this is all that I want to claim presently as to claim more would require me to do greater and deeper research on matter) that the Catholic church was able to resist the communist government in greater measure than the Orthodox or Protestant churches because of two characteristics of the Catholic church: (1) the church not organized as a reflection of the nation itself, and (2) church offices were appointed by those outside the country itself. On the other hand, my current understanding is that the Orthodox Church was of the three the most co-opted by the communist governmnts, in part because of its ecclesiastical arrangement and in part because of its theological emphasis on the doctrine of symphonia, a doctrine of church-state partnership which strives of “a harmonious interaction of the realm of Casear and the realm of God” and in which each bears responsibility for the welfare of the nation. Protestant churches tended to far in between the two, but where there were denominational structures that were more coterminous with some specific language and state (e.g., the Hungarian Reformed Church with the Hungarian language and the Hungarian state), then in such instances it was easier for the church to find reasons to cooperate with the state—even when that state promoted an ideology that was hostile to the church itself.

This is not to suggest that the Hungarian Reformed Church was corrupt during the communist era; rather, what I am seeking to note is that when one’s national and religious identity are so closely tied together, it is much harder as a Christian to discern just what is Caesar’s and just what is God’s. However, even when the organizational structure, language system, and national group are not coterminous, this issue does not necessarily disappear. One only needs to note that it is frequently difficult enough for us as Christians who reside in the United States to maintain a healthy form of national pride—one that does not easily give way and become distorted into a form of idolatry itself. In the end, then, we all, regardless of our institutional expression of the Christian faith, stand in the need of grace.

October 26, 2008

Saturday, September 6, 2008

An Adventure

Life can certainly be an adventure, and adventures frequently entail both surprises and challenges. Our time in Hungary is a series of adventures. And, certainly, one of these adventures relates to meeting certain legal requirements for living an extended period of time in a country in which you are not a citizen.

I do not mean to equate our experiences here with those of the many immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in New York City in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but some of our experiences this past week made me wonder how my grandparents who came to the United States, and who were unable to speak English, made it through the required processing for admittance to the United States. My grandparents were among the many people from a host of countries speaking many different languages who arrived in the United States unable to speak English. How did these multitudes of people speaking many different languages get processed? How did one know where to go, or even how to read the various signs that contained strange symbols seeking to direct you to different offices or desks? Were there translators for people speaking these various languages? And, after you gave someone your papers, were you simply at the mercy of someone behind the desk? Just how much consistency was there in what one official required at one desk compared to what some other official required at another desk? Regardless, there must have been much confusion and uncertainty in the minds of these newly arrived immigrants as they were being processed for admittance to American soil.

Since we will be living in Budapest for several months, we are required to obtain a residency permit for this extended period of time in the country. We had read various documents about what we needed in order to obtain a residency permit. We had a form given to us by one of the universities here which we thought was the required form. And, we had an address as to where we needed to go to apply for this residency permit.

First, however, we each needed to purchase stamps worth 18,000 HUF (about $115) at the post office. However, when we went into the post office, it was clear that there were many different lines with each window focusing on several different tasks. So which line should one join? Marilyn saw a woman sitting down and decided to ask her which line we needed to join in order to purchase the stamps. Fortunately, we could point to the appropriate word on the form, and she directed us to a different line than the ones we had been viewing (and thankfully the line was much shorter). So we finally got to the window and purchased the necessary stamps. Clearly, in the Hungarian system, one does not pay the application fee directly to the office where you are seeking your residency permit, but you demonstrate that you have paid by producing the required value in stamps to affix to your document in due time.

So after purchasing the stamps, filling out the form, and collecting the necessary documents, we decided to go to apply for our permit. We were to find the office at 60 Budafoci ut (street). Well we found the street and starting walking down the street. We passed the 40s and into the 50s. At the corner of a major intersection we reached 59 Budafoci ut. So we thought 60 Budafoci would be the first building across the major road. We crossed the thoroughfare, but 60 was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, we were told by some people nearby that we needed to go 3 bus stops beyond the intersection to find 60 Budafoci and the office. Just why the #60 was so far from #59c is still a mystery to us.

But, after taking the bus to the specified address, we next had to find the right office in which to submit our materials. We arrived at about 12:45 p.m. Fortunately, there was an information desk inside Building A at #60; unfortunately, the person behind the desk did not speak English. So we showed him our forms which were written in Hungarian, and then he gestured that we needed to go outside the building and walk around the outside to another side of the building and enter at customer service door 2. Of course, when we arrived at that office door, it was locked as it was lunch time. Ten minutes later, or at 1:00 p.m., the office door opened. We entered the office and found about 10 different desks with a different number on each desk window. It became clear you needed to get a number from a machine. However, the machine which you were to press to get a number had two options—it appeared to print numbers for two different administrative tasks that this particular office performed. Of course, since both options were written in Hungarian, we could not guess what administrative task we needed. To give you an idea of what I mean, here are some examples of the kinds of Hungarian words (minus the accents for which my computer does not have the appropriate keys) we encountered in the process: munkaszerzodes; formanyomtatvany; szallasheelybejelento lap; arcfenykep).

So we just pressed the top button and got our number. The number on the ticket and the number of the window where you were to go appeared on a large computerized display board. Finally, our number was flashed on the screen, and we went to our designated window. Unfortunately, the woman behind the desk did not speak English. So we showed her our form with the specified Hungarian words on the form, and she said something to us which we did not understand. But, clearly from her voice and actions something was amiss: we were not in the right place, or we had pressed the wrong number, or we had filled out the form incorrectly, or we had the wrong form, or who knows what else. We had no clue. Fortunately, there was a young woman at the adjacent desk who spoke English; after talking with her, we found out that we were in the wrong building. This was an office for those who wanted to immigrate to Hungary. We needed to go to another building nearby in order to apply for our temporary residency permit.

We went to the building, and we were glad to find an information desk upon entering the building—and an attendant who spoke English. However, he informed us that we had the wrong form (or that we needed to fill out an additional form), as he gave us each a new form, provided us with a number, and showed us inside a room where we once again had to wait for our number to be posted with an associated window. While we waited, we began to fill out the new form that had been given to us. Some of the questions seemed to be inappropriate for our particular purposes, so we were beginning to wonder whether or not we really needed to fill out this form. Other questions were identical to the form we had filled out before coming.

Well our turn finally arrived. Fortunately, the young woman who assisted us spoke English very well and exhibited a great deal of patience with us. We had our forms (yes, we needed both forms filled out), and we had our specified stamps from the post office for the application form. But, it soon became clear that we did not have all the necessary information. First, the letter I brought from the university here that indicated my position as being the local Calvin faculty for the Semester in Hungary Program did not meet their specified requirements (though such a letter was sufficient last year for the Calvin faculty member on site). In addition, we were informed that we needed, among other things, personal bank statements to demonstrate that we had sufficient resources to stay in Hungary, forms indicating that we have health insurance coverage (insurance cards are not sufficient), three more signatures including ID numbers on the form that verified where we are living and who owned it and last, but not least, a certified copy of our marriage license (apparently this was also a new requirement, as the Calvin professor who was here last year did not need to supply a marriage license for his wife’s residency permit). And we were told we had 10 days in which to produce these items. Well trying to get a copy of one’s marriage license (passports in the same name and address are not sufficient) in 10 days from abroad is impossible. At that point, the young woman stated that maybe my wife didn’t need a permit anyway.

By the time we left the office two hours later we were fairly exhausted and somewhat discouraged. Needless to say, one wonders whether all this makes any difference, since I paid the money and was told that my permit would be ready on October 2nd. Given our semester travel schedule, we will be leaving (and several days later re-entering) the country about once every three weeks, so perhaps we could be viewed as tourists who enter, leave, and reenter the country without necessarily establishing residency. And you wonder if you had a different number, and had drawn a different clerk, whether you would have had to produce all the same documents that were now being requested.

Still, the woman was courteous and did not appear to be unduly filled with the power of her position. She gave us the list that is pictured here that shows what we have done and what we still need to submit (far right column). One wants to honor the laws of the land, to recognize that one is an uninvited guest in their country, and not needlessly to cause trouble. So we will try to honor the specified requirements.

When I asked the Calvin professor who was here last year about this process he stated that it was a nightmare. He went four times to this office, met with four different people, and each time was told that he needed different documents than what he had produced. So I imagine that when we go again, we will have met some, but not all, of the additional requirements specified (I doubt we will have our marriage license by then). So we will likely be given another set period of time (at least that is my hope) to provide the remaining specified documents.

So it was this experience that got me thinking about what it might have been like for my grandparents, and for the vast numbers of other immigrants, who arrive every day on American shores without any understanding of the English language. It made me think of just how helpless immigrants must feel at times, and how they too are at the mercy of a particular clerk who is behind the desk to which they are assigned. Today, we can retrieve bank statements through the internet, and we can download a form to request our marriage license from the Newaygo County clerk. But, such was not the case a century ago and may not be the case for many who come from countries with fewer computerized systems.

But, for several hours this week, I think we experienced something similar to what many American immigrants likely feel upon arrival on American soil—as together we are “strangers in a strange land.”

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Start of the Campaign

The Olympics have ended. Several weeks of sports competition among athletes from around the world has now been replaced by American political competition. Today marks the beginning of two weeks of political conventions—first the Democrats in Denver and then the Republicans in St. Paul—and then the general campaign. From now until November 4, there is likely to be constant media talk and coverage of the American presidential election.

I have often wondered about how American elections are covered outside the United States, and how others interpret the way in which we conduct our presidential elections. Now I am going to see first-hand just how it occurs and viewed at least in one country—Hungary in 2008. While many observations are still to be made, several rather preliminary ones can nevertheless be made.

First, for American citizens abroad, there is certainly considerable coverage of the election on the cable news channels of CNN and BBC. Moreover, one can use the internet to log onto such website options as ABC news or MSNBC to receive full video clips of speeches made at the convention or listen to news talk shows such as Meet the Press. What is less clear is the extent of information Hungarians receive about the election on their own Hungarian television news programs. Since I do not speak Hungarian, it is more difficult to discern just what kind of coverage the election is receiving in terms of Hungarian news.

Second, there is one noticeable difference for Americans following the election in Hungary than for their fellow Americans doing so back home—namely, the absence of campaign commercials. The only campaign commercials we see are the occasional ones presented on news talk shows should they choose to discuss the content of such ads. But such discussion of ads is relatively rare (at least thus far).

Third, in my talking with various Hungarians who are administrators or professors associated with institutions of higher education here in Budapest, there have been frequent expressions of interest in, and reports of attention given to, American election campaigns. And certainly there is some recognition of the complexity of American elections (e.g., popular votes versus Electoral College votes; primaries versus caucus-convention systems). What is less evident, at least to this point, is some of the awareness of the dynamics of election campaigns, how different groups may be mobilized to vote, and what differences in voter turnout there may be among different types of social groups. But, perhaps more is known than might be initially revealed in some of our initial conversations.

Probably the thing that strikes me the most about this campaign at this point in time is what appears to be the relative closeness of the election. In many ways, this is an election that the Democratic nominee should win. After eight years of any administration, there are many Americans who feel it is “time for a change.” And Democrats were able to win control of the House and Senate in the 2006 congressional elections. Moreover, many Americans stand opposed to American involvement in Iraq, there is discontent over rising gas prices, the housing market has experienced difficulties, the sitting president is relatively unpopular, and the economy is sagging. All of this suggests that Democrats as the “out party” should be in the driver’s seat. Yet, poll after poll suggests that the race is relatively tight right now. Of course, all of this could change dramatically during the course of the next nine weeks. Yet, I have no doubts that McCain can only be pleased to be in the position he is at this point in time.

Should the Democrats lose this presidential election, my guess is that there will be a lot of discussion of whether the party’s new “play for religious voters” was really the right strategy to pursue in seeking victory. During this presidential campaign, Democratic presidential candidates have made a clear effort not to be perceived as being “hostile toward religion.” Democratic presidential candidates in 2008 have willingly talked about their religious faith, and they even participated in a joint “debate” about faith and politics at Messiah College earlier this spring. The general idea is that by winning back some of the “religious voters,” the Democratic candidate might be able to peel away enough votes from the Republican candidate to win the election. And Barack Obama has certainly not backed away from either talking about his religious faith or seeking the support of “religious voters.” But, should he fail to win the election, my guess is that this strategy will be the first to be criticized as not having worked and that many party activists and strategists will once again promote the idea that the party should pursue an agenda that reflects a “high wall” of separation between church and state. On the other hand, should Obama win, my guess is that this strategy will be praised as being a successful one and that Democratic candidates for president will continue to pursue such a strategy for the foreseeable future.

Of course, elections and election campaigns vary from country to country—as does the system of election employed. So do certain campaign issues. The American system of elections is relatively unique—both so too is the Hungarian system. Some political issues are relatively unique to American politics—but so are certain Hungarian political issues. Later I will talk about election campaigns in Hungary and the election laws that govern their campaigns—as well as some of the issues that make Hungarian politics somewhat distinctive in nature.

Corwin Smidt

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Reflections on the First Week in Budapest

My wife Marilyn and I are spending the next five months in Budapest, Hungary. I teach at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I will be directing Calvin’s Semester in Hungary Program. Nineteen Calvin students will be coming to join us on August 22. We are looking forward to our time together, as we seek to learn more about the people, history, and politics of Hungary and Central Europe. In so doing, I imagine we will learn more about ourselves in the context of discovering other people and places—both our similarities and differences in how we think, what we value, and how we go about doing things.

Certainly the first challenge that confronts a visitor to Hungary is the Hungarian language itself. Its alphabet, accents, and sounds make it difficult to read and translate. In fact, it is said that the closest language to Hungarian is Finnish. Hungarians supposedly originated on the East side of the Ural mountains, many of whom later migrated west into Central Europe (with then possibly other bands continuing to move northward eventually arriving in what is now known as Finland). Exact dates of migration are not known, but they transpired primarily sometime between 600 and 900 A.D. Aspects of its language are Asian too, as even today in Hungary one’s family name is pronounced initially, and then one’s “first or Christian” name follows. Fortunately, many people in Budapest speak English; certainly many youths are fluent in the language.

I have been in Budapest several times previously. The first time was in 1993 when I spent a week attending a conference that focused largely on religion and society and at which I presented a paper. Much has changed since that time. In 1993, relatively few people in Budapest spoke English; German was the second language of communication. There were many beggars and people seeking to sell a few goods at the entrances to the subway system. There were few restaurants that had any menus in English and few tourists. Much has changed in those 15 years. Budapest in August is full of tourists. The English language is spoken by most service people. And, menus have English translations.

I teach primarily American politics, with a research interest in the area of religion and politics. During my semester in Hungary, I am to teach a course on “The Politics of Hungary and its Neighbors” as well as direct a course on “The Culture of Eastern Europe.” Since the latter course will consist of some group travels (with planned visits to Transylvania, Krakow and Auschwitz, the Ukraine, and Croatia), museum visits in Budapest (e.g., the National History Museum, the Ethnographic Museum, and the Holocaust Museum), as well as some guest lectures, it is a course that I will direct more than I will teach—and the course will consist of a good deal of reflection and discussion as well. But it is the former course which requires considerable preparation on my part. I have been reading about Hungarian history and politics over the course of the past year, and while I have learned a great deal and have come to appreciate more both the historical legacy and complexity of Hungary politics, I am far from an expert on the topic. So it will be a challenge to teach the course with adequate depth and certainty about the workings of Hungarian politics today.

Nevertheless, even in my feeble attempts to become knowledgeable about Hungary politics, there is much that one learns that places facets of American politics in new light. Consider the debate over making English the only language instruction in U.S. public schools. Previously, I had thought that Hungary was composed of Hungarians. Well that is true if you think in terms of citizenship. But, if you think in terms of ethnic heritage, there are many different ethnic groups that comprise the people who live in Hungary. For example, in 1867, after the territorial integrity and political unity of historic “territories of the Holy Crown of Hungary” were restored, only 40 percent of the Hungarian population were Hungarians. The rest comprised people of different ethnic origins. These included Germans (10 percent), Slovaks ( 9 percent), Rumanians (14 percent), South Slavs (14 percent) and Ruthenes (Carpatho-Russians and Carpatho-Ukrainians who comprised 2 percent of the population), as well as those from some other ethnic groups. How does one go about creating political unity, let alone communicate, across such a diversity of ethnic and language groups? One of the means (perhaps the principal means) employed by the Hungarian government was mandating educational instruction in Hungarian. Of course, it was not a perfect means, as it did privilege those who already spoke Hungarian in terms of filling governmental and civil posts, but eventually it also did seemingly allow for some social mobility among members of the other ethnic groups as well as provide some basis for a national identity. Still there were lingering ethnic resentments about this imposition and periodic calls for greater accommodation to ethnic diversity—particularly among the non-Hungarians. I am not advocating for English only instruction, but I find the historical parallel at least interesting and wonder whether there may be any lessons learned from this effort should one be able to study the situation in much greater detail and attention than I am able to give it.

A day or two ago, we visited Statue Park, a site outside Budapest, in which many of the statues and monuments from the communist regime were placed after the fall of communism in Hungary. This forty “pieces of art” serve a reminder of times when Hungary was locked behind the Iron Curtain. The park attracts foreign tourists as well as Hungarians, particularly school children who visit this museum as a means of understanding facets of their country’s history. It is now nearly two decades since the fall of communism in the Central and East European countries. For many, it is a distant memory, and for those under 25, it holds little, if any, memory.

Certainly, one of the aspects of the contemporary world that is far different than even three decades ago is the globalization of communication. My wife and I were in the Netherlands in 1974 when Ford pardoned Nixon. There were big headlines across the Dutch papers with pictures of Ford and Nixon, but it was difficult for us to determine just what was happening in America. It took a couple of days, as I recall, for us to realize just what had happened (perhaps we finally found an International Herald to read). However, here we sit in our apartment in Budapest and hear CNN and the BBC talk about the conflict over South Ossetia between Georgia and Russia. I can read about the conflict in the New York Times or the Washington Post through my internet connection, and I receive e-mails from my family, friends, and reporters from back in the States. In one sense, I am in a different cultural context. Yet, in another sense, I am hardly outside my own familiar context. We live in world of instant communication and perhaps information overload. I hope that this entry has not contributed to the latter.

Corwin Smidt
August 13, 2008