There’s a debate among some US Christians about Hungary’s Victor Orban as a model or at least inspiration for America. The socially conservative and increasingly authoritarian prime minister has governed since 2010 without strong opposition as his party commands two thirds of the parliament. 

Rod Dreher, a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy and author of The Benedict Option, has been blogging from and about Hungary during Tucker Carlson’s visit and hailed Orban for defying “globalist liberalism.” Orban’s regime has advocated pro-natalist policies, resisted some LGBTQ advocacy by Western Europe, limited immigration, and is a strong advocate for persecuted Christians in the Mideast and elsewhere. Orban has defended “Christian Europe” and derided Western secularists who advocate “a godless cosmos, rainbow families, migration and open societies.” For Dreher and others, Orban exemplifies success against global wokery.

In response, evangelical columnist David French has noted Hungary’s pro-natalist policies are no more generous than many others (its birthrate is lower than much of Europe’s), free speech is increasingnly more constrained in Orban’s Hungary, corruption has enriched regime cronies, and Hungary is much poorer than America and suffers from net migration, even though Orban enthusiasts insist he has revived national pride. Freedom House has in recent years downgraded Hungary from “free” to “partly free.” French compares conservative Americans who romanticize Orban’s Hungary with American liberals who historically have idealized Scandinavian social welfare states. In neither case are conservatives or liberals seeing the reality of those countries but instead are projecting their own aspirations.

There’s a long history of Americans idealizing foreign nations as potential inspirations for America. Thomas Jefferson initially lauded revolutionary France as a beacon for the future. In the 1930s some American Catholics celebrated Spanish dictator Francisco Franco for defeating his Stalin-aligned and anti-Catholic opposition, while mostly ignoring Franco’s own alignment with Hitler. Many celebrities initially lauded Russian Bolshevism and even Stalin later as the outbreak of a new egalitarian era. Fidel Castro and his Nicaraguan Sandinista proxies for years attracted American delegations, many of them church related, who saw their Latin Marxism as outbreaks of God’s Kingdom. In the 1980s some American conservatives celebrated Chile’s dictator Augusto Pinochet who had overthrown the Marxist Allende regime and prospered Chile with free market policies. These enthusiasts, as American idealists, rarely admitted that their overseas favored regimes hardly lived up to American standards of freedom and justice. Thomas Jefferson much later in life admitted the French Revolution’s tyranny and rivers of blood were calamitous, but too few have followed his example.

Sometimes these overseas infatuations at least arguably serve a strategic purpose for American interests. America had to align with Stalin to defeat Hitler, and thinking about Stalin’s genocidal crimes was inconvenient. During the Cold War America often needed alliances of convenience with unsavory rightwing dictators. Americans lacking Henry Kissinger’s penchant for cold calculations had trouble admitting that national interests sometimes override America’s preference for nice friends. So sometimes tyrants and killers were reinterpreted more favorably. Nixon’s 1972 rapprochement with Mao Zedong effectively meant mostly silence about China’s ongoing repressions because it became a de facto ally against the Soviets. Sometimes despots are charming hosts for American journalists and celebrities, like the Shah of Iran, Anwar Sadat, and King Hussein of Jordan. Longtime Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos assisted her dictatorial husband with lavish hospitality at their Manila palace for special American visitors. (William F. Buckley once quipped that despite rumors that her other guests were sometimes invited to her bedroom, he never received any such invite.) Mercifully, nobody, not even its apologists, ever romanticized the Marcos regime as potentially instructive for America. More typically, despotic regimes are portrayed as the best their country can attain at the moment, which sometimes may be tragically true.

Some culturally besieged American conservative Christians are looking to Hungary as a potential model, although Hungary’s population is much less religious than America. Orban professes to defend Christendom as a cultural and political reality and not so much a spiritual objective. To some extent, this rhetoric is defensible. Theoretically pro-Christian political rhetoric is usually more conducive to human freedom than explicitly anti-Christian alternatives. But such bombast is almost always laced with some self-serving hypocrisy and should not be treated too very seriously. Americans as instinctive idealists often have trouble with these distinctions.

Americans also like moral absolutes. Who’s on God’s side? Who’s on America’s side? Geopolitics rarely accommodate such absolutes. Orban, although Hungary is a NATO country, relates to Putin’s Russia and to China in ways that are less than aligned with American ideals and interests. He’s not a fascist, as some on the left claim with gross exaggeration. Compared to most of the rest of the world, Hungary is still freer and more prosperous. 

But Hungary’s democracy, which dates only to the 1989 fall of communism, is not on a positive trajectory. Democracy depends on wide press freedom, free speech, and vigorous opposition parties, all of which are threatened by a regime with a two-thirds governing majority that can override meaningful limits on power. Authentic democracy assumes no party or person can be trusted with unlimited authority. Hungary perhaps is heading in the direction of Mexico before 1980, with elections and theoretical opposition and free speech but a ruling party whose tentacles are so expansive that it never loses elections. Such a model is under no circumstances instructive for America, which is defined by challenge, debate, ordered liberty, and individual initiative.

America is not and will never be like Hungary, or Sweden, or any other country. We have our own history, traditions, unique experiences, and national creeds. We sin and we seek redemption. We have our crazy moments and then self-correct. We don’t bow to monarchs. We term limit our presidents. Our confidence is in laws, not persons. We don’t exalt any ethnicity and are Americans by birth or choice.

When John Adams was presented as America’s first ambassador to Britain, he was jokingly asked by King George if he fancied the manners of France. “I must avow to your Majesty, I have no attachment but to my own country,” to which the King responded: “An honest man will never have any other.”