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America as Seen From Budapest

János Zoltan Csák surveys America in all its glorious contradiction—and renders trenchant warnings for our future.

Credit: CCat82

The Genius of America, by János Zoltan Csák, with Forward by Patrick Deneen and Afterward by George Friedman, translated from Hungarian by Thomas Snedden, Angelico Press, 110 pages.

No one doubts what Hungary is: It is the country of the Magyars, as it has been since St. Stephen converted them to Christianity in the first years of the second millennium A.D. It has had royal, Imperial-Royal (under the Hapsburg Empire), authoritarian, Communist, and democratic governments, but it remains Hungary.


By contrast, there is no conservative consensus about what America is. We are the realization of Lockean liberalism enshrined in Constitutional government, a definition that Catholic scholar Patrick Deneen finds inadequate; we are the inheritors of Anglo-Saxon traditions drawn from our common past according to Russell Kirk, but we are a “a founded nation,” while “most nations don’t think they have or need such a clear, conscious, and principled beginning” according to the Claremont Institute’s Charles Kesler. We are the City on a Hill, but also the rough-and-tumble interplay of interests, a vehicle for a shared dream but also a stomping ground for the individual pursuit of happiness.

Are we one of these things, or a mixture of them, or all of the above? János Csák, presently his country’s Minister for Innovation and Culture, answers in so many words: “Yes.” Many American conservatives admire the government of Viktor Orbán and its principled stance for Western civilization. But what do Hungary’s conservatives think of us? In Csák’s view, we are all the more remarkable for our singular character among the nations of the world, more fragile than we like to think, but also deeply resilient. His book remonstrates with us about our weaknesses in a way that will make many readers uncomfortable. We, the New World, are used to giving advice to the Old World, but the Old World in turn has important things to tell us.

As Patrick Deneen writes in his forward: “The ‘American genius’ was a unique combination of the old and the new, the classical and the modern, the Christian and the Enlightenment.” Csák’s is a worthy successor to a long line of foreign observations of America including Hegel, de Tocqueville, and Chesterton, with a perspective that we have difficulty formulating for ourselves. There is no American impulse so base that it cannot be redeemed for a higher purpose, and none so noble that it cannot be perverted for base self-serving ends.

Most political books are magazine articles puffed into marketable volumes. At 110 pages, The Genius of America has more real content than tomes many times its size. In passing, Csák notes that in contrast to the religious intolerance of 16th- and 17th-century Europe, “Transylvania [then part of Hungary] was the one European venue where the freedom and equality of the Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Unitarian religions were enshrined in law in 1568; everyone was free to choose the religion they wished to practice.” 

In England, by contrast, “those who did not want to follow the religion of the ruler were free to leave.” The Puritans who sailed for America “saw themselves as God’s chosen people, and were animated by a desire to make the world a better place. They saw in America the New Canaan,” Csák observes, quoting John Winthrop’s 1630 “City on a Hill” sermon.


The Founding Fathers “had to clarify three issues: equality, justice, and the governance of a free society.” But these were far from simple. The Fathers saw any attempt to impose “actual equality in material goods” as “especially perverting.” The goals of equality and freedom clash: As Csák quotes de Tocqueville, one “finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.” The impulse towards wealth distribution, Csák writes, goes back to 1785, when the lexicographer Noah Webster opined that “the freedom of a nation can be rendered permanent” only by “an equal distribution of property.”

Justice, meanwhile, meant to the Fathers that individuals should receive what they earned, through the free exchange of the marketplace. But “the fairness of private exchanges and the distribution of public goods are often compromised.” Judicial review, the prerogatives of states vs. the federal government, and the checks and balances of separation of powers sought to realize Aristotle’s ideal of constitutional government, Csák explains. Constitutional government defuses but does not eliminate the underlying tension between freedom and equality.

The same tension prevails between the religious motivation behind the American Founding and the actual exercise of power. “The City of God, the Theopolis envisaged by the pilgrims, did not come into being. At the same time, biblical and Enlightenment concepts of human equality and freedom did meet in the foundation of the American nation.” Yet “in order to bring desires for individual fulfillment into some common framework, and in addition to references to providence, some shared, unifying idea was needed. What was the purpose of freedom? Beyond individual growth, what bound them together; what set American society apart from others?” Csák quotes John Winthrop’s warning against “a liberty of corrupt nature, which is affected by men and beasts, to do what they like; and this liberty is inconsistent with authority.” 

De Tocqueville noted in 1831 that Americans “broke the bonds that attached them to their native soil and have formed no other bonds since. For them, emigration began as a need; today it has become a game of chance, which they love as much for the emotions it stirs as for the profit it brings.” Csák also cites the German sociologist Max Weber’s dismissal of Americans as “specialists without spirit” and “sensualists without heart.” In the large, these impulses crystallized in the notion of “Manifest Destiny,” a form of “secular missionary belief.”

In this case, de Tocqueville's keen eye failed to pierce the veil of the American character. The American journey is not simply “a game of chance.” Huckleberry Finn, the protagonist of America's most characteristic journey, compared himself to the Christian pilgrim in Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress, a book “about a man who left his family,” as Huck did. Our popular literature remains obsessed with the antinomian loner, a sinner on a personal journey to salvation: The cowboy who cleans up the town and rides off into the sunset, the private detective who rescues (or not) the damsel in distress but disappears into the urban nightscape, or Huck himself, who lights out into the new territories ahead of the rest before Aunt Sally can civilize him.

That helps explain Donald Trump’s appeal to American evangelicals: He is a character that Mark Twain or Sinclair Lewis might have invented, the sinner who has something in common with bandit-heroes of the Bible like Jephthah and David.

But “no metaphor of American unity has ever been able to resolve the contradiction between these ideals and either the sin of slavery or the dispossession of the Indians. These sins cast as dark a shadow on the Americans of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as they did on the colonists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” Csák concludes. A long chapter recounts the wrongs inflicted on black slaves and the dispossession of Native Americans. 

This brings Csák to the book’s center of gravity, in a chapter entitled “The problem of reconciling American ideals and practice.” Americans, Csák writes, “right regard their ideals as universal, either as a ‘divine commandment,’ or as ‘Manifest Destiny,’ and consider the American experiment as exceptional in the history of mankind.” But Americans are subject to cognitive dissonance as they “cling to ideals even when their actual circumstances or action directly contradict them,” as in the case of the mistreatment of blacks.

“The contradiction between ideals and practice can perhaps best be understood by studying the thoughts of Abraham Lincoln,” Csák continues. Lincoln condemned American complacency, for example, his warning that “we have forgotten God. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.” And he concludes with the Second Inaugural’s severe encomium to divine justice, that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Lincoln’s personal journey from agnosticism to faith is well noted by Csák, but its significance was greater than the “harmonious blend of rationality and belief in Providence” that he attributes to Lincoln. A country whose Protestant faith rests on the spiritual journey of the individual can be transformed by the conversion experience of a single individual who emerges as the paragon and exemplar of America’s search for redemption. If the Americans are an “almost-chosen people,” as Lincoln quipped, Lincoln himself was our almost-prophet, our almost-saint-and-martyr.

In its worst expression, American arrogance emulates post-Periclean Athens, with its terrible declaration to the Melians that “the powerful exact what they can, and the weak grant what they must.” Csák condemns the Mexican War of 1845, and might have added that President Grant in his memoirs argued that the Civil War was America’s punishment for this war of acquisition. America remains tempted to assert its power arbitrarily, quoting Jefferson’s dictum that he trembled for his country when he reflected that a just God ruled in Heaven.

From there Csák proceeds directly to America’s cultural divide. The “Puritan, Jacobin, Marxist, left-liberal tradition” believes that “man can be perfected, and the ideals to be achieved can be interpreted and realized through the collective.” The inclusion of Puritans in this camp is jarring following Csák’s praise of John Winthrop, although he is entirely correct on this point: As Joshua Mitchell in American Awakening and Joseph Bottum in An Anxious Age argue that Woke ideology adopts the sensibility of Puritanism stripped of its religious content. 

Csák’s account of left-wing ideologues such as Herbert Marcuse and Saul Alinsky has few surprises for conservative readers.

Csák surveys the contending tribes of the conservative movement, and concludes that its emphasis on market economics gives insufficient attention to the foundation of society, namely the family. “In 2020,” he notes, “34 percent of federal spending went to retirement funding and health insurance benefits for the adult population, and 7.4 percent was spent on children…. It appears that America’s political class does not recognize or value the role of the family and childcare institutions as key players in the transfer of skills and virtues.”

“Without the family, neither ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ nor wealth, nor social entities can survive,” Csák concludes. 

Hungary meanwhile devotes 11 percent of its national budget to support for families and offers a unique level of support for large families (those with four or more children pay no taxes at all). 

“We do not know what the future holds,” Csák concludes. “American conservatives are close to experiencing John Winthrop’s 1630 prophecy: ‘If we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.’” Csák deeply wants us to succeed: “Without the ideals of the American genius—freedom, equality before the law and justice—the world would be worse off. The success of the American attempt at ordered liberty is vital, not only for Americans, but for all of us around the world.”

Civil disorder might tear America apart, or its two cultures might grow so incompatible that the Union might dissolve, Csák warns. Never did things look darker for America than in 1859, when the Union faced dissolution and the Republican candidate for president was a former one-term Congressman from Illinois who had just lost an election for the Senate. Nothing in the preceding eight decades of American history hinted at the emergence of a leader like Lincoln. The mercurial, antinomian character of America’s faith makes matters just as unpredictable today.

Csák holds up a mirror to Americans that reveals features we do not usually see. It is not a complete picture, but it is a vivid and compelling one that deserves careful reading by every American conservative.