Does the political shift, among European voters, towards populism entail a return to traditional values? No.

A- A A+

Values are more than opinions: they claim to have some coherence, to shape a world-view, to be opposable, even imposable, to others, and to organise own’s life. They are often the result of a secularisation of religious norms (or “translation” in the Habermas sense: making religious values acceptable to secular people by rending them “autonomous” from any religious creed).

The Catholic Church never asked for its “opinions“ to be taken into consideration, but for the “values” and principles it promotes to be reflected in laws, without reference to scriptures or will of God (see the reference to “life” in order to oppose abortion and euthanasia). In France the government speaks of the “values of the Republic” as being above political partisanship. Values tend to constitute a system, in opposition to “opinions” (opinion polls are full of “contradictions”, often a consequence of the way questions are asked, while by definition opinions are more variable than values).

In 1992-93 two famous American political scientists raised the issue of values as drivers in politics and geo strategy. For Huntington values are just the normative expression of specific cultures based on more or less secularised religions. For James Davison Hunter political mobilisation inside the US society started to be polarised on values more than other issues (economy, welfare, foreign policy etc.) since the late 1970’s. While Huntington is largely discredited (“If civilisation is what counts, however, the likelihood of violence between Ukrainians and Russians should be low” [1]), the language of clash of civilisations is pervasive among populists (the Great replacement theory is derived from it).

The great input of Hunter is to stress that the clash of values (“Culture wars”) is reshaping politics inside the different western societies. He opposed a conservative/ Christian right to a liberal progressive left: the great divide between Republicans and Democrats is today on values, not on the traditional issues (isolationism or interventionism, economic liberalism versus new deal etc.). The racial issue, still pervasive, is expressed in terms of values not of race as a biological factor. The conservatives claim to defend Christianity, although it does not mean that there is no faithful and devout Christians among democrats except that that the latter do not make religion a collective issue but only a personal compass. Abortion, same sex marriage, LGBT’s rights etc, are the big issues, a fact that is relatively new. [2]

Interestingly enough, part of the left still uses the concept of culture, under the paradigm of “multi-culturalism”, but more in the sense of “identity” than “set of values”. Cultures here are evaluated under a “value judgement”: dominant culture (like post colonialism or whiteness) are bad, and dominated cultures are good only by reference to a system of domination, and not in themselves: wearing a veil is not connoted with values (in both directions: male domination of women or a way for Muslim women to assert themselves as believers) but as a marker of identity/ agency in a post colonial situation. Consequently cultures are perceived as a set of markers and attitudes:  cultural appropriation is condemned as some sort of a continuation of a colonial plundering attitude. Culture is not seen as a conflict between competing nations but as a way for a threatened minority to protect itself (it might work both on the right and on the left with an inversion of signs: white supremacists consider themselves as a threatened minority). The left is divided between a long standing universalist approach (Human rights are universal) and a more recent culturalist approach, which is reluctant to refer to non contextualised values.

Following Hunter’s “culture war” approach, the rise of populist parties and the shift of traditional centre-right parties to the extreme right rhetoric and agenda (LR in France, Forza Italia, PP in Spain, Conservatives in GB, CSU in Germany etc.) is interpreted as a shift of public opinions towards more conservative values. But is there such a shift?

In the USA, there is a clear correlation between the shift to a populist right and a more assertiveness of traditional values in the realm of the Law. The Supreme Court conservative judges are all strong conservative Christians. There is nevertheless an interesting twist: the Court has a catholic majority that does not reflect the religious demography of the country. The two protestants are Neil Gorsuch (who is Episcopalian but was raised Catholic), and the progressive Ketanji Brown Jackson, who claims to be a non-nominal protestant; there is no evangelical judge at the SC, although the Evangelicals  make the core of the supporters of Donald Trump. It goes along with the fact that a huge part of the Christian conservative intellectuals in public debate are either catholic or converted to Catholicism (Georges Weigel, Ross Douthat).

But in Europe the situation is far more complex. On the agenda on the populists, except in Poland, the highest issue is immigration, not family values. Of course most (but not all) populist parties stress family values and refer to the Christian identity of Europe. But they don’t campaign on abortion and even not against LGBT’s rights, except for the most extreme fringes (VOX in Spain, Marion Maréchal in France, – Eric Zemmour is more cautious). Marine Le Pen acknowledges that abortion and same sex marriage are dead issue; in her 2017 presidential campaign program, she replaced the reference to Christianity by “laïcité” as the main identity marker in France. VOX lost voices in the 2023 elections in Spain, largely because it presented a “reactionary” program on values and family life, while the more cautious rightist party, PP, made a breakthrough. Geert Wilders in Holland did make a campaign against Islam by precisely supporting modern liberal values (feminism and LGBT’s rights).

Moreover, populist leaders rarely exemplify Christian values and practices. None of the female populist leaders bears any resemblance with the ideal portrait of a Christian house wife. They don’t even bother to look like: procreation out of religious wedlock (Meloni, Marion Maréchal) and multiple divorces (Marine Le Pen) are the norm. All leaders seem to have internalised the sexual freedom of the sixties and do not pay even lip service to the papal encyclical letter “Humanae Vitae”‘s guidelines.

It seems a paradox that populists vote for leaders that are in perfect contradiction with references to traditional familial values, even in the USA with Donal Trump, who outpaces the prototype of the uptight Christian, Mike Pence.

But in Europe the reason is simple: the leaders look like their voters. Liberal values are well entrenched in the daily life of the Europeans and do not seem to play a role in their political choices.

Except for a very small fringe of conservative Catholics, the bulk of the populist electorate shares the same familial and secular practices than the other part of the social spectrum: disconnect between sexuality, procreation and family life, single parent household, multiple partners, banalisation of abortion, and, to a lesser extend, tolerance towards homosexuality, which is no more a taboo (admitted homosexuals are over-represented in the leadership of the Rassemblement National in France, while Jörg Hayder, the populist leader of the FPÖ in Austria, did not care to really hide his bisexuality). Few of them are church attenders. They may stage themselves as Christian (Salvini kissing the rosary, the FPÖ in Austria putting crosses on electoral bill boards), but this manipulation of Christianity has always been condemned by the Church as a masquerade. Opinion polls seem to show that the shift to the right in politics is not correlated with a shift to more conservative values.[3] In Spain in the Parliamentary elections of 2023, the  conservative right wing party PP (which endorsed same sex marriage) saw an increase in votes of 12.13 % while the populist party VOX a decrease of 2.7 %. Vox was the only party to explicitly campaign against abortion, LGBT’s rights and tougher measures against femicides. Clearly, we can see both a shift to the right and a rejection of a conservative backlash on values.

How does the connexion between values and anti immigration work for the populists? In most cases, in favour of liberal values: the veil is perceived both on right and left as a sign of male domination, the high birth rate of the migrants is condemned, and even the supposed homophobia of the Muslims is mentioned as a proof of their inability to be integrated in the West. The anti immigration attitude does not contribute to a return to traditional Christian values. Of course many populist local notables endeavour to display obvious Christian cultural markers, like nativities on Christmas and crosses, in order to show the flag of identity, but it plays more as window dressing and incantatory gesture than as a return to Christianity.

In opposition to the USA, practicing conservative Christians are in a small minority in Europe: they are unable (except maybe in Poland) to lead the populist wave or to join it on their own terms. They nevertheless tend to shift to populist movements (in 2022 in France 16% of practicing Catholics voted for Eric Zemmour, who made 7% of the total votes) [4]. For them the concept of Christian identity is not just some sort of cultural or ethnic marker: it should go with an agenda promoting traditional “Christian family” and opposing LGBT’s rights through the law. [5] But, in Europe, contrary to the USA, they are a small minority inside the populist constituency. They usually strongly opposed Muslims as religious competitors as well as migrants. But the main threat to Christianity in Europe, according to both Popes Jean-Paul II and Benedict XVI, is not another religion but secularism. If churches are empty it is not because Muslims chased Christians away but because the Europeans do not go any more to church and few want to become priests.[6]

The predicament of the Christian conservative right.

A growing paradox is that on many issues practicing Muslims are closer to practicing Christians, who nevertheless consider them as a threat to Christendom. In the West the opposition to the public display of Christian signs does not come from Muslims, but from secularist activists (the Lautsi case in Italy and public nativity scenes in France). Interestingly enough, in France, Muslims do appreciate the display of “Christian nativities”: at least there is a veiled woman welcomed in the public space, a bearded father with a turban called Yusuf, and no pig!

In many cases Muslims joined the anti LGBT’s campaign launched by conservative Christians. A spat of events during 2023 brought some light of this ambivalent alignment of values, on both sides of the Atlantic. On 27 April 2023, in Maryland, Muslim and Ethiopian orthodox parents demonstrated to get their children exempted from any programme concerning LGBT people. They were immediately praise by Mom’s for Liberty, an evangelical Christian association. [7]In Belgium, on sept 17 2023, demonstrations were organised in different Belgian cities to protest against “EVRAS”, a compulsory program for school-children about sexuality and gender: the ultra catholic (and Islamophobic) movement Caritas was side by side with conservative Islamic associations. [8]

Having to choose between a trans-cultural values coalition or fighting Islamisation and immigration in alliance with secularists is a tough dilemma for conservative Christians. In Europe where immigration and Islam are closely linked, they usually choose to fight Islam and immigration, and prefer to ally with “liberal” populists, hoping to change them from inside. In the USA it is more complex: immigration being largely from Latin America and Muslims being a small minority, local alliances are easier to defend between conservative Christians and Muslims.

Nevertheless allying with secular populists might undermine the endeavour to return to traditional values.  The strategy of the right wing Christians seem to be to advance step by step, pushing first for laws and regulations that don’t confront directly liberal values. For instance in Italy, the Melloni’s government don’t speak about banning abortion and assisted procreation but is outlawing surrogate pregnancy, which is also contested by progressive feminists.

A general rule seems to emerge: when a populist party in Europe puts the main emphasis on the issue of values, above immigration, it loses: Spain and Poland are good examples. The case of Poland is illuminating: the PiS acted on a conservative far-right catholic platform. It worked for 8 years (2015-2023). The economic situation was good and the external threat (war in Ukraine) should have pushed the voters to rally around the government. But on Oct. 15th 2023, they lost the parliamentary elections by a huge margin, thanks to the votes of the Youth and the women. Moreover, even in the USA this general rule seems to partially work: some red states (elections of 2021) maintained in 2023 the right to abortion through referendum or other means (Kansas, Ohio, Indiana, South Dakota). The US opinion remains clearly liberal on the issue of abortion[9], prompting Donald Trump to call the ban on abortion “ a terrible mistake”[10]. The secular populist leaders acknowledge this rule (and Trump is a secularist in this sense), while the conservative Christians do not soften their stand on values at the expense of their electoral success.

The core issue is very simple. Can one reverse a deep cultural change on the conception of sexuality and gender by playing on other issues (immigration, rejection of the political establishment) to implement an incremental policy of “authoritarian pedagogy” in order to change values, attitudes and sexual practices? Imposing new laws in democracy supposes that these laws are at least acceptable and reflect a real change in minds and practices. This is, until now, not the case. One does not change a society by changing laws, the reverse is true: new laws reflect new values and habits. The problem for populists is to adapt their narrative to the real social practices while providing some sort of comfort nostalgia. They do not seem to theorise this, but some of their leaders are good in juggling between words and practices without consequences. Hypocrisy is a value statement, not a political concept.

[1] The clash of civilisations? Samuel Huntington, Foreign Affairs; Summer 1993; 72, 3.

[2] “As late as 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution urging states to expand access to abortion. But with the liberalisation of abortion laws, and as abortion proponents began to frame the issue in terms of women controlling their reproduction, evangelicals started to reconsider their position. In 1973, Roe v. Wade—and the rising popularity of abortion in its wake—helped force the issue, but even then, evangelical mobilisation was not immediate.” Kobes Du Mez, Kristin. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, p. 68. Liveright. Kindle edition.

[3] In the USA : In GB:


[5] A concept by the way which has nothing to do with the Bible (full of happy polygamists and less happy bachelors), but more with the Council of Trento and the Protestant anthropology as elaborated in the XVI century.

[6] A casual recent announcement in a French bishopric shows how the new priests are in majority either ultra conservatives or “migrants” from the South. No need to read French to understand it:

[7] Muslim And Christian Parents Show Up In Force To Protest LGBT Books At Maryland School

Board », Eastern North Carolina Now, 25 June 2023.