September 22, 2023

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis tries to woo GOP Christian voters but is tight-lipped about his own Catholic faith

GREENVILLE, SC (AP) — As Ron DeSantis wrapped up a 12-stop campaign tour that began at an Iowa evangelical church and ended here at a South Carolina convention center, dozens of pastors gathered backstage to pray for the presidential candidate. Later, before the 1,500 people in the auditorium, DeSantis concluded his obtuse speech with a paraphrased Bible verse: “I will fight the good fight, I will finish the race, and I will keep the faith.”

The governor’s religious rhetoric and hardline policies are central to his outreach to white evangelicals — a major voting bloc in the early GOP nominating contests. And yet, when it comes to his own Catholicism, the culture warrior is much more wary and rarely mentions the details of his faith and practice.

“I don’t think he’s one to wear your religion on your sleeve,” said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote, a conservative advocacy group that organized a rally for DeSantis last fall.

Burch argues that DeSantis’ policies are the true benchmark for his faith, from Florida’s six-week abortion ban to a series of laws targeting LGBTQ+ rights and gender-affirming care, you’ll know them.’”

DeSantis officially entered the presidential race last month and is the leading alternative to former President Donald Trump, who remains the dominant force in the GOP for now. But if Florida’s governor wins the Republican nomination and runs against Joe Biden, for the first time in U.S. history, two Catholic presidential candidates will face each other.

Both have publicly clashed with Catholic bishops: DeSantis on immigration and the death penalty; Biden on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. However, the current president often speaks of being Catholic. He is known to wear a rosary and be regularly photographed attending Mass in DC and on the road – unlike DeSantis, who is intensely private about his personal life.

He is “nominal Catholic,” according to a New York Times essay by conservative writer Nate Hochman, who later joined the DeSantis campaign. Last year, Hochman wrote that DeSantis is “politically friendly to conservative Christians. But he rarely discusses his religion in public and almost never in the context of politics.”

The campaign did not immediately respond to questions about Hochman’s essay or where the DeSantises go to church in Tallahassee. A spokesperson for Never Back Down, the DeSantis super PAC, had no information on the governor’s current church attendance.

Maria Sullivan, a supporter who lives in DeSantis’s former congressional district, recalls attending Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church with DeSantis and his wife Casey regularly when they lived in Northeast Florida. “He’s a very low-key guy, not looking for attention, he’s just with his family,” she said, recalling the 7 a.m. mass with young children in tow.

Sullivan said she attended DeSantis’ oldest daughter’s christening at the church. The large, active parish was also a polling place in 2018 and where DeSantis cast his own ballot when he was first elected governor.

DeSantis grew up Catholic. He attended Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Dunedin, Florida, and according to his political memoirs, he was expected to attend church every Sunday. He noted in his book that his mother’s family is so Catholic that she counts a nun and a priest among her siblings.

His uncle, a pastor in Ohio, figures in one of the few religious anecdotes DeSantis shares for fun during the campaign trail. After his first inauguration, his uncle baptized their son at the governor’s mansion, using water the DeSantises collected from the Sea of ​​Galilee during a convention trip to Israel. The trick is that the prison staff then threw the plastic water bottle away, without knowing what the sacred contents were.

It is during the rare times when DeSantis talks about trials and tragedies that he gives his most revealing responses of faith. He has spoken about the power of prayer to help his family diagnose and treat his wife’s breast cancer. In March, he agreed with the journalist Piers Morgan when asked if he relied on his faith following the death of his sister at age 30 from a pulmonary embolism.

“You start questioning things that are unfair, like ‘Why did this have to happen?'” DeSantis said. “And you just have to trust that there’s a plan, trust in God. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to have a life without challenges and without heartbreak and that’s just a function of being human.”

In his mute speeches, however, DeSantis adheres to general God-and-country fare, occasionally referencing the Bible and often in ways that reinforce his warrior persona, such as telling the audience to “put on the full armor of God.” “. One of his ads released last year, which was a take on a 1978 speech by Paul Harvey, played images of DeSantis repeating the phrase, “So God made a fighter.”

“He deals in vague platitudes about faith and so on, and he downplays his Catholicism tremendously,” said Cary McMullen, a retired journalist and former religious editor of The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida.

In 1960, with anti-Catholic sentiment more prevalent, then-candidate John F. Kennedy delivered a historic speech to a group of Protestant ministers, promising that he would not take orders from the Catholic Church if elected. For his part, DeSantis has already been willing to defy the Catholic hierarchy on policy.

El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz said DeSantis’ recent flights of migrants — brought to California from a Catholic Church shelter on the Texas border — are “reprehensible” and “not morally acceptable.”

In 2022, DeSantis attended mass and met most of Florida’s Catholic bishops at their annual lobbying days in Tallahassee. The bishops urged him to reconsider his immigration policy, particularly his objection to unaccompanied minors, whom the Catholic Church takes in at one of its Florida shelters.

“It was a candid conversation,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, the top Catholic official in the state.

DeSantis doubled down on his opposition after the meeting, which devolved into competitive press conferences by him and Wenski and ended with a DeSantis spokesperson saying the archbishop was lying. (DeSantis said it was “disgusting” of Wenski to equate today’s immigrant children with Cuban minors who came to Florida 60 years ago. Wenski incorrectly concluded that DeSantis said recent unaccompanied minors were “disgusting.”)

DeSantis skipped the annual Bishops event this year as he traveled to promote his book ahead of the launch of his presidential campaign.

Florida’s Conference of Catholic Bishops praised the DeSantis administration for its anti-abortion, school choice and anti-LGBTQ+ policies, while criticizing its support for the death penalty.

No political party is “fully aligned with the range of our Catholic interests,” Wenski said.

“Biden values ​​his Catholicism more than DeSantis,” Wenski added, noting “it gives us all bishops heartburn over his radical abortion stance.”

For now, the DeSantis team appears to be focusing their creed on white evangelicals, who vote overwhelmingly Republican. Catholics, on the other hand, are swing voters and no lock for either party. Never Back Down, DeSantis’ super-PAC, has brought in senior adviser David Polyansky in part to coordinate grassroots creed — efforts he also led for Ted Cruz, who won the 2016 Iowa caucus thanks to evangelicals.

Bob Vander Place, head of The Family Leader and a coveted Iowa evangelical endorsement, was impressed when he and his wife recently had lunch with the DeSantises in Tallahassee. When asked if the governor spoke about his own Catholic faith, Vander Plaat protested, “No, we haven’t really touched on that much, other than what we think are our core values.”

Similarly, John Stemberger, an influential
evangelical leader in Florida, said he did not discuss the governor’s Catholic faith with him, but prayed for him before his inauguration. Stemberger’s organization, the Florida Family Policy Council, recently presented DeSantis with its highest award at the group’s annual gala.

In the long history of Christian American presidents, many candidates from both parties have shared personal stories of faith. Those sincere appeals used to be an integral part of courting evangelical voters, but Stemberger said they now matter less than policy.

“So many times have we seen someone say they have faith, but their policy decisions don’t reflect what we believe are the traditional values ​​that come from that faith,” Stemberger said.

Trump has also changed the calculus. The man he has dubbed “DeSanctimonious” boasts fewer scandals and far more religious literacy than Trump, who still won record numbers of evangelical voters. While DeSantis doesn’t share his personal journey of faith as easily as Mike Pence or Tim Scott, he can still appeal to conservative Christians.

“You don’t have to be Pat Robertson to win those votes, because Trump isn’t,” said Michael Binder, a political scientist at the University of North Florida.

After the Greenville rally, a group of four friends — all former Trump supporters — said DeSantis won them over that night.

“It’s tastier,” said Tom O’Shields of Easley, SC. “Mr. DeSantis seems to have what those Christian voters want without Mr. Trump’s baggage.”


The Associated Press’ coverage of religion is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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