Florida Governor Ron DeSantis woos Christian GOP voters but remains tight-lipped about his own Catholic faith

GREENVILLE, SC (AP) — As Ron DeSantis wrapped up a 12-step campaign tour that started at an evangelical church in Iowa and ended here at a South Carolina convention center, dozens of pastors met backstage to pray for the presidential candidate. Later, in front of the 1,500 people in the auditorium, DeSantis closed his stump 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 significant voting bloc in early GOP nominating contests. And yet, when it comes to his own Catholicism, the Culture Warrior is far more reserved, rarely mentioning the specifics of his faith and practice.

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

Burch argues that DeSantis’ policies are the true measure of his faith, from Florida’s six-week abortion ban to a series of laws targeting LGBTQ+ rights and gender-affirming care: “Maybe A good biblical reference that can describe it is: “By their fruits you will know them.

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

Both have clashed publicly with Catholic bishops: DeSantis over immigration and the death penalty; Biden on abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. The current president, however, often talks about being Catholic. He’s been known to wear a rosary and is regularly pictured attending mass in DC and on the road — unlike DeSantis, who is extremely private about his personal life.

He is “nominally 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 toward conservative Christians. But he rarely talks about his religion publicly and almost never in the political context.

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

Maria Sullivan, a supporter who lives in DeSantis’ former congressional district, recalls worshiping regularly with DeSantis and his wife Casey at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church when they still lived in the northeast. from Florida. “He’s a very low-key man, not looking for attention, right there with his family,” she said, calling them back to the 7 a.m. mass with young children in tow.

Sullivan said she attended the christening of DeSantis’ oldest daughter 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 at church every Sunday. He noted in his book that his mother’s family is so Catholic that they have a nun and a priest among their siblings.

His uncle, an Ohio priest, features in another of the few religious anecdotes DeSantis shares for laughs during the campaign trail. After his first inauguration, his uncle baptized their son at the governor’s mansion, using water the DeSantises had collected from the Sea of ​​Galilee during a congressional trip to Israel. The downfall is that the custodial staff threw away the plastic water bottle afterwards, not knowing its sacred contents.

It is in the rare instances when DeSantis speaks of trials and tragedies that he gives his most telling answers of faith. He spoke of the power of prayer to help his family through the diagnosis and treatment of his wife’s breast cancer. In March, he agreed with journalist Piers Morgan when asked if he relied on his faith after his sister died aged 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 have faith that there is a plan in place, trust in God, there is no guarantee that you are going to have a life without challenges and without sorrow and that is just a function of being human.”

In his stump speeches, however, DeSantis sticks to the general fare of God and country, occasionally referencing the Bible and often reinforcing his warrior persona, such as telling the audience to “put on the full armor of God.” “. One of his ads published last year, which was a version of a 1978 speech by Paul Harvey, displayed images of DeSantis while repeating the phrase “So God made a fighter.”

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

In 1960, when anti-Catholic sentiment was more widespread, then-candidate John F. Kennedy gave a historic speech to a group of Protestant ministers, pledging not to take orders from the government. Catholic Church if elected. For his part, DeSantis has previously been willing to challenge the Catholic hierarchy when it comes to politics.

The Bishop of El Paso, Mark Seitz, said the recent flights of DeSantis migrants – brought to California from a Catholic Church shelter on the Texas border – are “reprehensible” and “morally unacceptable”.

In 2022, DeSantis attended mass and met with most of Florida’s Catholic bishops at their annual lobby days in Tallahassee. The bishops have urged him to reconsider his immigration policy, particularly his opposition to unaccompanied minors, whom the Catholic Church is caring for in one of its Florida shelters.

“It was a candid exchange,” said Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski, the state’s top Catholic official.

DeSantis doubled down on his opposition after the meeting, which turned into competing press conferences between him and Wenski and ended with a DeSantis spokesperson saying the archbishop had lied. (DeSantis said it was “disgusting” for Wenski to equate today’s immigrant children with Cuban minors who came to Florida 60 years ago. Wenski incorrectly inferred that DeSantis said minors not recent accompanied were “disgusting”.)

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

The Florida 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 compatible with the range of our Catholic interests,” Wenski said.

“Biden values ​​his Catholicism more than DeSantis,” Wenski added, noting that “it gives all of us bishops heartburn because of his hardline stance on abortion.”

For now, the DeSantis team seems to be focusing its religious action on white evangelicals, who overwhelmingly vote Republican. Catholics, on the other hand, are swing voters and not a lock on either party. Never Back Down, DeSantis’ super PAC, hired senior adviser David Polyansky in part to coordinate grassroots faith outreach — efforts he also spearheaded for Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa caucus in 2016 thanks to evangelicals.

Bob Vander Plaats, head of The Family Leader and a coveted evangelical endorsement in Iowa, was impressed when he and his wife recently had lunch with the DeSantises in Tallahassee. When asked if the governor was talking about his own Catholic faith, Vander Plaats hesitated: “No, we really haven’t touched on a lot of that, other than what we believe to be 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 first award at the group’s annual gala.

In the long history of American Christian presidents, many candidates from both parties have shared personal stories of faith. These heartfelt professions were once integral to courting evangelical voters, but Stemberger said they matter less now than politics.

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

Trump also changed the calculus. The man he dubbed “DeSanctimonious” offers less scandal and far more religious literacy than Trump, who still won a record number of evangelical voters. Even though DeSantis doesn’t share his personal faith journey 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 these votes, because Trump isn’t,” said Michael Binder, a political scientist at the University of North Florida.

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

“He’s more palatable,” said Tom O’Shields of Easley, SC. ​​”Mr. DeSantis seems to have what those Christian voters will want without Mr. Trump’s baggage.


Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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