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 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. When it comes to his own Catholicism, DeSantis is more reserved, rarely mentioning his specific religious practices.
“I don’t think he’s one to wear your religion on your sleeve,” said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote, a conservative advocacy organization that organized a fall rally for DeSantis.
Burch says DeSantis’ policies are the true measure of his faith, from Florida’s six-week abortion ban to a series of laws targeting LGBTQ+ rights: “Perhaps a good biblical reference that could to describe it is: ‘By their fruits you shall know them’. ‘”
DeSantis officially entered the race last month and is the leading alternative to former President Donald Trump. 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 – unlike DeSantis, who is intensely private.
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 directly respond to questions about Hochman’s trial or where the DeSantises attend church. A spokesperson for Never Back Down, DeSantis’ super PAC, had no information about his current church attendance.
Maria Sullivan, a DeSantis supporter, recalls worshiping regularly with DeSantis and his wife at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church when they lived in northeast Florida. “He’s a very low-key guy, not looking for attention, just right there with his family,” she said.
Sullivan said she attended the christening of DeSantis’ oldest daughter at the church. The parish was also a polling place in 2018 and where DeSantis voted himself when he was first elected governor.
DeSantis grew up Catholic. He attended Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Dunedin, Florida, and his political memoirs indicate he was expected at church every Sunday. Her mother counts a nun and a priest among her brothers and sisters.
His uncle features in one of the few religious anecdotes he shares during the election campaign. After his first inauguration, his uncle baptized their son at the Governor’s Mansion, using water the DeSantises collected from the Sea of Galilee.
It is in the rare instances when DeSantis speaks of trials that he gives his most telling answers of faith. He spoke of the power of prayer to help his family through his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis. In March, he agreed with journalist Piers Morgan when asked if he relied on his faith after the death of his sister.
“You start questioning things that are unfair, like ‘Why did this have to happen? “, DeSantis said. “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.
In his stump speeches, however, DeSantis sticks to the general fare of God and country, occasionally referencing the Bible and often reinforcing his fighting persona, such as telling the audience to “put on the full armor of God.” “.
“He deals with vague platitudes about faith…and he downplays his Catholicism a lot,” said Cary McMullen, the former religious editor of 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. DeSantis has previously challenged the Catholic hierarchy when it comes to politics.
In 2022, DeSantis attended Mass and met with most of the Florida bishops, who urged him to reconsider his objection to unaccompanied minors, which the Catholic Church cares for at one of its Florida shelters. .
“It was a candid exchange,” said Archbishop of Miami Thomas Wenski, Florida’s top Catholic official.
DeSantis doubled down on his opposition after the meeting, which turned into competing press conferences between him and Wenski.
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 are swing voters. Never Back Down, DeSantis’ super PAC, hired adviser David Polyansky in part to coordinate faith outreach — efforts he also led for Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa caucus in 2016 thanks to the 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. When asked if the governor was talking about his own Catholic faith, Vander Plaats objected: “No, we really haven’t touched on a lot of that, other than what we believe to be our core values.
Presidential candidates have long shared stories of personal faith, which were once integral to courting evangelicals, but Trump has helped change that reckoning.
DeSantis offers less scandal and more religious literacy than Trump, who won a record number of evangelical voters. Even if DeSantis doesn’t easily share his personal faith, he can always appeal to them.
“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 Greenville rally, a group of four friends and former Trump supporters said DeSantis won them over.
“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.
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