As Ron DeSantis concluded his extensive campaign tour, starting at an evangelical church in Iowa and concluding at a convention center in South Carolina, a backstage gathering of pastors offered prayers for the presidential candidate. In front of a crowd of 1,500 attendees, DeSantis concluded his stump speech with a paraphrased biblical verse, emphasizing his commitment to fighting the good fight, finishing the race, and keeping the faith.
DeSantis strategically appeals to white evangelicals, a crucial voting bloc in the early stages of the GOP nominating process. However, when it comes to his personal Catholic faith, the governor remains guarded, rarely delving into the specifics of his religious beliefs and practices. Brian Burch, the president of CatholicVote, a conservative advocacy organization that hosted a rally for DeSantis, acknowledges that while the governor’s policies reflect his faith, he is not one to overtly display his religious convictions. Burch references the biblical verse “By their fruits, you shall know them,” suggesting that DeSantis’s actions speak louder than his public religious expressions.
Recently entering the presidential race, DeSantis stands as the leading alternative to former President Donald Trump, who remains a dominant force within the GOP. If DeSantis secures the Republican nomination and faces off against Joe Biden, it will mark the first time in U.S. history that two Catholic presidential candidates compete against each other. Both candidates have experienced public disagreements with Catholic bishops, with DeSantis on issues such as immigration and the death penalty, and Biden on topics including abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. While Biden openly discusses his Catholic faith and is known to attend Mass regularly, DeSantis maintains a highly private stance on his personal life and religious beliefs.
The campaign has provided limited information on DeSantis’s Catholicism, leaving questions unanswered about his church attendance in Tallahassee. However, supporters, such as Maria Sullivan, recall worshipping alongside DeSantis and his wife Casey at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church when they lived in Northeast Florida. Sullivan describes DeSantis as a low-key man who attends Mass with his family, often seen at 7 a.m. services with their young children.
DeSantis’s upbringing was rooted in Catholicism, attending Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Dunedin, Florida. In his political memoir, he mentions the expectation of attending church every Sunday. He also notes that his mother’s family has deep Catholic ties, including a nun and a priest among her siblings.
Though DeSantis rarely discusses his Catholic faith publicly, he shares glimpses of it when addressing personal challenges and tragedies. He emphasizes the power of prayer in navigating his wife’s battle with breast cancer and expresses reliance on faith after his sister’s untimely death. DeSantis acknowledges that life is not without hardships but encourages trust in God and the belief in a greater plan.
During his campaign speeches, DeSantis predominantly focuses on broader themes of faith and patriotism, occasionally referencing the Bible to reinforce his warrior persona. He has employed religious imagery, urging his audiences to “put on the full armor of God.” In one of his campaign ads, he paralleled himself with a fighter, drawing inspiration from a 1978 Paul Harvey speech.
DeSantis has already shown a willingness to defy the Catholic hierarchy on policy matters. El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz criticized DeSantis for transporting migrants from a Catholic Church shelter at the Texas border to California, calling the action “reprehensible” and “not morally acceptable.” DeSantis also faced opposition from Florida’s Catholic bishops regarding his immigration policies, particularly his objection to unaccompanied minors, whom the Catholic Church provides shelter for in Florida.
The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops has praised the DeSantis administration for its anti-abortion stance, support for
school choice, and opposition to LGBTQ+ policies. However, they have criticized his support for the death penalty. Catholic bishops have urged DeSantis to reconsider his immigration policies, but the governor has remained steadfast in his position, leading to public disagreements and competing press conferences between him and Archbishop Thomas Wenski.
While DeSantis attended Mass and met with Florida’s Catholic bishops in 2022 during their annual lobbying days, he skipped the event this year, opting to promote his book ahead of launching his presidential campaign. The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops has acknowledged that no political party aligns perfectly with the full range of Catholic interests, highlighting the complexities of political engagement for Catholics.
For now, the DeSantis team appears to be prioritizing outreach to white evangelicals, a group that tends to vote overwhelmingly Republican. Catholic voters, on the other hand, are considered swing voters who may not align strictly with a single party. To coordinate grassroots faith outreach, DeSantis’s super PAC, Never Back Down, has enlisted the expertise of senior adviser David Polyansky, who previously led similar efforts for Ted Cruz in the 2016 Iowa caucus, where Cruz garnered significant support from evangelicals.
Notably, DeSantis’s appeal to conservative Christians does not rely heavily on explicitly discussing his personal Catholic faith. In a post-Trump era, where scandals were prevalent, DeSantis presents a more palatable option for Christian voters, offering fewer controversies and a greater degree of religious literacy. Although he may not share his personal faith journey as openly as politicians like Mike Pence or Tim Scott, DeSantis can still resonate with conservative Christians based on shared core values.
Ultimately, the role of personal faith stories in winning over evangelical voters has diminished, with policy positions taking precedence. John Stemberger, an influential evangelical leader in Florida, notes that candidates’ declarations of faith no longer hold as much sway if their policy decisions do not align with traditional Christian values. This shift is partly influenced by the success of former President Trump, who, despite not emphasizing his personal faith journey, secured a record number of evangelical votes.
In conclusion, while Ron DeSantis actively appeals to white evangelicals through religious rhetoric and policy positions, he remains guarded about his own Catholicism. His faith is more evident through his actions and policy choices rather than overt public expressions. As he competes for the Republican nomination and potentially faces Joe Biden, the presence of two Catholic presidential candidates in U.S. history highlights the divergent approaches each takes regarding their Catholic faith. DeSantis focuses on his policies as a reflection of his faith, while Biden openly discusses his Catholicism, leading to debates and disagreements with Catholic bishops. The dynamics between religion, politics, and voter appeal continue to evolve, shaping the strategies of candidates seeking to connect with different religious communities.