White evangelicalism enters DeSantis season

The Christian right turns to Florida’s governor to accomplish what Donald Trump never could.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives the keynote address at the National Conservatism Conference in Aventura, Florida, on Sept. 11, 2022. Photo courtesy of The Edmund Burke Foundation

(RNS) — In a recent campaign speech, Florida Man Prime Ron DeSantis explained his theory on why people move to his state thusly: “The woke agenda has caused millions of Americans to leave these jurisdictions for greener pastures. Now this great exodus of Americans, for these folks, Florida, for so many of them, has served as the promised land.”

I have no idea if this suspiciously messianic theory is true or not, but I do think a version of it is true for the evangelical voting bloc. But instead of fleeing the woke agenda, they’re fleeing Trumpism’s whitewater raft for the relative calm of the Good Ship DeSantis. Just look how many evangelical MAGA guys went finger-wagging-schoolmarm on former President Donald Trump for daring to slur the Florida governor as “DeSanctimonious.” They can excuse racism but draw the line at DeSantis slander, apparently.

You get the sense that the religious right sees Trump as either a useful idiot who has served his purpose or an aging ace who’s lost his fastball. I wouldn’t be so quick to count Trump out, personally, but don’t be surprised if a nonnegligible chunk of white evangelicals joins DeSantis’ great exodus to the promised land.

Based on early results from Tuesday’s midterms, that does look like the all-around safer political bet. DeSantis steamrolled his opponent in what is allegedly a swing state, while Trump-backed candidates got KO’d from coast to coast. Admittedly, DeSantis is about as charismatic as a box of sand, but that might be part of the appeal. No Stormy Daniels. No FBI raids. No church photo ops with an upside down Bible. Just standard conservative policies and a few choice culture-war bombs.

This is potentially a potent cocktail, and DeSantis might carry white evangelicals’ electoral goals further than Trump ever could or even wanted to. Can’t say I’m thrilled about the prospect.

RELATED: Despite Mastriano’s loss, don’t count out Christian nationalism

For starters, when DeSantis does choose to go culture war, he lumbers about it like one of those animals who accidentally got drunk on fermented fruits. He picked a fight with Disney World over LGBTQ equality and kidnapped a bunch of refugees so he could ship them off on a surprise trip to Martha’s Vineyard. Seems like a competent opposition party could have made a lot more noise about this stuff. But I digress.

Whatever role stunts like this played in bolstering DeSantis’ national figure as a conservative culture warrior, what it tells us about him as a person is more important. It’s not just that this reveals his spite for gay kids or migrants, but also that it reveals how little their humanity matters to him. He pushed these people — people made in the image of God — around like pawns on a chessboard. Maybe DeSantis actually hates their guts. Maybe he just likes the optics of looking like you hate the right kind of people. It comes to the same thing.

You see a lot of Never Trump conservatives and even a good number of liberals pining for the days of Reagan, Bush and McCain, and these people seem to see DeSantis as a ticket back to that sort of Republican “normalcy.” As for me, I do not care that DeSantis refrains from grabbing pussies if he’s also making life miserable for gay kids. I do not care that he refrains from calling other countries sh-tholes if he’d still rather the people in them drop dead before coming to the Southern border.

Censoring swear words doesn’t change the song — it just makes it safe for the minivan.

Or for the church, which is probably the goal here. Last week, DeSantis raised some eyebrows with a new campaign ad, an ad that seems to claim the Almighty created DeSantis especially for the good people of Florida. According to the ad, on the eighth day of creation, “God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a protector.’ So God made a fighter.” The fighter is DeSantis, of course, who will “save their jobs, their livelihoods, their liberty, their happiness.”

RELATED: In ‘God made a fighter’ ad, DeSantis paves way to replace Trump as anointed one

It’s pretty goofy, even by the standards of political ads. Some critics tied the ad to Christian nationalist sentiment, which is fair, but I think it’s a little too much of an obvious riff to land as sincere.

More telling is a line DeSantis has used throughout his reelection campaign that didn’t attract much attention. He quoted Ephesians 6, saying “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Except DeSantis changed “the devil’s schemes” to “the left’s schemes.”

That’s pretty dark, and I’d like to think some of the Very Serious Conservatives who see DeSantis as conservatism’s ticket back to being Very Serious would reflect on some of the implications here.

Either DeSantis is not so much a return to a kinder, gentler era of the religious right, or the religious right was never all that kind and gentle to begin with.

(Tyler Huckabee is a writer currently living in Paris with his wife and dog. This article was originally published at his Substack, where you can read more of his writing. Or for every thought that comes into his head, find him on Twitter. This column does not necessarily reflect the views of Religion News Service.)

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