Can DeSantis break Trump’s hold on the religious right?

It’s a time for choosing.

This combination of photos shows former President Donald Trump, left, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right. DeSantis’ allies are gaining confidence in his White House prospects as Trump’s legal woes mount. Trump, a 2024 Republican presidential candidate, is facing possible criminal charges in New York, Georgia and Washington. The optimism around DeSantis comes even as some Republican officials and MAGA influencers raise concerns about the Florida governor’s readiness for the national stage. (AP Photo/File)

(RNS) — Ten months before the first votes are cast in 2024, the contours of the Republican nominating contest are already changing daily. Most recently, former President Donald Trump’s team promised to blackball any professional campaign aides who work for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, warning: “It’s a time for choosing.”

Many evangelical Christian leaders, meanwhile, have not yet chosen. Their consciences tell them DeSantis could give them what they want in policy debates and on the culture-war front without the baggage of Trump’s misdeeds. But they are still terrified of their own Trump-adoring or -accommodating rank and file.

Trump’s Saturday (March 25) event in Waco, Texas — disturbing and quasi-religious even by the bizarre standards of Trumpist rallies — underscored the extent of DeSantis’ problem. He has to in effect dislodge a cult leader.

In addition, some influential evangelicals are all in for a second Trump term. This past weekend, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who courted Christian conservatives in his own 2008 and 2016 presidential runs, endorsed Trump for 2024. Even a refusal to endorse Trump can be a pocket endorsement. Robert Jeffress, pastor of Dallas’ First Baptist Church, who prayed at Trump’s rally, told The New York Times earlier this year, “Keeping my powder dry might be the best thing for the president.”

But despite a penchant for blunders in his campaign’s soft-launch rollout, DeSantis also has a great opportunity to snatch away the religious right from Trump.

Before I explain, a disclaimer: Trump may not prevail even with evangelicals on his side. He is consumed with legal trouble. At points it’s hard to watch his campaign without the creeping suspicion that it’s little more than a money racket, or a vanity project for a man as self-obsessed as ever.

And did you watch that Waco rally? Held near the FBI’s deadly 1993 siege of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound, it elevated the commemoration of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot to the level of a sacrament. The rally featured a MAGA hit music video of sorts, with a voiceover of Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and a choir, purportedly composed of rioters charged with crimes for their alleged actions at the Capitol.

FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters and members of the media after a bill signing on Nov. 18, 2021, in Brandon, Florida. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to supporters and members of the media after a bill signing on Nov. 18, 2021, in Brandon, Florida. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara, File)

The matter before us here, however, is whether the religious right may flip its support to DeSantis. Late last week, Tim Alberta, in an Atlantic magazine article with the headline “Donald Trump Is on the Wrong Side of the Religious Right,” drew on interviews with more than two dozen conservative faith leaders. His provocative conclusion: “DeSantis might have done the least to cultivate relationships in the evangelical movement, and the most to project himself as its next champion.”

Christian conservative power broker Tony Perkins told Alberta he’s dismayed that DeSantis isn’t exploiting the fact that Trump laid the blame for disappointing 2022 midterm election results on the anti-abortion movement. “What we’re looking for, quite frankly,” Perkins said, “is a cross between Mike Pence and Donald Trump.” Pence is Protestant and DeSantis is Catholic; otherwise, from the tight hair to the anti-media venom, DeSantis is a pretty good match. 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. At this phase of the contest, the real battlefront is staffing decisions — ergo Trump’s blackball maneuver. A super PAC backing DeSantis has already snagged several notable veterans of Ted Cruz’s 2016 run, as well as former Trump administration official Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative Christian who has visited four early primary states seeking support for DeSantis. The governor has also garnered Nate Hochman, a young writer nurtured in the MAGA-adjacent conservative movement who describes himself as “a culture warrior first and foremost.”

So why are evangelicals holding back on choosing? Faith leaders (or Republican operatives) who still cling to notions about integrity and decency may determine that DeSantis can only get the nomination if he outdoes Trump in sheer ugliness, not by pointing to a better, more honorable way.

But with good advice and shrewd maneuvering, DeSantis could emerge as the fighter in the mold of Trump without further sullying the evangelical brand. As Perkins told The Atlantic, “Donald Trump came onto the playground, found the bully that had been pushing evangelicals around and he punched them.”

DeSantis can credibly claim that he has punched them harder.

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House, Dec. 3, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House, Dec. 3, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

DeSantis wages war on trans people and demonizes anyone who advocates for LGBTQ people. Trump has a record of catering to gay Republicans. Trump may have appointed conservative judges, but DeSantis directly and maximally exerts his will through expanded appointive powers to shape the ideology of Florida’s state offices and institutions. Trump whines about the media; DeSantis shuts out mainstream outlets, humiliates their reporters and gives unprecedented access to worshipful right-wing bloggers.

DeSantis also has an advantage in the Florida Legislature’s Republican supermajority, in session through the first week of May, and willing to craft legislation that will bolster DeSantis’ appeal to religious conservatives.

If you doubt that DeSantis is thinking precisely along these lines, consider that he is slated to speak at the evangelical bastion Liberty University in mid-April and in Israel, an evangelical darling, at the end of the month.

A final disclaimer: What we know about evangelicalism is that it is more strongly identified now as a political force than a religious movement. Trump’s worshippers seem to care little for their own souls and their rank-and-file religious leaders lack the power or even inclination to call them back to faithfulness. Nor do they fear for the country. Evangelical elites have extensively laundered Trumpism to Christian respectability and — at best — shrugged off his ever more spectacular threats to democracy and sensible foreign policy.

Perhaps foolishly, I believe that there are enough pastors and other leaders who still harbor a hope that the Republican Party, with the help of Christians of conscience, can be a force for good if they can work themselves out of the Trumpian knot and their own badly damaged moral credibility.

But they need to get off the sidelines. It is a time for choosing.

(Jacob Lupfer is a writer and political analyst in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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