(RNS) — In recent days, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been jetting around his state signing bills passed by the legislature’s Republican supermajority, extravagantly burnishing his credentials as a conservative. By night, he courts donors and confers with allies and strategists.
It’s the very picture of a man preparing to announce his bid to become the chief alternative to Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, with one missing piece: Appeals to various faith constituencies are conspicuously absent.
The new laws are being touted as principled commitments of a decisive leader standing strong for parental rights, for first responders and everyday Floridians. He is protecting his constituents against supposed incursions by woke corporations, Washington bureaucrats and foreign governments and investors.
The hope is that DeSantis’ legislative slam-dunks will compare favorably to former President Donald Trump’s rants and posturing in voters’ minds. But the campaign DeSantis has so far engineered seems to be constructed without conservative Christians.
Perhaps it is a function of the staggering decline of evangelicalism itself as a moral force. After all Trump’s degradations, more than 80% of white evangelicals supported him and clearly will again if he is nominated. With no moral bottom lines to appeal to, it’s anyone’s guess how to strategize to gain Christian votes.
Yet DeSantis is not without promise, especially for Trump-weary GOP primary voters who profess to derive their political values from faith commitments. He amassed a record of accomplishment that should pay off in the conservative Christian calculus.
In 2022, he repeatedly delighted in misquoting Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, in which the apostle talks about “putting on the full armor of God.” Where Paul, of course, was armoring against the Devil, DeSantis, almost blasphemously, was suiting up to “stand against the left and its schemes.”
But DeSantis has dropped the biblical rhetoric of late. Even on issues such as gender-affirming surgery, he speaks of “mutilation” without any language about God, creation or divinely ordered purposes of the body.
Similarly on abortion, DeSantis has spoken vaguely of protecting life without explicitly connecting anti-abortion policy to the religious motivations of its most ardent proponents. He has acknowledged that the fall of Roe v. Wade was an answer to the prayers of millions.
But even as he signed a six-week abortion ban in a late-night bill-signing ceremony last month, he eschewed God-talk and buried the news that the bill appropriates $25 million for aid to mothers and babies, including money for pregnancy resource centers — a favorite project of pro-life Christians. The very next day, in a speech at Liberty University, where anti-abortion lines are red meat, DeSantis did not so much as mention the historic abortion ban.
In a speech to the Heritage Foundation, a prominent right-wing Washington think tank, he got around to touting the abortion law, but DeSantis seems confused about whether the new law, whose enactment depends on the outcome of a pending legal challenge, is good or bad politically.
It is possible that the style, and even the substance, of DeSantis’ legislative victories could give some conservative Christians pause.
The governor’s overwrought hostility to undocumented immigrants comes across as gratuitously cruel. Florida’s Catholic bishops unsuccessfully opposed a major anti-immigrant bill, which DeSantis signed over the objections of their excellencies and Latino evangelical leaders alike.
DeSantis signed a bill streamlining the application of the death penalty, no longer requiring a unanimous jury, but merely an 8-4 vote. Florida’s bishops, meanwhile, follow Pope Francis’ lead to make the church’s opposition to capital punishment a priority.
DeSantis’ lack of religious rhetoric points to a significant shift in Republican politics.
As recently as eight years ago, in the last open GOP nominating contest, the major contenders dedicated staff and explicit outreach to faith voters, a distinct bloc that was thought to be moved by vowing to take direct action on a specific set of tasks: abortion, of course; resistance to LGBTQ rights; and access to public schools and municipal bodies for prayer and other Christian demonstrations.
Today, DeSantis, a nominal Catholic, and Trump, an even more nominal Protestant, are both contending for the 2024 nomination of the “religious party,” without speaking directly to religious voters.
What has changed, it goes without saying, can be summed up in one word: Trump. The former president has been able to maintain the loyalty of a retinue of largely self-discrediting pastors. Legitimate faith leaders who likely prefer DeSantis nonetheless fear Trump’s inevitability and their own congregations and have perhaps wisely stayed mum. That leaves the governor to launch his campaign without rolling out a slate of prominent endorsements from pastors or insiders at faith-first conservative interest groups.
This could change if leaders such as Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler, who has said he hopes Trump is not the nominee, and the Ethics & Public Policy Center’s Ryan Anderson, a new trustee of a Florida public college, could get other prominent, credible religious conservatives off the sidelines.
But DeSantis may have to make a bid for them first, creating space for them to cite the moral difference between the two candidates and distinguish those voters who actually fear God from those who just want tax cuts and a bully pulpit against their perceived culture war demons.
To date, DeSantis has not shown an appetite to attack Trump in any meaningful way, even in the wake of the former president’s being found liable for sexual battery.
How much Republican religious politics have changed will be measured by DeSantis’ ability to tap into the now-quaint notion that political leaders should honor man’s law as well as God’s.
(Jacob Lupfer is a political analyst and strategist in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)