Ron DeSantis is putting his Christian convictions forward as he tries to gain ground with evangelical voters, who continue to favor former president Donald Trump.
“I don’t know how you could be a leader without having faith in God,” the Florida governor told hundreds gathered for the Family Research Council’s Pray Vote Stand Summit on Friday in Washington, DC, repeating one of his favorite Bible lines about putting on “the full armor of God.”
“When you stand up for what’s right in this day and age, that is not going to be cost-free. … And it’s the faith in God that gives you the strength to stand firm against the lies, against the deceit, against the opposition. It gives you the foundation to know that all the insults, all the nonsense they throw at you, ultimately doesn’t matter because you are aiming higher.”
The summit came one day after DeSantis, who is Catholic, launched his Faith and Family Coalition. The group features endorsements from 70 pastors in the early primary states of Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire. The coalition invites supporters to back DeSantis through “faith and prayer.”
Trump still leads the GOP race by a wide margin—a straw poll of over 500 in attendance at the DC summit had the former president over DeSantis, 64 percent to 27 percent—but a slice of evangelical voters are being swayed by what they see as stronger character and tougher stances on pro-life issues from other candidates.
“Former president Trump, despite all the merits and many good things he did, is relatively weak in comparison to other candidates, and especially governor DeSantis, on these issues, which are core issues for social conservatives,” one attendee, Ken Oliver, told The Guardian. “We need to build a consensus around limitations to abortion, whether it’s 6 weeks or 15 weeks or 20 weeks. Why shy away from that?”
DeSantis has not specified exactly what type of restrictions he’d pursue as president but regularly reminds voters that in Florida, he enacted a six-week ban on abortion.
Trump, whose conservative Supreme Court appointees ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade, called DeSantis’s heartbeat ban a “terrible mistake” on Meet the Press last weekend. At the Pray Vote Stand Summit, speaking before conservative evangelicals, he said the topic was “very hard on elections” and “an issue” during the midterms.
While some evangelicals who formerly supported Trump have expressed disappointment in his pro-life stances this time around, most continue to back him and believe he has the best chance at beating President Joe Biden next year.
Trump has skipped several faith events in the Hawkeye State, which will kick off the GOP presidential race with its caucuses in January. Meanwhile, DeSantis continues to make a focused effort on faith outreach there, holding a God Over Government rally on Saturday before attending a banquet and town hall hosted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.
On the campaign trail, he has lamented inflation, touted school choice, promised to appoint conservative justices, and decried religious discrimination and restrictions on religious expression. He emphasizes the importance of standing for truth, including against “gender ideology” in schools and gender transitions for minors.
DeSantis also pledged federal investigations into the attacks on faith-based pregnancy centers and pro-life activists.
His faith outreach has made in-roads with pastors. DeSantis thanked the “shepherds of God’s flock” in attendance at the DC summit and applauded them and their churches for their role in restoring the country against decline.
Two dozen pastors in Iowa backed DeSantis’s Faith and Family Coalition, including Jon Dunwell, a pastor in Grinnell, Iowa, who is also a state representative.
“This man has opened himself up for me to have an influence in his life, and I’m going to take every opportunity for a leader who’s that open and says, ‘Hey, I want pastors praying for me. I want pastors speaking to me. I want people in engaging with me on important issues and having a seat at that table,’” Dunwell said in an interview with KCCI in Des Moines. “That’s what I love.”
DeSantis, a 45-year-old father of three, was raised Catholic and continued to identify as Catholic through his time serving in US Congress. Last week, he met with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, and said as president, he would end religious discrimination against Catholics in “federal bureaucracy.” But mostly, DeSantis doesn’t bring up his Catholicism in particular.
His testimony, including how prayer buoyed his family during his wife’s breast cancer, includes just broad references to “faith.” A piece by the Catholic magazine America titled “The Mysterious Catholic Faith of Ron DeSantis” said it’s unclear whether the DeSantises are active in a congregation and that they have declined to discuss details about their religion in public. His campaign bio makes no reference to faith.
Just two US presidents have been Catholic—Democrats John F. Kennedy Jr. and Joe Biden—but Catholicism doesn’t seem to be a big enough part of DeSantis’s campaign to help or hurt him.
“He’s a good conservative. I don’t think his Catholicism will interfere with his campaign for president; I think there are other issues,” said Dennis Ross, a former congressman from Florida who served alongside DeSantis and the director of the American Center for Political Leadership at Southeastern University in Lakeland.
Trump still has an upper hand with name recognition and broad appeal among a growing segment of Republican voters who are evangelicals but don’t attend church regularly. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted last week found that evangelical voters prefer Trump by a roughly 35 percentage-point margin over DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy.