GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — As Ron DeSantis wrapped up a 12-stop campaign tour that began in an Iowa evangelical church and ended here in a South Carolina convention center, dozens of pastors met backstage to pray for the presidential candidate. Later, to the 1,500 people in the auditorium, DeSantis closed out his stump speech with a paraphrased Bible verse: “I will fight the good fight, I will finish the race, and I will keep the faith.”
The governor’s religious rhetoric and hard-charging policies are at the center of his outreach to White evangelicals — an important voting bloc in the early GOP nominating contests. And yet, when it comes to his own Catholicism, the culture warrior is much more guarded, rarely mentioning the specifics of his faith and practice.
“I don’t think he’s a wear-your-religion-on-your-sleeve kind of guy,” said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote, a conservative advocacy organization that hosted a rally for DeSantis last fall.
Burch argues DeSantis’s policies are the true measure of his faith, from Florida’s six-week abortion ban to a spate of laws targeting LGBTQ+ rights and gender-affirming care: “Perhaps a good Scripture reference that may describe him is, ‘By their fruits you shall know them.’”
DeSantis officially entered the presidential race last month and is the leading alternative to former President Donald Trump, who remains the dominant force in the GOP for now. But if the Florida governor captures the Republican nomination and takes on Joe Biden, two Catholic presidential candidates will face off for the first time in U.S. history.
Both have publicly clashed with Catholic bishops: DeSantis over immigration and the death penalty; Biden over abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. The current president, though, speaks often about being Catholic. He is known to wear a rosary and is regularly photographed attending Mass in D.C. and on the road — in contrast to DeSantis, who is intensely private about his personal life.
He’s “nominally Catholic,” according to a New York Times essay from the conservative writer Nate Hochman, who later joined the DeSantis campaign. Last year, Hochman wrote that DeSantis is “politically friendly to conservative Christians. But he rarely discusses his religion publicly and almost never in the context of politics.”
The campaign did not respond directly to questions about Hochman’s essay or where the DeSantises go to church in Tallahassee. A spokesperson for Never Back Down, the DeSantis super PAC, did not have information about the governor’s current church attendance.
Maria Sullivan, a supporter who lives in DeSantis’s former congressional district, remembers worshipping regularly with DeSantis and his wife Casey at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church when they still lived in Northeast Florida.
“He’s a very low-key man, not looking for attention, just there with his family,” she said, recalling them at 7 a.m. Mass with young children in tow.
Sullivan said she attended the baptism of DeSantis’s older daughter at the church. The large, active parish was also a polling place in 2018, and where DeSantis cast his own ballot when he was first elected governor.
DeSantis grew up Catholic. He attended Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Dunedin, Florida, and according to his political memoir, he was expected at church every Sunday. He noted in his book that his mother’s family is so Catholic she counts a nun and a priest among her siblings.
His uncle, a parish priest in Ohio, figures into another of the few religious anecdotes that DeSantis shares for laughs on the campaign trail. After his first inauguration, his uncle baptized their son at the governor’s mansion, using water that the DeSantises had collected from the Sea of Galilee on a congressional trip to Israel. The punchline is that custodial staff threw out the plastic water bottle afterwards, not knowing its holy contents.
It’s during the rare instances when DeSantis talks about trials and tragedy that he gives his most revealing faith responses. He has spoken of the power of prayer in helping his family through his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. In March, he agreed with the journalist Piers Morgan when asked if he leaned on his faith after his sister’s death at age 30 from a pulmonary embolism.
“You start to question things that are unjust, like ‘Why did this have to happen?’” DeSantis said. “And you just have to have faith that there’s a plan in place, trust in God, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to have a life without challenges and without heartbreak and that’s just a function of being human.”
In his stump speeches, though, DeSantis sticks to general God-and-country fare, occasionally referencing the Bible and often in ways bolstering his warrior persona, such as telling audiences to “put on the full armor of God.” One of his ads released last year, which was a take on a 1978 Paul Harvey speech, played images of DeSantis while repeating the phrase, “ So God made a fighter.”
“He deals in vague platitudes about faith and so on, and he very much downplays his Catholicism,” said Cary McMullen, a retired journalist and former religion editor of The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida.
In 1960, when anti-Catholic sentiment was more prevalent, then-candidate John F. Kennedy gave a landmark speech to a group of Protestant ministers, pledging he would not take orders from the Catholic Church if elected. For his part, DeSantis has already been willing to defy the Catholic hierarchy on policy.
El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz said DeSantis’s recent flights of migrants — taken to California from a Catholic Church shelter at the Texas border — are “reprehensible” and “not morally acceptable.”
In 2022, DeSantis attended Mass and met with most of Florida’s Catholic bishops during their annual lobbying days in Tallahassee. The bishops urged him to reconsider his immigration policies, in particular his objection to unaccompanied minors, which the Catholic Church cares for in one of its Florida shelters.
“It was a frank exchange,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, the highest-ranking Catholic official in the state.
DeSantis doubled down in opposition after the meeting, which devolved into competing press conferences by him and Wenski and ended with a DeSantis spokesperson saying the archbishop lied. DeSantis skipped the annual event with the bishops this year while traveling to promote his book in advance of launching his presidential campaign.
The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops has praised the DeSantis administration on its anti-abortion, school choice and anti-LGBTQ+ policies, while criticizing its support of the death penalty.
No political party is “totally consistent with the gamut of our Catholic interests,” Wenski said.
“Biden makes a bigger deal of his Catholicism than DeSantis does,” Wenski added, noting “it gives all us bishops heartburn because of his radical abortion stance.”
For now, the DeSantis team appears to be focusing their faith outreach on White evangelicals, who vote overwhelmingly Republican. Catholics, on the other hand, are swing voters and not a lock for either party. Never Back Down, the DeSantis super PAC, has brought on senior adviser David Polyansky in part to coordinate grassroots faith outreach — efforts he also led for Ted Cruz, who won the 2016 Iowa caucus thanks to evangelicals.
Bob Vander Plaats, head of The Family Leader and a coveted evangelical endorsement in Iowa, was impressed when he and his wife had lunch with the DeSantises in Tallahassee recently. Asked if the governor talked about his own Catholic faith, Vander Plaats demurred: “No, we really didn’t get into a lot of that, other than what we believe are our core values.”
Likewise, John Stemberger, an influential evangelical leader in Florida, said he has not discussed the governor’s Catholic faith with him, but he has prayed over him before his inauguration. Stemberger’s organization, the Florida Family Policy Council, recently gave DeSantis its top award at the group’s annual gala.
In the long history of Christian U.S. presidents, many candidates from both parties have shared personal faith stories. Those heartfelt professions used to be integral to courting evangelical voters, but Stemberger said they matter less now than policy.
“So many times, we’ve seen somebody who says they have faith but then their policy decisions don’t reflect what we believe would be the traditional values that come from that faith,” Stemberger said.
Trump also has changed the calculus. The man that he has dubbed “DeSanctimonious” offers fewer scandals and far more religious literacy than Trump, who still won over a record number of evangelical voters. Even if DeSantis doesn’t share his personal faith journey as easily as Mike Pence or Tim Scott, he still can appeal to conservative Christians.
“You don’t have to be Pat Robertson in order to win those votes because Trump isn’t,” said Michael Binder, a political scientist at the University of North Florida.
After the rally in Greenville, a group of four friends — all previously Trump supporters — said DeSantis won them over that evening.
“He’s more palatable,” said Tom O’Shields from Easley, S.C. “Mr. DeSantis seems to have what those Christian voters are going to want without the baggage of Mr. Trump.”