You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Holy Rollers

Ron DeSantis and His Christian Crusaders Are Stealing Trump’s Religious Thunder

As the former president loses his edge with evangelicals, the man who might replace him is cashing in on the resurgence of right-wing Catholicism.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“Donald Trump has to go,” conservative evangelical Everett Piper wrote for The Washington Times in November. “If he’s our nominee in 2024, we will get destroyed.” Some of her peers evidently agree. An unnamed evangelical leader told Vanity Fair last month that if Trump wins the GOP nomination, Republicans will “get crushed in the general.” Speaking with The Washington Post, Baptists for Biblical Values founder Brad Cranston disparaged the former president and said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had the “best chance.”

Are Trump’s celebrated ties with the evangelical community a thing of the past? Certainly, over the past year, his grip on the coalition of conservatives who both elected and defended him has begun to loosen, especially after a midterm election that shattered his mystique as a conservative kingmaker. Still, many of his most prominent evangelical supporters, such as First Baptist Dallas Church Pastor Robert Jeffress, have stayed mum. Their reticence, unsurprisingly, has only drawn his ire. Referencing Jeffress and others who have yet to bless his next presidential run, Trump told radio host David Brody, “There’s great disloyalty in the world of politics.” 

Trump’s more outspoken critics, for their part, have sought to explicate what exactly makes DeSantis so attractive. Many believe he’s smarter and more disciplined than Trump. Some note that DeSantis quite masterfully frames his crusades in religious, rather than political, terms. In the words of Rodney Kennedy, writing for Baptist News Global, “He fights like an evangelical culture war preacher.… Watching [him] fill the boards of universities with conservative trustees reads like a page out of the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

This may be so, but even if evangelicals do rally around DeSantis, we should be cautious about reading him vis-à-vis these believers. His is a distinctly white Catholic morality—one that few realize is on the rise today. If we want to understand the Florida governor’s allure, the scope of infrastructure in place to buttress him, and the sheer terror that many already feel at the prospect of a DeSantis White House, it is imperative to understand that the man best suited to supplant Trump as the Republican Party standard-bearer has a patently Catholic brand of hate.  

Over the last few decades, there has been a dramatic “Catholicization of public morality.” Religion scholar Megan Goodwin introduced this phrase in her book Abusing Religion: Literary Persecution, Sex Scandals, and American Minority Religions to describe the adoption of historically Catholic positions on matters like abortion, as well as conservative evangelicals’ increasing willingness to support Catholic politicians whose religion they privately disparage. If DeSantis has benefitted from this process, he is also accelerating it. 

As Goodwin told The New Republic, “The most obvious place we see [Catholicization] is in the Dobbs decision and subsequent comment. Abortion was never the goal; it was a mile marker on the road to eliminating access to contraception.” Such an agenda was inspired by Pope John Paul II, who collapsed abortion and contraception in the 1980s. President Reagan followed his lead, and so have politicians like DeSantis. Even before the Dobbs opinion was leaked and Republicans gleefully turned their attention to Griswold v. Connecticut, he had a record of vetoing funding for low-income women to access long-acting reversible birth control. He has refused to state that he will not move to further limit access to contraception.

And then there is his rhetoric about vaccines and LGBTQ “groomers.” Here, DeSantis taps into deep memories of child martyrs who allegedly died at the hands of predatory Jews and pagans. “He is particularly gifted in drawing out antisemitic tropes and story elements that will appeal to people who grew up with tales of child endangerment,” says Goodwin. “If you’re Catholic, if it’s in your DNA, you can hear it.” Such appeals galvanize antisemites within and beyond the church, while not putting off those who are discomfited by overt hate speech. 

There can be little surprise that antisemitic violence has spiked in Florida, with DeSantis going unreproached except by the Jewish press. According to Joshua Stein, a philosopher and postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University who studies antisemitism, there has been sparse national coverage of the disproportionate antisemitic incidents in Florida and DeSantis’s engagement with white supremacist groups. “I haven’t seen much [on] the projecting of swastikas on buildings or the constant Goyim Defense League flier campaigns,” Stein told The New Republic. “Occasionally, we’ll get something like the overpass ‘Kanye Was Right’ stuff, but DeSantis rarely gets tagged for that.” This is in sharp contrast to reporting on Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, whose antisemitism was made more visible by the Judaism of his opponent, Josh Shapiro. 

Going back centuries, the hatred of Jews has worked in tandem with the hatred of Black people, both groups accused of being darkened by their turning away from God. This helps to explain why, with seemingly so little effort, DeSantis and his press team toggle between the groomer panic and crusades against “critical race theory,” or CRT, and “wokeness.” Goodwin sees the latter as particularly appealing to conservative Latinx Catholics in Florida, who are trying to assimilate into the ascendant white Catholic society. “Cubans have been looking for exactly this kind of cover.” When DeSantis signals his anti-Blackness, for instance by banning an AP African American studies course, they can assure themselves, “He doesn’t mean us.”

If Jewish Americans like Stein are bracing for a DeSantis campaign, so are many Black Catholics, who have little reason to believe their faith leaders will come to their defense. “The man is going to run for president on anti-blackness and the Church will call his politics pro-life,” Gunnar Gundersen, a lawyer and co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, recently predicted on Twitter.  

Like Goodwin, Gundersen views white Catholics as leading the way in today’s racist politics. However, in an interview with The New Republic, he reminded that these individuals were always at the forefront of such movements. Though Catholics inaugurated the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and though they were integral to protecting both slavery and Jim Crow in America, one even penning the Dred Scott decision, they’ve long perceived a special need to show contempt for Black life. “They think their ability to participate as equal citizens depends on oppressing BIPOC people, including BIPOC Catholics.”

In the civil rights era, white Catholics threw bricks at activists, begged their bishops to obstruct school integration, and launched diatribes on the moral threats posed by “the colored race.” As scholar Matthew J. Cressler has demonstrated, they were also vital to the construction of the color-blind racism that emerged in the late twentieth century. Color-blind racists pretend not to see race, so as to crush dialogue on the systemic injustices that survived civil rights legislation. 

Gundersen says that when Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez bemoans that America is “losing its story” because of secularism or when Bishop of Winona-Rochester Robert Barron ties the colonizer St. Junipero Serra to the enslaver Thomas Jefferson at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, these figures are simply taking the same tack as their forebears. “They are terrified of the church being identified as a woke church, as an n-word church.”

Yet, in the return of the n-word (“woke”), Gundersen perceives the failure of color-blind politics to rejigger the race war in race-neutral terms. “It was successful for a while, but scholars and activists developed tools like CRT to expose it. The illusion of innocence has been pierced, so we are seeing a return to blatant racist epithets.” 

Gundersen admits pessimism about the church’s ability to correct course. “To hear co-religionists [decry ‘wokeness’] makes me wonder whether we really have left Dum Diversas behind,” he says, referring to the 1452 papal bull that authorized European colonists to enslave people. “It has caused me to ponder deeply the meaning and paradox of what it must mean to be ‘in communion’ with people who cannot acknowledge Black humanity. It makes me wonder how a church dominated by white clergy is capable of fulfilling the universal call to holiness that is the mission of Christ’s church, especially post–Vatican II.”

Stein, who has long worked in interfaith circles, is likewise doubtful about the possibility of the church repairing relations with the Jewish community, especially as DeSantis’s star rises. He notes that, beyond issuing lukewarm statements, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or USCCB, has shown itself unwilling to condemn antisemitism, which is flourishing in seminaries, pastoral work, and the laity. 

Even worse, the conference harbors antisemites. San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone and Tyler, Texas, Bishop Joseph Strickland regularly fuel anti-Jewish conspiracies online; and bishops like Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, are flouting liturgical policy to hold Christian seders. These introduce Christian liturgy into the Passover, thereby advancing the replacement theology that culminated in the Holocaust.

Stein adds that the church’s organizational structure is part of what makes its increasing antisemitism so terrifying. “Catholics have the ability to organize in ways that the Baptists and other evangelical Protestant denominations just don’t.” They have more developed university systems and hospital systems, along with legal advocacy wings that stretch all the way to the Supreme Court. So when there are problems in the liturgy, theology, or education, “those problems are everywhere.” 

He does believe the secular media will beef up coverage of DeSantis and his crew’s antisemitism as primary season gets underway. It will be hard for journalists to ignore it when someone like Christina Pushaw is thrust into the national spotlight. In 2021, DeSantis’s spokesperson, also Catholic, accused the Rothschild family of collaborating with Georgia officials to implement a “biomedical security state.” According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Rothschilds have been accused of financing Nazism, carrying out the 9/11 attacks, and many other schemes. (Pushaw later regretted and removed the tweet but stopped short of apologizing.) 

But is the media really prepared to grapple with Team DeSantis’s antisemitism—and its anti-Blackness—when there is so little literacy on the Catholic imagination that informs these “hybrid hates” as well as the massive machinery that launders them as theology? There are some, such as Salon’s Kathryn Joyce, who are steadfastly probing the Catholic right. But if the coverage of Roe’s fall is any indication, many will give only fleeting attention to the governor’s proclaimed faith. Following the Dobbs decision, the media produced a flurry of stories on Catholics in the judiciary, then fell back on its evangelical haunches.  

“It’s a shame,” says Goodwin. “Catholics are winning,” and by largely ignoring them, the meaning-makers are “really missing a sense of the history and scope” of the problems faced. 

Perhaps there is a lesson here for progressives, and not just analysts. While progressives have been critical of Christian Nationalism, they have, on the whole, been unwilling to take a hard look at Christianity. Does the disproportionate focus on conservative white evangelicals provide cover, by enabling them to mark Christian Nationalism as some kind of historical aberration—a “hijacking” of faith? With Catholic history in mind, it is certainly harder to ignore that there really has not been a time since at least the fourth century when people were not paying with their lives for the Good News. Long before American Klansmen began burning them, crosses were symbols of terror. If, like Catholic movements past, a DeSantis campaign would test the boundaries of whiteness, it might also test the sincerity of those who claim to be invested in dismantling it.