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 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. When it comes to his own Catholicism, DeSantis is more guarded, rarely mentioning his specific faith practices.
“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 fall rally for DeSantis.
Burch argue DeSantis’ policies are the true measure of his faith, from Florida’s six-week abortion ban to a spate of laws targeting LGBTQ+ rights: “Perhaps a good Scripture reference that may describe him is, ‘By their fruits you shall know them.’”
DeSantis officially entered the race last month and is the leading alternative to former President Donald Trump. 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 contrast to DeSantis, who is intensely private.
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. A spokesperson for Never Back Down, the DeSantis super PAC, did not have information about his current church attendance.
Maria Sullivan, a DeSantis supporter, remembers worshipping regularly with DeSantis and his wife at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church when they lived in Northeast Florida. “He’s a very low-key man, not looking for attention, just there with his family,” she said.
Sullivan said she attended the baptism of DeSantis’ older daughter at the church. The parish also was 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 his political memoir says he was expected at church every Sunday. His mother counts a nun and a priest among her siblings.
His uncle figures into one of the few religious anecdotes he shares on the campaign trail. After his first inauguration, his uncle baptized their son at the governor’s mansion, using water the DeSantises collected from the Sea of Galilee.
It’s during the rare instances when DeSantis talks about trials 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. In March, he agreed with the journalist Piers Morgan when asked if he leaned on his faith after his sister’s death.
“You start to question things that are unjust, like ‘Why did this have to happen?’” DeSantis said. “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.”
In his stump speeches, though, DeSantis sticks to general God-and-country fare, occasionally referencing the Bible and often in ways bolstering his fighter persona, such as telling audiences to “put on the full armor of God.”
“He deals in vague platitudes about faith … and he very much downplays his Catholicism,” said Cary McMullen, the 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. DeSantis has already defied the Catholic hierarchy on policy.
In 2022, DeSantis attended Mass and met with most of Florida’s bishops, who urged him to reconsider 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 Florida.
DeSantis doubled down in opposition after the meeting, which devolved into competing press conferences by him and Wenski.
The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops has praised the DeSantis administration on its anti-abortion, school choice and anti-LGBTQ+ policies, while criticizing its death penalty support.
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 that “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 are swing voters. Never Back Down, the DeSantis super PAC, has brought on adviser David Polyansky in part to coordinate 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 recently. When 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.”
Presidential candidates have long shared personal faith stories, which used to be integral to courting evangelicals, but Trump helped change that calculus.
DeSantis offers fewer scandals and more religious literacy than Trump, who won over record numbers of evangelical voters. Even if DeSantis doesn’t share his personal faith easily, he still can appeal to them.
“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 Greenville rally, a group of four friends and former Trump supporters said DeSantis won them over.
“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.”