Desantis’ Faith Goes Under The Media Microscope


(ANALYSIS) The presidential race is just starting to heat up. While it may still be early, candidates are popping up every few days and announcing their intention to seek the Republican nomination in 2024.

Among those seeking to dislodge the early favorite — polling shows that to be former President Donald Trump — is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. This is the same man who has become something of a conservative darling in recent years for relentlessly going after “woke” ideology. His battle with Disney is an example of a culture war fight DeSantis hasn’t been afraid to address in recent years.

DeSantis has been criticized for many things, from whether his wife Casey is “a problem” to confusion over the pronunciation of his last name.

As the past weeks have shown, DeSantis’ foray into national politics has shone a brighter media spotlight on him, his family and beliefs.

Yes, Christian beliefs. It’s true that DeSantis is seen as possibly the only candidate in the ever-growing GOP primary field capable of defeating Trump and possibly even President Joe Biden.

This increased scrutiny — both by the mainstream and religious press — has included whether or not DeSantis, a Catholic, is personally devout. I tackled this very topic more than a year ago in a post that ran under the headline “As Florida’s DeSantis wages culture war, his Catholic faith isn’t news — unless it’s used to attack him.”

Here was the main thrust of my argument:

DeSantis, who is running for re-election and among the favorites to run for the White House in 2024, has been a lightning rod for Democrats and a focus of criticism from the mainstream press for the last two years. His actions regarding COVID-19 were at odds with how blue states handled the virus, often catapulting him to national attention.

While the coverage has predictably focused on politics, the religion-news hooks in these stories have largely been ignored — unless they were highlighted to be used against him. The bottom line: DeSantis is not the kind of Catholic who draws cheers from journalists who admire progressive Catholics.

Fifteen months later, this remains very much the case: Not only is DeSantis the type of Catholic those in the mainstream press dislike, but his faith has even been questioned as the governor openly courts religious voters ahead of the primaries.

Let’s start with America, the progressive Jesuit magazine. In a story posted to its website on May 23 — under the headline “The mysterious Catholic faith of Ron DeSantis” — the magazine wrote the following:

Mr. DeSantis has been a vocal proponent of issues important to cultural conservatives, supporting measures that restrict the teaching of “sexual orientation or gender identity” in schools and taking on corporations, including Disney, for their perceived support of progressive causes. Part of Mr. DeSantis’s strategy is the courting of evangelical Christians, whose support helped propel Mr. Trump to the White House in 2016.

But as far as his own religious beliefs go, Mr. DeSantis has offered few clues thus far, instead relying on broad intonations about the importance of faith to him and his family.

On Monday, Mr. DeSantis delivered an address to the National Religious Broadcasters’ International Christian Media Convention in Orlando. In that speech, Mr. DeSantis said that the federal government is targeting religious Americans, citing a leaked memo from the F.B.I. that critics say proves that some Catholics have been scrutinized for their religious beliefs. During his address, Mr. DeSantis invoked a phrase he has used repeatedly, stating, “Put on the full armor of God…and don’t ever, ever back down.”

Mr. DeSantis was raised Catholic, attended Mass as a child and was a student at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Dunedin, Florida. He is the nephew of a Catholic priest and also the nephew of a Catholic sister, both residing in Ohio, and a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center noting the religious affiliation of each member of Congress stated that Mr. DeSantis was a Roman Catholic. (A representative for the religious order that Mr. DeSantis’s aunt belongs to declined to comment for this story, and his uncle did not return an email from America.)

But Mr. DeSantis and his wife, Casey, rarely discuss the particularities of their religious beliefs in public, and media reports about Mr. DeSantis vary in how they describe Mr. DeSantis’s faith.

The America article then went on to cite several news stories to bolster the thesis of their own article. This is how they did it: Let us attend.

A story in the Miami Herald last year described Mr. DeSantis as having been “raised Catholic,” while an editorial in the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel called him simply “a Catholic.” A New York Post profile by Piers Morgan published earlier this year went further, describing Mr. DeSantis as “a Catholic who prays every day,” while the magazine Crisis published an essay that called the governor, “a practicing Catholic, by all accounts,” though the piece did not provide further insight. (The author, Darrick Taylor, added, “DeSantis doesn’t appear to have revealed much about how he practices his faith while in office.”) The publication Insider called Mr. DeSantis “a practicing Catholic who has positioned himself as a defender of the Christian faith.”

In other words, DeSantis isn’t just possibly the wrong kind of Catholic (because of his politics), but he isn’t really a practicing one based on lots of anecdotal evidence.

The journalism bottom line: I’m not here to argue that DeSantis is a religious man, but I also don’t know if he isn’t. This isn’t the role of journalism. Our role is to ask questions and report what we know, not frame narratives. It would be good to see some questions about this man’s church life and giving patterns.

This is what I observed back in March 2022:

While the Catholicism of President Joe Biden is lauded in some media circles, while debated in others, DeSantis’ faith is hardly mentioned in press coverage of this recent bill or of his work, in general.

We know the governor is a Catholic because Roll Call listed him as such when he was a member of the House between 2013 and 2018. We also know it because it became a talking point among Florida opinion writers in 2019 on the hypocrisy as to why DeSantis would support the death penalty, something the church opposes.

The America piece even quoted that same post. This is how they did it:

Some commentators have argued that the media has failed to engage Mr. DeSantis’s religious beliefs as rigorously as they have President Joe Biden’s, who frequently cites his Catholic faith.

Writing last year at GetReligion, Clemente Lisi said the press ignores Mr. DeSantis’s faith, unless it is used to show how his political beliefs differ from some Catholic teachings, particularly on immigration.

“DeSantis,” he wrote, “is not the kind of Roman Catholic who draws cheers from journalists who admire progressive Catholics.”

Writing from another perspective, Chrissy Stroop argues that Mr. DeSantis’s faith should be scrutinized more seriously because of the possible conservative political policies that may flow from it.

“Christianity isn’t remotely always or inherently benign,” Ms. Stroop wrote last year at Religion Dispatches. “If we’re going to be honest about the current state of American politics, we have to face that fact. One concrete way to start is to acknowledge that Ron DeSantis is every bit as Catholic a politician as Joe Biden.”

In reality, DeSantis’ faith doesn’t appear to be much of a mystery. The same headline could have been used on a story to describe Biden — only it never was.

In an opinion piece by Jacob Lupfer — a political analyst and strategist based in Florida — on May 12 at Religion News Service, this commentator noted that DeSantis is not a religious man, therefore arguing that this might represent a shift in Republican politics.

This was his main argument, replete with some examples:

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.

DeSantis was described as “nominally Catholic,” according to a New York Times essay in June 2022 from the conservative writer Nate Hochman, who later joined the DeSantis campaign. He wrote this:

A hero of the new cultural right and a prospective 2024 presidential front-runner, the governor is nominally Catholic and is politically friendly to conservative Christians. But he rarely discusses his religion publicly and almost never in the context of politics. (He did cite his “faith in God” and “in the power of prayer” when discussing his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis last November.)

Why so much hostility against DeSantis? Why hit him on his faith?

Some of it has to do with the fact that DeSantis has been very private about many matters regarding his personal and family life. His adversarial relationship with the mainstream press certainly hasn’t helped as reporters struggle to fill gaps about his profile and political motivations.

But it’s also true that other forces could also be at work here. Andrew Sullivan had a theory in his May 26 Substack post. In it, he argues that Biden could beat Trump in a presidential rematch. Could Biden beat any other GOP candidate?

As a result, Sullivan wrote, “Those most opposed to Trump are now busy clearing the way for him.”

The Associated Press, perhaps the news organization with the biggest reach since its stories are picked up by local and regional newspapers and websites across the world, put out an explainer on DeSantis on May 24 and what readers should know about him.

The piece never mentioned the word “Catholic,” a major hole in terms of the facts, but did call him a “woke warrior.” This is what they reported:

Perhaps more than any Republican official in the nation, DeSantis has fought for and enacted policies that enflame the nation’s cultural divisions. He calls it his war on “woke.”

He just concluded a legislative session that establishes him as perhaps the most aggressive and accomplished conservative governor in the country’s bitter culture wars.

He signed and then expanded the Parental Rights in Education bill — known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans instruction or classroom discussion of LGBTQ issues in Florida public schools for all grades. He also signed a law that bans state and federal funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programs at state colleges and universities.

This spring, he signed a law banning abortions at six weeks, which is before most women realize they are pregnant. He single-handedly removed an elected prosecutor who pledged not to charge people under Florida’s new abortion restrictions or doctors who provide gender-affirming care.

DeSantis also enacted a law this spring allowing Florida residents to carry a concealed firearm without a permit. He pushed new measures that experts warn would weaken press freedoms. He also he took control of a liberal arts college that he believed was indoctrinating students with leftist ideology.

In a June 8 story from the campaign trail, AP took on DeSantis’ faith head on. This is how the news story opened:

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’ 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.

Indeed, a Biden-DeSantis showdown would pit two very different kind of Catholics vying for the White House. Many in the press appear to want to spare us an all-Catholic race. Instead, they are happy to take shots at DeSantis in an effort to weaken his standing with religious voters.

In the end, it’s voters — many of whom no longer read or ever read the publications I cited above — who have to decide whether or not DeSantis is the person they want to see occupying the Oval Office.

This post originally ran at GetReligion.

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