The Republican party is synonymous with conservative evangelicals, so whoever wants to be the party’s presidential nominee will have to know how to cater to the base. And the base is letting it be known that Donald Trump may not be its favored candidate.
With his announcement that he was running for re-election, Trump must have expected that he could call in all the political favors that he did for the religious right when he was president. Instead, he’s found that most religious right leaders prefer to sit on their hands in the apparent hope that someone else in Florida will run.
Robert Jeffress, one of Trump’s biggest boosters when he was president, has said that he didn’t want to get involved in the Republicans’ “civil war” for the nomination. Franklin Graham is similarly waiting for the party to nominate someone before he gives his blessing. Other evangelical leaders are blunter, saying that Trump is a liability as a candidate.
With the level of maturity that is a hallmark of his character, Trump has responded with invective and spittle. “There’s great disloyalty in the world of politics and that’s a sign of disloyalty,” Trump said last month. He rightly noted that he appointed the three Supreme Court justices that made the religious right’s long-wished dream of overturning Roe v. Wade a reality.
Standing in the wings, ready to scoop up the support that Trump is losing, stands Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. DeSantis has several advantages that Trump does not. The media generally likes to say that DeSantis is more disciplined than Trump, which is true in the sense that DeSantis is better at authoritarianism. But for the religious right, what matters more is that DeSantis is a true believer, which Trump never was.
And the definition of a believer is literal. DeSantis is a conservative Catholic, cut from the same cloth as the Barrett-Alito wing of the Supreme Court. (A Biden Catholic, he’s not.) DeSantis has not been shy about talking about his faith in ways that conservative evangelicals immediately understand.
“Put on the full armor of God. Stand firm against the left’s schemes. You will face flaming arrows, but if you have the shield of faith, you will overcome them, and in Florida, we walk the line here,” DeSantis said at an appearance at conservative Hillsdale College last year. The original Biblical quote inveighs against “the devil’s schemes,” but DeSantis clearly sees Democrats and Satan as interchangeable.
Such language also plays into the growing pull of Christian nationalism among evangelicals. DeSantis speaks the religious right’s language when he speaks of holy wars. He even went so far as to declare himself God’s “protector” in a re-election campaign ad that featured the word God 96 times.
The most explicit expression of DeSantis’ affinity with the religious right is his full-throated attack on wokeness, and in particular, anything remotely pro-LGBTQ. He’s willing to jeopardize taxpayer money to prove his commitment to the cause. Lost in the controversy over his fight with Disney is that the company has long been a target of the religious right. In taking on the House of Mouse, DeSantis is going after a long-time enemy of the culture war base.
Now, contrast this to Trump. Trump couldn’t credibly quote a Biblical verse if it was presented to him phonetically. He gladly let the religious right target LGBTQ+ people, but that’s because he wanted the right’s support. Evangelicals were happy with the transaction, but faced with a true believer, they can see that it was just a transaction, not an act of faith.
That’s why Trump sees his support slip among conservative evangelicals. Yes, political considerations are a factor. After all, Trump is a proven loser for himself and the party in general. The scandals don’t matter. But who would you choose if you had the choice between Trump and someone who not only acts like him but has the same religious values you do? For evangelical leaders, their silence on the matter speaks volumes.