The Mysterious Catholic Faith of Ron DeSantis
Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to enter the Republican presidential contest this week, during an online conversation with billionaire entrepreneur and Twitter owner Elon Musk, NBC News has reported. Supporters of Mr. DeSantis believe the two-term Florida governor offers an opportunity to nominate a conservative who does not carry the same baggage as his onetime ally and chief rival, former President Donald Trump.
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.
Ron DeSantis was raised Catholic, but he and and his wife, Casey, rarely discuss the particularities of their religious beliefs in public.
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.
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 response to an email from America asking how Mr. DeSantis describes his faith, a press secretary for the governor provided a link to a May 22 interview with podcast host Jenna Ellis.
Mr. DeSantis is the nephew of a Catholic priest and also the nephew of a Catholic sister.
Mr. DeSantis spoke about his “faith” in that interview, but he did not identify a particular religious affiliation. (A follow-up email to his office seeking clarification was not answered.)
When asked by Ms. Ellis about his faith, Mr. DeSantis said, “Faith is just the foundation of my life. It’s how my wife and I lead our kids and our family. It provides me [with] the foundation necessary to be a leader in civil government and civil society.”
While Mr. DeSantis does not often discuss the specifics of his religious beliefs, he has said that faith has been a constant in his life and that it has helped him through difficult moments. When Mr. DeSantis’s wife, Casey, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021, “we immediately turned to prayer,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this year. “I got faith in the big guy upstairs.”
It is unclear whether Mr. and Mrs. DeSantis are active in a particular faith community.
In 2010, the couple married in a ceremony at Walt Disney World in Orlando, though a local newspaper reported that a Catholic priest presided at the ceremony. The day of Mr. DeSantis’s inauguration, in 2019, the couple held a baptism ceremony in their home for their son, Mason, Florida Politics reported, using water from the Sea of Galilee. And during a ceremony ahead of Mr. DeSantis’s second inauguration ceremony, earlier this year, a group of faith leaders offered prayers for the governor and lieutenant governor, including Father Tim Holeda, rector at the Co-Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Tallahassee.
The governor, 44, has interacted with some Catholic groups in public settings.
Last year, Mr. DeSantis delivered remarks at Ave Maria University, at an event hosted by the conservative political advocacy group CatholicVote, titled “Faith, Family, Freedom,” though he did not discuss his own faith or the Catholic Church. And earlier this year, the DeSantis family was present at a “Blue Mass,” celebrated for first responders, hosted by the Diocese of Venice, Florida. Mrs. DeSantis posted a photo from the Mass to her Twitter account.
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.”
During the Jenna Ellis interview, Mr. DeSantis said he would be a champion for Americans concerned that religious liberty is at risk.
“Religious liberty has probably never been more threatened and so requires people like me in these positions to stand forthrightly,” he said.
As a political leader Mr. DeSantis has earned both praise and criticism from Catholic leaders over his various political views.
The governor also highlighted a private school voucher bill he signed into law earlier this year in Florida as an example of how he would support religious Americans.
While Mr. DeSantis’s own religious preferences remain unclear, as a political leader he has earned both praise and criticism from Catholic leaders over his various political views.
In recent months, the executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, Michael Sheedy, issued several statements alternatively praising and condemning some of Mr. DeSantis’s policies.
On May 8, the F.C.C.B. published its roundup of bills it supported during this most recent legislative session, including measures championed by Mr. DeSantis such as House Bill 1421, which bans gender-related surgeries for children, and H.B. 1069, which bans instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity before high school.
The passage of Florida’s school choice bill in March earned warm praise from the Florida bishops conference, who said the law would “empower all parents to choose the educational environment and services that best meet the needs of their children.”
But two weeks later, when the state passed a law, supported by Mr. DeSantis, that would allow an agreement of eight out of 12 jurors to impose a death sentence, rather than a unanimous vote, Mr. Sheedy said the move “takes our state backwards to outlier status once again.”
When it comes to immigration, Mr. DeSantis has been a harsh critic of the Biden administration and has broken with Catholic bishops, who have urged a more humane approach to people seeking asylum in the United States.
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski has repeatedly clashed with Mr. DeSantis over the governor’s views on immigration. Last year, the archbishop called comments made by Mr. DeSantis about migrant children entering the United States “a new low.”
The governor also faced fierce national backlash from several bishops when he ordered the transportation of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last fall.
San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller wrote on Twitter that Mr. DeSantis’s decision to fly the migrants to Massachusetts “offends God, destroys society and shows how low individuals can (stoop) for personal gains,” while Brownsville Bishop Daniel E. Flores called the move “a disgrace.”