As a long-time student of Christian Right politics, I’ve been intrigued about how the various 2024 Republican presidential candidates will appeal to this (for them) key constituency, so I was all eyes and ears when Ron DeSantis spoke at Liberty University, as I explained at New York:
For a while now, I’ve had April 14 circled on my calendar as the day when Florida governor and likely presidential candidate Ron DeSantis would be speaking at Liberty University. The huge school in Lynchburg, Virginia, is associated with the late Jerry Falwell Sr., who turned the small Baptist college into a conservative Evangelical powerhouse. For decades, Republican politicians (and a few Democrats) have shown the flag at the school’s regular student assemblies (known as Convocations) to indicate their understanding of — and in many cases their solidarity with — the agenda of the Christian right.
When DeSantis signed a radical new “heartbeat” law banning abortions in Florida after six weeks of pregnancy on the very eve of the speech at Liberty, I thought, Aha. He didn’t make a big deal out of it, inking the draconian measure in private at 10:30 p.m., only 15 minutes after it arrived on his desk. Perhaps he was spooked by polls showing overwhelming opposition to the law among Floridians. Or maybe he was waiting to present the new law like a gift to the culture warriors of Liberty.
But no. Liberty chancellor Jonathan Falwell touted the new abortion law in his introduction of DeSantis to predictably loud cheers. But the hero of the hour did not mention it in his relatively brief remarks.
Indeed, DeSantis’s appearance provided a sharp contrast to the trappings of the event. Before he spoke, the students joyfully sang a couple of “contemporary Christian” tunes and the old hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The crowd seemed ready for some religiopolitical fire and brimstone. And then … DeSantis pretty much delivered the stock speech he’s been using in appearances all over the country, an extended series of boasts about how he’s made Florida a “refuge of sanity,” attracting hordes of blue-state escapees hungry for wealth and freedom. It was like going to church and, instead of a sermon, hearing a speech prepared for a Rotary Club. He said not a word about his personal faith (which is pretty much a mystery); Jesus’ name went unmentioned; the “unborn” received no loving tributes. Other than a pro forma word of thanks for the prayers various people had offered his wife during her recent battle with breast cancer and another pro forma shout-out to God for endowing the human race with the freedoms DeSantis is allegedly protecting, it was an entirely secular speech.
So the Liberty students left with pretty much the same impression of DeSantis that the more politically astute among them probably had going in: He’s the enemy of their enemies, a man happy to bully LGBTQ+ children, public-school teachers, corporate-diversity personnel, Mickey Mouse, and anyone who is “woke,” but not necessarily because he’s hearing voices from a higher authority than the GOP. If DeSantis’s listeners learned anything about him, it was probably his frequently repeated reminders that, after all this right-wing nastiness, the voters of his state rewarded him with a landslide reelection. This could happen in America in 2024, too, was his not-so-subtle message.
Maybe this soulless and firmly transactional approach is all DeSantis needs to do to strengthen his standing among conservative Evangelicals. But this seems like a lost opportunity for him to create real buzz in one of the leading forums of that very important segment of the Republican-primary electorate. After all, another transactional favorite of the Christian right, Donald Trump, has created an opening by blaming the extremism of anti-abortion activists and the candidates they backed for the GOP’s underperformance in the 2022 midterm elections. In Iowa, where DeSantis must begin his uphill challenge to Trump (assuming he doesn’t get cold feet at the last moment), there’s a palpable sense the evangelical voters who lifted Mike Huckabee in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012, and Ted Cruz in 2016 to victory in the caucuses are up for grabs. It is very much in DeSantis’s interest to make sure he and not Mike Pence, Tim Scott, or anyone else is the beneficiary of any Christian-right estrangement from Trump.
Maybe the Floridian will display an overtly religious awakening somewhere on the road to Cedar Rapids. But at this point, he’s playing the same game as the master of manipulation from Mar-a-Lago, who will be happy to remind anti-abortion voters that DeSantis would never have had the opportunity to shut down Florida’s abortion clinics if Trump hadn’t stacked the Supreme Court and forced the reversal of Roe v. Wade. And if DeSantis is ultimately going to offer Republicans little more than a more electable version of what Trump has more entertainingly offered them since 2015, potential supporters will find excuses not to turn out for him on cold nights in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the flesh may be willing but the spirit may be weak.