TALLAHASSEE — While visiting a private Christian college in southern Michigan that wields influence in national politics, Gov. Ron DeSantis rephrased a biblical passage to deliver a message to conservatives.
“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 told the audience at Hillsdale College in February. “And I can tell you this, I have only begun to fight.”
The Republican governor, a strategic politician who is up for reelection in November, is increasingly using biblical references in speeches that cater to those who see policy fights through a morality lens and is flirting with those who embrace nationalist ideas that see the true identity of the nation as Christian.
He and other Republicans on the campaign trail are blending elements of Christianity with being American and portraying their battle against their political opponents as one between good and evil. Those dynamics have some political observers and religious leaders worrying that such rhetoric could become dangerous, as it could mobilize fringe groups who could be prone to violence in an attempt to have the government recognize its beliefs.
“I think, at best, DeSantis is playing with fire,” said Brian Kaylor, a Baptist minister in Missouri who has studied the interaction between religion and politics for over two decades. “If asked, I’m sure he would tell you he is not telling people to literally go and fight. But this rhetoric in this political environment is dangerous.”
Christian nationalism for many conservatives has become a political identity, and unlike conservative politicians in the past who used their faith to inform their arguments, DeSantis is more aggressive, using war imagery to describe the political debates as a battle over who will be the better American.
The biblical reference DeSantis is using is from Ephesians 6, and calls on Christians to spiritually arm themselves against the “devil’s schemes.” In DeSantis’ speeches, he has replaced the ”devil” with “the left” as he tries to mobilize supporters ahead of his reelection in November and possibly a run for the White House in 2024.
“The full armor of God passage is a favorite amongst certain types of Pentecostals who really do see the world in terms of spiritual warfare,” said Philip Gorski, a comparative-history sociologist at Yale University who co-wrote the book “The Flag and the Cross: White Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy.”
A recurring theme
DeSantis has made the biblical references in numerous stump speeches. He did it at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando in February. Then, at the Florida Republican Party’s annual gathering in July. And again, in August, while campaigning alongside Doug Mastriano, a right-wing Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate who has promoted Christian power in America.
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Since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — where violent acts blended with imagery of “Armor of God” patches, Christian banners, wooden crosses, impromptu prayer sessions — the Christian nationalist ideologies have become more visible.
On Sunday, DeSantis was a keynote speaker at the National Conservatism Conference in Aventura, a three-day event that featured several sessions about the role of Christianity in politics, including one titled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Christian Nationalism.”
“I think DeSantis has really stood out as someone who has effectively used this type of God talk and used these types of Christian nationalist talking points to curry favor,” said Allyson Shortle, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma who has studied the Christian nationalist movement and co-written the book “The Everyday Crusade: Christian Nationalism in American Politics.”
The Times/Herald asked the governor’s reelection campaign and his executive office, which deals with his role as governor, whether the governor’s increased use of religious and biblical references was intentional, what he believed about the Christian nationalism movement since Jan. 6, 2021, and whether he was concerned that the rhetoric could exclude non-Christians.
The campaign did not respond. Bryan Griffin, the press secretary for the governor’s office, sent a statement:
“The governor is a Christian and there is absolutely no issue with him sharing his values or utilizing them in his decision-making as a leader. Questions like ‘What does the governor believe about the Christian nationalism movement that has been getting more attention since Jan. 6, 2021?’ — which are indistinguishable from ridiculous leftist political talking points — are indicative of the problem of overtly biased reporting that plagues the modern media,” Griffin said.
Aside from campaign speeches, DeSantis’ policy agenda has promoted a political persona of a fighter for religious freedom and a staunch defender of family and traditional values. Those characteristics have caught the attention of many conservative Christians, who see part of the governor’s agenda aligned with their moral priorities.
DeSantis, who was raised Catholic, has said he is optimistic that the U.S. Supreme Court will take steps to expand the place of religion in public life, including school prayer. His civics initiatives in Florida public schools also promote the idea that the Founding Fathers did not intend for a strict separation between church and state.
The phrase “separation of church and state” comes from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. In it, Jefferson wrote that the First Amendment had essentially built “a wall of separation” between church and state.
In education, DeSantis has likened his efforts against “wokeness” to a broader religious fight. In a recent interview with the conservative Christian podcast “Focus on the Family,” DeSantis said Democrats are “trying to establish a religion of their own” in America, which he is trying to combat by fighting “woke ideologies” in public schools.
“This woke ideology functions as a religion, obviously it is not the Judeo-Christian tradition, but they want that to be effectively the governing faith of our country. They want that to be the core orthodoxy in public schools and other types of public function. They want to impose their values,” DeSantis said. “They really want to impose their world view to the exclusion of the rest of us.”
In the last year, DeSantis has signed a law prohibiting classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in early school grades. He has suspended Tampa’s top prosecutor for pledging to not prosecute crimes related to new limits on abortion or gender-affirming care for transgender kids. He banned Medicaid from covering gender-affirming treatments in Florida. He is fighting a Miami restaurant that has hosted drag queen shows with children present, arguing in part that the event “corrupts public morals and outrages the sense of public decency.”
Critics, however, say that DeSantis is in effect excluding others who do not share his viewpoints. Kaylor, the Baptist minister, said he believes eroding the separation between church and state would undermine democracy.
“If there is any privileging of one faith’s tradition then you don’t have true religious liberty for everyone,” Kaylor said. “If you don’t believe in religious liberty for all, then you don’t believe in religious liberty at all.”
A battle between ‘good and evil’
For political candidates, and especially for Republicans, talking about the importance of faith is nothing new, and debates about faith’s role in the public square — whether over prayer in schools or the presence of religious symbols outside a courthouse — have been ongoing for decades.
But some experts say they see something different emerging: a strain of thought that sees the country’s politics as an open battle between good and evil, where extremists may be more open to violence.
“There’s always been candidates who espouse Christian values, but what I think is very different is you have many people on the right and the far right seeing the current situation in the USA as a battle, an absolute battle, between good and evil,” said Marilyn Mayo, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “And the good are the mostly white, Christian conservatives. And on the other side are the liberals, progressives, left-wingers, and certainly the LGBTQ community. They really see this as a battle, and also paint the other side as evil, an evil force that needs to be defeated.”
Christian nationalism is the belief that a “true” American should be Christian, Shortle explained. More extreme versions of Christian nationalism involve the belief that Christians should take steps to reclaim political power in government.
It is a form of identity politics, and its members “share a history of grievance,” said David Kling, professor and chairperson of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Miami.
“Related to Christian nationalism, it is the view that the United States is no longer a Christian nation and it’s been taken over by secular forces or that powerful elites in America are using their culture and political influence to take America in a secular direction,” Kling said.
According to a Pew Research Center survey, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to want to secure a place for Christianity as part of the American identity. While ending the federal enforcement of the separation of church and state remains a minority view among Americans, it was an above-average view among Republicans and white evangelicals. The survey also found that many Hispanics and Black Americans who are highly religious Christians also lean toward linking Christianity and American identities.
Conversely, the vast majority of Americans surveyed — 63% — said they think the federal government should advocate “moral values shared by people of many faiths,” while 13% said the government should advocate Christian values.
DeSantis, whose national ascent has coincided with his championing of cultural issues, isn’t the only Republican speaking openly about the ways in which Christian faith influences their politics.
Herschel Walker, the former football star and Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Georgia, in August called himself a “warrior for Christ” who plans to “bring Jesus with him” to Congress, according to the Alabama Political Reporter. Kristina Karamo, the Republican nominee for secretary of state in Michigan, said last month that “the fundamental problem in society is rejection of Christ,” according to the Detroit Free Press.
Walker’s opponent is the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also served as pastor. Warnock, a Democrat, won a special election to the U.S. Senate in 2021 and is seeking a full term for the first time. Warnock has played up his religious roots on the campaign trail, too, and has been attacked by Republicans as a “radical progressive”
Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, called the need for a separation of church and state a myth, according to The New York Times. And U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia has spent much of the summer calling on her fellow Republicans to become the “party of Christian nationalism,” even selling T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Proud Christian nationalist,” The Washington Post reported.
“It’s really hard to know what’s true to their personal beliefs versus what’s true to their desire to get reelected,” Shortle said.
But she said she believes many politicians are starting to realize the power of appealing to the Christian nationalist movement.
“I think politicians and leaders who are now legitimizing these ideas (through their rhetoric) is what gives the movement power,” Shortle said, which is why she says she might not label the movement fringe anymore.
‘Our rights come from God’
In Florida, many of the religious themes are reflected in the partisan battles that have engulfed school districts since the start of the pandemic. That coincides with DeSantis beginning to incorporate biblical references in his political speeches, and his policy initiatives starting to show undertones of these ideas.
Over the summer, several social studies teachers, for example, said they were alarmed that a civics training session led by DeSantis’ administration had a “Christian nationalism philosophy that was just baked into everything” that was taught.
The initiative emphasized that the Founding Fathers did not desire a strict separation of state and church, and that the “Founders expected religion to be promoted because they believed it to be essential to civic virtue.” Without virtues, the state trainers argued, citizens become “licentious” and subject to tyranny. State trainers also told teachers that the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court case that found school-sponsored prayer violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment was unjust.
When campaigning with Mastriano for Pennsylvania on Aug. 19, DeSantis tied religion to the importance of teaching students about civics.
“We have the responsibility to make sure that the students that come out of our school system understand what it means to be an American,” DeSantis said, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. “They need to understand that our rights come from God, not from the government.”
David Barton, the founder of WallBuilders, a nonprofit organization that promotes the idea of bringing Christianity into American public life, said recently on his podcast that the goal should be to take children out of public schools because they are being “indoctrinated” or “sexualized.” He said this before introducing his guest that day: Tina Descovich, the co-founder of the Florida-based conservative group Moms for Liberty.
“We are losing the family to the country,” said Barton, who said Christians should get involved in school board races. “When you do get control of the government, it is no longer the enemy to the family, which is a good reason for us to get involved in it, and that is part of what we see happening with Moms for Liberty.”
Moms for Liberty was founded in Florida less than two years ago and now counts more than 200 chapters and 95,000 members in 38 states. It has had political clout in school board races and larger campaigns, including DeSantis’ reelection bid.
In July, DeSantis was endorsed at the group’s first national summit, where he said as a father of three young children that he intended to “leave Florida to God and to our children better than I found it.”
LGBTQ themes in the mix
John Stemberger, the president and general counsel of the Christian and conservative Florida Family Policy Council, said he believes there is a “battle between right and wrong” and to him the “commanding moral issue is to protect children.”
“There is a faith component to it. Jesus was very strong with protecting children,” Stemberger said. “We have taken up the same mantle of protecting children.”
Stemberger points to a “radical agenda” in public schools and medical treatments and surgeries for transgender kids as examples of where cultural disagreements exist between what is right and wrong.
“There’s so much division, we just feel that protecting children is non-negotiable. That’s the stake that we have put in the ground,” Stemberger said.
DeSantis isn’t the only Florida politician who sees political currency in stoking conflicts over LGBTQ issues and access to abortion while highlighting Christian values.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., met with faith leaders in Davie on Sept. 1 and used the speech to talk about the importance of Christianity in the fight against Democrats, who he said are pushing “insane” policies related to the teaching of LGBTQ issues.
“I always chuckle when people say you’re trying to impose religion. Christianity cannot be imposed,” Rubio said. “It’s a free gift that has to be willingly accepted in order for it to work.”
Rubio added that ultimately it is a decision about “what is good” and said America has been on the right path for more than two centuries for one reason:
“And that is the belief that every single human being has rights that come not from government, not from leaders, not from the Constitution, not from the laws,” Rubio said. “They have rights, natural rights, that come to them from their creator, from God.”
Miami Herald staff writer Bianca Padró Ocasio and McClatchy D.C. staff writer Alex Roarty contributed to this report.