As Florida governor Ron DeSantis seems to be preparing to formally enter the Republican presidential primary for 2024, it could launch a notorious new season, set in sunny Florida and shaped by a buzzy subplot about Christian nationalism, which DeSantis and Trump alike have been accused of propagating.
Trump’s use of Christianity as a political prop is by now well known. Though demonstrably unfamiliar with basic aspects of the faith, the former president gamely toted his Christianity around on the campaign trail and in office. (Sometimes he literally toted it, as when he held up the Bible in front of a church sign for a photoshoot.) In 2016 and 2020, Trump hit his marks, visiting Christian colleges, conferences, and churches, and this year, he’s been eager to remind Christian voters—particularly evangelicals—how well that played with many of them before.
But compared to 2020, when Trump ran functionally unopposed for the GOP nod, in 2024 he’ll have competition. DeSantis, widely expected to be Trump’s most formidable primary opponent, is an especially interesting example here, as his campaign use of Christianity is more knowledgeable and sophisticated than Trump’s has tended to be. Will evangelicals see him as one of our own?
A practicing Catholic, DeSantis has a facility with biblical references Trump could never quite master, and he fits comfortably in evangelical culture in a way Trump does not. He’s a throwback to pre-Trump Republican appeals to white evangelicals as a voting bloc, in which candidates often identified with evangelicalism to a degree Trump has never attempted. (Trump speaks of “the evangelicals” just as he does of “the Jews,” linguistically placing himself outside each category.)
Whether DeSantis can put his cultural expertise to effective use remains to be seen. Once he announces, however, the show will really get going. Background players—including anticipated and declared candidates like former vice president Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley—will have their scenes, vying for second billing after the midseason break. And episode recaps will abound: Evangelical leader X declines to endorse at this time. Candidate Y says God led him to run for president. The Z campaign’s secret weapon with Iowa evangelicals.
Christianity itself will appear as a campaign prop, with large block letters for easy identification onscreen and a strategically smoothed silhouette, ambiguous enough that any audience member, if so inclined, could tell herself that’s just like the Christianity she has at home.
There have been only glimpses of DeSantis’s version of campaign Christianity so far, but what little we have seen has been revealing. As much as he sometimes feels like a pre-2016 throwback where evangelical outreach is concerned, DeSantis is decidedly a post-Trump candidate too, with a brash culture-war pugilism almost every GOP contender will try to emulate this cycle.
His “God made a fighter” ad, launched during his gubernatorial campaign last year but clearly intended for a national audience, is a slick amalgamation of the two sides and probably a good forecast of Christianity’s place in this race. That’s why we should notice how little of Christ this campaign-prop Christianity contains. In fact, the ad never mentions Jesus at all.
It has no specifically Christian imagery, not even a cross. Church, visualized as disembodied raised hands, comes up only as a destination a DeSantis voter might wish to visit. Though clearly intended to appeal to evangelicals, there’s nothing specifically Christian here, let alone anything evangelical. A Jewish or Mormon candidate could produce the same ad—cut off the first five words (“And on the eighth day”) and a Muslim or generically deist candidate could too.
And beyond that deliberate religious ambiguity, this ad isn’t really about God or faith at all. DeSantis is the one who will save the people’s “jobs, their livelihoods, their liberty, their happiness.” He’s the hero of this tale. The narrator quotes imagined words from God at length, but God isn’t the object of praise here. God’s the one doing the praising. He’s praising Ron DeSantis.
Shrunk down to prop size and glazed in cheeky mid-century nostalgia, Christianity serves the campaign, not the other way around. The result is a clever ad, delivered in Christianese fluent enough to appeal to a large and useful voting bloc but vague enough to avoid highlighting the candidate’s nonevangelical theology, alienating people who call themselves evangelicals only because of their politics, or turning off the growing post-religious right. I suspect it will be imitated widely in the months to come, maybe even revamped by DeSantis himself for his official national debut.
None of this is to suggest DeSantis and his fellow candidates are insincere in their own faith. I can only make educated guesses as to what’s in their hearts (Matt. 12:34–37), and I know for certain I too have acted out of “selfish ambition or vain conceit” (Phil. 2:3), failed to draw near to God (James 4:8), and “conform[ed] to the pattern of this world” (Rom. 12:2).
But we don’t need to judge others’ faith to get into “no true Christian” territory or to say campaign-prop Christianity isn’t really Christianity at all. The “fullness of the Deity” (Col. 2:9) can fit inside a baby, but not inside a campaign ad.