TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made courting conservative evangelical voters a central part of his bid for president. He has invested considerable resources in Iowa, where those voters are a key part of the Republican base. And he has taken up the mantle of a culture warrior, signing a six-week abortion ban and leaning into social issues popular with the religious right.
But his own faith has not played prominently in his public image, in contrast to some other politicians.
On Jan. 8, 2019, DeSantis stood onstage at Florida’s historic Capitol next to his wife, Casey, who had in her hand a King James Bible.
He was set to officially become Florida’s 46th governor.
Many elected officials choose to be sworn into office on a religious text with some sort of personal meaning. But for DeSantis, this moment was preceded by scrambling by campaign and inauguration staffers caught off-guard when DeSantis, who is Catholic, told them his family did not own a Bible and he did not care whether he used one with historical significance, five former aides said.
Each of the four other people sworn into office that day — Florida’s three Cabinet members and Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez — had religious texts that had personal significance, inauguration records show.
Staff members for DeSantis had to buy a Bible for $21.74 on Amazon and have it shipped to the Republican Party of Florida headquarters less than a week before his inauguration, according to a receipt of the transaction shared with NBC News.
The aides who spoke with NBC News — many of whom are political veterans well-steeped in the pageantry of inaugurations and requested anonymity out of fear of professional reprisal — said it was unusual for politicians to give so little thought to the specific texts on which they want to be sworn in.
“People are typically sworn in on something that is historic — a family Bible or something with historic value,” a former DeSantis staffer said. “It was profoundly strange that he did not care at all and treated it like it was nothing.”
The DeSantis campaign declined to address specific questions for this article and instead sent over a statement calling it “a pathetic lie worthy only of a tabloid gossip rag.”
“The blatant dishonesty here is a transparent ploy for nefarious motives — like boosting this author’s lagging book interest. Dixon has become one of the Trump campaign’s most loyal and reliable surrogates, hopefully he is at least being rewarded appropriately,” spokesman Bryan Griffin said. He did not reply to a follow-up inquiry about what the “blatant dishonesty” was.
DeSantis was raised Catholic and maintains family ties to the close-knit Catholic community in the Mahoning Valley in Ohio, where his aunt is a nun and his uncle is a priest. When Casey DeSantis was diagnosed with cancer in 2021, DeSantis talked about how he and his wife found solace in prayer. They were married in 2009 at Walt Disney World, where a Catholic priest presided over the ceremony.
As part of his first inauguration, DeSantis attended a prayer breakfast and told attendees that he decided to forgo a traditional parade in order to baptize his son, Mason, that day. The baptism occurred using water from the Sea of Galilee that he and his wife saved from their trip to Israel. The water — which was stored in a nondescript water bottle — was later accidentally thrown away by the cleaning staff at the Governor’s Mansion, the News Service of Florida reported at the time.
But the overall picture, according to his former staffers and reviews of his public comments, was never one of a politician who made religion a central part of his public identity — unlike some other public figures, such as former Vice President Mike Pence or President Joe Biden.
The conservative writer Nate Hochman wrote an op-ed in The New York Times last year in which he called DeSantis “nominally Catholic” and said he “rarely discusses his religion publicly.”
But as a presidential candidate, he has had to discuss it more. He is often prompted by questions from voters or interviewers as he tries to connect with conservative religious voters who are key to his ability to win the Republican nomination.
In a May interview, he told Jenna Ellis, a former attorney for Donald Trump, that faith is the “foundation of my life.”
The next month, DeSantis told the Christian Broadcasting Network political analyst David Brody that his home “is a Christ-centered household” and that his favorite Bible verse is John 14:6, in which Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
But even now, DeSantis often speaks more broadly about faith than about specific practices or beliefs.
America, a monthly Catholic magazine, tried to get more details about his beliefs last spring. The campaign, however, did not directly answer many of its questions. The resulting story — which ran shortly before DeSantis announced his presidential bid — was titled “The Mysterious Catholic Faith of Ron DeSantis,” and it concluded that he and his wife “rarely discuss particularities of their religious beliefs in public.”
Similarly, in his book “The Courage to Be Free,” which was published early this year, DeSantis referred to his Catholic roots several times, but he did not go into great detail about his religion.
The approach is different from that of Biden, for example, who leans more heavily into his Catholicism specifically.
“Like Biden, DeSantis grew up Catholic. Unlike Biden, Catholicism is not part of his political brand,” said Richard Amesbury, the director of Arizona State University’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. “But recently, DeSantis has invoked a generic Christian identity, bolstered by endorsements from evangelical pastors and other religious leaders.”
Anthea Butler, the chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s religious studies department, said DeSantis most likely shied away from talking about the fact he was Catholic by design. Diving into it was not a needed part of his early political success, but now he is trying to court Iowa evangelicals.
“He never talked about it before because he didn’t have to. It’s Florida — you can be Catholic, especially in places like South Florida, and no one cared,” said Butler, who is an MSNBC columnist. “Now he has to convince evangelicals he is just like them, which is much different.”
At times, DeSantis has tried to mix religious rhetoric with a political message — with varying levels of success.
In a series of speeches during his 2022 gubernatorial re-election campaign, DeSantis started using a modified version of Ephesians 6, which says, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” In his speeches, however, DeSantis replaced “the devil’s” with “the left’s,” inserting a bit of partisan politics into the passage.
Using religion to push his politics has not always been entirely successful.
DeSantis also received significant attention, and some pushback, for a TV ad he ran last year during his re-election campaign that gave him a central role in the biblical creation story. The narrator of the two-minute video said that on the eighth day, “God made a fighter.” The voice played over pictures of DeSantis, clearly implying he is a savior sent down from the heavens.
“And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said: ‘I need a protector,’” the narrator said. “So God made a fighter.”
More recently, in April, DeSantis spoke at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, one of the world’s largest Christian universities. There he focused more on the culture war-heavy policy priorities he has pushed as governor than on any specific faith-based or religious themes.
“We have made Florida the state where woke goes to die,” DeSantis said. “The woke mind virus represents a war on merit. It represents a war on achievement. It’s a form of cultural Marxism that seeks to use identity politics to divide Americans.”
During a busy campaign swing in June that included meetings with pastors and evangelical audiences, DeSantis said, “I will fight the good fight, I will finish the race, and I will keep the faith.”
DeSantis’ ability to connect with religious voters is especially important in Iowa, with its sizable conservative religious GOP caucus electorate. It’s a must-win state if DeSantis hopes to erode the lead of Trump, who is widely seen as the race’s front-runner.
“For Ron, religion is a matter of political convenience,” said one of the former staffers, who, like the others, was granted anonymity out of concerns about reprisal.
DeSantis, of course, would be far from the first politician to invoke religion or leverage faith for political gain — especially in a country where a declining number of Americans participate in organized religion but presidents are still expected to be religious.
Trump has also notably changed how he talks about his faith and religion over time.
Trump, for example, was not a regular churchgoer before he became president, and his personal life and comments were far from what are considered traditionally acceptable for many religious voters. Trump has been married three times, and he faces an indictment over allegations tied to making hush money payments to an adult film star in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. Campaigning in 2016, he responded “Two Corinthians” when he was asked his favorite Bible verse, rather than “Second Corinthians,” which drew ridicule from evangelicals.
But he still successfully courted evangelical voters with his policies and famously held a photo-op in Washington, D.C., holding a Bible outside a historic church — as law enforcement violently cleared out protesters.
DeSantis’ presidential campaign has made inroads with some politically influential religious leaders.
Most notably, last week he received the endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, a politically influential Iowa evangelical leader who supported the last three winners of Iowa’s first-in-the nation presidential nominating contest. He has praised DeSantis for signing the six-week abortion ban and was critical of Trump for calling the move a “terrible mistake.”
Vander Plaats previously was a political supporter of Trump.
“Donald Trump, long a favorite of evangelicals, despite not having a religious brand, has recently been seen by evangelicals as wavering on abortion, calling Florida’s six-week abortion ban ‘a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,’” he said. “Whether DeSantis can succeed in peeling votes away from him remains to be seen, though.”
Trump continues to have a commanding lead in most early states, including Iowa, and he has expressed little concern about his standing with evangelical voters, as evidenced by the fact that he blasted Vander Plaats after the DeSantis endorsement — something generally unthinkable for Republicans running in the state’s caucuses.
“Bob Vander Plaats, the former High School Accountant from Iowa, will do anything to win, something which he hasn’t done in many years,” Trump wrote on Truth Social.
For his second inauguration last year, DeSantis took a different tack. Instead of a Bible ordered off Amazon, he used a historic Aitken Bible on loan from conservative pundit Glenn Beck. It was endorsed by Congress in 1782 and has ties to the nation’s founding fathers.