DeSantis’ deal with the devil: Chasing the Christian right won’t help him

Now that one of the most outrageous state legislative sessions in U.S. history has mercifully concluded, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is finally set to announce his candidacy for president formally and he has quite a record to run on. In a very short time he’s built a multi-dimensional legacy of repression, abuse of power and intolerance rarely seen in modern politics. 

Some highlights from the last few weeks include a law to ban abortion at six weeks of pregnancy, a law granting permitless concealed carry, a ban on diversity programs in state colleges, a law to prevent teachers from using pronouns they don’t believe are appropriate, easier access to the death penalty and an expansion of the “don’t say gay” law to block the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity through the 12th grade. That’s just for starters. He’s pulled one culture war stunt after another, from transporting migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard to picking a fight with Disney, the state’s largest employer, over LGBTQ rights to creating an “election police force” and having them arrest Black ex-felons who were allowed to vote in error and on and on and on. Just this week, DeSantis signed into law a bill allowing the state to take transgender children away from their parents. It seems only certain parents have rights in Florida.

The reason the GOP is hitting these culture war issues so hard is that the largest single faction in the party demands it.

DeSantis took a victory lap this week saying: “I remember saying when I became governor, the first day, sat in the office, I kinda just looked around and I thought to myself, ‘You know, I don’t know what SOB is gonna succeed me in this office but they ain’t gonna have much to do because we’re getting all the meat off the bone.'”

That “meat” was taken out of the hides of LGBTQ children, teachers, students, immigrants, Black people and anyone who isn’t thrilled with the idea of living in an Orwellian dystopia.

Right-wing politicians have been running on culture war agendas forever, of course, particularly on issues of race and abortion. But DeSantis has taken it to an extreme level that’s verging on bizarre, even for the current GOP. And doing it while running for president in a political environment that has delivered one defeat after another since Republicans embraced MAGA extremism seems inexplicable. If he were to beat Donald Trump in the primary and become the nominee, DeSantis’ chances of winning the general election once the country becomes familiar with his radical record seem even worse than Trump’s.

So, what’s going on here? Why has he lurched so far to the right that he’s on the verge of falling off the edge?

It’s because of the religious right.

As long as I can remember, it’s been a truism that America is an extremely pious country and great deference must be paid to traditional Christian values. In recent years we learned that the conservative evangelical commitment to those same Christian values was more than a little bit overstated when the Republican Party offered up an openly promiscuous, thrice-married, sexual assaulting, libertine for president and they eagerly joined his flock.

It’s now clear that these Americans are not really a religious group at all but rather a political faction. That political faction is Christian Nationalism and it’s a growing threat to American democracy. As I pointed out earlier, Donald Trump is aware of how important they are to his campaign and he proved it last weekend when he called into ReAwaken America, one of the largest Christian Nationalist groups in the country. Turning Point USA is another Christian Nationalist Organization to which they all feel obliged to pay fealty. And there’s a good reason they do this. According to a recent Public Religion Research Institute-Brookings Institution poll, Christian Nationalist adherents and sympathizers make up 29% of Americans which adds up to tens of millions of our fellow citizens.

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If any GOP candidate wants to win the nomination for president he or she must find a way to extricate them from Donald Trump. So DeSantis decided that his best chance of doing that was to make their dreams come true in Florida and promise to do the same to America if he wins. We’ll have to see if he can make that appeal but he and all Republicans should probably take another look at the American religious landscape.

As reported in Politico, The Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies released its 2020 census and found that over the last decade, the share of Americans who associate with religion dropped by 11 points. And guess what? Democrats are gaining in the places where religious affiliation is declining and it’s not the godless coastal blue states. It’s mostly in the middle of the country. The correlation is astonishing.

Across the industrial Midwest, in former Rust Belt states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that are absolutely essential to the Democrats’ firewall in 2024, there is good news for the party — each of those states is much less religious today than it was just 10 years ago.

More bad news for Republicans is that new data indicates that nearly half of Generation Z has no religious affiliation while a new Catalyst report finds that Gen Z came out in bigger numbers in 2022 than in 2018 — and over 60% voted for Democrats. The speculation is that this young cohort is so turned off by the intolerant MAGA culture crusade that they are not only voting in large numbers but will likely define themselves as Democrats their entire lives, just as earlier Democrats did in the era of Franklin Roosevelt and Republicans did when Ronald Reagan came to power. This is a long-term problem for the GOP.

The religion census found that the only metro area in the country that gained religious adherents was Miami, Florida. And the border districts in Texas that went from solid Democratic to purple at best can be explained by a rise in religious believers, mostly newer immigrants who are not especially enamored of abortion or LGBTQ rights. Arizona too has a big share of those same voters who are sympathetic to culture war issues.

If he were to beat Donald Trump in the primary and become the nominee, DeSantis’ chances of winning the general election once the country becomes familiar with his radical record seem even worse than Trump’s.

You have to wonder whether or not the Christian Nationalists will be able to accept the fact that their future political clout will depend upon welcoming new Hispanic immigrants into their coalition. Because let’s face facts, American Christian Nationalism is really white Christian Nationalism.

The reason the GOP is hitting these culture war issues so hard is that this largest single faction in the party demands it. But they represent only 30% of the electorate, and the rest of the country is overwhelmingly appalled by what the Republicans are doing to appease them. In fact, they are not only destroying the Republican Party, it appears they are gravely damaging their religion as well. Let’s hope they don’t succeed in destroying American democracy as well.


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