(RNS) — In an advertisement unveiled Friday on the Twitter feed of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ wife, Casey, black-and-white images of DeSantis and his family fade in and out as a narrator declares that “on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a protector.’ So God made a fighter.”
The ad is the latest sign that DeSantis, a rising Republican star whose likely reelection on Tuesday (Nov. 8) is speculated to be the last step before a presidential run in 2024, may be making a play to become the anointed candidate of conservative religious voters. Doing so would likely challenge the electoral ambitions of former-President Donald Trump, who may end up facing off against DeSantis in the Republican presidential primaries.
Perhaps feeling a threat to his status as the vanguard of conservative Christian politics, Trump dubbed DeSantis “Ron DeSanctimonious” at a rally in Florida over the weekend.
Anthea Butler, chair of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said the ad appears to target the framework for Trump’s political success with conservative Christians, in which God was thought to have chosen Trump for a special purpose. Some compared the former president to biblical figures such as Cyrus, a Persian king who liberated the Israelites from Babylonian captivity. Still others invoked prophecy to insist leaders of Trump’s administration were agents of God tasked with instilling the government with “kingdom values.”
Now DeSantis is “trying to position himself as God’s chosen man,” Butler said. “That’s really coming up to challenge Trump on one of the things that makes him palatable to the QAnon people and all his loyal followers — they feel like God picked Donald Trump.”
Marie Griffith, head of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, agreed. “If it worked for Trump, maybe it’ll work for him — to be seen as almost a prophet and someone sent by God,” Griffith said.
Griffith said the ad hints at other critiques of Trump that DeSantis may use to appeal to conservative religious voters: While Trump has expressed support for COVID-19 vaccines developed while he was in office, DeSantis has repeatedly cast doubt on the effectiveness of the lifesaving shots and pandemic restrictions in general, a view shared by many of the most conservative parts of Trump’s base.
“It’s reminding people of how he handled the pandemic,” said Griffith.
And while DeSantis is Catholic and the “fighter” advertisement appears to be a riff on Paul Harvey’s 1978 speech “So God Made a Farmer” — substituting “fighter” for Harvey’s encomiums about farmers — Griffith said the narrator’s voice has the overtones of a mid-20th century Protestant preacher.
Several prominent conservative religious voices have begun to line up for DeSantis and used both the ad and Trump’s jibes against the Florida governor to speak out. Matt Walsh, a conservative Christian commentator, came to DeSantis’ defense after the Florida rally, writing on Twitter, “DeSantis is an extremely effective conservative governor who has had real policy wins and real cultural wins. Trump isn’t going to be able to take this one down with a dumb nickname.”
Pastor Tom Ascol — a champion of the most conservative faction of the Southern Baptist Convention who forced a runoff for the SBC presidency earlier this year — offered the invocation at a DeSantis event over the weekend and later characterized DeSantis similar to how Trump was framed by some during his time in Washington.
“I’m grateful for the privilege to pray for my governor (DeSantis) & his family,” Ascol said in a tweet. “God has blessed the state of Florida by placing him in this office as His servant for our good.”