Brace yourselves, readers, because I am about to praise an Associated Press story about evangelical voters, Florida and the looming clash between Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump.
But before we go there, let’s review two GetReligion themes about these topics.
(1) During the primaries before the 2016 presidential election, a strong army of evangelical voters provided strategic support for Trump. But just as many evangelicals voted for other GOP candidates in a very, very large Republican field. In the general election, white evangelicals — faced with a choice between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton — voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
This created the “81% of evangelicals just love Trump” myth, which hid some crucial divisions inside the complex and diverse world of American evangelicalism.
(2) Trump reached the White House — quite literally — because of the crucial votes of Latino evangelicals and Pentecostal believers in Florida. The growing diversity in Latino voting remained a secret hidden in clear sight until press coverage linked to the 2020 and 2022 elections, including the rise of DeSantis, who is Catholic.
This brings us to the new AP report: “Trump vs. DeSantis: Florida pastors mull conservative issues.”
While it contains some familiar mainstream press language on moral and cultural issues — battles about parental rights and sex education are about “politics,” as opposed to beliefs or doctrines — it offers information and input from a strong set of insiders and experts. Also, there is a truly shocking summary statement about evangelicals in Florida. Hold that thought. Here is the overture:
DORAL, Florida (AP) — Several of Florida’s conservative faith leaders have the ear of two early frontrunners for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — former President Donald Trump, who lives in Palm Beach, and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The clergy’s top political priorities are thus likely to resonate in the national campaign for the religious vote, even as both men’s agendas are still being weighed from the pulpit.
The faith leaders’ key issues include education, especially about gender and sexuality, and immigration, a particularly relevant matter in Florida, which is a destination for hundreds of thousands of newcomers and home to politically powerful Latino diasporas.
Guess what? Latino clergy have a rather complex stance on immigration, one rather similar to the views I have heard from mainstream evangelicals for a long time. Ask this question, as you read the next chunk of the AP story: Is this a pro- or anti-immigration point of view? How does this stance clash with the modern Democratic Party?
Several pastors, particularly in heavily Latino South Florida, argue for reforming immigration policy. They want a more orderly process at a time of historically high illegal border crossings, but also more help to regularize and integrate undocumented migrants who are contributing economically and socially in United States communities.
This brings us to the core issue in this report — parental rights (with or without “scare quotes”). Let’s walk throught this a bit:
The faith leaders’ top priority, however, is defending their congregations, and youth in general, from what they see as efforts to impose — through public education — concepts of marriage, family and identity that run against their values.
Wait. Through “public education” alone? In Florida, the land of Disney?
Some LGBTQ advocates, teachers unions, and others argue that the issue of “parental rights” is being used to inject conservative politics into public schools.
Scare quotes noted, along with the word “political” — when it’s safe to say religious conservatives (an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and a Catholic bishop are quoted in the story, as well as evangelicals) would say the issue has just as much to do with religious doctrines and religious liberty (without “scare quotes”).
But for pastors like Frank López of Jesus Worship Center in Doral, a Miami suburb, exposing children to certain types of sexually explicit materials in schools without their parents’ knowledge is a form of political indoctrination that “brings conflict to a family.”
“We don’t want any government ever to go above a father and mother,” said López, whose church has grown to more than 3,000 members from over 40 different nationalities since it was founded two decades ago with barely three dozen worshippers.
The key is the use of sexually explicit materials in basic classroom materials, while there are some who oppose certain X-rated books being in school libraries, period.
The AP article has quite a bit to say about this topic and readers get to hear, as I noted earlier, from some interesting voices.
This brings us to the finale. I have chosen to put a key passage in bold type.
Sit down before you read that part.
In Florida, conservative family values might have turned younger Latino voters toward DeSantis, helping to account for his nearly 20 percentage point reelection victory last year — “unheard of” according to Susan MacManus, a professor emerita of political science at the University of South Florida.
The state is almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, she said. Trump won the prized battleground state by single digit percentage points in the last two presidential elections.
“The evangelical vote in Florida is too diverse to be a big force in politics,” she added, but many faithful across denominations like seeing DeSantis take charge of issues like sexually explicit materials available to children. “That resonates.”
Whoa. I would have liked to have seen a follow up question there. I suspect that MacManus is saying that evangelicals are “too diverse” to be a MONOLITHIC power in the state’s political arena.
But there is the Big Idea that journalists need to grasp. Until evangelicals (Latinos, in particular) are forced into a binary, general-election, they tend to be a rather diverse crowd. Yes, they lean toward conservative stances on issues linked to morality, religion and culture. But, no, that doesn’t mean they automatically rally behind one specific candidate.
Florida is a lens into a very important reality in ballot boxes across America. Get used to it.
FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from News4Jax.com report with this headline: “DeSantis favored over Trump among Florida Republicans, UNF poll finds.”