DeSantis is trying to attract young evangelicals to Liberty University

After signing the nation’s toughest abortion law, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis presented himself to thousands of evangelical college students in the public square as a defender of truth, common sense and decency.

“Yes, the truth will set you free,” said Mr. DeSantis said. “We must wage a war as soon as we are awakened, because being awake means a war on the truth.”

At Liberty University’s twice-weekly graduation service, Mr. DeSantis spoke at what the school says is “the largest gathering of Christian students in the world.”

He spoke Thursday night on the abortion bill. When DeSantis signed on, he was introduced by Pastor Jonathan Falwell, who was named the school’s principal. The law prohibits the practice past six weeks.

Mr. DeSantis did not specifically address the abortion law. He began his speech on a personal note, thanking the audience for their prayers after his wife’s cancer diagnosis in 2021.

“Prayers have been answered,” he said. He has touted his record on a number of issues, including new restrictions on gender-affirming medical treatments in Florida.

“We chose facts over fear, education over indoctrination, law and order over riot and disorder,” said Mr. DeSantis said. “We’re not backing down.”

As he builds momentum for his widely anticipated entry into the 2024 presidential campaign, Mr. The visit was part of DeSantis’ national tour of conservative centers of influence. More than that, it was an important opportunity to gauge, and perhaps improve, the state of his relationship with evangelical Christians—a Donald J. The voting bloc that helped propel Trump to the presidency appears to be open to new presidential contenders.

Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., has long been an important stop for Republican politicians and conservative celebrities eager to reach campus undergraduates.

The school’s 130,000 online students, including their parents and others, stream services online. This is the stage where Senator Ted Cruz of Texas announced his candidacy in 2015. Mr Trump introduced himself to a broad evangelical audience and cast himself as the defender of a Christianity under attack – and popularly referred to as the “Two Corinthians”. In a faltering attempt to speak the same language as his listeners.

In the end, Mr. Trump doesn’t need to “evangelize” them to win them over. He won a larger share of the white evangelical vote in 2020 than he did in 2016. While some evangelical leaders have signaled that they are considering supporting another Republican candidate, many do not agree with Mr. remain loyal to Trump and have shown few signs of abandoning him. Total on his latest charge.

Mr. For DeSantis, the question is whether he can loosen that unusual bond.

Jesse Hughes, a junior at Liberty, said Thursday, Mr. DeSantis said he hopes to hear him give a more intimate account of how his faith influenced his approach to governing and helped him navigate challenges like his wife’s cancer diagnosis.

Mr. Hughes, Mr. He read DeSantis’s latest memoir, “Courage to Be Free,” but said it did little to help him understand the governor’s personal spiritual life. “There have been hints of his faith, but he hasn’t elaborated on anything,” he said.

Nevertheless, in Florida Mr. He was impressed by DeSantis’ track record on abortion law, education and “how she’s been willing to take a bold stand without giving in to media pressure.” Mr. Under DeSantis, the state banned discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in certain elementary school grades. On Thursday, Mr. DeSantis signed one of the strictest restrictions on abortion in the country, banning the procedure for the past six weeks.

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Mr. Mr. Trump called the charges against Trump “political harassment.” Hughes was absent. But he added that many of his fellow students were willing to look past Mr Trump.

21 year old Mr. Hughes is president of the campus’ College Republicans, which conducts an informal poll of top student preferences. On Thursday, the day before polling, Mr. 87 votes for DeSantis and Mr. Trump had 52 votes, while the other candidates were in single digits.

“What I see is a definite interest in DeSantis, but not a rejection of Trump,” said Christine Cobbs Du Mes, a historian of evangelical Calvinism in Michigan and author of “Jesus and John Wayne” among white evangelicals.

Ms Du Mes sees Mr DeSantis as making the same appeal to conservative evangelicals as Mr Trump, positioning himself as a combative culture warrior who will “protect vulnerable Christians”. He is Mr. It may appeal to voters who are attracted to Trump but are tired of the chaos that has followed him, or who are skeptical about his chances of winning the general election.

But there is a trade-off. “What you gain in terms of stability in returning to DeSantis,” Ms. du Mes said, “you lose in terms of appeal.”

At this early stage, he said, most conservative evangelicals seem genuinely open to any of the leading candidates. Among voters, at least, “it’s a friendly competition.”

Mr. Even some of DeSantis’ evangelical supporters are watching and waiting.

“He’s doing an amazing job here in our state,” said Tom Askol, Cape Coral, Fla. A Southern Baptist pastor in , offered a prayer at the governor’s inauguration in January. He described Mr DeSantis on Thursday as “a man of principle” and “a man of courage”, Mr. Unlike Trump, he is seen as bold but pragmatic.

But in the general election of 2024 Mr. When asked if he wanted to see DeSantis, Mr. Askol refused. “I don’t want to lose him in Florida,” she said. “I’d be happy if he stayed here as long as our governor.”

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On April 6 at the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan, Mr. DeSantis spoke, where he highlighted his role as a fighter in the culture wars, including a plan to turn a small progressive public university into a beacon of conservatism, and his push back against Covid precautions. Vaccination mandates, he termed “Fauci-ism.”

Mr. DeSantis grew up in a Catholic family in Florida. “Growing up as a kid, having my rear end in church every Sunday morning was non-negotiable,” he wrote in his memoir. He has an aunt who is a nun and an uncle who is a priest both in Ohio. (Both declined to comment on their son-in-law’s religious upbringing.)

Until now, while positioning himself as the protector of the “God-fearing” people, he has been very cautious about his personal faith. In speeches, he often refers to putting on “the whole armor of God” — a biblical reference and an evangelical text — telling the audience to “stand firm against the left’s plans.”

Paraphrasing the apostle Paul in the book of 2 Timothy, he told the crowd, “I will fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith,” and ended his speech at Liberty with another verse reference.

But he still faces obstacles in winning over the most staunch Trump supporters.

Jerry Falwell Jr., former president of Liberty, Mr. One of Trump’s first major evangelical supporters. In January 2016, Mr. He endorsed Trump and became one of his most vocal allies.

Mr. Falwell resigned as president in 2020. The school hired a new chancellor in March, Dondi Kostin, a former Air Force chaplain who most recently was president of Charleston Southern University.

Out of power and without a platform, Mr. Falwell is a bystander, not an influencer, in this election cycle. He reached home on Wednesday, Mr. He said he didn’t have Trump’s phone number.

But his political intentions did not change.

“I have nothing against DeSantis, I just don’t think he’s ready for prime time yet,” said Mr. Falwell said, noting that the governor “looks like a little boy.”

He added, “I’m still 100 percent a Trump man.

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