DORAL, Florida – 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.
Trump made reducing illegal immigration a strong focus of his previous campaigns, often with strident rhetoric, and has discussed building on his legacy in a second term. DeSantis, who isn't yet a candidate but is widely expected to run, has taken a more careful approach with immigration developments in Florida, while spotlighting issues related to schools and family.
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.
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.
Some LGBTQ advocates, teachers unions, and others argue that the issue of "parental rights" is being used to inject conservative politics into public schools.
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.
He cited as a counterweight a bill DeSantis signed last year to give parents a say in what books are available in school libraries, targeting the presence of sexually explicit volumes.
"I think that the government should not get involved in any religion, but yes I believe that religion should get involved in governing," said López, whose church has hosted visits by Trump, DeSantis and other conservative politicians.
Tom Ascol, the senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral who offered a prayer at DeSantis' inauguration earlier this year, said he wants political leaders fighting "woke mobs" to restore "common-sense sanity" on issues like sexually explicit materials in public spaces with children.
"What Governor DeSantis did here in Florida, I'm grateful for," Ascol said.
For Rabbi Avrohom Brashevitzky, executive director of Chabad Jewish Center of Doral, the top concern is similarly "the breakdown in morals and ethics," which he believes leads to societal ills including antisemitism, a growing worry nationwide.
He attributes that breakdown to failures in education to imbue youth with the values of tolerance, kindness and a belief in a higher existence.
"Life doesn't begin and end with your cheeseburger, you and your pleasures," Brashevitzky said, praising DeSantis and the Florida legislature for passing a "moment of silence" in schools before the day's start, where children can pray or reflect.
"We as a society, Christian or not, have a responsibility to protect the young ones," echoed Abraham Rivera, senior pastor at La Puerta Life Center, a Brethren in Christ church with about 200 members in Miami.
The focus on freedom for conservative faith-based moral values, particularly for youth, is proving a winning argument among religious voters nationwide, experts say.
"I certainly see a lot of energy around what conservatives would call 'parental rights' … I don't see that ending," said Marie Griffith, the director of religion and politics studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
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."
The ability to stand up for more conservative values is also inextricably linked to the free exercise of religion for faith leaders like Rivera and his wife, Marilyn, who's also a pastor and met with Trump when she led South Florida's Association of Hispanic Ministers, which represents about 800 pastors from different Christian denominations.
"We never come at it from a hate perspective. As a pastor, I happen to believe what the Bible teaches about sexuality and marriage," he said.
But he and other pastors fear holding on to those beliefs could put their churches at risk of being sued, for example when refusing to celebrate same-sex marriages, or that they might be forced to go against their conscience.
"The effort of some on the 'progressive side' to define religious freedom as freedom to worship but not necessarily the freedom to serve or the freedom to advocate" is also a top concern for Thomas Wenski, the Catholic Archbishop of Miami.
Wenski noted that "neither party will necessarily embrace the whole gamut of Catholic social thought," which includes opposing abortion and capital punishment. Last year, Wenski's strong advocacy for migrants and refugees put him publicly at odds with DeSantis, who's Catholic.
Ultimately, faith leaders said that a candidate's integrity and ability to address their concerns through policies outweighs a candidate's likeability and other personal traits.
"The Christian church is not about looking for a perfect person or a charismatic person," López said. "It wants a person who does what he says and a person who's aligned with God's values."
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