The GOP’s pool of potential religious supporters is more diverse than you think

The crowd at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority 2021 conference includes former Democrats, members of Gen Z and recent immigrants

As the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s 2021 policy conference kicked off Thursday in Kissimmee, Florida, Janet Fitch of St. Petersburg Beach settled in at one of the large, round tables topped with white linens and told me where America’s gone wrong.

Topping her list of concerns is the “socialist ideology infiltrating our schools.” Ideas like critical race theory, she explained, “will take down our country inside out.” 

Wearing glasses and a white T-shirt bearing tiny American flags, Fitch described the Road to Majority conference as a chance for her to be among like-minded Americans looking to steer the country onto a better path.

“I am here for my children and grandchildren and all the children of the United States,” said Fitch, a white, 63-year-old mother of three and grandmother of two.

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Our conversation was interrupted when event organizers took to the stage to officially begin the opening event, a legislative luncheon. After a brief welcome in English, a woman announced in Spanish that simultaneous translation would be offered for the entire afternoon via headsets available on the other side of the room.  

It was a moment that drove home just how diverse the crowd is at an event that many would assume is predominately Christian, conservative and white.

Although a majority of conference attendees are white, there’s a large Latino presence — before the conference, organizers told me around one-quarter of the audience would be Latino but, from the ground, I would put the number even higher.

There are also some Black Americans here, as well as a sprinkling of non-Latino immigrants from a variety of backgrounds, including some from as far afield as Turkey and China. 

In terms of politics, I’ve talked to a range of voters, from lifelong Republicans to the recently converted — that is, people who’ve recently left the Democratic Party for the GOP. The experiences of this latter group were acknowledged Thursday by speaker Leo Terrell, the civil rights attorney who, to thunderous applause, explained to the audience that he hadn’t left the Democratic Party — it had left him by going too far left. 

It’s fair to say the audience is heavily Christian, but there’s still a broad range of religious experiences represented. I spoke with born-again Christians, Catholics and people like Fitch, who is a cradle Catholic but drifted away from the church years ago. She started attending services again during the pandemic, in part because of the ease of online worship, and described herself as a “Bible-believing Christian.” 

Attendees range in age from baby boomers to Gen Z. 

What ties them all together is a common vision for the country, as well as common concerns. They’ve met to commiserate and hear from politicians looking to offer solutions — some speakers may use the conference as a launchpad to a 2024 presidential campaign, as the Deseret News reported last month.

A crowd claps while Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority Conference held at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee, Fla., on Friday, June 18, 2021. | Octavio Jones, for the Deseret News

The key issues being addressed at the Road to Majority event this year include religious freedom — attendees and speakers alike decry the church closures that occurred as COVID-19 surged in the U.S. last year— and the right to bear arms. Many people, like Fitch, are also worried about America’s educational system.

After the luncheon, two Black women who’d been seated next to Fitch told me they came to the conference from Shelby, North Carolina, to get the sense of political kinship they can’t find as Republicans in the Black community.

Tanzy Wallace, 63, and Andrea Hoskins, 49, explained that they face sharp criticism from other Black Americans because of their Republican beliefs. But Hoskins said that, if you consider Christian values, “it doesn’t make sense to vote Democrat.” 

Both women reject the idea that “if you’re Black you have to be a Democrat.”

“Why do I have to be with this party just because of the color of my skin?” asked Hoskins.

They believe there are many Black Americans who think like they do but who are quiet about their feelings because they fear judgment and censure from their friends and family. 

Like Fitch, they said the conference provided them a chance to be with like-minded people. The event also gives them the encouragement and knowledge they need to continue pushing for change in the Black community, they said. 

Wallace ran for mayor in 2019 because the incumbent, a Democratic candidate, was running unopposed. Although she didn’t win, she is considering a bid for city council. Many conference attendees I spoke with said it’s important for conservatives to get more involved in local politics, particularly school boards.

In the evening, Carla Atencio — a 33-year-old immigrant from Venezuela who arrived in the U.S. seven years ago — stood outside the ballroom with two of her three children, waiting for the doors to open for the worship event that would include several different musical acts. Her son, a toddler wearing dinosaur shorts, sat in the stroller before her. In a bid to keep the boy amused, Atencio’s 6-year-old daughter bounced around before him, a large, rainbow-colored bow flopping in her hair.

An insurance agent in Miami who, along with her husband, is also a Pentecostal preacher, Atencio explained that she left Venezuela because of the ongoing crisis there, which she pegged to the socialist policies that began under now-deceased leader Hugo Chavez — the sort of policies that speakers warned are taking root here in the U.S. today. 

The Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference, Atencio said, reflects her values. 

“We are here because we defend the right to life, we believe that God created a man and a woman and because we believe in family,” she said.