Latino Evangelicals Question Loyalty to GOP

Latino evangelicals are credited for helping re-elect President Bush, but their loyalty to the Republican Party waned after the failed immigration bill left them feeling abandoned by the GOP and more open to Democratic presidential candidates in this year's election.

Many Latino evangelicals expressed that they are still undecided as they wait to hear candidates speak more about plans for the nation's immigration problem. But memories of being shunned by the Republican Party during the immigration row still remain fresh in their minds.

"Democrats are saying, 'Let's talk about your family and your faith,'" said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), to Christianity Today magazine. "They're saying, 'The other side doesn't want you.'"

The NHCLC, which represents nearly 18,000 Latino evangelicals, is the sister organization of the National Association of Evangelicals.

In the United States, more than 8 million Americans identify themselves as Latino evangelicals, although there is no exact estimate on how many are registered voters. In 2004, President Bush received strong support from this constituency, when 64 percent of Latino evangelical voted for him.

But Republican candidates have not given up on courting Latino evangelical voters, despite the obstacles. Rodriguez said he has spoken to both former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about Latino concerns, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Huckabee requested last month that Rodriguez organize a conference call with top Latino pastors and theologians to discuss their questions and concerns.

In Florida this week, McCain proved he is popular among Hispanic votes. Hispanic voters made up 10 percent of the vote in the GOP primary in Florida and Latino evangelicals compose about 40 percent of the Hispanic population in the state.

The current Republican frontrunner – who was one of the few Republicans who supported the immigration reform bill – received about half of the votes from those who described themselves as Cubans, and 51 percent of non-Cuban Hispanics voters, according to CNN.

On the Democratic side, Rodriguez said he reached out to the candidates first and called Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). He said the Obama campaign was open to the idea of a conference call with Latino pastors, while Clinton has not yet responded.

Besides immigration, Latino evangelicals are pushing other social issues and seeking to broaden the evangelical agenda.

"The agenda of the evangelical church in America has been two-fold since 1973: It has been sanctity of life and traditional marriage…It's almost blasphemous to go beyond those two items," Rodriguez said.

"Now, the Hispanic evangelical comes along and says there are other items that we need to look at. What about alleviating poverty, from a biblical view? What about health care and education? What about speaking against torture? What about human rights?"

Although Latinos tend to oppose gay "marriage" and believe that abortion should be illegal – more than two-thirds of Latinos in America are Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestants make up another 15 percent of the population – they also feel pulled to vote more liberal on immigration and economic policies.

"There's no doubt Latinos in general, including Latino evangelicals, are more economically liberal," said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, to Christianity Today. An ideal candidate for this group might be a "big government social conservative," he noted.

Yet as Latino evangelicals continue to wrestle between their past and future loyalty, one thing that remains unchanged is the significance of this voting bloc.

"If the Republicans are able to recover support among Hispanic evangelicals, that could make them much more competitive," commented John Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, according to the Chicago Tribune. "On the other hand, if they can't recover that support, it might make it difficult to win."