(Photo: Reuters/Eric Thayer)
Editors' Note: This is the final part of a three-part series on the greening of the Hispanic community's participation in national politics, brought to the forefront by a decision by progressive Democrats to push gay marriage equality into the national debate over immigration reform. The first article reports on an unprecedented coalition representing 30 million Hispanics of faith pressing to keep the issues separate, raising the specter of a break in Democratic party solidarity in the Hispanic community.
The second article explores controversy within the Hispanic community over gay rights, and the third analyzes faith trends among younger Hispanics that may lead to an erosion of lock-step support for Democrats in favor of more independent voting status for Hispanics.
The growing trend of young Hispanics becoming more religious – and Protestant – could portend a significant shift in voter demographics away from the Democratic party in the Hispanic community, according to Hispanic leaders. They argue that Protestant voters, particular those who describe themselves as "born again," are much less likely to be lock-step voters for Democrats, especially if the issue of immigration reform is resolved.
A Gallup poll recently released showed that not only is there an increase among Hispanic Catholics shifting to Protestantism, but that these new converts are shown to be markedly more religious than the number of those belonging to their former group. It was also found that the shift seems to have been occurring mostly among U.S. Hispanic Catholics 30 and younger.
"Overall, the finding that younger Hispanics are proportionately more Protestant and that all Hispanics are becoming proportionately more Protestant over time suggest that the percentage of Hispanics who are Catholic may continue to slip in the years to come. As noted, this will be particularly true if today's young Hispanics maintain their proportionally higher Protestant identification," wrote Gallup in the poll released Feb. 25.
Time magazine found that Gallup's results closely mirror those of polling service Latinobarómetro, which reports that in Latin America, the number of Catholic Hispanics has dwindled to 11 percent between 1996 and 2010, while evangelicals have grown to 9 percent – portraying a wider trend.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2012 population estimates, there were 313.9 million people living in the U.S., with 40 million of them being foreign born (13 percent of the total population). The latest figures indicate that 16.7 percent of the U.S. population is of Hispanic or Latino origin, and is the fastest-growing minority in the country.
The U.S. is home to about 75 million Catholics, with 47 percent of them, or just over 35 million, being Hispanics under the age of 40 (16 percent are 65 and older), according to the Pew Research Center. The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) that has more than 40,000 member churches, has estimated that 10-16 million Hispanics in the U.S. are either born-again or evangelical Christians – with many of them being converts from Catholicism.
While an estimated 24 million Latinos were eligible to vote in 2012 (16 percent of them evangelicals), only about half actually registered and an even smaller number showed up at the polls. Latinos of faith, said to be more socially conservative than most Americans, were nonetheless more supportive of Democrats during the 2012 elections. Although a growing number of Latinos view the GOP more favorably than the Democratic Party, 75 percent of registered Hispanic Catholics supported President Obama in November (compared to 21 percent for Romney), while just 50 percent of Hispanic evangelicals favored his re-election and 39 percent favored Romney.
Those numbers are troubling to Alfonzo Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles in Washington, D.C. The Roman Catholic activist told CP that after seeing how many of his fellow Hispanic believers voted for Obama, a pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage leader who "talks a great game on immigration but doesn't deliver," that he believes it is vital now more than ever for Latinos of faith to come forward and pressure elected officials to defend life, marriage and religious freedom.
Aguilar is hoping Latino voters, especially those of strong faith, will become much more independent of the Democratic party in the future.
"I think we recognized that for a long time that we've expected Republicans or Democrats to tell us what to do," he said. "We're the largest minority group in the country, the fastest growing [and] our communities of faith are big and vibrant and it's time for us to get involved and make ourselves be heard. Not only on immigration, but also on issues that are key to our way of life and our culture."
Catholicism to Evangelicalism
Rodriguez, in an interview with CP about the shift among Hispanic Catholics, was careful to draw a distinction between Protestantism and evangelicalism, although the two Christian streams hold much in common. However, the NHCLC's observations show that Hispanic Catholics sliding into Protestant pews are more likely to settle in among evangelical churches, mostly because they feel more at home.
"The reason why I distinguish between evangelicalism as a branch of Protestantism is because not too many Hispanics are converting to Presbyterian churches. When they convert, they usually convert to an evangelical church. The majority of Hispanic Christians who are non-Catholic in America are evangelical, according to Pew and according to Barna," Rodriguez explained.
"They convert and join these evangelical churches for a number of issues," he added. "Number one is a vertical issue, the issue of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Basically, you bypass the bureaucracy, you don't have to confess to a priest, you don't have to go through a bureaucratic sort of structure; you have a personal relationship with God through the Person of Jesus Christ – justification by faith.
"Then, on a horizontal level, there are a number of reasons…the Evangelical Church is culturally contextualized, which basically means you don't have to leave your culture at the door. The Evangelical Church accommodates, it customizes the worship and the way the message is delivered to enrich and to affirm your culture. ... In the Catholic Church, there's already the Latin, the collective culture that comes out of the Catholic Church out of Rome."
That culturally contextualized worship experience is attractive to many immigrants. "You go to a Salvadorian evangelical church – they speak your language, eat your food, play your music; you feel at home," Rodriguez added.
As for the future of the coalitions of conservative Christians, Hispanic evangelicals and Hispanic Catholics that have been forming to defend life and family issues, Rodriguez says he's hopeful and excited.
"I do believe that it's the beginning of a long fellowship. Not only do I affirm it, I celebrate it. I think it's wonderful that the Hispanic Catholics and Hispanic evangelicals are finally coming together, coalescing and advancing what I call the 'Lamb's agenda,'" he told CP.
"This is a collation that's not committed to advancing the agenda of the donkey or the elephant. It's a coalition committed to advancing the agenda of the Lamb. Because of our Christ-centered optics, I think it's a wonderful thing. Over 90 percent of Latinos are Christ-followers, either Catholic or Protestant Christians. You're talking about 9 out of 10 Hispanics in America working together hypothetically advancing the cause of righteousness and justice. I don't think it's going to end with immigration reform. I think you're going to see a coalition working together advancing life, recognizing the image of God in every human being, strengthening the family, alleviating poverty, dealing against inequality and injustice."
Increased pro-family activism is likely in the Catholic Church as well. Aguilar, citing the number of Latin Americans migrating to the U.S. who don't engage politically, said in a CP interview that Americans are called to be active citizens.
"If we roll over, we are going to see a country where churches are taken out of the public square, the rights of churches, Catholic and evangelical, being infringed on. We're going to be seeing same-sex marriage promoted as an alternative. We're going to see an aggressive push in schools to teach our kids from kindergarten on about homosexual behavior and gay marriage as an alternative, infringing on parental authority. We're going to continue to see policies that go after the unborn. That will lead to the breakdown of the society and our community. We have to get involved. The future and stability of the country is at stake and the preservation of our Judeo-Christian principles and traditions are at stake if we don't get involved," he said.