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Evangelicals may be holy grail of Latino vote

The shift from Catholicism to more socially conservative churches is fueling a wave of activism among Hispanic voters

Religion, Spirituality & Ethics
Catholic Church

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series examining the Latino vote in the 2014 elections. Part 1, published Monday, looks at the wave of Latino millennials coming of voting age who are proving to be a tough group for political campaigns to target. The final part, to be published Friday, explores the impact of the older Latino vote, both newly naturalized and longtime citizens.

LOS ANGELES — The old movie theater on West Adams Boulevard in a historic district that was the hub of black wealth in the ’40s and ’50s hasn’t screened a film in decades. But some days, there are bigger crowds milling about under the marquee than during its heyday.

On a recent Friday evening, cars were double-parked in a large lot that wraps around the side and back of the two-story building. Hundreds of grandparents and toddlers, couples and singles poured in, some stopping for food and drinks in the café next door. Men in suits and others in jeans, women in high heels and others in sneakers, older women in shawls, boys in buttoned-up shirts and young men in trendy skinny pants shook hands in the lobby and greeted each other in Spanish.

Inside, the music was loud, the atmosphere raucous and the crowd emotional. They often stood. There was singing, crying and raising of hands high in the air. On the stage, the pastor’s son spoke passionately in Spanish about life’s ups and downs. A band played, and all of it was simulcast on a big screen.

This was the Friday night service at Iglesias de Restauracion, an evangelical church that has more than 3,000 Latino members. As the midterm elections approach, church volunteers will hold voter registration drives and information sessions. Issues of concern to Latinos will work their way into sermons and group discussions.

“From the pulpit, we’ve talked about what’s really going to change the reality is the vote,” said Pastor René F. Molina, who estimates that 60 percent of his congregation is undocumented but that a third of those here legally are U.S. citizens. “We’ve been seeing an increase in the interest to vote in the last decade.”

Pastor Rene F. Molina preaches to the congregation at Iglesias de Restauracion in Los Angeles.
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Molina, an immigrant from El Salvador, founded his church in 1986 with just 30 members. He was here illegally before becoming a citizen in 1995.

“There was a time when it was thought Christians were Republicans,” he said in Spanish while his son, René J. Molina, who runs a youth ministry at the church, translated. “There are some independents, some Democrats.”

After years of keeping politics at arm’s length from the pulpit, there has been an exodus of Latinos from the Catholic Church who join the more politically vocal and socially conservative evangelical movement. This religious shift is fueling a powerful wave of activism that political organizations are paying close attention to, because it is complicating their courtship of Latino voters.

The surge in Latino evangelicals has been “a watershed moment,” said the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, pastor of the Lamb’s Church in New York City and president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. “In 2012, both conventions reached out to Hispanic evangelicals, because we’re the quintessential swing voters.”

Indeed. This religious upheaval could have a significant impact on the all-important Latino vote and poses a challenge for both Democrats and Republicans.


Areas with large Latino populations have trended Democratic, turning states such as Nevada from swing states to blue-leaning. Now Republicans view the rise of Hispanic evangelicals as an opportunity to capture the hearts and minds of more conservative Latinos on moral values issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

But Latino Decisions, a political-opinion research firm, found that “moral values and religion are not defining issues per se for Latino voters.” The headline on a recent post on its website warned: Republicans should look for a new playbook to win Latino evangelicals.

“On the issues most salient to Latinos, such as immigration, there are no differences between Latino Catholics and those who are evangelicals,” their research showed.

A 2012 election eve poll showed that the experiences and attitudes of Catholics and born-again Christians are similar when it comes to immigration, but evangelicals are slightly more likely to vote Republican if the candidate supports comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“The Hispanic evangelical community creates a great opportunity for political dialogue in America,” Salguero said. “I don’t think everyone in America is extreme left or right. We have no interest in demonizing people who disagree with us. We’re Hispanic and we’re evangelicals. People don’t know what to do with us, and we’re OK with that … This way, no party can take us for granted.”

And no party should.

Members of Molina’s congregation greet each other. As midterm elections approach, church volunteers will hold voter registration drives, and Latino political issues will work their way into sermons and group discussions.
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The growing number of Latino evangelicals are proving that they, like most Latinos, cannot be neatly categorized.

“It’s very difficult to find a candidate who meets the standards and beliefs of the whole country,” said Rosy Romero, 41, a kindergarten teacher in nearby Culver City and a member of Iglesias De Restauracion who voted for President Barack Obama. She came to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1984 and became a citizen in 1995.

“I cannot forget what my status was,” said Romero, who was raised Catholic. “My family came hoping for a better tomorrow.”

She may support a candidate’s stance on immigration but not on social issues and is resigned to making a choice.

“My goal is to listen and to read about the candidates,” she said. “The reality is I will not find a candidate that fits all.”

A recent survey by Pew Research Center showed that the share of Latinos who are Catholic dropped an astounding 12 percentage points — from 67 to 55 percent — in just the past four years.

And more than three-quarters of Latino adults surveyed were raised Catholic. Besides the 55 percent who currently describe themselves as Catholic, the rest are split: 22 percent evangelical or mainline Protestant and 18 percent unaffiliated.

There are more Latino evangelicals in the U.S. than the combined total number of Jews, Muslims, Episcopalians and Presbyterians of any race and ethnicity, according to research and surveys.

And the Public Religion Research Institute, which studies Hispanic values, found that 7 percent of Latinos were raised as evangelicals; among those ages 18 to 29, the figure is 10 percent. Cubans and Puerto Ricans are more likely to identify as evangelicals than other Latinos are, said Juhem Navarro-Rivera, research associate for the nonprofit institute. In Florida, a state with a large Cuban and Puerto Rican population, 20 percent of Latinos are evangelicals.

The prayers at at Iglesias de Restauracion are boisterous and emotional.
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Hispanic evangelicals — many of whom are Pentecostal or charismatic Protestants — report higher rates of church attendance than Hispanic Catholics and tend to be more engaged in other religious activities, including Scripture reading, Bible study groups and sharing their faith. About 30 percent identify or lean Republican, compared with 21 percent of Catholic Hispanics.

“We’re very active civically,” Salguero said. “We’re registering young Hispanics to vote. We train them to use their voice in the public sphere. We don’t endorse political candidates, but we do get behind issues based on our convictions.”

While evangelicals are more likely to oppose same-sex marriage and abortion rights than Catholics are, they share common ground on one key policy that could persuade them to cross party lines.

“Latino evangelicals and Latino Catholics are on the same page on the immigration issue,” said Navarro-Rivera. “Three-quarters of both groups support immigration reform.”

Latino evangelicals have been instrumental in organizing immigration rallies and meetings with elected officials.

Polls show that in 2012, Latino voters put jobs and immigration reform at the top of their concerns, said Loren McArthur, deputy director of civic engagement for the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group. “While there are partisan differences, there is a shared important priority,” he said. “There is a common identity in the Latino community … When the issue of immigration becomes very visible, there is a sense of the community feeling threatened.”

In May, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue said the Republican Party “shouldn’t bother to run a candidate in 2016” unless it can pass immigration reform. Politico reported that the Chamber of Commerce would “put a lot more” heat on congressional members who are resisting.

Cristian Garcia, 23, a computer engineering student at Santa Monica College and a member of Molina’s church, remembers when men sat in church on one side and women on the other, when women weren’t permitted to wear pants to church and when only men could preach.

As the membership got older, Molina saw that in order to bring young people into the fold, the church had to modernize its thinking. The dress code is gone. His wife, Hanelory, preaches. Hymns were replaced by Christian rock.

Some members were not pleased with the changes and left. But membership is growing again, energized by young people such as Yessenia Toribio, 22, of Huntington Park, who came from Mexico at age 3 and has been undocumented until now. She just received her Social Security card and a work permit under Obama’s program that gives certain rights to children of undocumented parents if they have been in the U.S. most of their lives.

“The pastor does give us his point of view and talks about voting, the pros and cons, and we decide what it is that we want,” Toribio said.

Latinos outnumber African-Americans but lag in political clout largely because the church is not galvanizing voters enough, said Arturo Ybarra, cofounder of the Watts/Century Latino Organization, a nonprofit that promotes civic action and community engagement.

“The role churches have played historically is enormous,” he said, pointing out the legacy of the civil rights movement in America, which was led by black ministers.

“The vast majority of Latinos in the U.S. are Mexicans, and for them, church and politics don’t mix,” said Fernando Guerra, professor of political science and Chicana/o studies at Loyola Marymount University.

“Once they are here, the vast majority of Catholic churches are led by and have pastors who are not Latino,” he said. “Many of them don’t speak Spanish … It’s beginning to change with evangelicals.”

The Latino evangelical community continues to grow as members leave the Catholic Church in favor of churches like Iglesias de Restauracion.
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But they still represent a small fraction and are “no comparison with the black experience and the Baptist church,” Guerra said. “One advantage that Latinos have that African-Americans don’t have is Spanish-language television. Blacks don’t have anything comparable to Univision.”

The Rev. Walter Contreras of the Free Methodist Church in Lake Elsinore is vice president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. His Facebook page is filled with photos of immigration-reform rallies, meetings on Capitol Hill and messages such as “Don’t let [Republican U.S. Sen. Marco] Rubio backpedal from immigration reform. Call your senator …”

“Evangelicals and Catholics have come together, and we have united ourselves on issues that have to do with immigration,” he said. “A lot of independent denominations that fall into the Pentecostal movement have awakened a revival of civic engagement that comes from a sincere response to the fact that we need to speak the truth to people in government.”

The conservative base is focused on opposing gay rights and abortion, but “there are a lot of other issues we [religious Latinos] care about,” Contreras said. “It comes down to really caring about Latinos. If you don’t have a position on immigration reform, you’re going to have Latinos voting for people who represent them well. It’s going to happen.”

A member listens at Molina’s service. In a recent Pew Research Center study, 55 percent of Latinos described themselves as Catholic, 22 percent evangelical or mainline Protestant and 18 percent unaffiliated.
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