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Among the Evangélicos

For Republicans reaching out to immigrant groups, a glimmer of hope: Protestant Hispanics are genuine swing voters.

Mar 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 27 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Marietta, Ga.
The 2004 presidential election was the Republican party’s high-water mark with Hispanic voters. George W. Bush received between 40 and 44 percent of the Hispanic vote that year. Bush lost Hispanic Catholics to John Kerry, but he overwhelmingly won Hispanic evangelicals, 69 percent to Kerry’s 29 percent.

Prayer

AP / Chris Richards / Arizona Daily Star

In 2008, the numbers changed dramatically. Barack Obama secured the votes of 74 percent of Hispanics, while John McCain won a paltry 22 percent, despite having been the GOP’s spokesman for comprehensive immigration reform. Sixty percent of Hispanic evangelicals supported Obama, and just 36 percent McCain. Four years later, Obama’s support among Hispanics dipped slightly, to 71 percent, but Mitt Romney received only 27 percent. An October 2012 Pew poll found that while 73 percent of Hispanic Catholics supported Obama, just 50 percent of Hispanic evangelicals did so, with 39 percent supporting Romney. Republicans have no reason to be happy about that small uptick, since their net loss with Hispanic evangelical voters over eight years was an abysmal 30 points. 

The truth is that in 2004, Bush won the popular vote by a little more than 3 million votes, which is nearly equal to his 40 percent share of the 7.6 million Hispanics who voted in 2004. Bush’s popular vote victory, the only one by a Republican since 1988, was due in no small part to his support from Hispanic evangelicals (about 15 percent of all Hispanics). They are the quintessential swing-voter group. If Republicans hope to gain a foothold with Hispanic voters—and start winning presidential elections again—they might want to begin by visiting Iglesia Misionera, a Spanish-language evangelical church in metro Atlanta.

As the first Sunday morning service ends, the doors of the church fly open and congregants spill out into the parking lot. It’s as if the tiny brick building has been generating a giant ball of evangelizing energy, which it has just released into the world in one celebratory burst. The crowd is overwhelmingly Hispanic (with a sprinkling of Anglo and black faces). People are shaking hands, embracing each other, offering blessings in Spanish and English. I’m greeted several times in Spanish with a hearty handshake and a smile. I have to wait several minutes before I can make it inside for the next service.

Inside the sanctuary, flags hang high on the walls: Argentina, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Cuba, Brazil. There’s also a large American flag prominently displayed behind the lectern. The members of this congregation were born or have roots in about 16 countries outside the United States, most of them in Central and South America. There’s one flag I don’t recognize, with three horizontal stripes (blue, red, blue) and the white silhouette of a Buddhist temple in the middle. 

“We have a family from Cambodia,” Pastor Arturo Venzor explains. “A lady married to a Mexican man. He doesn’t speak Cambodian. She doesn’t speak Spanish.”

Don’t let the flags fool you into thinking this is some sort of pan-national, United Nations-approved, hippy-dippy “spirituality” center. Iglesia Misionera is associated with the Assemblies of God, the largest federation of Pentecostal churches in the world. There’s not much talk about social justice or finding your inner peace. Here, God is numero uno. The focus is on fostering an individual’s relationship with Christ. Venzor and his ministers want to shepherd their flock toward a godly life. “Basically what we’re trying to do is to help, first of all, their spiritual life,” he says. “Guide them to know the Lord, Jesus Christ.”

But material charity is also an important part of the church’s mission. Iglesia Misionera is generous with its benevolence fund, usually using it to help families pay bills or afford groceries in tough times. The congregation wants the church to give those in need a hand up, not a handout. “Once you help someone, the news goes,” Venzor says. “People we don’t even know, people that you don’t know if they are really in need, come, and I said, ‘I’m sorry, we cannot help you.’ ” The church is small (fewer than 500 members), so its funds for charity are limited. 

On issues like abortion and gay marriage, the church takes an orthodox stand. “Most of the people that I know here at church, we have the same thinking about what the Bible says,” Venzor says. “So, because Assemblies of God believes homosexuality and lesbianism is against God’s law, everybody has the idea that that’s sinful.” He doesn’t preach the politics of these positions, but Venzor says he will often talk about the sacredness of life and the sanctity of Biblical marriage as the pillars of a strong Christian family.

Family is the axis around which Iglesia Misionera spins. On the wall in the hallway outside the sanctuary is a portrait of Venzor with his own family, his wife of 30 years and their five children. Families here range from empty- nester couples to newlyweds. There are plenty of nuclear families, though it’s common to see mothers with children in tow, their husbands at home or absent entirely. “Most women come by themselves, asking for prayers that their husbands can come with them,” Venzor says. “I’m glad most of their husbands don’t prohibit them from coming to church.”

Venzor says most of the congregants at Iglesia Misionera either are U.S.-born or have green cards, but there are definitely “undocumented” immigrants who worship there, too. 

“We don’t check, we don’t ask, even though we know for a fact, you know,” he says. “They know the risk being here.”

On the busy highway in front of the church, a police car sits in the center turn lane, ready to direct traffic before and after services. For a time, illegal immigrants were at heightened risk here in Cobb County. In 2006, the county commission approved a request from the sheriff to join a federal program to crack down on immigrants working and residing here illegally. Venzor remembers police stopping members of his church for driving without licenses, which led to deportation when the offender was an illegal immigrant. He can think of several men who were deported, along with two or three entire families who had to return to their home countries. Venzor talks about the struggle his church faces, wanting to open its doors wide but still uphold the law and have good relationships with the community and local government officials. Police officers, he says, often stop by to ask for prayers. 

In the sanctuary, I find a seat on the right side, and an usher hands me a radio device and headphones. There’s a Puerto Rican kid sitting in the balcony with a microphone, who’ll translate the sermon into English for the benefit of the few members who don’t speak Spanish. Apart from the translator, church officials stick to Spanish in the sanctuary.  

 

“Buenos días,” members greet me before the service begins. “Bienvenidos.”

“Hello,” I respond. Most often, they smile and reply in English. 

“Welcome.” 

There are some adult members who are bilingual, but several are recent arrivals and speak primarily Spanish. Their children, born or raised in the United States, often know English better than they know their parents’ Spanish. One church member, Felix Mercado, says he worries about the youth drifting away from God, as he says he did as a young man after moving to the United States from Puerto Rico. Mercado says he rediscovered his faith later in life, but “kids today” are becoming “Americanized.” For the older crowd here, Americanization translates into a loss in faith. The language and cultural gaps are evident when eight young teenage boys sit in the pew in front of mine, chatting before (and during) the service in English. One of the ushers comes by several times to hush them—in English.

Sunday morning service begins with four long, rocking worship songs. A black female cantor belts out lyrics in Spanish, which are projected onto screens on either side of the stage. Behind her, an amplified band jams, the bass shaking the building. Members dance and sing, raising their hands in the air and shouting “¡Aleluya!” By the end of the medley, there aren’t a lot of dry eyes, with men and women alike availing themselves of the boxes of tissues found throughout the church. Members then spend a good 10 minutes shaking hands and hugging and saying hello. Some walk up and down every aisle, stretching across pews to greet everyone. Throughout Pastor Venzor’s 30-minute sermon, spontaneous amens and alleluias echo off the sanctuary walls. Near the end of the service, members lay hands on the unsaved, praying loudly and speaking in tongues. Venzor calls the Spanish style of worship “expressive.”

“If they want to dance, they dance,” he says. “Raise their hands, shout, whatever. We don’t say, ‘Don’t do that.’ ” Emotional expression is characteristic of Hispanic Christianity, across denominations, and it is a defining feature of Christian renewalism, a movement within evangelicalism. Renewalism emphasizes the daily intercession of the Holy Spirit in the lives of men, and the movement has gained a foothold among Hispanic Christians. In fact, 90 percent of Hispanic converts to evangelical Christianity say they made the commitment out of a “desire for a more direct, personal experience of God.” 

Worship at Iglesia Misionera is an all-week, immersive experience. If devout members aren’t at work or in school, they’re likely here. There’s Bible study on Monday night, youth services on Tuesday night, a Wednesday night service, and a family service on Friday. “Thursday, everybody’s here, even though we don’t have service,” Venzor says. “Everybody’s practicing or doing something.”

There’s reason to believe that Hispanic immigrants who spend their time at churches like Iglesia Misionera are learning more than spiritual lessons—they’re learning how to be good Americans. Edwin Hernández, the director of the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame, has researched how Hispanic churches in America help their members build social capital—the stuff that makes an individual function well in civil society. Hernández cites fellow academics Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady, who found that Hispanic Protestants were more “civically engaged” than Hispanic Catholics because the “small, close-knit structure of most Protestant Latino communities encourages participation from a comparatively large share of its members in the kinds of activities that cultivate skills that can be transferred to civic life.”

One metric helpful for understanding “civic engagement” is volunteerism. A 2007 study coauthored by Hernández shows that religiously active Hispanics are more likely than religiously inactive Hispanics to volunteer, and they do so primarily with church or faith-based  groups. Also, Hispanic Protestants are more likely to volunteer than Hispanic Catholics, particularly at church or with religious groups. Hernández also found that those Hispanics who volunteer at church are more likely to volunteer in schools, tutoring programs, neighborhood groups, business organizations, community groups, and ethnic groups, even accounting for the fact that people in general who volunteer in one setting are more likely to volunteer elsewhere.

“Churches are a critical venue in which civic engagement is fostered among [Hispanics],” Hernández writes. “Our analysis indicates that the reason those who attend church regularly appear more likely to volunteer in their communities is because they are engaged as volunteers in their churches.”

Another Americanizing aspect of the evangelical church is the opportunities it offers for leadership. In contrast with traditional Catholicism, evangelicalism eschews hierarchy and distributes leadership roles across congregations. Anyone with a little commitment to the church can become a minister of some kind, leading the music department or teaching a Bible study or working with youth. Leadership requires learning basic civic skills: how to speak in front of an audience, execute a group mission, manage a budget, deal and negotiate with others.

Iglesia Misionera’s senior pastor exemplifies this. Born in Monterrey, Mexico, about 140 miles southwest of Laredo, Arturo Venzor moved to Houston as a teenager in 1978. In Mexico, his family was culturally Catholic, but he says they seldom went to church. Once in Texas, Venzor and his parents began attending a nondenominational church. In 1980, he moved to Dallas, where he met his wife, who is American-born of Mexican descent. They married in 1983, the year he says he “came to know the Lord,” and in a few years, he moved his young family to Georgia. The Venzors were among the first members of Iglesia Misionera; they began meeting in the first pastor’s living room in 1987. An active member over the years, Arturo eventually joined the full-time ministry. He was ordained in 2008, and an abrupt retirement the following year elevated him to the position of pastor. It was a two-decade spiritual journey, but along the way, he discovered American civic institutions.

“When I came here, this was my first time knowing about Assemblies of God,” Venzor says. “I didn’t know that you had to fill out an application for membership. I didn’t know about tithes. I was used to giving my tithes, but nobody knew except me. When I came here, they said, ‘You need to fill out an application and become a member so we can keep a record of your tithes. Fill out an envelope, that way we keep a record in case you want to be a deacon or something, so that we know you are helping with everything.’ ”

Evangelical churches instill in their members a strong sense of personal responsibility. Tied with a strict adherence to tithing is a culture of thriftiness. Be responsible with your money, give to the church, and let God take care of the rest, the idea goes. Hispanic immigrants to the United States suddenly find themselves with considerably more money and more freedom than in their home countries. Many are young men, separated from their wives and families so they can earn money to send back home. The evangelical church provides immigrants a moral anchor, teaching them self-care and assimilating these new Americans into a culture of citizenship.

There are about 52 million Hispanics living in the United States, and while the large majority of them—more than 67 percent—are Catholic, nearly 20 percent are Protestant. More specifically, 15 percent of Hispanics identify themselves as born-again or evangelical Protestants, and more than half of Hispanic Protestants describe themselves as charismatics or Pentecostals—catchall terms for those who practice renewalist Christianity. Only about 20 percent of non-Hispanic Protestants identify themselves this way. Even among Hispanic Catholics, 54 percent describe themselves as charismatics, while just about 10 percent of non-Hispanic Catholics do. 

 

All told, there are about 7.8 million Hispanic evangelical Protestants in the United States. They are more likely to be U.S.-born, more likely to speak English, more educated, and wealthier than their Catholic counterparts. They also attend church more often, are more likely to say that their religious beliefs are very important to their politics, and are more likely to vote Republican than Hispanic Catholics.

Most Hispanic evangelicals in the United States have Mexican roots, which isn’t surprising since most Hispanics in the United States have Mexican roots. But while 63 percent of Hispanics traced their origins to Mexico in 2007, only 50 percent of Hispanic evangelicals did. Just 12 percent of Mexican Americans are evangelical Protestants. Among Hispanic evangelicals, those with origins in Central American countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama have relatively high representation, making up 14 percent of the evangelical population but 9 percent of the total Hispanic population. Twenty-two percent of Central Americans in the United States are evangelicals.

Puerto Ricans make up a particularly outsized proportion of evangelicals: While only 9 percent of the total Hispanic population, they are 16 percent of the evangelical population, and 27 percent of Puerto Ricans on the mainland are evangelicals. Evangelicalism, particularly Pentecostalism, has a rich history in Puerto Rico, beginning with Juan L. Lugo’s mission to Puerto Rico on behalf of the Assemblies of God in 1916. Lugo established the Pentecostal Church of God of Puerto Rico in 1921, which split from the Assemblies of God in 1956. In 1929, Lugo traveled to New York to start the first Pentecostal church for the city’s nascent Puerto Rican community. In addition to Lugo’s Pentecostal Churches of God, both the Assemblies of God and the Iglesia Defensores de la Fe, founded by Juan Francisco Rodríguez Rivera in 1934, flourish today in Puerto Rico, as do other evangelical churches.

Samuel Rodriguez is one of those Puerto Rican evangelicals. The president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and the senior pastor at New Season Christian Worship Center near Sacramento, Rodriguez is considered a leader in the Hispanic evangelical movement. “The way that I phrase it is this,” he says. “A Hispanic Christian is what you get when you take Billy Graham and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., put them in a blender, and put salsa on top.” 

It may be crude, but it’s not exactly inaccurate. There are elements of both the white and black Protestant churches in Hispanic evangelicalism. Rodriguez defines the movement as having two communities, vertical and horizontal, that “reconcile” the Christian visions put forth by Graham and King. These dual identities have political and social implications as well. 

The vertical community, he says, links God, the church, the family, and the individual. As Rodriguez tells it, this is the element that places importance on the universal truths taught by Christ that unite the church: the sanctity of life, the primacy of the transcendent over the material, the need for personal salvation.

Like the members of Iglesia Misionera, Hispanic evangelicals are generally pro-life and espouse traditional family values, though as the country as a whole becomes more accepting of gay marriage, so do Hispanic evangelicals. In a 2006 Pew poll, for example, 86 percent of Hispanic evangelicals opposed gay marriage. This made them more conservative than Hispanic Catholics (52 percent opposed), non-Hispanic evangelicals (67 percent opposed), and the general public (56 percent opposed). And opinions on same-sex marriage have continued to change since then. In a more recent poll, from October 2012, 66 percent of Hispanic evangelicals said they were opposed to gay marriage, still far more than Hispanic Catholics (31 percent) and the general public (44 percent) but less than white evangelicals (76 percent).

On abortion, too, Hispanic evangelicals are conservative. In a 2005 poll, 77 percent said abortion should be illegal, more than Hispanic Catholics (54 percent) and non-Hispanic evangelicals (61 percent). And in a 2012 study of Hispanic congregations in the Chicago area, 64 percent of evangelicals and 71 percent of Pentecostals (treated as separate groups) said abortion is “never acceptable,” while an additional 34 percent and 27 percent, respectively, said abortion is acceptable “only under certain extreme circumstances.” Evangelicals and Pentecostals were significantly more conservative on the issue than Hispanics overall, 59 percent of whom said abortion is never acceptable and 39 percent of whom said it is acceptable only in extreme circumstances. It’s problematic to compare a 2007 national poll of Hispanic evangelicals with a more localized poll in 2012, but the point is this: On abortion and gay marriage, evangelicals continue to be the most conservative subgroup among Hispanics.

Rodriguez says the awakening of the Christian right during and since the era of Ronald Reagan has spoken to Hispanic evangelicals as well. They hear Republicans talking about life and traditional marriage and say, “That’s us.”

Except when they don’t. Enter Rodriguez’s horizontal community within Hispanic evangelicalism: the relationships among people, following Christ’s call to charity and love of neighbor. That may help explain, Rodriguez says, how Hispanic evangelicals have more liberal views on economics and the role of government. In 2007, 70 percent of Hispanic evangelicals said they favor government-guaranteed health insurance, indistinguishable from all Hispanics and higher than non-Hispanic evangelicals. Hispanic evangelicals are more likely than their non-Hispanic counterparts to say “poor people have hard lives due to lack of government services” (57 percent to 42 percent), although they are less likely to have that view than Hispanics overall (64 percent).

 

Two 2011 studies showed a particularly stark gulf between Hispanic evangelicals and white evangelicals on the issue of the size of government. While a majority of white evangelicals (71 percent to 20 percent) say they prefer a “smaller government providing fewer services” to a “bigger government providing more services,” Hispanic evangelicals flip those numbers: Seventy-six percent prefer a bigger government, with only 20 percent preferring a smaller government. On that question, Hispanic evangelicals are more in line with Hispanics in general, who overwhelmingly prefer bigger government.

As for party preference, the 2007 Pew poll found 37 percent of evangelical Hispanics identify themselves as Republicans and 32 percent as Democrats. This was the only faith group among Hispanics that preferred the GOP. Going beneath the topline numbers, country of origin also plays a large role in party identification among evangelicals. Fifty-two percent of Puerto Rican evangelicals identify as Democrats and only 18 percent as Republicans, while 19 percent are independents. Among all Hispanics, Puerto Ricans are one of the most Democratic groups (48 percent), trailing only Dominicans (50 percent) in their preference for the Democratic party. Puerto Ricans are also concentrated in the liberal northeastern states of New York and New Jersey, which suggests Puerto Rican affinity for the Democrats may have a regional ingredient. Puerto Ricans are also concentrated in South Florida, where the prominence of the heavily Republican Cuban-American establishment may influence their political affiliation, regardless of religious tradition. 

On the other hand, 47 percent of Mexican evangelicals are Republicans, and only 24 percent are Democrats, with 19 percent identifying as independents, even though only 14 percent of Mexican Catholics and 19 percent of Mexicans in general are Republicans. South American evangelicals, taken as a whole, are split, with 38 percent supporting the GOP, 33 percent supporting the Democrats, and 24 percent identifying as independents.

Immigration complicates this simple picture. Twenty-five percent of Hispanic eligible voters are naturalized citizens, born in other countries. The remaining three-quarters are the children or grandchildren of immigrants, and many have family or friends who are recent immigrants. While Hispanic evangelicals are more likely to be U.S.-born than Hispanic Catholics (46 percent versus 32 percent), they are not as likely to be U.S.-born as mainline Protestants of Hispanic background (65 percent). The Hispanic evangelical population is made up mostly of immigrants, some in the United States legally and many here illegally.

In his church, Venzor says there are both Republicans and Democrats, so he doesn’t like to talk about politics from the pulpit. But he knows his members discussed Mitt Romney’s much-ridiculed advice during the campaign that illegal immigrants should “self-deport,” as well as Barack Obama’s failed promises to address immigration reform in his first term. Venzor says they don’t care which party solves the problems of a byzantine immigration system as long as Washington comes up with a solution that helps a community that is straddling the line of legality. In 2007, according to Pew, Hispanic evangelicals were nearly split on which party could “do a better job of dealing with immigration,” with 36 percent choosing the Republicans and 38 percent choosing the Democrats. Evangelicals gave higher marks to the GOP on the issue than any other group; just 22 percent of Hispanics overall preferred Republicans to deal with immigration and 49 percent preferred the Democrats. Around one-fifth of Hispanics, including about that many evangelicals, said they believed neither party could find a solution.

Since the GOP’s drubbing in the 2012 presidential contest, Republicans have wondered if a more conciliatory platform on immigration could help them recapture the Hispanic votes they lost after 2004. The hardline image the GOP has cultivated, wittingly or not, hasn’t helped move Hispanics into the Republican column. But even if Republicans acquiesce to some kind of comprehensive immigration reform, the party will still have to deal with the reality that its more libertarian elements are unappealing to evangelicals, the Hispanic group with the most natural affinity for the GOP.

That’s no reason for Republicans to despair. Somewhere in the party’s long tradition, there are principles and policies that can attract a group that values family, community, and the church. A party that can win Hispanic evangelicals might be one that can combine pro-family tax policies, pro-growth economic policies, traditionalism on social issues, and a realistic immigration policy. And a little salsa on top couldn’t hurt.

Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard and a 2012 Robert Novak journalism fellow with the Phillips Foundation.

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