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.
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.