Praying For Votes

As more Latinos gravitate to evangelical churches, the upshot for Texas politics is anything but clear.
by Published on
photo by Matt Wright-Steel

At El Shaddai Pentecostal Church in Austin, the congregants believe in miracles and hard work. On a recent Wednesday night, the parking lot is packed with dozens of pickup trucks and cars. Inside, only around 70 people gather in the sparsely decorated chapel—white walls, a few fake plants, no crosses—while Adrian Alarcon preaches from the pulpit. A trio of musicians provides a soft-pop instrumental foundation to his rousing Spanish-language sermon. Alarcon is one of many volunteer preachers at the church, but he’s as fluid and earnest as a pro, his words of forgiveness, prayer and the importance of following la palabra becoming a fervent chant. Soon people begin silently prostrating themselves at his feet. He silently lays his hands on their heads while the band lays down a smooth backbeat.

After the service, I approach one of the pastors and ask why there are so many cars in the parking lot, yet few people in the pews. He informs me that most of the people at the church aren’t worshiping; there are another few dozen attending a youth group in the basement and still more taking English and computer lessons in a sprawling facility behind the chapel. Like many Hispanic evangelical churches, El Shaddai offers a one-stop shop to immigrants hungry for community and needing help navigating a new culture. Combine that with an appealing theology that emphasizes a direct connection with God and a service that promises to heal the sick, and it’s clear why evangelical churches are attracting Hispanics.

The Catholic priest and scholar Andrew Greely wrote about the trend in 1988, predicting that half of American Hispanics would leave the Catholic church in 25 years. If it weren’t for the influx of Catholic immigrants from Latin America and a high birthrate among Catholics, his prediction would almost have come to pass. According to a 2006 survey, around 20 percent of Hispanic Americans are Protestant, and 70 percent of those consider themselves born-again or evangelical. A 2000 survey showed that around one in three third-generation Hispanic Americans is Protestant. There aren’t data showing the number of Hispanic evangelicals in Texas. But assuming that national trends hold true, there are almost 2 million in Texas, and at least 750,000 of them are registered voters. Hispanic evangelicals already have the numbers to swing a statewide election.

This transformation has been happening gradually and largely under the radar, but it has the potential to upend many assumptions about how Hispanics will transform Texas politics over the coming generation. The conventional wisdom is that the Hispanic electorate, the so-called “sleeping giant,” will start voting en masse and sweep the Democrats back into power. Hispanic voters may not play along. According to a 2006 survey by the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanic evangelicals are twice as likely to identify as Republicans as Hispanic Catholics or mainline Protestants.

However, it would be a mistake to assume that Hispanic evangelicals will follow their Anglo brethren and join the Christian Right. For one reason, they are going to different churches. The vast majority of Hispanics, both Catholic and Protestant, attend churches with Hispanic clergy, Spanish-language services and mostly Hispanic congregations. Hispanic evangelical churches also tend to be more flexible than Catholic churches in how they worship, bringing in Spanish pop music, video screens, mariachi bands and whatever else it takes to make members feel at home.

“There’s two dynamics happening in evangelical churches,” says Paul Barton, director of Hispanic Church Studies at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin. “They provide a familiar space, with familiar music, food, language and people. But they also provide English classes and other services to help members function in society. The church both preserves the culture, [and] at the same time aids assimilation.”

At El Shaddai, many members are recent immigrants, so it’s not surprising that the ones I spoke with seemed removed from politics. Jimena Ibanez, a director at the El Shaddai school, told me that “we don’t talk politics, but we will pray for politicians.” Instead, people look to the church to meet basic needs. For example, many new-immigrant members lack health care, and the church provides free faith healing. It’s not hard to find people here who say they were cured by prayer. Church member Angel Martinez says that he used glasses for 15 years and needed them to see 30 feet across a room. “One day I went to the front of the church, started praying and put my hands in the air,” he says matter-of-factly. “I felt a burning in my eyes. I was driving home, took off my glasses and have been able to see without them ever since.”

Martinez is not just a member. He’s also the head computer teacher at the church school, the Escuela Superacion Personal. Around 25 volunteers here work to teach new immigrants English and the skills they need to get a better job—like how to write and e-mail a resume, use PowerPoint, or take advantage of social networking. Many students are women. Day care is provided. Students don’t have to join the church, but they have to commit to a 10-month program. They get a healthy dose of proselytizing along the way. “We work on spiritual recovery and healing,” says Ibanez. “We try to attract people who need help, whether it’s with addiction, divorce, domestic violence, or just lonely or depressed. We don’t just talk about God. We also help people. They need jobs, need to learn English.”

Evangelic churches are particularly tuned to the challenges facing Hispanic youth, something Catholic churches are incorporating as well. “Most Latino Protestant churches really target teenagers,” says Gastón Espinosa, a religious studies professor at Claremont-McKenna College in California. “They will have a dedicated youth pastor that works with at-risk youth. They focus on literacy and education, but also give them things to do, like dramas, skits, camps and retreats.”

The emphasis on counseling youth was the main factor that attracted 21-year-old Austinite Susanne Alsina to her nondenominational evangelic church. “At my church, around 200 youths get together once a week,” she says. “We go camping or to the movies, just like regular people. And then we have retreats where we really deal with things. People talk about being abused or raped or even having abortions. Some churches make you feel ashamed of your past, but we really peel back the onion and get to the root. If you don’t deal with your problems, they won’t go away.”

Ibanez and Martinez, like most Hispanics, grew up in Catholic families, but left the church for similar reasons. Martinez says he was Catholic because “dad and mom told me that’s just what we are. It wasn’t something I believed.” He became an evangelical in Mexico before coming to the United States. Ibanez converted after moving from Colombia. “Something inside me was crying,” says Ibanez. “Being Catholic wasn’t enough. Here it’s not just a religion. I know God is with me.” Both say their families have become evangelical, too.

Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, the head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, traces the boom in evangelical churches to the rise of democracy in Latin America, along with the rise in televangelism and a hunger for a more liberal, individualistic point of view. “The Roman Catholic Church was at times an accomplice to authoritarian regimes in Latin America,” says Rodriguez. “And it also has an authoritarian faith construct. It’s very difficult to become a leader in the Catholic church. Individuals are looking for freedom from hierarchy. In an evangelical church, you can ascend the structure and are expected to take on leadership roles. There are growth possibilities.” Evangelical churches also let women take leadership roles—at El Shaddai, the lead pastor is a woman, Marivel Reyes.

The result is a church that can feel like an extended family, providing comfort for immigrants who might be separated from much of their real family. The evangelical churches tend to be smaller than Catholic churches, with services that are often twice as long and full of music, personal testimonials, faith healing and speaking in tongues. “The experience is very appealing to Latinos,” says Espinosa. “We have a more experiential, oral culture. Latinos like to hang out and talk, go to the park with their families, and it’s the same thing, only now Latinos are doing those things with their church.”

 

The rapid emergence of Hispanic evangelicals challenges the assumption that Hispanics eventually will help bring the Democrats back to power in Texas. The party can still count on Hispanic Catholics, with 80 percent consistently voting Democratic, but Hispanic evangelicals are a wild card. In Texas, 75 percent of Texas Hispanics voted for Clinton in 1996. But Bush managed to attract 49 percent of their vote in 2004. Obama reversed the trend again, taking 63 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas. Bill White garnered 61 percent in the midterms. So although Hispanic evangelicals often identify as conservative, they have yet to swing decisively to one party or another.

“Latino Protestants are the most volatile swing vote there is,” says Espinosa. “They are very susceptible to canvassing. Bush did well because he understood the culture. He has people in his family that are Hispanic. He met with Mexican politicians, celebrated Hispanic heritage days and gave speeches in Spanish. That’s why he did so well.”

There’s no doubt that devout Hispanic Catholics and evangelicals are socially conservative. But despite the Republican focus on abortion and same-sex marriage, Hispanics voted Democratic—even the approximately 35 percent of those who self-identify as “conservative.” That’s because both Catholics and evangelicals tend to place liberal issues like universal health care, immigration reform and higher taxes for more social services at the top of their priorities.

“Hispanics are conservative on moral matters, but liberal on economic issues,” says Jessie Miranda, director of the Center for Urban Studies and Hispanic Leadership at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, Calif. “We still have an inferiority complex from being oppressed after the conquest of Latin America. Within the evangelical church, on issues like poverty and immigration, we are totally different from Anglo evangelicals.”

At the same time, Hispanic evangelicals are more likely to vote on social issues than Catholic Hispanics are. Rev. Rodriguez, who has advised politicians from Mike Huckabee to President Obama, says evangelicals tend to base votes more on a politician’s faith and character. “We are empowered by the Holy Spirit,” he says. “Moral character gives you the legitimacy to confront social issues. So it’s not enough to say, I’m doing good things for the poor, so I’m a good Christian. You have to be living right.”

It remains to be seen which party will claim the Hispanic evangelical vote. Though more Hispanic evangelicals identify as Republicans than as Catholics, they have yet to adopt the entire Republican agenda. And Republicans will almost certainly have to change their hard-line stance on immigration if they want to attract more Hispanic votes. “I resonate with the conservative movement,” says Rodriquez. “But there is a segment of the movement that wants to conserve a white majority. They believe that’s what makes America, America. My question is, do you want to conserve a skin color, or the words of Lincoln or Reagan?”

Immigration reform is a big reason that Hispanic evangelicals swung from Bush in 2004 to Obama in 2008. In Texas, Hispanics remain mostly Democratic, though a larger percentage—nearly 40 percent—supported Gov. Rick Perry this year than in 2002 or 2006. Political strategists of both major parties are trying to figure out how to attract the Hispanic evangelical swing vote. “My prediction,” says Rodriguez, “is that both parties will move to the center because of the Hispanic electorate.” In that scenario, Democrats would back off from supporting issues like gay marriage, which Rodriguez calls an attack on evangelicals’ “faith narrative.” And Republicans would back down from immigrant-bashing and support comprehensive immigration reform.

As the number of Hispanic evangelicals in Texas continues to grow, it could have a huge impact on who gets elected. However, while many white evangelic churches make no bones about getting involved in elections, Hispanic churches have not made politics a priority. At El Shaddai in Austin, the congregants made it clear that they were not interested in bringing politics into the chapel. “Churches don’t need politicians,” says Jimena Ibanez. “Politicians need godly principles. We don’t talk politics here. We pray. If God wants to elect someone, it will happen. We’re not going to do that by force.”

As the Hispanic community assimilates over the next generation, politicians will be fighting over its emerging political power. There’s evidence that Hispanic churchgoers would like more guidance from their churches on voting: The 2006 Pew survey found that more than half of Latinos said their churches should address political and social issues. So politicians could certainly tap Hispanic churches for votes. That power, however, will remain muted unless Hispanic evangelic pastors decide it’s time to bring God into the ballot box. When that happens, we shouldn’t expect either party to necessarily come out ahead. As the Rev. Rodriguez puts it, “We’re not committed to the donkey or the elephant. We’re committed to the lamb.”

Michael May is a former Observer managing editor. He’s now a freelance journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.