Religion and the 2004 Election

A Special Supplement to Religion in the News
Fall 2003

HISPANIC CATHOLICS                      
                                                 by Timothy Matovina

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Table of Contents

Special Section: Introduction

The New Religion Gap

Hispanic Catholics

Non-Hispanic Catholics

Evangelicals Inside the Beltway

Evangelicals Outside the Beltway

Mainline Protestants

African American Protestants


Arab Americans: Muslims and Others


















































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When trying to track the political involvement of Latino Catholics, the first place to look is in faith-based community organizations. There are at least 133 faith-based community organizations in this country, organizations whose primary members are not individuals, but religious congregations. Ostensibly, they're all interfaith. Many of them are dominated by largely Hispanic Catholic parishes or small black churches.

Perhaps two million people belong to the congregations that comprise these organizations. So they're grassroots organizing efforts that usually focus locally, but sometimes move into statewide and regional alliances with one another to pursue particular agendas. For Latino Catholics, these organizations are particularly important because they participate disproportionately in community organizations. More than 20 percent of the 3,500 congregations that belong to these 133 organizations are Latino congregations.

A significantly higher number participate in these organizations in cities and regions with large Latino populations. In cities like Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, San Antonio, El Paso, and Rio Grande Valley, Latino participation and leadership are larger and more conspicuous, and many of these are in key states for the election.

In Texas, about half the member congregations in faith-based community organizations are Hispanic Catholic parishes. It is not surprising then that the five states with the largest number of faith-based organizations are California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida.

There are several major professional organizing networks that train the organizers of these congregation-based community organizations. The Industrial Areas Foundation is, of course, the oldest, based in Chicago and growing out of the organizing work done by Saul Alinsky in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in the 1930s. The rest are more recent, including the Gamaliel Foundation, also in Chicago, and PICO, (the Pacific Institute for Community Organization), which is run by the Jesuit Fathers and based in Oakland

These national networks all contract with local organizations to provide professional organizers and leadership training. The local organizations remain autonomous, but the organizers build the regional networks.

Latinos are over-represented in all of these groups—among the professional organizers, the board members, and the leaders.

Why are these organizations effective? What is their appeal to Latinos? One thing—very important—is the attention to local needs and grassroots organizing. This is very different from the average story that I read in the newspapers about religion and public life or religion and politics.

This is not a national lobbying effort. This isn't the Catholic bishops or Jewish leaders lobbying on national issues and trying to sway opinions. Community organizing usually starts with someone trying to get a road paved or a streetlight put in, and from there may move on. To get things done, local groups have to look statewide and see how these things are being handled, rather than the national lobbying effort that we often see denominations engaging in.

For local folks, this makes all kinds of sense. They see the purpose of it. I remember the first time I got involved as a community organizer. The first issue was getting this road paved because a man had a heart attack and the ambulance that went to take him to the hospital got stuck in the mud. They called a tow truck to get the ambulance out, but it got stuck in the mud, too. The sons finally had to carry this man half a mile to a paved street so he could be taken to the hospital.

Afterwards, I went to visit the neighbors, and their perspective was: “Well, we've tried to do something about this before, and no one down there will listen to us.” When the community organization started to get going and that road was finally paved, all those people got involved. It was concrete; they saw something that worked.

Secondly, participants feel like they are heard. “People finally listened to us. We just met with Senator Dukakis or Senator Bentsen and told him what this neighborhood needs and we're treated with respect, not as someone asking for something.”

These organizations are supposed to be nonpartisan, focused on issues and not candidates and political parties. That's attractive to a lot of religious people. And these people usually don’t  like religion in politics. They see this as community development.

And, again, I think it provides a positive way of doing things for many people. It is the difference between charity work and working for social change. One of my favorite expressions that I have heard is,  “God is calling us to be meek, in the political sense, but God doesn't want us to be blubbering idiots.”

I think you're going to see, certainly in local elections, accountability sessions where they get the candidates to come, and they have a list of their issues. They’ll put up a big report card and say, “Okay. So and so is very important to us.” Someone will explain why it's important to the organization, the kind of legislation they’re going to ask for.

Another interesting item that might come up in this election is first-time voters. In California, in the 1990s, there was a citizenship effect of anti-immigrant efforts like California's Proposition 187. These faith-based organizations began what are called active citizenship campaigns to get people eligible to become citizens and to become voters. So, in the 2000 election, a number of people voted for the first time.

There are lots of Hispanics now. What difference does that make in terms of perception? How are people appealing to Hispanics voters? They all have to mumble a few words in Spanish. You have to say buenos dias or try to one-up your fellow candidates by being able to speak some Spanish.

Many Hispanic groups are conservative on family and sexual issues, but more liberal on the social programs. There’s not going to be a candidate from the major parties that fits Hispanic tendencies right down the middle, because if they're conservative on sexual issues, they tend not to have the same social program.  If they have the social program, they don't have the same type of approach on family and sexual issues. However, it's interesting to note that Bush got a lot of votes when he ran for governor in Texas. Hispanics apparently felt a certain attraction to his message, and they bought compassionate conservatism. They seemed to think it would fulfill their social needs and where they were in terms of family stuff.

My perception—a completely personal perception—is that Hispanics are motivated by personality. Very few Hispanics in my experience become one-issue voters. They go for a candidate they become personally attracted to. While that's true of all voters, my sense is that it takes on kind of a greater urgency with Latino voters. They feel this is someone they can trust or who is connected with them somehow. The Bush gubernatorial campaign was very effective, and they have already hired these people to do Spanish advertising for the presidential campaign. It's not so much an issue appeal, but a personal appeal to the Hispanics voters.

Bush’s faith-based initiative is unlikely to play well with these voters. The community organizers would be almost diametrically opposed to the whole idea. They, very consciously, are not about giving social services. They don't run soup kitchens. They train people to be actors, to bring religious values into the political sphere. A soup kitchen, they think, would be counter-productive to the whole effort.

Now, of course, if it benefited the community—a block grant, the HUD stuff—that's been going on for decades. They zero in on that money. That's the kind of government program they would be much more in tune with.

Much more information about these issues can be found in a study that has just come out, “Hispanic Churches in American Public Life.” It's a national study that shows how people voted in the elections.