Summer 2010, Vol. 13, No. 1

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Spiritual politics blog

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
The Christian Coalition Revisited

Haiti Laid Low

Snatching Babies for Jesus

Singing Against the Rubble

The GOP’s Latino Problem

Anti-Gay Bill

The Word from Kampala’s Anglicans

Losing Patience with the Vatican

Death in the Sweat Lodge

Faith-Based 2.0

Letter to the Editor



The GOP's Latino Problem
by Juhem Navarro-Rivera

The conventional wisdom holds that Latinos in America are becoming less Catholic and more evangelical. Politically, that is supposed to mean less Democratic and more Republican.

In the past year, the wisdom has been purveyed at length by the Economist. Its July 18, 2009 number, “Separated Brothers: Latinos and Religion” argued that these Latinos are abandoning Catholicism because immigrants in particular find evangelical churches more culturally appealing. Not only are the services in Spanish, but they are also performed “with the cadences, rhythms, innuendos and flow familiar from the mother country.”

 Then, in the January 9 issue, “The power of America’s fastest-growing minority” noted with surprise the apparent growth in support for Democrats among Latinos, as evidenced by their crucial role in helping Barack Obama carry Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico in 2008. How could that have happened, when Latinos are “culturally conservative, strongly religious, family-oriented and with a long and distinguished tradition of service in America’s armed forces”? Aren’t Latinos increasingly evangelical, and therefore increasingly Republican?

The answer is no.

While it is true that the Catholic proportion of the Latino population has declined from 66 percent to 60 percent over the past two decades, the evangelical proportion has also declined, from 25 percent to 22 percent. And while the proportion of Latinos preferring the Democratic Party shrank from 41 percent to 35 percent, the proportion preferring the GOP dropped from 24 percent to 12 percent.

The numbers come from the 2008 Trinity American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), and were released in March in a report entitled U.S. Latino Religious Identification 1990-2008: Growth, Diversity and Transformation by Barry A. Kosmin, Ariela Keysar, and myself. In disproving the conventional wisdom, they beg a number of questions about what is really happening in the American Latino community, and why.

The first thing to bear in mind is that since 1990, the adult Latino population has more than doubled, from 15 million to 31 million. Of the 31 million, more than half were born outside of the United States. Given this growth, the actual number of Latino Catholics has almost doubled, from 10 million to 18 million, while the number of evangelicals—or, strictly speaking, non-Catholic Latino Christians—has increased too, at about the same rate, from 3.6 million to almost seven million.

Yet what of the six million Latinos who do not identify as Christians? Most of them (3.8 million) are Nones: those who when asked “What is your religion, if any?” answer “None.” (The balance belong to a non-Christian faith, decline to answer, or say they don’t know.)

As with the Nones in the rest of the American population, the proportion of Latino Nones has doubled since 1990. All in all, Trinity-ARIS shows that the major shift in Latino religious identification has been this growth among the Nones—up from six percent to 12 percent of the Latino population as a whole.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom as well, Trinity-ARIS suggests that U.S.-born Latinos are more likely to defect from Catholicism than recent immigrants. Indeed, monolingual Spanish-speaking Latinos are twice as likely to be Catholics as monolingual English-speaking Latinos: 66 percent versus 32 percent.

These findings suggest that it is not immigrants who are joining evangelical congregations because of a more “Latino” style of worship but rather second- and third-generation Latinos who are doing what a significant number of acculturated American Catholics have done since the 19th century: become Protestants.

Given the constant ratio (2.6:1) of Catholic to evangelical Latinos over the past two decades, how to explain the growing margin by which they prefer the Democratic Party?  If the entire Latino population is included, this growth in partisanship is modest, from a 17-point (41-24) Democratic advantage in 1990 to a 23-point one (35-12) in 2008. But considering only those who expressed a party preference, the gap doubled, from 26 points (63-37) to 50 points (75-25).

During this period, non-Catholic Latino Christians have divided their partisanship evenly—preferring Republicans over Democrats by just 33 percent to 32 percent in 1990 and 23 percent to 22 percent in 2008. By contrast, Latino Catholics have gone from preferring Democrats over Republicans by less than 2-to-1 to over 4-to-1 (in percentage terms, from 43-23 to 37-9). Meanwhile, among the Nones, the Democratic preference went from 2-1 to over 5-1 (32-16 to 41-8). In short, Latino evangelicals did nothing to offset the growth in Democratic partisanship among Catholics and Nones.

It is important to note that partisan preference has been shrinking in the Latino population generally. The proportion of those preferring either the Democratic Party or the GOP declined from 65 percent in 1990 to 47 percent in 2008. This was not the result of a growth in the proportion of self-described independents, which remained constant (27 percent to 28 percent).

Rather, it had to do with a threefold increase among those who declined to identify themselves politically at all—from eight percent to 25 percent of the Latino population. These almost certainly are new immigrants who have not had time to learn the American political system and place themselves within it.

What explains the marked shift away from the GOP among politically identified Latinos?

In part, this reflects the growth of the Nones, who regardless of race or ethnicity have become a solid Democratic voting bloc. It also has to do with the Republican Party’s embrace of anti-immigrant politics.

To be sure, George W. Bush made a good-faith effort to bring Latinos into the GOP fold, beginning as governor of Texas. Bush was personally popular among Texas Latinos, and as president sought comprehensive immigration reform. As a result, he won some 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004.

However, the rejection of his immigration plan by his own party pushed Latinos away, and in 2008, two-thirds voted for Barack Obama over John McCain, himself a rare congressional Republican sympathetic to comprehensive reform.

As of this year, just three of the 26 Latinos in the House of Representatives are Republicans—all of them Cuban-Americans from South Florida. The only Latino Republican in the Senate, Florida’s Mel Martinez, retired in 2009 before finishing his term. While GOP senatorial nominee Marco Rubio will restore this Latino seat if he wins in November, that would still leave Latino Republicans elected to national office confined to their Floridian stronghold.

Meanwhile, passage of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law in the spring has only confirmed Latinos’ sense that they are not welcome in the party of Lincoln. But even if they were—even if the GOP somehow did a U-Turn on immigration policy—it would face an uphill struggle demographically.

According to the 2010 Statistical Abstract produced by the U.S. Census Bureau, more than one-third of Latinos are under the age of 18—the highest proportion among the major ethnic and racial groups. Recent election results show young voters skewing towards the Democrats, and that tendency is even more pronounced in the Latino population.

Moreover, Trinity-ARIS found that young Latinos are more likely to be Nones than the rest of the Latino population, as likely to be Catholic, and less likely to be evangelical. So even if Republicans hold their own among young Latino evangelicals, this is a shrinking segment of the Latino population.

Finally, there remains that mostly new immigrant quarter of the population that can be expected to enter the political system in the coming years. Given that they are disproportionately young and Catholic, and in all likelihood Spanish-speaking, the odds of their emerging as Democrats rather than Republicans are very high.

Currently, among politically engaged Latinos, 47 percent prefer the Democratic Party and 16 percent, the GOP. Expect the gap to widen.


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