‘We need to make America Godly again’: The growing political influence of Latino evangelicals

Pastor Luis Cabrera has spent weeks traveling across Texas to meet with other Latinos in the faith community. He is preaching a different kind of gospel: Vote.

He hands out voter guides featuring “God-fearing” candidates to other pastors, leads them in prayer and talks about what they are allowed to do under their tax-exempt status, which bans them from engaging in any kind of political campaigning.

“We have been voiceless, we have been asleep, we have been lazy and so I just decided to do something about it,” said Cabrera, the senior pastor and founder of City Church Harlingen, an evangelical leaning church in South Texas.

When disaster hits, Latino pastors serve hot meals and clean debris. As the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the country, they helped people who could not afford to pay rent. With the midterm election only weeks away, more and more of them are stepping into the political battle for the so-called Latino vote.

Cabrera is part of a growing group of Latino faith leaders who are not shying away from politics anymore, claiming they grew frustrated over how the values and morals they preach have been lost to many people in America.

“I was tired of the condition of the nation and the church. I was seeing how everything was just shifting and I saw the evil in this land,” Cabrera said.

Latino Protestant churches surfaced as a key organizing space since the 2020 election when then-President Donald Trump did considerably better in some Hispanic areas than he did in 2016. In the weeks ahead of the midterm elections, some of its leaders held voter registration events and made appearances in political events putting in evidence the potential of their political influence as the Hispanic electorate rises.

In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott is up for reelection and a new congressional map is expected to bolster the GOP’s majority, Cabrera’s goal is to get more Latino pastors and their parishioners involved in politics. For him, it all started in the months ahead of the 2020 election when he talked about politics in one of his sermons and the positive response from thet community led him to organize nearly two dozen prayer circles, which he eventually took the “Trump train” events held at the time in the Rio Grande Valley.

“We don’t need to make America great again, we need to make America Godly again,” Cabrera recalls saying during that sermon in 2020.

But contrary to White faith voters, Latino faith voters are not synonymous with Republican. Much like the overall bloc of Latino voters, neither party appears to have a monopoly on Latino faith voters who identify as Protestant. An estimated 42% of Hispanic Protestants identify as independent, 33% as Democrat and 20% as Republican, PRRI data shows.

In the last decades, Latinos have experienced a religion shift with many leaving the Catholic Church. Once a majority, only half of US Hispanics identified as Catholic in 2020, according to data by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute.

The number of those who identify as Protestants reached an estimated 24% in the same year, the data shows, which equals to about 4% of the total US population.

Pastor Manuel Mendoza of Iglesia Bautista Nuevo Amanecer in Greenville, South Carolina, says many of the families joining his community converted at some point, including many who are the first in their family lineage to become evangelicals. In Arizona, where most of his family still resides, Mendoza says there are four or more generations of Latinos who are Christians.

‘Vote your faith,’ Evangelical pastors say

Latino protestants and their congregations are a diverse and complex group. And yet, they are likelier to align with Republicans due to their largely conservative views and the messages many receive from faith leaders.

Cynthia Hernandez, a voter in Phoenix who identifies as evangelical, says people are quick to assume she’s Catholic and a Democrat because of her brown skin but she has never and never will be either of those.

“The core values that I believe in and the Bible teaches about, they just don’t support that (Democratic party) and I can’t support anything that goes against my faith,” Hernandez said at an event last month marking the launch of a Hispanic coalition in support of Blake Masters, the Republican Senate candidate from Arizona.

Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, a professor of religious studies at Azusa Pacific University and author of “Latino Pentecostal Identity,” said high-profile evangelical pastors and Spanish language religious podcasts are continuously spreading a message that “To be Christian means to be Republican.”

“They get fed things that tend to be very conservative, that tend to promote the idea of purity and the idea of converting other people, that morality in the United States has been lost and that it’s their duty as Christians to seek to regain it,” Sanchez-Walsh said.

And that message seems to be working. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that half of Latino evangelical Protestants who are registered to vote said they would vote for a Republican candidate for the US House of Representatives in the midterm elections, while 32% said they would vote for a Democratic candidate.

Nearly half of Latino evangelicals said they “very strongly” disapprove of the way President Joe Biden is handling his job, according to the same survey, and 55% said Trump should not remain a political figure.

Most Latino evangelicals insist they are not affiliated with any party but some of the most politically active faith leaders have been linked to the GOP in recent months.

Cabrera, the pastor in Harlingen, Texas, has advised Republican Rep. Mayra Flores, who won the special election for Texas’ 34th Congressional District in June, and let her use space in his church as campaign offices, he said.

“God, Family, Country” read the Flores’ campaign signs placed on the side of several roads in the Rio Grande Valley. In early October, the Republican National Committee hosted a prayer breakfast for Flores, Cassy Garcia, a former Ted Cruz aide who is running in the 28th District, and Monica De La Cruz, the Republican candidate for the Texas’s 15th Congressional District, who spoke about their faith and urged attendees to pray for them.

Joshua Navarrete, a Pentecostal pastor in Phoenix who is the senior faith director for the conservative Hispanic outreach organization Bienvenido, led a prayer at a Trump rally earlier this year in Prescott Valley, Arizona.

“How many of you know that it’s time for pastors and churches to rise up and get involved? That’s why I’m here this evening, ” Navarrete told attendees moments before delivering the prayer.

Navarrete says the group’s faith initiative has been working to help churches launch their civic ministry, which has translated into some organizing voter registration drives on campus.

“What we say is: you vote your faith. You vote what your Bible says, what biblical values and principles, all those things you’ve learned through your relationship with God. You take those things to the polls,” he said.

Bienvenido, which describes itself as non-partisan, recently co-hosted an event geared to Latino conservatives in Florida with America First Policy Institute, led by several ex-Trump administration officials who remain close to the former President. When asked about whether he leaned Republican, Navarrete said he has accepted invitations to pray and represent his faith at more Republican events than others, and explained that his beliefs “stand on the Bible, so wherever it lands up for me, that’s where I go.”

Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and a pastor of The Gathering Place in Orlando, Florida, is one of the evangelical leaders pushing back against the notion that Latino evangelicals are naturally Republicans.

For him, Latino evangelicals are the “quintessential swing voters” because they often “kind of thread the needle” when it comes to their top voting issues. They oppose abortion rights and want economic security, all while supporting immigration and criminal justice reform, he says.

“You could probably say most White evangelicals vote Republican, and most African American faith voters vote Democrat but you can’t say that about Latino evangelicals. It’s really a diverse vote,” Salguero said.

Salguero, who describes himself as an independent, delivered the prayer during the first night of the Democratic National Convention and was recently appointed to join the Department of Homeland Security’s faith-based security advisory council.

Ultimately, Sanchez-Walsh and some faith leaders agree that to understand Latino evangelical voters, Democrats and Republicans need to understand their theology as it dominates many aspects of their life, including how they present themselves to the world and their politics.

It’s something that it feels like Democrats are often catching up, Salguero said.

Influence of Latino churches goes beyond elections

There is a long history of Latino faith leaders using their influence and resources far beyond church walls.

In 1940, the Rev. Leoncia Rosado Rousseau, who many knew as Mama Leo, founded a Pentecostal church in New York City and later became a pioneer for advocating for the rights of sex workers and the creation of drug rehabilitation programs.

More recently, Latino churches organized fundraisers and some even dipped into their budgets to help people pay rent when Covid-19 struck and many lost jobs. When patriarchs and matriarchs died of Covid-19 complications, churches held services and helped pick up medicines or groceries for the surviving family members, said Robert Chao Romero, a historian at UCLA and author of the “Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity.”

Chao Romero says Latino churches are quick and effective to mobilize when crises hit but they are often overlooked as a key part of the social safety net and struggle to get funding to support their initiatives.

“Latino churches are proximate to the pain of the community; Latino churches are often first responders in moments of crisis and Latino churches are active agents of change,” Chao Romero said.

Mendoza, the pastor in Greenville, South Carolina, first started attending events in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA, a few years ago after seeing more Latino families settling in the city and seeing their children struggle trying to find a way to attend college.

“It burned my heart, my conscience and my soul to know that these kids who’ve grown up more American than Salvadoran wanted to go to college and were facing roadblocks just because of policies,” Mendoza said.

Earlier this year, Mendoza traveled to Washington, DC, with members of the National Association of Evangelicals to speak with House and Senate members and advocate for bipartisan cooperation on immigration reform.

Mendoza plans to continue advocating for his community but says that as a Latino and evangelical, he doesn’t want to be seen as affiliated with one party. He feels politically homeless, he says, because neither political party aligns completely with his beliefs.

“Anybody who knows the Bible is able to prove that this is a fallen world and that governments are run by fallen people,” Mendoza said.

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