As I walked into the Crowne Plaza hotel outside of Houston, Texas in April, it was hard not to confuse my surroundings for an archetypal white evangelical Christian convention. Once I made it past countless booths peddling Bible software and anti-abortion pamphlets, I slipped into a darkly-lit banquet hall, where the guitarist of a lively rock band was hitting the first power chords of rousing spiritual anthem. As the singer, illuminated by glaring spotlights, stepped up to the microphone, thousands of hands were suddenly lifted into the air, rocking in time with the music. Beside me, a man swayed back and forth in the classic fashion of American evangelicals: eyes closed, hands clasped together, head tilted back in rapturous prayer. As I watched, he spread his arms wide, smiled, and began to sing.
But while the tune — “Trading My Sorrows” — would be familiar in many historically white American megachurches, the words, projected on two screens flanking the performers, were distinctly different: “Aunque triste en al noche yo este / El gozo viene en la mañana / Sí Señor, sí, sí Señor!” he sang, repeating the last line over and over again before shouting “Amen!”
The man was joined by a chorus of 1,000 or so attendees at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) board convention, an annual event convened earlier this year in Texas. They collectively represent a small portion of America’s several million Hispanic evangelicals, sometimes called “evangélicos” — a theologically conservative, politically complicated, but rapidly-expanding population of Latinos who call evangelicalism their spiritual home.
Much has been written over the past year or so about the ecstatic faith and explosive growth of this new brand of Latino faithful, who unsettle traditional understandings of American Hispanics as a predominantly Catholic demographic. But as the United States gears up for the 2016 presidential election, Hispanic evangelicals appear to be making that classic American shift from curious cultural newcomer to powerful political force.
If attendees at the conference in Houston were to be believed, Hispanic evangelicals are eager to vote, and in substantial numbers. Yet unlike Hispanic Catholics, who overwhelmingly reflect the Democratic party platform on several key issues, Latino evangelicals share political sensibilities with both parties. This has made their voting habits increasingly uncertain, meaning the group could become that much-prized unicorn of American politics: the swing vote.
The 2016 election may be the “coming out” year for the Latino evangelicals, but as candidates and parties — and particularly the GOP — begin jockeying for this unusual electorate, one question is lingering in the minds of political strategists on both sides of the aisle: Who will win the “evangélicos vote”?
Hispanic evangelicals share more than worship styles with their white theological brethren. Following in the tradition of Billy Graham and Rick Warren, evangélicos are primarily represented outside their community by a small group of dynamic pastors, most of whom enjoy robust followings and the political power that comes with it.
Election buzzwords such as “left” and “right” are always poor descriptors for theological camps, but a casual observer could potentially label the movement’s more progressive leaders as Rev. Gabriel Salguero, a pastor and president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NaLEC), and Rev. Luis Cortés Jr., the head of Esperanza, a faith-based Hispanic evangelical network of more than 13,000 congregations. Both men enjoy theological and political clout among Democrats, and the most tangible example of their influence — like many faith leaders — lies in where they pray: Salguero delivered an invocation at the Democratic National Convention in 2012, and Cortés offered the opening prayer at President Obama’s inauguration luncheon in 2013.
Meanwhile, the largest — and arguably most conservative — group of Latino evangelicals is the NHCLC, led by Rev. Samuel Rodriguez. An energetic and media-savvy pastor born in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez is often associated with the Republican party: The NHCLC conference, for instance, included speeches from two GOP presidential hopefuls — former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida — which makes sense when one realizes that Rodriguez delivered the benediction at the 2012 Republican National Convention, where he was introduced by none other than RNC chairman Reince Priebus. His organization has grown steadily over the past few years, now boasting over 40,000 affiliated congregations in the U.S., an eye-catching number that has spurred Rodriguez to begin throwing his political weight around among conservatives. In January, he published an op-ed boldly entitled “Hispanic Evangelicals could determine GOP nominee” aimed at attracting the attention of Republican presidential hopefuls.
“Based on the performance on display in Iowa last weekend by several of the Republican presidential hopefuls, none of them seem to be paying attention to what could deliver the keys to the front door of the White House: Latino voters,” Rodriguez wrote, pointing to immigration and education as crucial issues for his member congregations. “The Hispanic faith community will be listening closely to where candidates stand on reforms that align with the word of God and respect the dignity of all his people.”
Despite Rodriguez’s eagerness to influence the GOP primary, however, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him as singularly dedicated to either party: He has served on White House committees under President Barack Obama.
His fellow faith leaders have similarly mixed political histories. Cortés has identified as a Republican in the past, and his organization’s annual National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast regularly features speakers from both parties — including President George W. Bush, who keynoted the event on six occasions. Salguero, meanwhile, can eagerly recount instances when presidential contenders from both parties have courted his favor.
“I have met with Chris Christie, Jeb Bush … former Secretary Clinton’s people,” Salguero told ThinkProgress. “We are the quintessential swing voter in many ways.”
But even as Hispanic evangelicals begin to flex their political muscles, assessing their true electoral power is tricky, in part because exact estimates of their budding population are hard to come by. The U.S. census does not include questions about religion, so the best guess for their population size comes from a 2014 Pew study that listed them as roughly 16 percent of the nation’s 35.4 million Latino adults. That amounts to an estimated 5 to 6 million voting-aged worshippers, and the real number could be even higher: Rodriguez has claimed that there are 16 million Hispanic evangelicals in the U.S., and the NHCLC says that evangélicos make up about 20 percent of Latinos overall.
That’s a sizable body politic by any measure. And it’s one that only continues to grow, as more and more Latinos abandon Catholic cathedrals in droves for rock-music-filled worship halls — or, in some cases, immigrate to the United States from existing evangelical communities in Central and South America. Assuming high voter turnout and a healthy registration rate (two things that are admittedly difficult to quantify at this early stage), there could be roughly enough evangélicos to tip the scales by as much as a percentage point in a national election, if they voted as a bloc.
One percent may not sound like much, but that portion of the electorate can have a big effect. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan all won (or lost) the popular vote in presidential elections by two points or less.
And more importantly for election strategists, according to Salguero, is the fact that evangélicos are clustered in states critical to the 2016 Electoral College tally. “We are big in key swing states: Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Cleveland, Cincinnati…North Carolina — we have a radio station there,” Salguero said. “We’re also big in Texas, Arizona — we’re big in the ‘purple’ states.”
Unlike their Catholic compatriots, Hispanic evangelicals tend to skew to the right on several issues that line up squarely with the Republican base, according to data provided to ThinkProgress from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). Evangélicos roughly mirror Hispanic Catholics in terms of age and education, but PRRI’s polling showed Latino evangelicals far more likely than the general Latino population to “oppose” or “strongly oppose” legalizing same-sex marriage (66 percent vs. 36 percent) and to say that abortion should be illegal in all instances (42 percent vs. 27 percent). The Pew Research survey found almost identical results.
Most significantly for Republicans, polls show that a solid slice of evangélicos are also uncharacteristically conservative on the most important question in American politics: Party identification. The PRRI survey reported that 21 percent of Hispanic evangelicals say they’re Republicans, a full 10 percent more than the total Hispanic population. (For context, most evangélicos — 41 percent — identify as independents, while 28 affiliate with the Democratic Party.) Pew found an even bolder conservative streak: A full 30 percent of Hispanic evangelical Protestant respondents said they “identify or lean Republican,” compared to 20 percent of Latino Catholics.
These numbers have not gone unnoticed by the Republican Party. At the NHCLC conference, where there was only one Democratic congressman — Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois — and not a single Democratic candidate for president, it was clear the GOP has stepped up its outreach to the Hispanic evangelicals who appear to be primed to support them. Most mentions of the Obama were negative, with speakers repeatedly arraigning him for failing to do enough to protect “religious liberty.”
But Republican political strategists are aware that there’s one roadblock standing in the way.
After then-GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney only won 27 percent of the Hispanic vote during his failed attempt to win the 2012 election — whereas George W. Bush accrued a solid 44 percent of the same group in 2004 — the RNC conducted an internal review of their party to determine a new strategy. When the group published the results in 2013, researchers concluded that, when it comes to Hispanics, the answer is clear: Republicans need to steer clear of concepts such as “self-deportation” and rethink their stance on immigration reform.
“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” the report read. “It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies. … among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
Indeed, Hispanics overall consistently rank immigration as a top concern during elections, a tendency that is also generally true of Latino evangelicals: According to PRRI’s data, 64 percent of evangélicos support an immigration reform policy that would provide undocumented people a pathway to citizenship provided they meet certain requirements, compared to 66 percent of Latinos overall.
Salguero and Cortés have both made passionate pleas to lawmakers about the importance of immigration reform, and even as Rodriguez actively courted the favor of GOP candidates in Houston, he was unequivocal on the issue of immigration. He announced midway through the gathering a plan to ask all presidential hopefuls — Democrats and Republicans — to sign a pledge endorsing comprehensive immigration reform, invoking biblical language to drive his point home.
Republicans must cross the Jordan of immigration reform to step into the Promised Land of the Hispanic faith electorate.
“Republicans must cross the Jordan of immigration reform to step into the Promised Land of the Hispanic faith electorate,” Rodriguez said in response to a question from ThinkProgress at a press conference. He tapped the table with his hand for emphasis as he spoke, adding, “There’s a period there, not a comma. They must.”
Beatriz Mesquias, the president of Convención Bautista Hispana de Texas, or the Hispanic Baptist Convention, who attended the conference, echoed this view.
“I live on the border, in Harlingen, Texas, and I want to see more protection, but I also wish there were more immigrants who could become residents of the United States,” Mesquias said in Spanish. “I want a President who supports immigration reform, not because he or she is a Republican or Democrat, but because it’s the right thing for the nation.”
Clearly, the RNC’s advice hasn’t reversed every Republican’s resistance to immigration reform — but for Latino evangelicals, just one candidate might be enough.
At the gathering in Houston, Huckabee and Bush both offered rival addresses to the assembly, competing for the (very bright) spotlight among an eager clientele. Huckabee, like many Republican candidates, mostly ignored issues impacting undocumented people. But Bush, who is Catholic but whose wife is Hispanic, impressed by delivering a speech that appeared to be directly inspired by Rodriguez’s op-ed. Speaking partly in Spanish, he pushed for a better education system and outlined something that sounded suspiciously like a version of immigration reform.
“We have to fix a broken immigration system, and do it in short order,” he said, outlining a pathway to “earned legal status.”
“This country does not so well when people lurk in the shadows. This country does spectacularly well when everybody can pursue their God-given abilities,” he added.
Bush repeated and arguably expanded this idea while announcing his official campaign for the presidency on June 15. When a group of demonstrators interrupted his speech with a protest encouraging full citizenship for undocumented people instead of legal status, Bush departed from his prepared remarks, distancing himself from the president’s executive actions on the issue while simultaneously endorsing a version of immigration reform.
“The next president of the United States will pass meaningful immigration reform so that [problem] will be solved, not by executive order,” he said.
Rodriguez, for his part, returned the favor for Bush. In the lead-up to the conference, he all but endorsed a Bush candidacy in an interview with Bloomberg.
“I see hope in the candidacy of Governor Jeb Bush,” Rodriguez said. “I think Governor Bush gets it. He’s not pro-amnesty, but he knows we have to find a solution to the immigration issue in America. I have a great respect, an admiration toward Governor Bush for his exemplary leadership in Florida.”
I see hope in the candidacy of Governor Jeb Bush.
However — despite all of Bush’s policy-talk, linguistic prowess, and degree in Latin-American studies — it was Huckabee, the former Baptist minister and dyed-in-the-wool evangelical conservative, who stole the show in Houston. Huckabee’s warm reception was initially confusing, given that the onetime governor has a long history of opposing immigration reform. True to form, when ThinkProgress asked Huckabee in Houston whether he would sign NHCLC’s immigration pledge, he refused to answer, saying he hadn’t read it.
What happened next, however, offered a telling glimpse into the uncomfortable position occupied by right-leaning Hispanic evangelical leaders, who appear caught between a need to advocate for their community’s issues and a desire to win favor with the conservative elite. Rodriguez, sitting just inches from Huckabee when the question was asked, did not push for clarification regarding the former governor’s immigration stance or pressure him to sign the pledge. Instead, the otherwise spirited pastor — who spoke so passionately about immigration reform earlier that morning — simply stared at the table as Huckabee spoke. When the governor finished, Rodriguez abruptly exited the press conference, only returning several minutes later to help close the meeting.
Even if the winner of the GOP primary doesn’t shift on immigration reform, the party could cleave off a few Hispanic evangelical votes through old-fashioned faith outreach. Immigration was clearly a charged topic at the NHCLC gathering, but attendees were equally energized by Bush’s frank discussion of his own spiritual journey. When ThinkProgress asked Lisa, a young Hispanic evangelical who attended the conference, what she was looking for in a presidential candidate, she responded with an answer that was virtually indistinguishable from a rank-and-file white evangelical.
“Number one, their faith,” said Lisa, her two friends nodding in agreement beside her. “That they stand for the family, the husband and the wife … and that they continue to just hold the truth that the United States was founded on from the very beginning, and not to change or sway because other people’s beliefs are different.”
This is typical of Hispanic evangelicals. A May 2014 Pew survey showed a strong majority of evangelical Latinos (62 percent) believed firmly that the church should speak out on social issues, compared to 47 percent of Hispanics overall.
This certainly seemed true for Daisy Gonzalez, another young Hispanic evangelical at the conference from Del Rio, Texas, who gave Bush high marks for discussing education in his speech, but maintained that faith was paramount. “I don’t really look at the elephant or the donkey [when picking a candidate],” Gonzalez said, referencing the mascots of America’s two dominant political parties. “At first, I look at their foundation — their biblical foundation and their family foundation. The fact that [Bush] comes from a Christian family … is very important.”
If that quip about political symbols sounds smooth enough to be a catch-phrase, that’s because it is. It’s an oft-quoted line from Rodriguez, whose 2013 book The Lamb’s Agenda claims to posit a faith-led “third way” that bucks the rigid dichotomy of American politics.
I don’t really look at the elephant or the donkey [when picking a candidate].
In practice, however, Rodriguez’s understanding of the “lamb’s agenda” tracks closely with America’s political right-wing. One of the book’s forwards is written by Jim Daly, head of the conservative think tank Focus on the Family, and the chapter entitled “Not the Donkey, Not the Elephant, but the Lamb!” focuses largely on the moral shortcomings of the Democratic party: Rodriguez bemoans the progressive embrace of marriage equality and abortion rights, and while he celebrates Obama’s willingness to discuss his faith, he chastises the president for changing his position on same-sex marriage.
“Unless the Donkey reconciles with the Lamb, the Donkey may finish this century in the pony show of the politically obscure,” Rodriguez writes. By contrast, his vision for the future of the Republican party was practically glowing: “The Elephant will make significant advances if it intentionally goes forward with the justice mission of Lincoln and the moral optimism of Ronald Reagan.”
The Hispanic evangelical embrace of the GOP may well become a reality, but not without a lot of help. Salguero, the de-facto representative of the demographic’s left-wing, hinted that this ideological creep rightward has been bolstered by robust outreach efforts from conservatives. “I know there is a lot of money going into recruiting Hispanic evangelicals into a certain ideological camp. We should resist that,” he said. “One camp is ahead of the other in terms of outreach … I’m concerned that [we will be coopted] instead of developing the voting bloc for the 21st century, a fiercely independent voice that holds candidates accountable.”
Still, there is hope for Democrats. Hispanic evangelicals interviewed by ThinkProgress pushed back on the idea that either party has successfully “won” their vote. Salguero insisted Republicans still have to cross the “rubicon” of immigration — as well as education and criminal justice — noting, “it would be a political miscalculation to assume that Latino evangelicals don’t remember voting records — after you leave the room, we visit your website.” He drew connections between Hispanic evangelicals and African Americans, pointing out that evangélicos organizations were among the first to come out against death penalty, adding, “We marched with African American communities on criminal justice reform, community policing.”
And Salguero also noted that, although political leaders on the Left have a lot of ground to make up if they expect to hold onto evangélicos votes in the event of a pro-immigration Republican candidate, they can start with a renewed effort to engage with religion. He emphasized that progressives need to take seriously the conservative concerns of religious liberty, a sentiment shared by Rodriguez and Cortés.
On the Democratic side, they have to cross issues of religious freedom, mustering a serious outreach to faith
“On the Democratic side, they have to cross issues of religious freedom, mustering a serious outreach to faith,” he said. “[They need to address] international affairs, such as protecting Christians and religious minorities abroad.”
Of course, it’s unclear if simply appealing to religion will be enough for Democrats to win over the Hispanic population as whole. The faith world is not a monolith, and fundamentalist pastors regularly upbraid progressive Christians, dismissing their deeply theological support for liberal policies as misguided at best and heretical at worst. Yet at the NHCLC conference, where great effort was put into making every presentation bilingual, it was ultimately God-talk — not English or Spanish — that emerged as the lingua franca. Nowhere was this more evident than during Huckabee’s speech: In a wide-ranging address that focused on religious liberty and opposition to same-sex marriage, Huckabee won over attendees by harping not on immigration or education, but on the room’s shared conviction.
“I do not come to you with the ability to speak Spanish,” Huckabee said, dropping into a preaching cadence. “But … I do speak a common language: I speak Jesus.”
Then, in what was objectively the loudest cheer of the conference, the assembled crowd — a smiling band of pastors, business leaders, and more than a few immigrants — roared with approval.
Only time will tell if their cries were that of Republican converts, Democratic revivalists, or something in between.