The 2016 U.S. presidential election stunned many Americans. Even so-called experts–journalists, pollsters, and media talking heads–were left scratching their heads. How could their predictions have been so wrong? Amidst their post-mortem dissection of the election, pundits particularly expressed surprise in the seemingly mild response of Latino voters, the ones most affected by the inflammatory rhetoric of candidate Trump about immigration, trade with Mexico, and “the wall…a great wall– and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me.” Election preview articles and television shows held out hope for the Democratic candidate by referring to Latinos both as a “sleeping giant” within the American electorate and as Hillary Clinton’s “firewall” that would assure her victory. Yet exit polls revealed that Trump’s provocative comments failed to catalyze Democratic support among Latinos. In fact, Trump maintained roughly the same percentage of the Latino vote as Mitt Romney in 2012—while Clinton’s notably dropped from Barack Obama’s.[1] What happened?

Part of the answer reflects that Latinos in America should not be seen as culturally or politically uniform, especially since they are experiencing profound shifts. More specifically, the cultures and politics of Latinos have been influenced by the growing numbers of Protestants in their midst. Fully 22 percent of all Latinos in the United States are now Protestant. And that percentage is growing. Pew Research Center projects that by 2030 at least 50 percent of all Latinos will be Protestant.[2] Thus, to fully appreciate the heterogeneity of Latino-ism, it will be increasingly necessary to understand Latino Protestantism in America.

Latino Protestantism today stands out for its exceptional growth. We know that Christian leaders are concerned about the rise of the nonreligious (“nones”) in the United States. Yet, Latino Protestants are increasing even more rapidly, and church leaders may be taking their increased presence for granted. After all, denominational and congregational leaders are indeed seeing higher attendance of Latinos in their churches, supporting numerous Latino sub-congregations within their buildings, and watching the proliferation of Spanish-speaking congregations in their neighborhoods—many of which are sponsored by white-dominated organizations. More than just their numerical increase, though, Latino Protestants should be more intentionally recognized and supported because their faith matters deeply for them. One study reported that 85 percent of Latino evangelicals indicate that their religion is very important in daily life.[3] Such a high percentage becomes even more impressive when compared with other Christian groups (white evangelicals: 75 percent; Latino Catholics: 72 percent).[4] Simply said, faith matters more to Latino Protestants than it does to white evangelicals or Latino Catholics—perhaps due to conversion: many Latino Protestants are converts, and converts tend to be more zealous. Regardless, the saliency of their beliefs and behaviors has significance beyond mere church attendance; it permeates all aspects of their lives.

Although we can confidently report some characteristics that all Latino Protestants share, this must not be mistaken to mean that they are a homogeneous group. The work of the Latino Protestant Congregations (LPC) Project—a national ethnographic study—seeks to tease out this diversity.[5] It encompasses a range of congregations, from megachurches that pulsate with flashing lights and nightclub atmospheres to intimate lo-tech gatherings in basements that feature children playing instruments for worship. Some of these Latino Protestant congregations embrace Roman Catholicism as a source of comfort and familiarity for their converts, while others distance themselves from Catholicism as a clear marker of distinctiveness. And while many Latino Protestant congregations embrace charismatic worship, others practice more restrained, ordered liturgies with set agendas accomplished at a measured pace.

Similar to the outstanding diversity found in their congregational life, Latino Protestants also demonstrate significant diversity in their social and political life. While it might be assumed that immigration reform and concerns related to deportation might preoccupy Latino Protestants, we actually find something quite different: 69 percent identify education as their most pressing issue while only 44 percent regard immigration as a priority. Beyond that, we see interesting polarities within Latino Protestantism. When Pew asked Latinos to assess the Trump presidency, a higher percentage of Protestants than Catholics labeled Trump as “terrible” (29 percent to 23 percent), yet the same survey also found that a higher percentage of Latino Protestants described the current administration as “great” (12 percent to 3 percent).[6] In other words, we see Latino Protestants expressing extremes in their evaluation of President Trump.

As their widely divergent political views suggest, Latino Protestant identity is complex. Some scholars refer to Latino Protestants as “doubly marginalized” because they exist as a religious minority within an ethno-racial minority. The LPC Project is aware of this dynamic, and our researchers bring great sensitivity to this complexity. For instance, for many years a small Baptist church in Texas had separate worship services in Spanish and English. Recently, though, their pastor, Carlos Flores, told his congregation at a combined language service (where he fluently translated for himself) that God laid it on his heart to drop the word “Hispanic” from the church’s name. Flores explained: people might assume that the church worshipped only in Spanish and drive right by. He shared that visitors had wondered aloud to him whether the congregation only accepted Latinos. For Pastor Flores, removing Hispanic would not be a loss but a gain, since the church would be more inclusive. He was worried that his decision would somehow communicate to his members that he was ashamed of being Latino. Flores quickly emphasized great pride in his Mexican heritage, adding that he would never be able to scrub the brown pigment from his skin anyway—garnering laughs throughout the sanctuary. He paused, and then reminded the congregation that being “Latino” was not his first calling. No, his primary calling in life, and the calling he urged for his congregation, was to be “Christian.”[7]

Of course, Pastor Flores’ church does not represent the only narrative of what is happening among Latino Protestants in America. The story is, however, a rich example that illustrates how Latino Protestants process their identities in various ways to varied ends. Their churches are important because they function as prominent sites where U.S. Latino identidad is worked out. The reports coming out of the LPC Project indicate a continuum of identities within church life as some congregations offer venues of assimilation, while others encourage the re-entrenchment of identities based on race, ethnicity, and nation-of-origin.

The first book-length reporting from the LPC Project, Latino Protestants in America: Diverse and Growing (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), gives the most current information on the growth and complexity of Latino Protestants. It also argues that the effort of uncovering this dynamic branch of American Christianity demands even greater attention while providing patterns and illustrations from across the country. Rather than be satisfied with thin stereotypes, the book invites church leaders and observers of American congregational life to recognize and further explore the breadth and depth of Latino Protestant diversity, one of the most intriguing developments in the religious life of the United States today.

Mark T. Mulder, Aida I. Ramos, and Gerardo Martí are the authors of Latino Protestants in America: Diverse and Growing. 

[1] See http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/29/hillary-clinton-wins-latino-vote-but-falls-below-2012-support-for-obama/.

[2] Pew Research Center, May 7, 2014, “The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States.”

[3] Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), pp. 285-287.

[4] Pew Research Center, May 7, 2014, “The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States.” See Chapter 3, “Religious Commitment and Practice”: http://www.pewforum.org/2014/05/07/chapter-3-religious-commitment-and-practice/.

[5] See lpcproject.org.

[6] Pew Research Center provided these figures to Christianity Today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2017/february/half-of-hispanic-christians-worry-deportation-trump-dhs-ice.html. See also Pew Research Center, February 23, 2017, “Latinos and the New Trump Administration.” Access at http://www.pewhispanic.org/2017/02/23/latinos-and-the-new-trump-administration/.

[7] Mark T. Mulder, Aida I. Ramos, and Gerardo Martí; Latino Protestants in America: Diverse and Growing (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), pp. 59-74.

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