In the final days of the electoral campaign season, Latino Evangelicals want to make it clear they don't have the same political leanings or priorities as their white counterparts, that they are not monolithic and that they are split on President Donald Trump, so there's no telling how they will vote on Nov. 3.
Leaders of the three biggest Latino evangelical groups in the United States told Univision Noticias that they can't be pigeon-holed and don't fit in the platforms of either political party because they are both strongly pro-life and pro-social justice.
“Latino Evangelicals are politically homeless,” said Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. “We're not looking for a party to support. We're looking for a party to support us.”
The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) estimates there are nearly 5 million adult Latino Evangelicals and 36 million white Evangelicals, although there is no totally agreed definition of what is an evangelical. In general, the term applies to those who believe in personal salvation through Jesus, preach their beliefs and accept the Bible as their maximum authority.
Latino Evangelicals make up the second largest sector of religious Hispanics in the United States at 22 percent, after Catholics at 55 percent, and represent 2 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center.
Politically, they tend to be more conservative than Catholic Hispanics and non-religious Latinos, according to a study by University of Maryland Prof. Janelle Wong. But they are less rigid than traditional hard-line conservatives on issues like social justice, the religious leaders said.
On abortion, they defend life not just from conception but throughout life and until death, said Luis Cortés, founder and executive director of Esperanza.
“To be pro-life means we should help people from conception until death for the common good and to be part of the common good, independently of whether the person is rich or poor,” said Cortés, who has worked with the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations
On social justice, white Evangelicals generally have a different stance than their Latino counterparts.
For example, 50 percent of white Evangelicals believe immigrants have a negative impact on the economy, compared to 25 percent of Latino Evangelicals, according to the University of Maryland analysis.
“Social justice includes immigration reform, racial reconciliation, judicial reform, the fight against poverty, the search for educational equality. That's what makes us different,” said Samuel Rodriguez president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
Their views of social well-being aligns them closer to the Democratic Party, while their anti-abortion posture puts them closer to Republicans. About 48 percent of Hispanic Evangelicals identify as Democrats, 30 percent as Republican and 22 percent as independent, according to a Pew analysis in 2014.
Neither red nor blue
“We are not blue or red, we are brown,” said Cortés.
The Pew analysis also showed Latino Evangelicals, which include denominations such as Southern Baptists, Assembly of God and Church of God, are about 60 percent immigrant and 40 percent U.S. born. About 52 percent are women, 48 percent are 30 to 49 years old, 65 percent have only basic education, 39 percent speak mostly Spanish, 35 percent is bilingual and 27 percent speak English.
Latino Evangelicals are growing, but tend to vote less than their white counterparts. The group grew by 4 percent from 2010 to 2013 according to Pew, but the PRRI said 37 percent are not registered to vote, compared to 11 percent of white Evangelicals.
White Evangelicals strongly support Trump, and 81 percent voted for him in 2016. Trump, who has boasted about his support among all Evangelicals, launched the “Evangelicals for Trump” group in January during an appearance in Miami at the El Rey Jesus temple, one of the biggest Latino Evangelical churches in the United States. It's led by Guillermo Maldonado, a Honduran who calls church leaders pastors, apostles and prophets.
“Before my election, religious believers were under attack like never before. You know that,” Trump said in announcing the coalition. “But the day I was sworn in, the federal government's war on religion stopped.”
The percentage of Hispanic Protestants who view the president favorably rose from 37 percent to 50 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to the PRRI analysis. The Biden campaign told the Post recently that it has started to woo religious Latinos.
But Trump lost ground among white Evangelicals at the beginning of this year. Nearly 80 percent approved of his administration in March, but by late May he had lost 15 percent of that support, according to a PRRI poll published in early June.
The drop came after he posed with Bible in hand outside a church near the White House, after federal agents used tear gas and horse-mounted police to drive off peaceful protesters. Many criticized the president for repressing a peaceful demonstration, and religious leaders complained he used religious symbols for political purposes.
“The faithful feel insulted by what he did. It would have been better if he had knelt and prayed for the country, if he had opened the Bible and read a passage or prayed for peace and said that the people of the United States have the right to protest,” said Cortés.
The Latino Evangelical leaders interviewed by Univision Noticias are divided on Trump. One is an adviser to Trump, another said the president has a mixed record like any other president, and a third attacked him harshly.
Trump has attacked Mexicans as rapists and criminals and taken a strong stand against immigrants, especially Central Americans trying to escape the violence in their home countries, even as he boasted of helping to advance the priorities of the religious groups.
The president referred to the Johnson Amendment, a clause in the federal tax code that forbids religious and other non-profit organizations from supporting or opposing political candidates. Trump signed an executive order urging the Department of Justice to be tolerant when applying the amendment.
Salguero praised Trump but said his “treatment of women, his immigration policy and rhetoric against immigrants have been very damaging to our community. His policies on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria have not been the best.”
Trump's policies have created divisions among fundamentalist Latino Evangelicals and the rest of the group, said Cortés, who collaborated with the Trump administration in 2018, when Vice President Mike Pence was the keynote speaker at a National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast.
“Trump's behavior, his actions, his Tweets and ethical stands have created a moral split between what I will call ultraconservative or super conservative Latino Evangelicals who continue to follow him and the Latino Evangelicals who tend to be conservative but not fundamentalist,” said Cortés
"The fundamentalists will be with Trump no matter what happens, but many conservatives have broken with Trump because of the (border) wall, his actions with (immigrant) children, his derogatory words when he talks about Latinos and his actions on Covid-19.”
On the other side is Rodriguez, criticized by many Latino Evangelicals for advising the president and defending his government. Rodriguez was one of six pastors invited to lead prayers during Trump's swearing-in ceremonies in 2017, and contradicted reports by experts and lawmakers about the mistreatment of immigrants in a Texas detention center.
“They also criticized me when I advised Obama and when I was with (George W.) Bush. I don't care. I know what my role is. I know why I do it. I do it because God put me there to advance a good agenda of life, of free religious expression, an agenda that includes an immigration reform,” said Rodriguez. “I am there advocating for my people. I don't care. I am not defined by my critics. I am defined by God's purpose for my life.”
Some Evangelicals like Gaby Pacheco, one of the pioneers of the Dreamer movement, said Rodrí
guez crossed the line when he collaborated with Trump.
“I some ways, I feel Sam protects Trump and by supporting him has emboldened him,” Pacheco said. “Just because one is willing to talk to him, and try to make him change his opinion on immigrants does not mean that one has to sit on his board of advisers,” she added. “That is to legitimize what he does.”