Thursday, October 4, 2012

Latino Religious Experience and Political Engagement in the United States

In the essay below, Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo, co-editor with Carlos Vargas-Ramos of Blessing La Politica: The Latino Religious Experience and Political Engagement in the United States, discusses the effect of religion on voting patterns among Latinos. In particular, he examines perceptions of trends related to Latino Catholicism and Protestantism within academic circles and how the book resulted from his initial desire to "set the record straight" on this important topic.

The academic community had been fascinated with the rise of membership in Protestant Evangelical denominations for the better part of the decade when George W. Bush ran as the "first Hispanic president." Based in part on trends in Latin America, the evidence was clear that a Catholic monopoly over religion could not be presumed. As a long-time scholar of religion among Latinos and Latinas and with a solid background in Latin American studies, I found too much "drama" in these research conclusions. I say "drama" because the Protestant and Evangelical presence had been constants for Latinos and Latinas within U.S. borders in the immediate aftermath of the invasions and annexations into the Mexican Southwest, including Texas and California and then later into the island of Puerto Rico. As the unofficial "establishment" Christianity, Protestantism utilized its influence with the state to ensure that the previous patterns of Catholic dominance were replaced in the public schools, in political organization, in civic associations and social life. In other words, Protestant and Evangelical leadership was a century-old reality among those Latinos and Latinas living in the United States.

The Latin American phenomenon after the late 1980s had operated on a different set of premises. For one, liberation theology had made progressive Catholicism a target for reactionary politics after Ronald Reagan. Uncomfortably, Reagan's people had defended the business and military class in many South and Central American countries, including organizations like Arena in El Salvador that had been linked to the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the rape and murder of Maryknoll religious women. Perhaps a larger reason for the rapid rise in Evangelical membership in Latin America was the division in the Catholic Church where a conservative Vatican censured its own clergy. Finally came the process of urbanization in which the traditional forms of "inherited" Catholicism for agricultural communities were destroyed in migration to sprawling Latin American cities. A typical result was a search for supportive social groups such as in the tight-knit Evangelical churches.

By conflating these two related but essentially different trends, academia had projected an "Evangelical tide." Aided by a secular media eager for anything "new" and an aggressive policy from within the Pew Foundation to foster research supporting the rise of Pentecostalism, it was frequent to encounter predictions that Evangelical growth among Latinos and Latinas would produce a majority population in the United States for Protestantism.

In fact, however, in less promoted research there was abundant data to confound the idea that there was an inevitable Evangelical tide. Blessing La Politica was motivated by a desire to set the record straight. The immediate stimulus came from the findings by Sidney Verba and his colleagues at Harvard in their study of volunteer leadership connected to faith-based institutions. Verba confirmed the premise that Hispanic Protestants and Evangelicals were more politically engaged than Hispanic Catholics. Partly because of the high reputation of Dr. Verba and partly because of the importance of the finding to community organizing, several research projects had focused upon the same trends. In fact, the Program for the Analysis of Religion Among Latinos/as (PARAL) Study which I directed employed exactly the same wording in the questionnaires in order to test the validity of Verba's finding of a political superiority for Latino Evangelicals. In the PARAL Study, as well as in others, Verba's findings were not replicated.

Operating first as academics, PARAL organized a panel of scholars representing diverse sectors of the Latino community to present findings that challenged Verba's conclusions. I was motivated to make these presentations into a cohesive book that would go beyond the narrow and often unpleasant task of refuting another scholar. I hoped that we could explore not just statistical reports on surveys but also inject readers into the internal workings of Catholic organizations where political mobilization was frequent and well-developed. There were all kinds of obstacles that arose to the book project such as the lack of interest in some publishing quarters for a book that had no "sensational" edge. The vagaries of academic life—marriage, mobility and the like—also forced us into reshuffling the contributors to the volume.

The side benefit in all of this was that each election cycle confirmed the initial realization that religion really made an important difference in voting by Latinos and Latinas. In fact, we found data for the 2004 election that being Catholic or Evangelical was more predictive of voting patterns for Democrats or Republicans than the stock-in-trade distinctions of Mexican or Cuban. At the heart of the matter was the Catholic inclination to make social justice issues more important in election decisions than the matters relating to abortion, stem-cell research and homosexuality. Our researchers had highlighted how immigration reform mobilized Catholics, and in 2006 and 2008 the Evangelicals had changed course from identification with Republicans and joined Latino Catholics in voting for Democrats. It appears that in 2012 these trends are being repeated as Democrats have promoted reforms like the DREAM Act while Republican candidates have rejected them emphatically. Moreover, the media has caught up to the defining role that new Latino and Latina voters have in changing the color of traditionally red states like Colorado into blue havens for Democrats. As in other regions of the country, the electoral map is now tilting in favor of the Democratic Party.

This book does not claim the sort of "sensational" label that characterized popular assessment of Evangelical religious identity among Latinos and Latinas. In fact, the book was written to combat such facile flag-waving. In making the case that the drama should be drained away from political assessments, the book provides a historical background to the public understanding of the Latino impact on U.S. politics. There is no inevitability either to Latino assimilation as the "latest immigrant group" or to the notion that one is more American if one is Protestant. The modern principles of democracy, volunteer organization, and individual conscience are not the exclusive property of Protestants. Contrary to the assertion of Verba that Latino political power in the future would follow Protestants, Latino Catholics have been the ones providing the leadership. The current mobilization for the party of social justice sets the pattern rather than fixation on the sexual and gender issues of the Republican Party. The book Blessing La Política tells the reader why this has happened.

• Examines the key statistics on how Latinos and Latinas vote and explains how many come to political decisions because of what they hear and learn in the churches
• Demystifies the preconceptions that all Latinos and Latinas are becoming Pentecostal or that Catholics are deficient in sophisticated modern political commitments

• Combines political science with historical and anthropological perspectives of how and why religion "works" at the local level in forming political opinions

• Discusses Latino politics within a framework of understanding the social and cultural dynamics that shape political mobilization rather than simplistic, static categories of voting results

Anthony Stevens-Arroyo is professor emeritus of Puerto Rican and Latino studies at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. First president of the Program for the Analysis of Religion Among Latinos/as (PARAL), he was also founder and director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Society and Culture (RISC) at Brooklyn College where he conducted the PARAL Study. Stevens-Arroyo is author of the landmark of Catholic studies, Prophets Denied Honor; was editor of the four-volume PARAL series on Latino religion; coauthored Recognizing The Latino Resurgence In U.S. Religion: The Emmaus Paradigm; and has published more than 40 scholarly articles.

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