By Gastón Espinosa
A critical player in Barack Obama’s election victory, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) sought to further flex its political muscle last week by launching the Jesse Miranda Center, “The First Ever Hispanic Evangelical Think Tank,” according to the press release. Despite their often apolitical posture in the past, a number of Latino evangelicals across generational lines—like Jesse Miranda (CEO of the NHCLC), Samuel Rodriguez (president of the NHCLC), Luis Cortes, Wilfredo de Jesus, and others—are increasingly stressing the twin themes of “righteousness and justice,” which leaders like Miranda and Rodriguez define as the “reconciling message of Billy Graham with the activism of Martin Luther King Jr.”
This shift in Latino evangelical consciousness made Obama’s talk about faith-based organizing all the more appealing, and almost certainly helped flip the valuable Latino vote in the 2008 election. While Latino Protestant evangelicals cast 58% of their vote for Bush in 2004, they cast 57% of their votes for Obama in 2008; causing many to wonder just how it happened.
Yes on Abortion Rights, No on Gays
Making up over 80% of the nation’s 9.2 million Latino Protestants, Latino evangelicals take a holistic approach in deciding who to vote for, taking into account not only abortion and gay marriage, but also immigration reform, civil rights, social justice, jobs, and the economy. This was driven home by evangelical pastor Wilfredo De Jesus, head of the 4,000-member New Life Covenant Church of the Assemblies of God in South Chicago, who was impressed both that Obama spoke out about the “mistreatment of illegal immigrants,” and that he “understood the importance of justice issues such as health care, education, and immigration within the Hispanic faith community.” As a result, he accepted Obama’s invitation to direct his Latino Protestant outreach team; despite having voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, being pro-life, and opposing gay marriage.
Obama won over the Latino evangelical vote not only by providing a better economic recovery plan and hope for a better future, but also because he split the difference on the hot-button social issues by strongly supporting a pro-choice position on abortion, but rejecting gay marriage. He recognized what many Democrats do not: that, in the words of Bill Clinton, although the American electorate is “operationally progressive,” it is nonetheless “philosophically moderate-conservative.” This allowed him to split the evangelical vote by enabling otherwise conservative voters to believe that he agreed with them on at least one of their two key social concerns.
This growing confidence in Obama was further underscored by his promise to correct the misperception that Democrats were anti-faith and anti-evangelical:
Evangelicals have come to believe often times that Democrats are anti-faith. Part of my job in this campaign, something that I started doing well before this campaign, was to make sure I was showing up and reaching out and sharing my faith experience with people who share that faith. Hopefully we can build some bridges that can allow us to move the country forward.
His actions and words stood in stunning contrast to John McCain, who seemed to run a functionally secular campaign. Rich Cizik, Vice President for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), lamented in October 2008 that although the NAE had “been receiving weekly communication from the Obama camp,” they had received “nothing from McCain.” He stated that Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to request a meeting with an NAE official in 28 years. Obama’s historic outreach (along with his decision to appoint the 26-year-old African-American Pentecostal pastor Joshua DuBois to direct his campaign outreach to faith communities) caught the attention of Latino evangelical leaders like Samuel Rodriguez, President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who stated: “It’s good to see a Democratic Nominee engage evangelical leaders. For too long the Democratic party seemed hostile to evangelicals.”
The Latino Religions and Politics National Survey in October 2009 found that all of these factors, along with Obama’s strong support for faith-based initiatives, prompted a plurality of Latinos who opposed gay marriage (47% to 38%) and abortion (54% to 31%) to vote for him. It also helped Obama beat McCain among Latinos who attended church (57% to 30%), prayed (58% to 29%), read the Bible (51% to 35%) once a week or more, or among those that said that religion provided guidance in their day-to-day lives (56% to 30%). All of which defies the stereotype that Latino evangelicals vote like their white evangelical counterparts.
Obama Let Jesus In, Latino Evangelicals Let Obama In
Obama flipped the Latino evangelical vote back to the Democratic column in part by, as noted above, proactively appointing Rev. Wilfredo de Jesus to direct his Spanish-speaking Protestant outreach team. In addition, he actively met with leaders like Samuel Rodríguez, Jesse Miranda, Mark González, Luis Cortes, and others. This outreach was reinforced by meetings with white and black evangelical and Pentecostal leaders like T.D. Jakes, Bishop Charles Blake (COGIC), Franklin Graham, and Jim Wallis, and by participating in evangelical-sponsored social justice forums on AIDS and other issues at Warren’s Saddleback Community Church—a sharp irony given that Warren is also a strong supporter of Proposition 8 in California.
De Jesus’ conservative views on abortion and marriage are not unique. In fact, Latino conservative views help to explain why their vote can shift so dramatically. The Latino Religions and Politics National Survey (October 2008) found that Latino Catholics and Protestants opposed abortion (67% and 73%) and gay marriage (57% and 74%) by sizable margins. This opposition is bipartisan as both Latino Democrats (65%) and Republicans (80%) opposed abortion. More importantly, Latino Independents also decisively opposed abortion (70%). These views are unlikely to drastically change from election cycle to election cycle as immigrants, churches, clergy, and religious schools reinforce them in the community.
These factors reveal that Latino evangelicals’ support for Obama had everything to do with the candidate’s efforts to show that their (and his) faith was relevant to him, his campaign, and his future administration. This analysis is strengthened when you consider that while Obama won 67% of the US Latino vote, a majority of these same Latino Catholics and Protestants also voted to pass state Constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage in California, Arizona, and Florida. This is significant because Latino Catholics and Protestants make up 91% of the US Latino community and 97% of the US Latino electorate. Obama succeeded ultimately by threading the moral needle: support for abortion rights but not gay marriage. Obama’s views, ideas, and policies are a blend of right- and left-of-center impulses that resonate with the views of a majority of Latinos.
Indeed, Latino evangelicals read Obama as a fresh start and new day for the Democratic Party. As a result, he increased his national Latino support over Kerry’s by 10-14 percentage points, his Latino Catholic support by 12-15 points, and his Latino Protestant support by 14-20 points. In fact, Obama reversed the trend in Latino Catholics and Protestants voting Republican between 1996 and 2004, scoring better than Gore and Kerry, but not Clinton. He also increased his support among all evangelicals by 5 percentage points from 21% to 26%. This was politically significant on Election Day as evangelicals (26%) are the largest single religious voting segment of the electorate, larger than either mainline Protestants (19%) or Catholics (19%).
Obama’s ability to attract and flip the Latino evangelical vote is thus due not only to their changing attitudes toward religion, politics, and social justice, but also to the changing attitudes of many Democrats toward evangelicals of all backgrounds. Whether this historic shift in the Latino vote will enable him to surpass Clinton’s level of support to win the 2012 election remains to be seen; although history, initiative, and faith are, at least at this moment, on his side.
Gastón Espinosa is the Arthur V. Stoughton Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College and co-editor of the Columbia University Press Series in Religion and Politics. He is the editor of Religion and the American Presidency, Latino Religions and Civic Activism in the United States, and Religion, Race, and the American Presidency.
© 2009 Religion Dispatches. All rights reserved.
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