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Latinos are changing the nature of American religion

From The Economist print edition

THE church of La Placita, “the little square”, formally called Nuestra Señora Reina de Los Angeles, was founded under Spanish rule at around the same time as the pueblo bearing the same name, the future Los Angeles. As the land on which it stood became first Mexican and then American, it always stayed Latino in both look and character, says Father Richard Estrada. Catholicism and Hispanic culture seemed inseparable there.

They still largely are. Virtually all Father Estrada’s parishioners are Hispanic, most of them of Mexican extraction. When Guatemalan and Salvadorean refugees showed up in the 1980s, it was natural for them, as good Catholics, to find sanctuary at La Placita, where they slept on the pews and Father Estrada gave them food. It was natural again in 2006, when the country went on an anti-immigrant binge, for many of the Latino counter-marches to start from La Placita. Latinos still come from all over southern California for baptisms and prayer, social services and a sense of community.

But more and more grandmothers also come to Father Estrada with worries about children or grandchildren who have become hermanos separados, separated brothers, after defecting to an evangelical church, usually one with a Pentecostal flavour. The converts may have followed one of the evangelicals who come to La Placita to recruit, or friends whom they met at a spiritual rock concert or picnic. “I don’t worry, but I find it to be challenging,” says Father Estrada.

Some 68% of Hispanics in America are still Catholic, according to the Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, and their absolute number, thanks to immigration and higher birth rates, continues to increase. But about 15% are now born-again evangelicals, who are fast gaining “market share”, as Gaston Espinosa, a professor of religion at Claremont McKenna College, puts it. He estimates that about 3.9m Latino Catholics have converted, and that “for every one who comes back to the Catholic church, four leave it.”

The main reason, he thinks, is ethnic identity. Evangelical services are not only in Spanish, as many Catholic sermons are nowadays, but are performed by Latinos rather than Irish or Polish-American priests, with the cadences, rhythms, innuendos and flow familiar from the mother country. The evangelical services tend to be livelier than Catholic liturgy and to last longer, often turning into an outing lasting the whole day. Women play greater roles, and there are fewer parishioners for each pastor than in the Catholic church.

The evangelical churches are also more “experiential”, says Samuel Rodriguez, a third-generation Puerto Rican Pentecostal pastor and the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an evangelical association. In the Catholic church, a believer’s relationship with Jesus is mediated through hierarchies and bureaucracies, he says, whereas the evangelical churches provide direct access to Jesus. The Pentecostals go one step further, with the “gifts of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians) letting believers speak in tongues and pray for divine healing.

“This is the first group in America to reconcile both the vertical and the horizontal parts of the cross,” says Mr Rodriguez. By this he means that the Latino evangelical churches emphasise not only “covenant, faith and righteousness” (the vertical part), as white evangelicals do, but also “community, public policy and social justice” (the horizontal part), as many black evangelicals, but fewer white ones, do. To Latino evangelicals it is all one thing, he says, and the social outreach the church provides goes far beyond any government programme, with pastors snatching young men away from gang life and fighting to uphold the rights of immigrants.

This also means that Latino evangelicals as a political force are distinct from white evangelicals. Many of the whites have veered hard right, hating abortion and gay marriage and reliably voting Republican, though less so very recently. Latinos tend to be even more pro-life and traditional marriage than whites, says Mr Rodriguez, but only because they know that “mom and dad in the home is the prime antidote to gangs and drugs.” That same pragmatism makes them believe in government services and the taxes that pay for them, and of course in immigrant rights. As voters, he reckons, Latino evangelicals are therefore the quintessential independents, up for grabs by either party.

But it may be American Catholicism that changes the most. About a third of American Catholics are Latino now, and their share is growing. Their influence is not only physical and linguistic, with more of them turning up at church. They are also different Catholics, with more than half describing themselves as “charismatics”, according to the Pew report. Charismatics remain in their traditional denomination, but believe in some aspects of Pentecostalism, such as the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially the speaking in tongues.

Latino charismatics see themselves as a renewal movement within Catholicism, as it converges with other churches. And in general all churchgoing Latinos tend to see themselves as renewing Christianity in America. That makes them a powerful force as demographic changes turn America ever more Hispanic, and increasingly different from secular Europe.



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