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Analysis: The Hispanics' shifting faith

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor   |   June 19, 2003 at 5:43 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, June 19 (UPI) -- Editor's note: This is the first installment of a UPI series investigating the shifting faith of U.S. Hispanics and the impact of evangelicalism on their community. Today's article deals with many ambiguities in this development.


Much seems ambiguous in the religious development of the burgeoning Hispanic population in the United States. Evidently, they are becoming less Catholic and more evangelical or denominationally unattached. But what does this mean?

What about the evident phenomenon that many Latin immigrants, who were merely "cultural Catholics" in their homeland, have increased their fervor in the U.S., thus confirming the insight of Raymond Williams, the founding father of cultural studies, that immigrants become more religious over here than they were before they left?

What about a baffling trend pointed out by Luis E. Lugo, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts religion program, namely, the trend toward evangelical Catholicism? What about the amazing appearance of "born-again Catholics," Jose Casanova, a sociologist of religion at the New School University in New York, is observing?

Here, Latinos in the United States parallel a movement that has gripped the southern hemisphere, where Roman Catholic congregations have beliefs and practices resembling those of contemporary Protestantism, especially charismatic Protestantism.

What about another stunning discovery – that the share of Hispanics without organized religion has risen from 6 percent in 1990 to 13 percent in the year 2000, according to a study authored by theologian Anthony Stevens-Arroyo of Brooklyn College? Does this not contradict the other two findings – namely, that their religious devotion increases and Catholics are becoming more evangelical?

No, it doesn't, especially as it does not signify a dramatic loss of faith; surveys indicate that only four percent of U.S. Latinos reject any belief in God. The study simply proves that this community is undergoing faith convulsions of major proportions, a turmoil that should serve as a warning to outside observers not to jump to glib conclusions.

These and many other facts will be investigated in an open-ended UPI series on a segment of the U.S. population that has grown from 35 million in 1970 to 56 million today and will reach 100 million by mid-century.

It will have a "phenomenal impact" on the United States, according to Richard Cizik, the Washington-based vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals. What it will do to the country's political and moral landscape of the future can only be surmised. Here again, the ambiguities are religion-based.

While the percentage of Hispanic Catholics has shrunk from 66 percent in 1990 to 57 percent in 2000, as the American Religious Identification Survey 2001 shows, their ethics differ little from those of the Protestants, who make up 22 percent of U.S. Latinos.

True, 49 percent of Hispanics are registered Democrats and only 15 percent Republicans, the ARIS survey has found. But that does not mean that Democratic candidates can take Latinos for granted – especially not candidates who don't uphold family values and pro-life positions they all share, be they Catholics, Protestants, or for that matter Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses or Muslims, groups that also are growing.

John Mendez, the NAE's California-based vice president of ministries development, bluntly stated to what extent Hispanics – Democrats or Republicans –will uphold traditional values: "If a Republican candidate will tell me from the podium: 'I am pro-life, pro-family, pro-religion," I will support him.

"But if this candidate's party will not seek ways to help pregnant Hispanic teenagers, providing pre-natal and child care programs for single parents, I will not support it."

Mendez went on, "On the other hand, if the Democrats come out in favor of such programs, I will support them. But if their candidates then make pro-choice statements from the podium, they'll lose me. That's pretty typical for Latino attitudes."

For precisely this reason there are powerful movements afoot within the Hispanic community to register Latinos as independents. Given their huge number, which is expected to grow by some 900,000 per year, this will inevitably affect national politics on a huge scale. "We are up for grabs," one Latino pastor told UPI, "but neither ethically questionable Democrats, nor socially uncharitable Republicans should take us for granted."

This will become even more evident as the educational level of U.S. Hispanics improves. Here, too, developments are seemingly contradictory. On the one hand, said Mendez, young Latinos are often doing badly at school. "The dropout rate is sky-high, amounting to 67 percent after the first year in the Los Angeles City College, for example."

On the other hand, he added, "more and more educated Hispanics enter this country – attorneys, doctors, reporters, who find a massive market within their community here."

Add to this that many Latinos whose families have been in the United States since the mid-19th century feel encouraged by the growing force of the newcomers to return to their cultural roots, fascinating new prospects for the future of the United States emerge.

Because of this a drama is about to unfold, whose most important star, the new UPI series will show, is going to be the Church.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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