The Latino Transformation of American Evangelicalism

Samuel Rodriguez

Sheer demographic numbers speak to its impact on America’s evangelical community: Hispanics are its fastest-growing group. Consider these statistics from the U.S. Census. The Hispanic population is now the largest minority group in the country – in 2005, 42.7 million, or 14 percent of the nation’s total population. This estimate does not include the 3.9 million residents of Puerto Rico or the entire undocumented population. Add those two groups and the total estimate stands at approximately 60 million.*

A Progressive New Turn

This community’s future growth capacity is dramatic: 75 percent of Hispanics are under 40 years of age and 34 percent are 18 or younger. This trend alone should force a redefinition of the priorities and strategies of church evangelism. By next year, one out of every six Americans will be of Hispanic descent, and by 2020, the Latino population will total roughly 102.6 million people or 24 percent of the population. The changing ethnic landscape requires churches to reach out to this community, not as a matter of choice but as a prerequisite for survival and relevance.

This demographic juggernaut will in turn reshape the future of Christianity in North America – and the tone it sets will be socially moderate, fiscally progressive. The emerging generation of Hispanic American evangelicals looks more like a hybrid of Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. than the Falwells, Robertsons, and Bauers of the previous era.

Historically, white evangelicals built a public identity around a two-theme platform agenda – sanctity-of-life and marriage. On the other side of the aisle, progressive evangelicals and black Protestants coalesced around socio-economic issues such as health care, education, and poverty-alleviation. Brown Christians, particularly Hispanic evangelicals, are poised to redraw the moral map with a commitment to reconcile both sides, working within a framework of righteousness and justice.

Both Republicans and Democrats stand to gain if they endeavor to understand the ethos, and the pathos, of this emerging hybrid generation. The new evangelicals come from the barrios of L.A. and the

housing projects in Chicago more than from rural America. Forging the twin themes of righteousness and justice – not “either/or” – these evangelicals embrace a Kingdom Culture Biblical worldview. It has ramifications for social policy. They stand committed to eradicating al-Qaeda as long as we equally commit ourselves to eradicating AIDS. They support a War on Terror only if it accompanies a Global War on Poverty.

On cultural issues, the Graham-King hybrid generation stands unequivocally as a vigorous pro-life movement that extends from womb to tomb. This new pro-life movement does not regard health care,

education, and poverty-alleviation as secondary issues to sanctity-of-life and marriage but rather as top-tier extensions of a truly pro-life platform.

With respect to marriage, the hybrid generation defends traditional marriage while simultaneously repudiating homophobia and supporting legislation that protects all citizens from discrimination in the workplace regardless of sexual orientation and secures the civil rights of all Americans. As a result, both political parties will be pressed to gravitate towards a centrist platform in order to engage this emerging generation of evangelical voters.

“Hispanics will bring their cultural values to bear on evangelical Christianity with the influence of their collective worldview,” Albert Reyes, president of Buckner Children and Family Services, based in Dallas, Texas, told me in an interview. “Latino evangelical Christians will be more interested in the welfare of the community at large than their own personal welfare. Hispanics will help evangelical congregations gravitate toward a balanced application of the gospel to include issues of social justice and equality for everyone in the community. Social issues will take center stage in congregations because the Scripture bears witness to Jesus’ focus on the poor, the prisoner, the blind, and the op- pressed.”

The current demographic drama is happening against a historic backdrop of change in Latin American Christianity. The Latino church is still in the midst of its own Protestant Reformation. The first serious Protestant impact in largely Roman Catholic Latin America came via the evangelical wing of the church – particularly the Pentecostal movement during its twentieth-century surge. The trajectory of this new reformation is anything but predictable, and its effects on church mission could have global ramifications.

Hispanic missionaries, for instance, are focusing on such places as India, Africa, and the Middle East. Why? In light of the current geopolitical environment, Latinos are being embraced with less trepidation than are North American Anglos.

In the U.S., meanwhile, the protracted immigration debate continues to threaten or postpone cross- cultural partnerships. Instead, the socio-political climate is inundated with xenophobic and nativist rhetoric. In the pews of America’s Hispanic churches on any given Sunday sit two types of worshipers – those who are in this country legally and those who are not. The issues surrounding immigration not only affect the dynamics of ministry but also catapult the church into the political battles of the moment.

In this climate, the churches stand at a crossroads. As raids continue, as deportations increase, and as cities continue to pass ordinances legitimating racial profiling, churches may be tempted to diminish or halt outreach to this targeted group in order to avoid the possible legal consequences. As a result, Latino immigrants may start avoiding churches – particularly those led by non-Hispanics. If so, major denominations such as the Assemblies of God, which in the last few years has experienced unprecedented growth because of its Hispanic congregations, may lose a significant portion of their fellowships.

Silence in the Church

Thus almost every major evangelical denomination, fellowship, or network has a stake in the Hispanic community. How pastors and leaders respond in this hour may determine whether Hispanics continue to forge strategic relationships with the non-Hispanic church – or isolate themselves even more, confirming the old paradigm of Sunday morning as the most segregated time in America.

Although we can all agree that the U.S. needs to protect its borders from the entry of individuals who want to do us harm, the question we must confront as pastors and church leaders is what we do with the undocumented or illegal immigrants currently here. Up until now, the evangelical churches in the U.S. have mostly stood silent on this issue. The reason: We evangelicals have historically resonated with the conservative-driven tenets of law and order within our society.

Yet many white evangelicals seem to adhere more to the rhetoric and philosophies of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Lou Dobbs than to the Biblical guidance of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. At times, white evangelicals seem to champion a warped convergence of nativism and spirituality, where being an American trumps Christian identity.

Biblical Directive

However, the issue of immigration demands that the church help reconcile this society founded on the Judeo-Christian value system, with the pillars of law and order and the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Only the church can bring these three elements together, and pastors and leaders must take the lead.

Does the Bible provide any guidance with respect to immigration? Biblical principles suggest a comprehensive solution. Leviticus 19:33-34 resounds: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (NIV).

Jesse Miranda, Global Chairman of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, sees the Biblical mandate of reconciliation as pivotal to changing the debate: “For too long the extremists have hijacked the issue of immigration and made it a rallying cry for nativism and racism. We do have a legitimate immigration situation that requires our attention. However the debate must convert to a dialogue, and reason must trump rhetoric. Racism is ultimately a spiritual problem, and it is only right the church become involved in seeking reconciliation.”

We cannot deny the fact that the immigration issue has potential either to further polarize our society – or enrich our narrative. Hope embraces the latter. Hope that the Spirit of compassion, love, and tolerance stemming from a Judeo-Christian ethos embedded in our collective narrative will prevail and embrace righteousness and justice for all. Hope that the Christian community will rise up, speak vigorously from the pulpit about reconciliation to all corridors of our society, and demand an end to extreme ideologies from all sides.

Looking to the example of U.S. history, whenever despair and desperation coalesced to threaten the defeat of reason, oracles of truth rose up to articulate the moral imperatives of practical, graceful deliberation. From the revolutionary war, to the abolitionist movement, to the struggle for civil rights, our history has witnessed writers, scholars, and clergy make the case for truthful values compatible with a Biblical worldview.

Hispanic immigration will transform American Christianity by forging a platform of righteousness and justice, injecting the prophetic element of the Gospels, and activating a call to goodwill and love of neighbor. This Hispanic immigrant Christian sensibility stands committed to a Kingdom Culture DNA – multi-ethnic, multi-generational, Biblical, and just. It declares the Kingdom of God is not red state or blue state, native or immigrant, conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, but is defined by righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. It is a generation committed to accompany Billy Graham to the Cross and to sit with Dr. King at the Master’s table.

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the country’s largest Hispanic Christian organization, serving 16 million born-again Christians and approximately 18,000 churches.

* Hispanics are an ethnically and racially diverse population. For example, in 2005, according to the U.S. Census, the Latino population on the U.S. mainland was composed of Mexican-Americans (64 percent), Puerto Ricans (10 percent), Cubans (3 percent), Salvadorans (3 percent), and Dominicans (3 percent). The remaining 17 percent are of some other Central American, South American, or other Latino origin.