A revolution is underway among America’s Latino population that will have profound implications for the future of American politics. Of the 41.3 million Hispanics in the United States today, 37 percent identify themselves as "born-again" or "evangelical." Just 10 years ago, the proportion that did so was about 15 percent. All told, there are now about 11 million Evangelical Protestant and 3 million Evangelical or Charismatic Catholic Latinos in the United States. In 1996, there were only 4 million.
This explosive growth in Evangelical religious affiliation among Latinos — about 1 million converts annually — portends huge changes for American politics. With the Latino population swelling from 22 million in 1990 to 41 million in 2004, any change of these proportions in the beliefs of Hispanic-Americans will have a momentous impact on politics.
Evangelicals, of any race or ethnicity, are fertile ground for Republicans and may provide a huge opening to swing the formerly Democratic Hispanic vote toward a more even-handed stance or even make it a core element of an emerging Republican majority.
I recently met with Rev. Sam Rodriquez, the leader of the national association of Evangelical Latino churches. He's a Republican dream: pro-life, anti-gay marriage, and a Bush voter. He notes that the growing religious faith and the increase in Evangelical enrollment — particularly in the Pentecostal Church — may presage a sea change in Hispanic political affiliations.
Unfortunately, the hostile reception immigration reform has received from the GOP side of the aisle in Washington is turning off the very voters the Republicans can now, for the first time, hope to attract to their side. Based on a fear of Democratic domination of the Hispanic vote, Republican insistence on barring the way to citizenship and voting rights for undocumented or illegal immigrants may drive these very potential Republican supporters back into Democratic arms.
The Latino population is clearly the jump ball in American politics. While now only 8 percent of the registered voters — but 14 percent of the population — the Hispanic vote is going to swell in the coming decade and tip the 50-50 balance now prevailing between the two parties. Red states like Texas, Arizona and Florida may become sharply and suddenly blue when Hispanic voting reaches its full potential among those currently here, not to count those who will come in the future. Texas, for example, is now a majority-minority state in population. Its GOP affiliation is an artifact of the past if the Hispanic vote goes Democratic.
But the fervent religiosity and increasing support for Evangelical positions and thinking among Hispanics may be the saving grace for the GOP if they let it happen. According to the Rev. Rodriquez, half of Evangelical conversions among American Latinos occur in their home country; half take place after they enter the United States. The handwriting is clearly on the wall — traditional Catholicism is on the wane among America’s Hispanics. Can Democratic affiliation be similarly in danger?
In 2000, Gore carried America’s Hispanics by 30 points. But Bush’s ardent cultivation of the Latino vote paid off in 2004 and Kerry carried them by only 10 points. However, the best efforts of Republican congressmen like Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) succeeded only in driving Latinos back into the arms of Democrats: They voted Democratic in 2006 by 47 points.
It’s time for the Republican Party to start thinking of its future and embrace the basic tenets of immigration reform to win the inevitably increasing proportion of the U.S. vote cast by Hispanics.
It is pure folly to say that we will force 11 million people back across the border in order to obtain legal entry. Such a forced population movement would be unparalleled in American history and would be reminiscent of German-Polish-Russian forced migrations during the years right before, during, and after World War II.
Immigration reform calls for an earned path to citizenship that most Americans can and should support. If Latinos work, pay taxes, do not commit crimes, and learn English for several years, they should be able to become citizens. These requirements are not applied to any other immigrants and are due penance for illegal entry into the United States.
It’s time Republicans awakened to the political opportunities of Evangelical Hispanic conversions and got with the program.