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Riccardo De Luca/AP — Pope Francis waves as he arrives Wednesday for his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican.
A recent poll of Latinos for their religious and political preferences confirms Latino Catholics’ movement towards social justice and the Democratic Party. These finding make it difficult to deny that looking at Latinos from the Catholic/Evangelical split is a more reliable predictor of political preferences than categories like Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban. This tendency was first reported in the P
rogram for the Analysis of Religion Among Latinas/os (PARAL)
study I conducted in 2001 and was studiously reexamined in my 2012 book,
Blessing La Pol tica
. The just released study from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) also suggests that affection for Pope Francis and the Republican rejection of the Affordable Health Care Act may change the landscape for Catholics and Democrats alike.
We already know most Latinos and Latinas are Catholic: we also know that beginning the 1980s during the pontificate of John Paul II, the percentages of Latinos identified as Catholic dropped precipitously. The new numbers report Catholic identity at 53 percent for Latinos and Latinas, a number which holds steady from 2001 when we reported that 57 percent of Latinos and Latinas called themselves Catholic. Today’s difference from 2001 falls within the margin of statistical error, meaning that the precipitous defection of as many as 20 percent of Latinos from Catholicism in the 1990s has been staunched. In its place is the PARAL Study finding that “non-affiliated” continue to grow faster than Mainline Protestants and Evangelical Protestants, who continue to divide the remaining 25 percent of Latinos and Latinas.
PARAL noted that “Evangelical” is a problematic term because in Spanish “evang lico” usually means any Protestant, not just the US-based sense of Pentecostal and/or Fundamentalist theologies. Since I respect the tasks of social survey analysis, I will restrict myself to a caution that the label of “Evangelical Protestant” for Latinos and Latinas may categorize a hodge-podge of non-denominational mega churches, small Pentecostal store-fronts often serving reformed addicts, and sui generis congregations led by indigenous Latino pastors who might be viscerally inimical to Catholicism, or purveyors of the Gospel of Prosperity, or religious entrepreneurs of charter schools and social service centers or all these together. I’m not criticizing these churches since they generally perform well within their social niches, but I note that social science surveys sometimes invent catch-all categories that only superficially represent shared characteristics.
Against that background, therefore, the popularity of Pope Francis is startling. The PRRI reports that “Hispanics generally have a more favorable impression of the current head of the Catholic Church (69 percent) than of the Church itself (54 percent).” In contrast with his immediate European predecessors, Pope Francis oozes the Latin American warmth as a common man of the people. Not surprisingly, this appeals to Latinos, even among the “Evangelicals” of the PPRI survey, where nearly twice as many have a favorable impression of the pope (51 percent) than of the Catholic Church (26 percent). The pattern is even more pronounced among the unaffiliated: 42 percent for the pope against 13 percent for the institutional church.
The question becomes: “Will the popularity of a Latin American pope and pastor bring back to Catholicism the Latinos and Latinas who left the rigid institutional church fashioned after 1980 by John Paul II and Benedict XVI?” This is not a prediction, but only a question.
The PRRI survey also supported the trend identified in early studies of Latino movement towards the Democratic Party. Latino Catholics have the most favorable view of Democrats (71 percent), followed by Mainline Protestants (60 percent) and the unaffiliated Latinos and Latinas (57 percent). These numbers reflect the previous findings in the PARAL Study and in Blessing La Pol tica. What raises new questions, however, is support for the idea of government guaranteed health care (58 percent). The government shutdown of October 2013 demonstrated that Democrats are firmly behind Obamacare while Republicans are steadfastly opposed. Thus, the Latino expectation of government’s health care may punish Republicans for the next decade and beyond, much as the anti-immigration attitudes from the GOP in the 1990s hastened Latino movement towards the Democrats. Like government programs for the poor, Latino support for health care flows from a Catholic theological altruism unspoiled by evangelical sympathies for Calvinism.
A charismatic pope, the return of ex-Catholics and a new health care law may seem unrelated to non-Latinos: they’re not.