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The surprising reasons Latino Protestants are embracing Christian nationalism

Both Democrats and Republicans will be vying for the Latino vote in this year’s election. The growing demographic is key to winning several key states this November, including Arizona. But the Latino vote is shifting. And, as our next guest describes, their religious affiliation is shifting as well.

While most Latinos are Catholic — 43 % in 2022 — that number has dropped from 67% in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center.

At the same time, 21% of Latinos are now Protestant. And, a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute shows 55% of Latino Protestants also qualify as Christian nationalists, a seemingly surprising trend given the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from that camp.

Jonathan Calvillo, assistant professor of Latinx Communities at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, spoke more about the changes with The Show.

Full conversation

JONATHAN CALVILLO: So there's definitely been a shift in the last two decades in terms of growth of Protestant affiliation among the Latino population in the U.S. Some of that represents shifts that are already happening in Latin America. However, in the U.S., we've had a long history of Latino Protestantism as well. And so part of that shift also means that older, previously existing Latino Protestant congregations have provided space for newer immigrants who in some ways are now interacting with older generation Latino congregants as well.

So we're really talking about a multigenerational phenomenon in some ways. It's not a completely new phenomenon. It's both old and new. The first Latino Protestants were in the U.S. back in the mid-19th century. So the mid-1800s in New Mexico, for example, and from that, we have an expansion of Latino Protestant churches in the community. And also again, newer churches that are forming with immigrant populations.

LAUREN GILGER: Let's talk about some of the reasons behind that kind of broader religious shift. I mean, some of it seems to be cultural, some of it seems to be religious, some of it, as you're saying, seems to be generational. But you know, what are some of the main push factors you think for Latinos leaving something like Catholicism that they may have grown up with?

CALVILLO: Certainly. So a lot of them talk about a sense of closeness to God, having an experience of encountering God. And I think a lot of that can be attributed to these congregational experiences that they're having where they may go into a Protestant church and have this you know, very lively worship experience, a an experience of listening to a sermon that perhaps speaks to their present reality. And so they have a sense of wow, God is, God is here. God is present. God is speaking to me. And then often they will give testimony of having some sort of transformational experience.

For me, I'm a sociologist. So I'm also looking at ways that these congregations are providing social support for newer members. And so often times that is a big factor as well, where people are encountering a community that is in some ways, a support network, a trust network where a lot of their immediate social and, and in some cases, even financial needs may be spoken to. So all these things are tied into this experience of shifting toward Latino Protestant congregations.

I think we also have to recognize, as I've mentioned earlier, that it is a multigenerational phenomenon. And so now we do have second-, third-, fourth-generation Latino Protestants, we can't assume that everyone is the first convert in their family.

GILGER: Yeah, let's talk about the role of Christian nationalism in this, which has become such a political issue. I think a lot of people would assume like, you know, Latinos, even Latino Protestants are not going to be drawn to that kind of ideology because it tends to be anti-immigrant. But is that the case?

CALVILLO: Yeah. So what you're naming there is really one of the paradoxes I think that people wrestle with or apparent paradoxes. I don't think it actually is one, but there are different reasons why Latinos gravitate towards something like Christian nationalism. And I mean, the term itself is in many ways an attempt to explain this much larger phenomenon, right? And there's so many moving parts to it. But I think that at its core, it presents a compelling vision for many Latino Protestants. A vision that perhaps resonates with their faith orientation, with the type of narrative that they see themselves within, meaning they see themselves as participating within this very moral community, a community that desires to lead others on the right path. And so Christian nationalism in many ways weds that vision with the broader mission of the nation, you know, in some ways, to become a nation that, that is doing that type of work and that is upholding the place of the church. It may feel very empowering.

So even for immigrants, I think that many who are pursuing the American dream, this vision of being part of this larger Christian nation, it, it, it has an appeal. I think there's this sense of belonging, a sense of being part of something that's so much bigger even if and there's, I think I, I wanna address an assumption here, even if immigrant Latino Protestants are not yet fully integrated into the broader society. I think that the story is compelling to many, and so we may think, well, wait a minute, there's so much anti-immigrant rhetoric. There's so much in terms of the policies that are being put forth, it seems like it's hurting the community. And yet this promise of belonging to this larger movement, there's an appeal there, there's an attraction. But I think for many Latino Protestants, it's this idea of, if I am a certain type of Christian, perhaps I will be accepted in the nation and also be a part of this larger mission to live out my Christianity within this society.

GILGER: So we have to talk about the political ramifications of that then because this is an election year and there's so much talk about, you know, Latinos moving away from supporting just the Democratic Party by assumption, lots of more Latinos, some are surprised are supporting Donald Trump. How do you see this kind of religious shift that's happened in the last several decades here correspond with the political shift?

CALVILLO: Yeah, Latino Protestants have often been characterized as being a swing vote. And so there's always been this, in some ways, a split within the community. There's always been diversity there in terms of when we talk about partisan politics. Republican and Democrat, I, it's never been complete allegiance to one or the other. I think what's what's perhaps different in the current moment is that we're seeing Latino Protestants in some ways come of age. In other words, the movement is now more visible. The movement is gaining more of a platform. And so the leaders within the movement are often now more vocal about where they stand.

But I think we need to also recognize what's unique to this moment, which is the higher visibility. And so I, I would say it's, it's not an illusion. I do think something is happening there. But I do think that if we actually look at the people in the pews, there is still somewhat more diversity. I think the challenge for those who are not moving in that direction is that their voices aren't necessarily being heard. And so I, I do think, and here's my researcher coming through, I think that, yeah, I think that we need to ask more about, well, who are these other Latino Protestants who aren't necessarily trumpeting the Christian nationalist discourse? And, and there are some out there.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.