The Hispanic community in America is thought to be shaped by diehard Catholicism — in pop culture and politics alike. For over a century, Catholic Churches were a place of refuge for new migrants to the United States, who faced violence and exploitation; unlike the State, the Church offered protection, as well as a connection to the lives left behind. But widespread assumptions about Latinos have been overturned recently: once considered reliable Democrat voters, Hispanics came out for the Republicans in 2016 in greater numbers than ever. And this demographic’s religious affiliations, as well as its political ones, have also shifted. They are moving to the polar extremes of American faith: abandoning religion altogether, or becoming Evangelicals.
A survey from the Pew Research Center released last month showed that there is a rapid decline in Catholisism among American Hispanics — tumbling from 67% in 2010 to 46%. “That’s consistent with other Latin American countries, such as Brazil, where large numbers of Catholics have converted to Evangelical Christianity,” says Dr Andrew Chesnut, Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. The “health and wealth” promises of Pentecostalism in particular are driving people across the continent to Evangelical churches. “The interesting difference between Latin America and the United States,” says Chesnut, “is the percentage of religious ‘nones’, which has tripled to 30 percent in 12 years. In Latin America, they’re only usually in the 12-14 percent range.”
Nones are people who have no faith at all, and they are fast swallowing up white Christian America — now firmly a minority. In 1996, the year Bill Clinton was sworn in for his second term as president, almost 65% of Americans identified as white and Christian. Now, only 44% do. In 1990, only 7% of Americans said that they were nones, but that figure has increased four-fold over the last 30 years, largely because of young people. Today, almost half of Gen Z — young adults born from 1997 onwards — say they have no religion.
For a long time, American exceptionalism saw the United States buck the European trend of secularisation. And faith among Hispanics, who tend to come from more religious backgrounds than white Americans, remained particularly strong. Catholicism was seen, even among the young, as part of their identity — but “the inflexibility of the Church to modernise its dogma and doctrine in terms of blessing, same sex marriage, and female clergy really is culturally out of touch with Millennials and Generation Z”, Chesnut says. High-profile sex scandals have also put people off — too much even for the Latino community’s cultural Catholics. People who once ticked the box identifying as Catholic, even if they weren’t regularly attending, are now firmly in the “none” camp. And Hispanics are now abandoning the faith as fast as the rest of the country.
Ryan Burge, author of The Nones: Where They Came From, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going, suspects that changes in Hispanic faith have to do with how devout your parents were when they came to the United States. “If they are super devout, you’re more likely to stay Catholic,” he says. “If they really weren’t religious at all, you’re much more likely to become a none.” But there is a third way: “If they’re kind of on the fence about religion, then you might become Evangelical.”
The material promises offered by born-again churches are also attractive. A Pew study in 2014 found that 49% of Hispanics who were raised as Catholics but have become Protestants say that an important factor was finding a church that “reaches out and helps its members more”. Moreover, the prosperity gospel preached in Evangelical churches rewards hard work — a philosophy that often appeals to those who’ve signed up to the American Dream, which reassures them that if they put in the effort, they’ll be rewarded. Faith healing is also an attractive offering, given that health care is usually out-of-reach for working-class people in the United State.
Assimilation is often a primary aim. “We’re seeing a rising number of conservative Hispanics jumping the fence from Catholicism to Evangelicalism, because Evangelicalism is a very American religion,” says Burge. Immigrants to the United States often have more malleable identities, and “becoming an Evangelical is a way to jump into the mainstream of your town or city”, says Burge. Evangelical Churches are a marker of a new life and new identity. Being born again is both a spiritual and actual experience: you’re baptised as a follower of Jesus, and as an American. Some scholars describe conversion to Evangelical faith as a kind of safety mechanism, stemming from the belief that Hispanic immigrants become more American, and less deportable.
The change in the religious landscape reflects a bigger picture in American politics: the stark, and increasingly pronounced, city-rural divide. The “God Gap” is a part of that: if you’re in a big city,you’re likely to be secular; in a rural area, you’re likely to be church-going — or at least religiously-identifying but not attending. Politically, these religious shifts are beginning to have a real impact: the Democrats are making gains in secularising regions, while the Republicans are on the march in places where religion is on the rise.
Hispanics are increasingly adopting the cultural markers once dominated by white Americans — and with that has come a change in party allegiance. In the 2020 election, Hispanic Evangelicals voted almost 50/50 for Trump and Biden, while two-thirds of Hispanic Catholics voted for their co-religionist Biden. In Hispanic-majority Miami-Dade County, which Hillary Clinton won by 30 percentage points in 2016, Biden won by only seven in 2020. Even more striking is Texas, long vaunted as a state preparing to turn to the Democrats. This would be electorally disastrous for the Republicans: Texas is the second largest state in the electoral college. But along the Texas-Mexico border, in the Rio Grande Valley, the number of votes for Republicans has jumped astronomically. After losing Starr County, in southernmost Texas, by 60 percentage points to Hillary Clinton in 2016, Donald Trump lost it by just five to Joe Biden in 2020. Next door in Zapata County, which Clinton won by 33 percentage points in 2016, voters flipped entirely for Trump. These are counties that identify as almost entirely Hispanic or Latino — and who have long been assumed to be flag-waving Democrats.
But Hispanics here, unsurprisingly, feel the threat of deportation more keenly than most, given their proximity to the border. That anxiety often manifests as a preoccupation with job security, and one’s place in the community — ideas central to the conservative worldview.
“Hispanics who are conservative culturally, socially and religiously are moving into places around the Rio Grande Valley,” Burge says. “And they’re really changing the political and social culture of those places.” Religiosity, like Republicanism, has massively increased in the region. In 2010, about 33% of Starr County claimed they were part of a religious congregation. By 2020, that number was 73%. Conservative Texas Democratic congressman Henry Cuellar describes the region as “homogenous, deeply religious, pensively patriotic, socially conservative, and it’s hurting economically.” In other words, naturally Republican.
Whether the conservative or the Evangelical turn came first is difficult to say, but they often go hand in hand, motivated by the same feeling: that the liberal, secular world is closing in on people with conservative values. And given the GOP is so clearly losing the demographic battle, it has been willing to accept Hispanics — particularly evangelical Hispanics — as all-American patriots. Though Catholicism has historically been tied to Hispanic identity, for first and second generation migrants who feel compelled to prioritise assimilation over their heritage, a fork in the road is clear: become a non-believing, big-city Democrat, or a small-town Evangelical Republican.