Comment and Features

Losing the Latino faithful

People attend a prayer service at an evangelical church in Leon, Mexico (CNS)

“Our housekeeper is from El Salvador,” a friend in Los Angeles told me recently. “But it’s OK, she’s Protestant.” What a weird, bigoted remark, you may be thinking. Particularly since my friend is a Catholic. What she meant was that Evangelical Hispanics in the US were more trustworthy than Hispanic Catholics or those with no religion.

That’s still crude stereotyping, admittedly. But my friend, a solid Democrat, is no racial bigot: she’s a Californian teacher with annoying PC views. Her comment reflects a widespread belief among Americans that Evangelical Protestant Hispanics are sober, trustworthy and entrepreneurial. Also, she takes it for granted that Latin Americans are divided into Catholics and Protestants, which until a few years ago would have seemed a very peculiar assumption.

Nearly one in four Latinos in the United States are ex-Catholics, according to Pew Research, America’s best source of religious data. Pew has been putting this “switching” under a microscope, and rightly so. The growth of Protestantism in Latin America is having a profound effect on religious observance in the US, a country where Christian voters can still swing the result of an election.

In 2010, Pew found that 67 per cent of 35 million Hispanics in America (including first- and second-generation immigrants) identified as Catholics. By 2013, that had dropped by 12 points – the totals for the four years are 67, 62, 58 and 55, which implies rapid and steady decline.

This won’t surprise anyone who has observed the explosion of Pentecostalism across Latin America, mirroring a similar trend in West Africa. In Hispanic countries tormented by poverty, prostitution, alcoholism and drug addiction, becoming “born again” offers a fresh start. “Pentecostalism promotes healthy lifestyles and serves as the largest detox centre for Latin American men,” says Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Also, its emphasis on faith healing appeals to anyone going through a health crisis.

Protestant ministers in Latin America tick the right ethnic and cultural boxes. “They are often unlettered and they speak to their flock in the same way that people in Latin American speak to each other,” explains Chesnut. “They also tend to look like their congregants. So in Guatemala, many preachers are Mayan, and in Brazil they are Afro-Brazilian. By contrast, in the Catholic Church most priests are part of the elite. They are either white or mestizo, and many are actually from Europe.”

Much of this applies to US Hispanics. Pentecostal churches promise that faith in Jesus will bring not only physical healing but prosperity, too. This so-called “health and wealth Gospel” strikes Catholics and mainstream Protestants as deeply troubling. Maybe it is, but we need to recognise that those promises are self-fulfilling. People who clean up their act after the high drama of being “baptised in the Holy Spirit” reap tangible benefits. Moreover, Evangelical congregations don’t share the disdain of many Catholic clergy for commerce and technology. They teach “unlettered” Hispanics how to use social media and make business contacts with other Christians. And all this amid the excitement of revivalism – wild exhortations to faith accompanied by Christian rock music.

It may not be to your taste, but anything is better than the amateur wailing of folk Masses. So is it any wonder that American Hispanics are “switching” in their millions?

Take a look at the detailed Pew findings, however, and a more complicated picture emerges. Hispanics aged 18 to 29 who leave the Catholic Church don’t become Pentecostals who pore daily over their zip-up Bibles. They become nothing in particular. Like other young Americans, you can locate them somewhere on the spectrum running from nominal Christianity to hardline atheism, via fuzzy agnosticism. They are part of a general collapse of religious belief among the young that contradicts the old notion that churchgoing is part of American DNA.
It is older Hispanics who switch from Catholic to Protestant – but we should be wary of assuming that they all do so in a specifically Latino way. American Protestants have always moved around. Recent US presidents, for example, have rarely worshipped in churches belonging to the denomination in which they were raised. Eisenhower switched from a Mennonite sect to Presbyterianism, Nixon from the Quaker faith to the Reformed Church of Norman Vincent Peale, Reagan from the Disciples of Christ to Presbyterianism, George W Bush from the Episcopal Church to Methodism, and Obama from Trinity United Church of Christ to… well, your guess is as good as mine.

This spiritual shopping is unremarkable in America – and now it has spread to disaffected Catholics. The teacher I mentioned earlier has four siblings, all of whom attend non-Catholic churches either because they have been born again or out of disgust with the Church’s response to the paedophile scandals. Some Hispanics convert to Protestantism for the same reasons as South Americans. Pentecostal ism meets their specific needs as a community. Others have just got used to the idea.

This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald magazine (5/12/14)