Latinos courted as wild card among shifting evangelical voters
For Democratic, GOP candidates, California pastor is vital link to nearly 18,000 congregations
By Margaret Ramirez
2:42 AM CST, January 29, 2008
When Republican presidential candidates John McCain or Mike Huckabee need advice on the nation's surging Latino evangelical vote, there is one man to call: Rev. Samuel Rodriguez.
The young California pastor serves as president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, making him the link to nearly 18,000 Latino evangelical churches and some of the most prominent pastors in the country. In recent weeks, his constantly ringing cell phone and packed schedule have testified to his popularity among Republican and Democratic presidential contenders alike.
In 2004, President Bush drew strong support from Latino Protestants, including those from mainline denominations and the fast-growing evangelical population. But since then, two developments have undermined that success: GOP opposition to immigration reform and the willingness of Democratic presidential contenders to speak openly about faith.
Fearing the loss of a constituency that helped push Bush to re-election, Republican candidates are turning to Rodriguez for help. A dynamic, fast-talking preacher of Puerto Rican descent, Rodriguez, 38, has been dubbed by some Christian leaders the Karl Rove of Hispanic evangelical strategy. He represents a new generation of evangelical kingmakers on the political scene.
Last month, Huckabee asked Rodriguez to arrange a conference call with top Latino pastors and theologians to field their questions and concerns. McCain also has spoken to Rodriguez to discuss Latino concerns.
Religious leaders and political analysts say that increased outreach symbolizes the importance of the Latino evangelical vote in key states such as Florida, where primary voters go to the polls Tuesday. Latino evangelicals in that state amount to about 40 percent of the Hispanic population, though Florida is unique due to its sizable, conservative Cuban population and the influence of Baptist and Pentecostal churches.
Democrats have been less eager in their embrace of Latino evangelical leaders than Republicans. Rodriguez took the initiative to call Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The campaign of Obama, who drew good reviews after an appearance in December 2006 before an evangelical megachurch in California, was open to the idea of a conference call with Latino pastors, Rodriguez said. He said Clinton has not yet responded.
Seeking broader agendaEvangelicals, at the core of any winning GOP candidacy, gave Huckabee his surprising win in the Iowa caucuses. But because they remain a wild card in upcoming primaries, attention to young leaders such as Rodriguez is growing.
Though some presidential candidates might be hoping for an endorsement from him, he said the bigger goal is communicating the priorities of the Hispanic people. His intention is to broaden the focus of the white evangelical church beyond abortion and same-sex marriage.
"The agenda of the evangelical church in America has been two-fold since 1973: It has been sanctity of life and traditional marriage. ... It's almost blasphemous to go beyond those two items," he said. "Now, the Hispanic evangelical comes along and says there are other items that we need to look at. What about alleviating poverty, from a biblical view? What about health care and education? What about speaking against torture? What about human rights?"
John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, agrees that capturing the Hispanic evangelical vote could prove to be a decisive factor in the general election, especially in states such as Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Florida.
"If the Republicans are able to recover support among Hispanic evangelicals," Green said, "that could make them much more competitive. On the other hand, if they can't recover that support, it might make it difficult to win."
Some see swing voteAt least 8 million Americans identify themselves as Latino evangelicals. While there are no precise estimates of how many are registered voters, exit polls from previous elections give a sense of how important they can be, especially for Republicans. According to a report by the Pew Forum, Bush's biggest gain in the 2004 election came from Latino Protestants. The report said 64 percent of them voted for Bush, an increase from the 33 percent who voted for him in 2000.
More than two-thirds of the nation's Latinos are Roman Catholics who tend to vote for Democrats. But the second-largest religious group is made up of those who identify themselves as born-again or evangelical Protestants, amounting to 15 percent of the Latino population. Pollsters say Latino evangelicals are likely to be Republican, though some Latino evangelical leaders describe themselves as a swing vote.
The goal of Rodriguez's group is to connect with the larger evangelical church. But he said he was disappointed with their lack of support for immigration reform. With the exception of Richard Land, the Southern Baptist Convention's top public policy official, white evangelical leaders distanced themselves from the issue. Rodriguez said that stance is likely to cause a schism between white and Latino evangelicals in the general election.
"We feel a bit exploited," Rodriguez said. "We were engaged for the purpose of delivering a constituency in 2004, but when push came to shove on the issue of immigration reform, we were completely abandoned."
For that reason, Republicans can't assume the allegiance of a voting bloc that has begun to redefine what it means to be an evangelical in the U.S.
"If you ask the typical American citizen what an evangelical looks like, they will say white, middle class, probably from a Southern state, male. But the reality of what we have is a Mexican-born woman at a megachurch in the Bronx," Rodriguez said. "It's an evangelical that will not submit to being the extension of one political party."
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