Sunday, February 24, 2008; B04
It's immigration, stupid.
That's the message from Hispanic
faith voters -- the de facto swing vote in this year's
presidential election. The candidate who hears and heeds it may
well win the
White House in November. And despite the patterns of the
past, that candidate may not be a Republican.
Hispanic evangelicals won't be
squeezed into a Republican barrio. The question in our hearts
and minds this election season is this: Is the Republican Party
the party of xenophobia, nativism and anti-Latino demagoguery,
or is it the party of faith and family values, regardless of
skin color or language proficiency? Should we vote for Sen.
John McCain because of his support for comprehensive
immigration reform, or should Latino evangelicals shy away from
a party that has refused to repudiate the polarizing and vicious
rhetoric that has accompanied the immigration debate.
Hispanic faith voters include both
evangelical Christians and Catholic charismatics. Many of us are
the children of the Reagan revolution, the Moral Majority and
the antiabortion movement. Where our parents championed the
cause of economic equality and supported the
Democratic Party , our generation wanted to connect the dots
from the pulpit to the voting booth. Today, we also include
large numbers from Generation X and Generation Y, younger adults
who speak both Spanish and English fluently and hold strong
social conservative beliefs but also embrace populist economic
Without Hispanic faith voters,
George W. Bush never would have won
Florida in 2000 and 2004. Today, we play a major role in
such swing states as
New Mexico ,
Nevada and others. Without us, the Republican Party cannot
succeed in a national election.
Until recently, the
GOP stood ready to capture more than 50 percent of the
Latino vote, thanks to evangelicals. In 2004, 44 percent of
Hispanics voted for Bush -- but among Hispanic Protestants
(chiefly evangelicals), according to the
Pew Research Center , this figure was 56 percent. Last year,
a Pew survey revealed that Latino evangelicals are twice as
likely as Latino Catholics to identify with the Republican Party
(37 percent vs. 17 percent). And Latino evangelicals are far
more likely than Latino Catholics to describe themselves as
conservative (46 percent to 31 percent).
The Pew survey reveals a
constituency even more conservative on social issues than its
white counterpart. Eighty-six percent of Hispanic evangelicals
oppose same-sex marriage, compared with 67 percent of white
evangelicals. While 61 percent of white evangelicals oppose
abortion, an overwhelming 77 percent of Hispanic evangelicals
repudiate the practice.
These factors alone would seem to
make Hispanic faith voters a natural GOP constituency, but in
the past two presidential elections, we also can't deny the Bush
Factor. George W. Bush reached out to Hispanics like no other
GOP candidate in history. He matched
Bill Clinton 's "I feel your pain" outreach to the black
community with his "I speak your language" mantra. The
border-state, taco-eating, baseball-loving,
Texas governor resonated with the Latino community. He wooed
us as we had never been wooed, and argued that we personify the
idea of compassionate conservatism.
So why would these compassionate
conservatives break away from the Republican Party? Two years
ago, meeting with former Senate majority leader
Bill Frist , then-Speaker
Dennis Hastert and Sens.
Trent Lott and John McCain, I expressed the possible
ramifications for the GOP if immigration-reform legislation did
not succeed. I predicted a definitive decline in Latino support
in the 2006 midterm elections. I was right. Support for
Republican candidates among Hispanic faith voters fell from 44
percent in 2004 to 27 percent in 2006.
Hispanic Christian voters
overwhelmingly support an end to illegal immigration and the
protection of the borders. The great divide between us and the
GOP is over the question of what to do with the 12 million
undocumented workers currently in the United States . While
Tom Tancredo and his supporters last year reinforced a
xenophobic thread within the Republican establishment, Hispanic
faith voters fought for immigration reform that reconciled the
three pillars of our nation: the rule of law, our
Judeo-Christian values system and the pursuit of the American
But we have learned that our white
brothers and sisters who believe in a pro-family agenda also
embrace a predominantly anti-immigration-reform agenda. Reina
Olmeda, a Pentecostal Latina pastor, expressed the sentiment of
many Hispanic evangelicals: "We're caught between the proverbial
rock and the hard place. We either vote for a party that
resonates with our beliefs but does not want us, or with a party
that wants us but does not resonate with our beliefs."
So, with much trepidation, the
Hispanic faith voter is looking to the Democratic Party for a
viable alternative. Although Hispanic evangelicals align with
the social values platform of the GOP, the Democrats can easily
capitalize on a kindred constituency when it comes to economic
and social justice issues. While most white evangelicals limit
their political agenda to abortion and marriage issues, Hispanic
evangelicals embrace a broader agenda that also includes
health-care and education reform, alleviating poverty, help for
Darfur and HIV/AIDS, climate change and immigration reform.
But chiefly, it's because
immigration reform failed in the Senate last June that the
Democrats stand poised to make significant inroads into the
Hispanic values vote. That failure could be to the national GOP
what the passage of the anti-immigration Proposition 187 was to
the GOP in
California in 1994, when then-Gov. Pete Wilson's support
alienated Hispanic voters.
The greatest indicator of the
trouble between Republicans and Hispanic faith voters are the
actions of diehard Republican operative Rev. Mark Gonzalez of
Dallas . Last week, Gonzalez captured the collective
disappointment of the Hispanic community when he said that his
primary objective in this election cycle is to register voters
in the 10 states with the largest Hispanic population. He
doesn't care, he says, whether they vote Democrat or Republican,
as long they vote -- and demonstrate that Latino Christians
represent a meaningful, and valuable, constituency.
In the end, Hispanic evangelicals
are married to neither the Christian right nor the Christian
left. We are the standard-bearers of Christian equilibrium. And
this fall, we may force both the Democrats and the Republicans
to move to the center to capture the Latino vote.
Rodriguez Jr. is president of the National Hispanic Christian
Leadership Conference, an organization of Hispanic evangelicals.