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In the spirit, at the polls

U.S. Hispanics view religious and political life as intertwined, often worship in ethnic congregations and embrace a spirit-filled, charismatic style of Christianity, according to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Hispanic Center.
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.S. Hispanics view religious and political life as intertwined, often worship in ethnic congregations and embrace a spirit-filled, charismatic style of Christianity, a new survey says.

The trends cross Roman Catholic and Protestant lines and signal significant shifts in the U.S. religious landscape, considering the explosive growth of the Hispanic population, according to the survey released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Hispanic Center.

When it comes to political loyalties, religion trumps ethnicity: Hispanic Catholics, who make up two-thirds of the Hispanic population, are solidly Democratic. But born-again or evangelical Hispanics, at 15 percent of the Hispanic population and rising, favor Republicans, though by a much narrower margin.

The bilingual survey involved 4,600 interviews from August to October last year and is billed as one the most detailed looks ever at Hispanics and U.S. public life. It has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

The survey also found that 54 percent of Hispanic Catholics identified themselves as charismatic, compared to about 12 percent of non-Hispanic Catholics.

A personal walk with God
Though definitions differ, charismatics generally emphasize an intense personal experience with God and believe the Holy Spirit can work through speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy.

Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said this brand of Christianity, mostly associated with evangelicals, attracts Catholics who don’t feel a strong connection with God through the traditional Mass.

“This is introducing a new way to worship, a new way of being the church,” Lugo said. “You could call it bringing the fiesta spirit into the Catholic church.”

Lugo said Catholic leaders will be challenged to incorporate clapping, shouting and even speaking in tongues into worship, a potential point of conflict in an institution that cherishes tradition. Those issues will be brought into relief next month when Pope Benedict XVI visits Brazil, the world’s most populous Catholic country, where Pentecostals are making inroads.

The embrace of charismatic Christianity has not turned Catholics into Pentecostal Protestants, however. The survey found charismatic Catholics are even more likely to pray the rosary, go to confession or serve in their parishes, suggesting a strengthening of Catholic identity.

The survey found 18 percent of Hispanics have either converted from one religion to another or claim no religious affiliation. Four out of 10 Hispanic evangelicals are converts from Catholicism, and one in three of these cited the lack of excitement at Catholic Masses; very few cited dissatisfaction with the church’s position on issues.

‘Ethnic identity matters’
Two-thirds of Hispanic worshippers attend churches with Hispanic clergy, Spanish services and heavily Hispanic congregations. Not only are new immigrants and Spanish speakers being drawn to ethnic churches, but so are English-speaking, U.S.-born Hispanics, the survey found.

“Latinos are finding each other and worshipping together,” said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “Religion is one area where ethnic identity matters a lot.”

Edwin Hernandez, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Religion at the University of Notre Dame, who consulted on the study, said ethnic churches affirm cultural roots and the strength of family and community. But rather than isolating Hispanics, Hernandez argues ethnic churches do the opposite through job training, social services and connecting Hispanics across generations.

“Ethnic congregations,” he said, “are helping people integrate better.”

Religion as moral compass
The survey found Hispanics see religion as a moral compass to guide their political thinking and expect the same of politicians, with the feeling stronger among evangelicals. Most Hispanics believe social and political issues should be addressed from the pulpit.

The racial split over that question at times was stark: About 54 percent of white Catholics believe churches should stay out of politics, compared to 36 percent of Hispanic Catholics, the survey found.

The survey found 43 percent of eligible Hispanic voters consider themselves Democrats and 20 percent were Republican; 20 percent chose independent — the rest had no answer or picked another party. Among Catholic Hispanics, 48 percent said they were Democrats and 17 percent Republicans, while Hispanic evangelicals more narrowly favored Republicans, 37 percent to 32 percent.

On a volatile political topic, two-thirds of Hispanics surveyed said immigrants strengthen society. But the remainder did not, which the survey authors flagged as a sizable minority. One in three evangelical Hispanics said immigrants threaten society, the highest number among all the faith groups.

“It’s still a big issue for Latinos to seek out identities in this society, to stake a place for yourself,” said Timothy Matovino, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame. “Some do that by saying, ’I am American now,’ and you show that by distancing yourself from immigrants.”

Census estimates say there are more than 42 million Hispanics in America, making them the nation’s largest minority group.