Samuel Rodriguez, then president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, in 2013. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Latinos Are Flocking to Evangelical Christianity

From California to Florida, Latinos are turning their backs on Catholicism and embracing a new faith that’s changing the face of America.

In recent years, Latino voters have confounded expectations. Long taken for granted as a solidly Democratic voting bloc, they are now shifting rightward, with one recent poll showing Donald Trump leading Joe Biden among Latino voters. But voting preferences are just one area where this cohort is misunderstood. 

Another is religion. Latinos, who make up 20 percent of the U.S. population, aren’t homogeneously Catholic. As Marie Arana shows in her new book, LatinoLand: A Portrait of America’s Largest and Least Understood Minority, this group is increasingly driving America’s evangelical movement. Estimates show that by 2030, half of U.S. Latinos will identify as Protestant evangelicals who actually lean right—a shift that will shape voting patterns for decades to come.

Arana, the daughter of an American mother and Peruvian father who moved to the U.S. when she was nine, spent three years researching her book. She interviewed over 200 people, from grape-pickers to neurosurgeons to CEOs of major corporations. And while she’s not a member of an evangelical church, Arana was baptized Catholic and is now a confirmed Episcopalian. In this exclusive excerpt from LatinoLand, Arana shows why this change is happening and the new generation of Pentecostal leaders who are fueling it.

Samuel Rodriguez—or “Pastor Sam,” as he’s often called by his legions of followers—didn’t find his faith in a church. He found it in a college physics lab. 

As a student of computer engineering at Penn State in the late ’80s, Rodriguez was a “science guy,” he says. “But studying mathematics and the probability of chance—as well as the complexities of what it took to create the Big Bang—there was no doubt in my mind that a higher intelligence had to be at work.” It was math that revolutionized him, Rodriguez says. “My belief in God is undergirded by calculus.”

Rodriguez, now 54, went on to become the CEO of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, leading a network of more than 42,000 evangelical churches that cater to Hispanic Americans. In 2010, he also founded New Season, a megachurch in Sacramento, California, where he serves as lead pastor. Between his church and the NHCLC, there are more than one hundred million souls in his flock.

Born to working-class Puerto Rican immigrants in the steel town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—his father drove a Mack truck and his mother was a homemaker—the baby-faced Rodriguez has been politically outspoken, especially when it comes to immigration reform. He’s advised presidents on both sides of the political aisle, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, and hasn’t been afraid to push back. In 2017, he shared a statement about Trump’s controversial border wall, saying while he agreed with Trump that “securing our borders is critically important,” he “vigorously oppose(d)” forcibly remov[ing]. . . undocumented people. . . living in the United States.

Rodriguez believes the reason for his meteoric rise is down to the enthusiasm of Hispanic believers. “Wherever you see a wildfire of spirituality, you see a Hispanic presence,” he tells me. “The Latino community is a passionate community.”

That “wildfire of spirituality” has been changing course in recent years. Although two-thirds of U.S. Latinos were raised Catholic, nearly a quarter of them have left the church, according to 2022 Pew research. One out of every three Latinos who’ve abandoned the Roman Catholic Church in this country has joined Pastor Sam as a Pentecostal, a branch of evangelical Christianity.

In fact, some researchers project that by 2030, half of the entire population of American Latinos will identify as Protestant evangelicals. Compare that growth with white evangelical Protestants, whose numbers have declined from 23 percent of the American population in 2006 to 14 percent in 2020. With the Hispanic population’s projected growth, in less than a decade, we may see forty million Latinos—a congregation the size of California—heading to American evangelical churches every Sunday.

And as their numbers burgeon, so does the faith’s political power. Latinos—a segment of American society once assumed to lean Democratic—have begun to identify more and more with conservative doctrine, and one only need study their religious migration to understand why.

Latino immigrants arrive in this country weary of corruption, violence, and the lack of opportunity in their homelands. They come here with a hunger for a better economy, heightened security, a more controlled society, a more governed self, a system that demands principles and opens the door to a better life. Pastor Sam’s evangelical church, and others like it, offer just that.

“We have all heard the old song—the song of hatred, sin, racism, intolerance, division, strife, brokenness,” says Rodriguez. “It’s time to sing something new.”

( Simon & Schuster)

In 1980, only six percent of the world’s Christians were Pentecostalist, but those few went forth and brought in converts, as the faith required. As a result, a mere generation later, one in four of the world’s Christians was a member. With each evangelized recruit becoming an evangelizer, the mission continued its powerful algorithm for exponential growth. Today, every twenty-four hours, the Pentecostal church adds another 35,000d born-again faithful to its ranks. Pentecostalists now represent some six hundred million believers worldwide, twenty million of them in the United States, with an overwhelming majority in Latin America and Africa. Clearly, this is the fastest growing religion on earth. It counts a tidy third of the two billion Christians on the planet. By 2050, it aims to count a billion.

For Pentecostalism, a physical church—sometimes the size of an airport—is vital to the mission. Across the U.S., Latino pastors with an eye on U.S. Census predictions have been energetically “planting” new churches, and thousands of Latino Pentecostal congregations have been cropping up every year in both urban and rural areas. Many of them are villages unto themselves: part music stadium, part hall of worship, part school, part way station for any conceivable need. 

And while the congregation at a Catholic Mass is made to sit and listen to a priest at an altar, the evangelical church urges them to speak, shout, share the faith, hug a stranger, join the family. “You can’t do that in Catholic churches,” says Rodriguez. “We offer Latinos greater equity in the moment. Greater unity.”

The megachurches also offer important education-oriented services, including remedial tutoring for flagging students, music classes for toddlers, English-language learning for immigrants, speed-dating events for young professionals, financial advice for small-business owners, counseling for troubled teens, even cures for addiction. 

For those who need assistance reading a legal document in English, or applying for a green card, or even finding the right childcare, the church becomes a one-stop destination. This network of support is a powerful magnet for a working-class cohort attracted to the lure of economic advancement—the promise that, once they ascend the money ladder, they can redraw themselves as not poor, not inferior, not objects of prejudice, but as inheritors of the beautiful “reset” that is implicit in the American Dream. 

The overwhelming majority of these newly minted Protestants, according to data from the Asbury Latino Center, are millennials or Generation Xers, and mostly female. The lion’s share are also foreign-born immigrants with less than a high school education, and they live in households that subsist on less than $30,000 a year. 

Pentecostalism—which touts itself as “prosperity theology”—promises a road to upward socioeconomic mobility. To reach salvation, there is no need to confess to a priest. Conversion and baptism alone can win it. Neither is there a need to die poor in order to inherit the earth; life can be better right here, on this very ground.

At the same time, the code of ethics for Protestant evangelicals is rigorous: in many churches, converts are expected to attend religious services regularly, bond with neighbors, reject homosexuality, prohibit drinking, spurn sex before marriage, condemn abortion, decry racism, and place a man as the bedrock of his family (although women are valued as church equals). For a culture steeped in machismo yet weary of violence, the appeal is obvious. 

But not all evangelicals count themselves among the struggling classes. Some are Hollywood stars, like pop star Selena Gomez, who was—until scandals of infidelity rocked her church’s leadership—a regular worshipper at the Hillsong Church in Los Angeles. Gomez, a third-generation Mexican American, hasn’t been shy about attaching her faith to her public persona. Her social media posts, her interviews, even her songs are filled with euphoric references to God, Jesus, and the Bible. “I’m literally just laying down and thanking Jesus,” she wrote on Twitter (now X) back in 2019. Star promotion like this can have an exponential effect on recruitment.

But sometimes, the most persuasive models of success are evangelical leaders themselves.

During services at the Mosaic megachurch he founded in Los Angeles, El Salvador–born Erwin McManus, 65, emerges onstage in skinny black jeans and black leather high-tops, like a pop star swanning into the Chateau Marmont. Born Irving Rafael Mesa-Cardona, McManus rarely refers to his Latino roots. His upbringing was difficult; his teachers called him “retarded,” he’s claimed. He talks about being an imperfect man who had to encounter Jesus before he could find the valuable human being buried deep within his soul. 

Meanwhile, in Orlando, Florida, another megachurch with a similar name opened its doors in 2003: This is Mosaic. One of its pastors, Javier Antique, a Venezuelan army veteran who works as an emergency room nurse during the week, is committed to spreading the gospel to working-class Latinos who labor in the giant amusement parks and tourist hotels that have sprung up around them. 

This is Mosaic grew from modest prayer gatherings in a Clermont, Florida, aerobics gym to massive music extravaganzas in the reconfigured shell of a former appliance megastore in Winter Garden, Florida, in 2017. Within a few years, the church had raised enough money to purchase a second colossal building near Orlando’s Walt Disney World.

On any given Sunday, when rock bands ramp up the speakers and the church walls begin to shake, thousands of worshipers crowd into This is Mosaic’s two venues.

Pastor Antique began his evangelical path in Venezuela as a translator for Team Mania Ministries, a worldwide, youth-oriented mission committed to “raising up a young army who will change the world for Christ.” When he immigrated to Tyler, Texas, in 2001 and began work there as an urgent-care nurse, he was recruited by This is Mosaic. Called to grow the newly planted church in Orlando, he is now responsible for drawing Latinos to the flock.

“They come with nothing but two hands and a desire to work,” says Antique. “We need to help them. I try to be loving and kind, so that people can see Jesus in what we do.”

What this means for future elections remains to be seen. Across the United States, more Latino pastors with an eye on U.S. Census predictions are energetically “planting” churches than ever before, winning Latino souls one at a time. After all, the Census Bureau has projected that, by 2060, Hispanics will number 111 million, nearly a third of this country’s entire population, and white evangelicals are not blind to the promise of growth inherent in that calculation. In fact, since 2006, white evangelical churches have experienced a precipitous drop in their numbers, shrinking from 23 percent of the American population in 2006 to 14 percent in 2020. 

Rodriguez fully understands the meaning of this. “We Latinos are not extending our hand to primarily white denominations and asking, ‘Can you help us plant churches?’ ” he says. “We’re going to them, saying, ‘You all need our help.’ This is a flipping of the script.”

Excerpted from LatinoLand © 2024 by Marie Arana, published by Simon & Schuster on February 20, 2024.

Marie Arana is a Peruvian-American author of nonfiction and fiction, as well as the inaugural literary director of the Library of Congress. Follow her on Twitter (now X) @aranama.

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