Putting a real face on Pew’s Latino religious identity survey

The Pew Research Center released a report Wednesday titled “The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States,” based on a nationwide survey of 5,000 Hispanics, and it’s making headlines.

As always, it’s interesting to see the specific angles taken by major news organizations.

From The New York Times:

By all accounts, Hispanics are the future of Catholicism in America. Already, most young Roman Catholics in the United States are Hispanic, and soon that will be true of the overall Catholic population. But the Hispanicization of American Catholicism faces a big challenge: Hispanics are leaving Catholicism at a striking rate.

It has been clear for years that Catholicism, both in the United States and Latin America, has been losing adherents to evangelical Protestantism, and, in particular, to Pentecostal and other charismatic churches. But as an increasing percentage of the American Hispanic population is made up of people born in this country, a simultaneous, competing form of faith-switching is also underway: More American Hispanics are leaving Catholicism and becoming religiously unaffiliated.

The seemingly mind-bending result: Even as a rising percentage of American Catholics is Hispanic, a falling percentage of American Hispanics is Catholic.

From CNN’s Belief Blog:

(CNN) - Young Latinos are leaving the Catholic Church in droves, according to a new study, with many drifting into the country’s fastest-growing religious movement: the nones.

Nearly a third of Latino adults under 30 don’t belong to a faith group, according to a large survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center.  That’s a leap of 17 percentage points in just the last three years.

While the demise of organized religion, specifically Catholicism, is most dramatic among young Latinos, the overall shifts are broad-based, according to Pew, affecting men and women; foreign-born and U.S. natives; college graduates and those with less formal education.

The trends highlighted by Pew’s Latino survey also mirror large-scale shifts in the American population as whole.

From The Associated Press:

NEW YORK (AP) — Latinos in the United States are abandoning the Roman Catholicism of their childhood in increasing numbers to become evangelical Protestants or leave organized religion altogether, according to a new survey released Wednesday.

Only 55 percent of the nation’s Latinos consider themselves Catholic, a 12 percentage point drop since 2010. Of those who remain in the church, slightly more said they could imagine leaving than they have in previous years. At the same time, the share of Hispanic evangelicals rose from 12 percent to 16 percent, while Latinos with no religious affiliation increased from 10 percent to 18 percent.

While all three of those reports tackle the important news, I found the Wall Street Journal’s lede most compelling (tip: if you get the subscriber-only version when you click the Journal link, Google the first paragraph and the full story generally will show up):

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Upwardly mobile Hispanic evangelical converts?

Darn you, paywall.

Earlier this month, Time magazine published a 3,500-word cover story on what it dubbed “The Latino Reformation.” But the full text of the article is available online only to subscribers.

As a journalist who wants to see this industry survive, I’m OK with that. But it makes a critique in this kind of format a little awkward since most of you can’t access the full story. For those who do subscribe to Time and read the piece, I’d love to know what you thought.

The summary at the top of the story caught my attention:

Seeking a break with the past, a quicker assimilation into the middle class and a closer relationship with God, Latinos are pouring into Protestant churches across the U.S.

A break with the past? A quicker assimilation into the middle class?

Both those reasons for going to church struck me as, well, a bit strange. I immediately wondered if Time would provide evidence to back up those assertions. The short answer: Not really.

In fact, I suspect that an editor — and not the reporter who spent so much time on a thorough, nuanced presentation — came up with that quick and unproven assessment.

Unless I missed it, only a single paragraph of the actual story addressed the upward mobility claim. The source of that paragraph? No, it was not an actual Hispanic evangelical. How about an Ivy League theologian?:

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That all-but-missing detail about Jeb Bush’s life

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Catholics here in America have a very intense and interesting relationship with the mainstream press.

First of all, there are just so many of them and so many different kinds — with active and inactive, believing and non-believing being the simple points of reference.

Second, their sheer numbers make it impossible to ignore Catholics when it comes to the raw, swing-vote data so often used when talking (journalists may want to cross themselves here) POLITICS.

Third, there are so many Catholic politicians out there that issues of doctrine (does this or that vice president openly attack the teachings of the church) often become entangled with the practice of the faith, especially the Sacraments. Honestly, it often seems that many journalists truly believe that there is a Constitutional right to receive Holy Communion that cannot be denied by weird bishops and priests who think they have something to do with hearing confessions and protecting the Sacraments of the church.

You add all of that up and it’s pretty clear that it is pretty important to take a look at the faith content and status of any Catholic who may or may not be seeking the presidency.

This is especially true if the candidate speaks Spanish.

Yes, this is true even if the candidate’s last name is B-U-S-H. In fact, that fact may make the candidate’s Catholicism even more interesting.

If that is the case, then what is going on in the following Style piece from The Washington Post? I’m talking about the one with the headline, “Hispanic consciousness lends weight to Jeb Bush as GOP eyes 2016 presidential race.”

Marriage and family are at the heart of the story, of course, but so are issues of Latino culture, broadly defined. Here’s the opening:

MIAMI – She was almost like a member of the family. An employee, but almost one of them. For three years, Maria Magdalena Romero had tended to the suburban Miami home of Jeb and Columba Bush, had helped to raise their three children, had twined into the fabric of their lives.

Then, with lurching swiftness, she was yanked away. On a mild winter morning in 1991, two immigration agents appeared at the door of the family home looking for the woman Bush’s younger son and namesake, then just 10 years old, remembers as “a super nice lady.” They carried deportation orders.

It didn’t matter that Bush’s father was president of the United States at the time or that a Secret Service agent had answered the door. Romero, who was in the country illegally but had a work permit, wasn’t getting a reprieve.

“It was a difficult time for all of us, but most of all for Maria,” Jeb Bush said in an e-mail about that day. His son, Jeb Jr., hadn’t even realized she’d been deported. “I thought she just left,” Jeb Jr. said in a recent interview.

That long-ago deportation is one among many inflection points for the elder Bush in what has been a lifetime of intimate proximity to America’s Hispanic community, to its searing pain and its buoyant joy, to its mores and its politics. While Republicans cast about for leaders who can connect with Spanish-speaking voters, this tall Texas native with the Mexican American wife has remarkably come to represent a kind of Hispanic consciousness for the party.

I would not argue with any of that material, in terms of its placement in the story. The Post team had to deal, immediately, with Jeb Bush’s broader contacts with the complex, multifaceted Latino world that is Florida and, especially, South Florida (I say that as someone who was living in West Palm Beach during four years of his time as governor). The man speaks Spanish for a reason — in fact, for multiple reasons.

So how important is this Bush’s faith, especially in an era in which (a) moral/religious concerns continue to frame key political debates about religious liberty and (b) the rising Latino population all but requires additional attention to Catholic institutions?

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What are the real differences between Mahony and Gomez?

Guess what? There are significant differences in the theological approaches and doctrinal convictions of Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez and his predecessor, Cardinal Roger Mahony.

So, what are they?

It’s hard to tell, in a fascinating Los Angeles Times story that goes way, way out its way to argue that the differences that really matter are rooted in style and, you guessed it, politics. You can tell that right up front in the content of the magisterial double-deck headline:

Gomez, Mahony are a study in contrasts

Where his predecessor led labor rallies and took up worker rights, earning the nickname ‘Hollywood’ from a pope, Gomez has quietly promoted conservative voices and evangelization.

Trust me, the contents of the story are way better, are way more complex, than that tone-deaf headline. However, I think that headline does show you where the newspaper’s editors were coming from when they approved work on this important news feature story.

The surprising bottom line, however, is that Gomez — whose roots are in Opus Dei — has not turned out to be a rampaging monster out to destroy Mahony’s work as one of the heroes of progressive American Catholicism. Part of this, yes, is a matter of style. Yet the story also hints that the bottom line is clear for those who have eyes to see: Mahony was a political animal who was always seeking the media spotlight; Gomez thinks the best way to achieve Catholic goals is to quietly use Catholic means, year after year after year.

Thus, readers are told, right up top:

In more than two decades leading the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Cardinal Roger Mahony headlined immigration rallies, marched for worker rights and made national news by announcing he would defy a congressional bill he regarded as anti-immigrant.

But the man who replaced him in 2011 — Archbishop Jose Gomez — has shied away from such attention-getting actions. Instead, he plans to take 60 conservative Catholic business leaders on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City this fall in hopes of winning them over on immigration reform.

It’s a distinctly different style from that of Mahony, whom Pope John Paul II nicknamed “Hollywood” for his frequent media appearances.

In other words, both men are highly committed to helping immigrants, a crucial issue in America’s largest Catholic archdiocese — 4.5 million Roman Catholics in 120 cities in Southern California, with Latinos as 70 percent of the faithful. However, Gomez appears to be reaching out to Catholic leaders on these issues through worship and Catholic education, perhaps with few television cameras nearby.

Still, I think that this passage does raise an interesting journalistic question: Did someone in the Gomez camp say that the goal of the trip to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe was “winning” these business leaders “over on immigration reform”? Would Gomez state the goal in political, rather than spiritual terms? It’s hard to tell, since Gomez did not consent to be interviewed, which may or may not tell readers something about his view of the Times.

I found this passage especially interesting:

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Tiny little news stories about booming Diocese of Orange

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The Diocese of Orange — as in Orange County — has a new leader, Bishop Kevin W. Vann, who has moved from one rapidly growing Catholic flock, in Fort Worth, to lead another in a diocese that the experts believe is one of the most rapidly growing in the United States. It is already the nation’s 10th largest and, with its rising tide of Latino and Asian believers, there is little sign this growth will stop anytime soon.

I was not surprised that both The Orange County Register and The Los Angeles Times covered the recent rites in which Vann was installed as the fourth leader of this still young diocese.

I was surprised — stunned, actually — that both newspapers offered such short, perfunctory reports. I mean, the Register — as the local newspaper — dedicated all of 440 words to this event.

It was wise, I think, to dedicate much of that tiny space to the multicultural aspects of the rite, which drew a crowd at a UC Irvine facility that was slightly too large to be held in the former Crystal Cathedral facility that will soon become the diocesan Christ Cathedral. Consider the following information:

American Indian and Vietnamese dancers opened the ceremony. Vann welcomed the crowd in four languages — English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean – while other portions of the service were translated into Chinese, Tagalog, Polish and Tongan. At one point, Vann lifted his voice in Spanish three times: “Viva Cristo Rey!” he said. “Viva!” came the shouted reply, again and again.

Actually, the bishop delivered part of his sermon in Spanish, as well, a gesture that was more than symbolic, methinks. Those seeking to know what he actually said on this occasion can, of course, turn to the essential Whispers in the Loggia website for that kind of information.

I must admit that I laughed out loud when I hit this story’s short, short snippet of the sermon. You see, in addition to waving an Angels baseball hat, saluting his family and other essential acts:

He also delivered a spiritual message.

“We are gathered here today as the body of Christ, as the family of God,” he told the 4,000 who filled the center. “To bring the message of God to the world.”

What do you know? The bishop delivered — note the precise term — a “spiritual” message. What a shock.

Actually he delivered a rather complex, and at times emotional, message about growing up near the Mississippi River and learning about the power, and the dangers, of rivers that combine a wide variety of different waters and currents into one strong body of water. It was a metaphor for the great gifts, as well as tensions, found in Southern California.

Well, dang it, this was not the kind of message that crunches down well into one soundbite. If only he had said something, well, nakedly political.

How did the Times handle that complex message in its 460-word report?

Greeting the crowd in Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean, Vann spoke of his Illinois upbringing near the Mississippi River and his journey out West.

“By the hand of God I believe we have been brought together to be, as the Scripture says, the stream that gladdens the city of God,” said Vann, who also flashed an Anaheim Angels ball cap.

“Let us sing and keep going,” he told the crowd. “What do I mean by keep going? Make progress.”

This story did, however, deliver one rather meaty set of facts about the new shepherd:

Vann is not unfamiliar with the challenges that a growing contingent of worshipers will provide. As the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, since 2005, he oversaw more than $135 million in capital improvements and helped oversee the opening of the nation’s largest Vietnamese church.

Vann will face a $100-million capital campaign, which will go toward parish renovations, school funding and upgrades to the high-profile Crystal Cathedral for Catholic worship.

That’s just about it, in terms of content.

Not much news content on which to chew — unless one watches the actual rites online and pays close attention to things like Bible verses, prayers and metaphors.

Which religious group should be blamed for the election results?

Well, everyone, we made it through another presidential campaign year! Congratulations to the winners and condolences to the losers and all that.

With the election over, we’re now in the stage of the airing of grievances and assigning of blame.

It’s usually much easier to do this than this year, where the campaign wasn’t about big issues. Or as it was put in this fantastic Washington Post piece explaining how Obama won:

The campaign bore almost no resemblance to the expansive one Obama waged in 2008 — by strategic choice and by financial necessity. Without the clear financial advantage it had last time, Obama’s campaign relied more on the tools of micro-marketing than on the oratorical gifts of the nation’s first black president.

Gone were the soaring speeches that clarified Obama’s candidacy four years ago. Instead the president focused on Romney. Meanwhile, his campaign spoke early and often with “persuadable” voters, selected for targeted e-mails and doorstep visits through demographic data unavailable last time.

“We turned a national election into a school-board race,” a second senior Obama campaign official said.

Before the effort to define Romney began, before they even knew for certain Romney would be the opponent, the Obama campaign laid the groundwork for victory in a race that would be won in the margins of a polarized electorate.

The lack of big issues led, perhaps, to an obsession with polls. That obsession continues as journalists look to exit polls for meaning. The New York Times has a great interactive page with election information. It begins with the note:

Most of the nation shifted to the right in Tuesday’s vote, but not far enough to secure a win for Mitt Romney.

Weird, right? Most of the nation shifts to the right but the big story is that the right lost. Big time. How to make sense of that? The first thing I might suggest is caution. Whether it’s on election night or the first few heady days after, people are desperate to make sense of things. But sometimes it takes a while for actual vote totals to come in or good local data that explain particular elections.

Just for instance … I really enjoyed this Denver Post/Eric Gorski piece about the Pew data, which mentioned:

The initial speculation and preliminary evidence was white evangelicals and other conservative Christians might not enthusiastically support Romney, either for theological or other reasons, [University of Akron political scientist John] Green noted. Ultimately, though, exit polls showed nearly eight in 10 white evangelicals supported Romney, an improvement over John McCain’s 73 percent in 2008 and on par with George W. Bush’s 2004 numbers.

Perhaps more interestingly, Romney received less support from his fellow Mormons than allegedly skeptical white evangelicals – although it was just 1 percentage point less.

That’s fascinating, no? The evangelical voters increased their support for the GOP candidate in 2012 over 2008 and 2004? And Mormon support was below that of white evangelicals? Crazy! (The piece also has great discussions on the “nones” and why Obama lost seven points among white Catholics — Green suggests the “religious liberty” issue was a factor.)

But what we also need to know are whether those percentages reflect changes in the actual voters. Meaning, did some evangelicals sit out the election this year? And did Mormons come out to vote more than usual? Both of those things could have happened as well. Or not. We’ll have to wait a bit to find that out. Going back to that New York Times map mentioned above, it shows that the country went more Republican everywhere with a few exceptions. One of those areas was the South. Is that partly a religion story? I don’t know. (There’s some great analysis on these questions here.)

One interesting approach taken by Religion News Service was the piece headlined “What’s next for religious conservatives?” Even though the Romney campaign was laser-focused on the economy at the expense of getting out the vote over social conservatism or other issues Americans care about, the piece suggests that the problem lies with … social conservatives. It includes lines such as:

The electorate today is increasingly Latino, and younger, and both those groups are turned off by anything that smacks of righteous moralizing.

I only wish that young people were turned off by anything that smacked of righteous moralizing. But the ratings success of Glee would suggest otherwise. As for this claim that Latinos are all turned off by, um, “anything that smacks of righteous moralizing” … I’m not quite sure how to respond to it. I mean, maybe it’s true. Maybe Latinos were turned off of Romney (and the GOP) not because of his comments about self-deportation, or his lack of outreach to them, or this (from ABC/Univision):

Nationally, 74 percent of Latino voters said that Romney did not care about Latinos or was outwardly hostile to them, with a whopping 56 percent believing the latter. Compare that to what Latino voters thought of President Obama: 66 percent said he truly cares about Latinos.

But maybe RNS is right and the failure to crack 35 percent of the Latino vote — which one analysis says would have changed the outcome of the entire election — had something to do with social conservatism. Journalistically, though, it would be better to substantiate claims such as this about youth and Latinos rather than just assert it without any evidence.

This was an interesting election and one that, despite how narrowly divided the country is, had some decisive results with serious implications for religious adherents and the issues they care about. But it’s always good to proceed with caution when trying to make sense of why voters made the decisions they did.

Note: Please keep comments focused on media coverage as opposed to personal political preferences, etc.

Recriminations image via Shutterstock.


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