Reverend Samuel Rodriguez is President of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference, America’s largest Hispanic Christian organization with over 40,000 member churches. Often identified as the nation’s leading Hispanic Evangelical voice, he has worked with elected leaders on both sides of the aisle to represent, as he says, not the agenda of the donkey or the elephant but the agenda of the Lamb. A featured speaker in meetings at the White House and Congress on Hispanic American issues and justice concerns, he presently serves on President Obama’s White House Task Force on Fatherhood.
I’ve always found Rodriguez a compelling voice on behalf of Hispanic believers. His star has risen even higher with the 2012 election, as some have suggested that Rodriguez could help conservatives build a more positive relationship with Hispanics. Rodriguez graciously shared his time so that we could discuss the election and how conservatives can build inroads with the Hispanic community.
Before the election, we asked whether this was “the Mormon Moment.” It turns out it might have been “the Hispanic Moment” instead.
Absolutely agreed. The 2008 election was the last election where the Latino vote was in the margins. This election elevated the importance of the Latino electorate into the stratosphere. Going forward, as much as we can see in the 21st century, the Latino vote will be sought after just as definitely as the Independent vote. Independents and Latinos will be significant in every single Presidential cycle.
Are Latinos potentially receptive to the conservative message?
Yes, the Latino vote is the quintessential swing vote for many reasons. Just today, we released a study together with the Barna Group that affirms that Latinos, on social matters, have a strong faith and family ethos. Some would locate that as center-right or socially conservative. But simultaneously, the Latino community has a very strong commitment to social justice. It’s a hard group to pigeonhole. I predict the Latino community may end up as the most-Independently registered community in the American electoral landscape.
Democrats have an opportunity to solidify the Latino vote if they move toward the center on issues of family, life, and religious liberty. But we can’t forget that 44 percent of Latinos supported Bush in 2004. 27 to 29 percent supported Romney, a drop of at least fifteen points. But can Republicans regain the Latino electorate? Yes. We’re witnessing the rise of the Latino evangelical and charismatic communities, and both lean center-right. Republicans have opportunity with that community, if they leave behind polarizing rhetoric on immigration and address other issues important to Latinos, like justice and education. If the Republican party will go back to being the party of Lincoln, marrying social justice with opportunity and freedom, they can find significant support from the Latino electorate.
Why did Romney receive so much less support than Bush from Latinos?
The first reason has to do with George W. Bush himself. In the 1990s, many identified Bill Clinton as “the first black President.” Arguably, George W. Bush was the first pseudo-Latino President. He spoke Spanish, he was from Texas and he understood the Tex-Mex culture. Bush had a personal relationship with the Latino community.
The second reason, and I would say seventy percent of the reason why so many supported Obama rather than Romney, was Romney’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration. The rhetoric of self-deportation led many voters who might have been open to Romney’s message straight into the arms of Obama. Latinos said, hey, I just can’t support a candidate who wants our community self-deported. That phrase, “self deportation,” may arguably have cost Romney the election.
The third factor was Obama’s decision on the de facto DREAM Act.
Those three factors, and primarily the last two, created the perfect storm. The Latino support for Obama over Romney was a 2-3 percent shift overall, and that shift was critical in states like Florida, Virginia and Colorado. If you ask yourself by how many points Obama won in some of those states, it was one of two percent. So the Latino vote was the reason Obama carried Florida for sure, and I would argue Virginia as well.
You mentioned your study with Barna. What were some of the more interesting results?
Sixty percent of all Hispanics have made a commitment to Jesus that is important to their lives. That’s a pretty amazing finding. Without a doubt, a sixty percent commitment to Jesus — meaning a personal commitment to Jesus, so beyond the purview of a religious, cultural experience — that’s very powerful and compelling. It speaks to a community that is definitely committed to following Jesus and his example.
Another interesting finding of the study is that even though there is a commitment to Christ and experiencing Christ on a daily basis, there is also a disparity of biblical engaging. Latinos are not engaging the Bible in a viable and sustainable manner. They do not regard the Bible as their number one source to address critical life issues. They consider the family as their number one source, and their cultural experience.
By the way, we asked what are the primary justice issues. Immigration reform was not number one. It was education first, and then employment. Immigration was in the top five, but it wasn’t number one. The educational disparity in the community is the number one priority for Latinos in America — getting our kids educated and graduated from high school.
Mark Silk recently penned a column for the Religion News Service suggesting that Hispanics would not be receptive to Republican outreach, in part because of the growth of “nones” and in part because he disputes whether Hispanics are generally socially conservative. Did your study with Barna show that there is a growing contingent of “nones” or the religiously unaffiliated?
As we see across the board in America, there is an emerging “nones” category amongst Latinos. However, that category needs to be ethno-culturally understood and not simply equated with caucasian “nones”. The “nones” in the Latino community are not non-religious so much as they’re rejecting affiliation or affinity for a particular denomination. In other words, we are not experiencing an incredible increase in Latino agnosticism or atheism. Our “nones” do not want to be labeled as this or that, but if the subsequent question was, “Do you consider yourself a follower of Christ?” — then the answer would be overwhelmingly yes. This study affirms that. We’re still primarily Catholic and evangelical.
And by the way, in response to the column you referenced, our study also confirms that the Latino community still affirms the pro-life ethos and still strongly supports the biblical definition of marriage — without being homophobic.
What do those results tell you about how conservatives might reach out to Hispanics now?
Conservatives do need to tend to the immigration issue, because even if it’s not the top priority, it is the proverbial River Jordan that must be crossed. Conservatives must cross the Jordan of immigration reform in order to step into the promised land of the Latino electorate. Period. Once they’ve stepped into the promised land, conservatives need to address the other issues that are near and dear to the Latino community.
There are giants that need to be faced. One of them is education. That’s probably the biggest giant. In many of our communities, fifty percent of our children never graduate from high school. It’s really under the radar and very little is being done to address the disparity. And if we are the fastest-growing ethnic minority and our educational needs are not being addressed, what does that say about the future of our economic system, and our social-cultural tapestry? So there are issues that need to be addressed, education being the first and foremost.
Employment, health care — conservatives and Republicans can address these issues. They just need to engage the community and have a conversation about the role of government. Latinos come from countries that lean very heavily to the socialistic, government-subsidized forms of social and economic organization. When they come to America, the first generation expects government to deliver a certain number of goods and services. Second and third generations move more toward entrepreneurship. They become more Adam Smith, more Thomas Sowell, more embracing of free markets and capitalism.
Conservatives can address issues like education, immigration, employment and health care under the Abraham Lincoln tradition of Republicans standing for justice. But the Republican party has had a tough time addressing issues of justice with Latinos and African Americans.
How much have immigration absolutists who favor deportation and loathe anything resembling “amnesty” for illegal immigrants and their children tarnished the GOP brand in Hispanic eyes?
Heavily. Heavily, heavily, heavily. The question is for how long the brand will be tarnished. But it’s definitely tainted. Before, Hispanics would be hesitant, and Hispanics from the Baby Boomers generation would say that Republicans are for the richa and Democrats are for the poor. Now, the mantra is that Republicans are anti-immigrant.
Republicans need to go through a rebranding phase. It goes way beyond having six or seven speakers the first night of the Republican convention. It goes way beyond having a number of elected officials, like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Susana Martinez. There needs to be an intentional, deliberate, historical outreach to the Hispanic community. It begins with apologizing. The Republican party needs to say, We failed here. A little like Sean Hannity. I’ve pivoted, I’ve evolved on immigration. Republicans need to turn around collectively and say, All right, we got that one wrong.
Then Republicans need to reach out to the Hispanic community in a way that’s meaningful and sustainable. If Republicans push immigration reform next year, and think that will satisfy the years of damage, they’re wrong. It will not. It’s a first step, a positive step, but it’s going to require a much greater outreach than that.
NOTE: Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of the interview, concerning Samuel Rodriguez himself, his responses to his detractors, and the role of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.