Upwardly mobile Hispanic evangelical converts?

Upwardly mobile Hispanic evangelical converts? April 26, 2013

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?:

Like an earlier generation of immigrants from Europe, Latino Christians often see Protestantism as the path to a more genuine, more prosperous “American” life. “They see the move to Protestantism, particularly evangelicalism, as a form of upward mobility, and very often I think they associate Catholicism with what they left behind in Latin America,” says Randall Balmer, the chair of Dartmouth’s religion department. “They want to start anew.”

But another part of the story itself seems to contradict that notion:

Latinos are turning not just to Protestantism but to its evangelical strain for a variety of reasons. Above all, Latinos who convert say they want to know God personally, without a priest as a middleman. More than 35% of Hispanics in America call themselves born-again, according to the Pew Forum, and 9 out of 10 evangélicos say a spiritual search drove their conversion. “People are looking for a real experience with God,” says Paredes. That direct experience comes largely from exploring the Bible. “We do the best to preach with the Bible open. When they read the Bible, they find a lot of things they didn’t know before. They may have had religion, but they did not have an experience.”

Alas, I just scratched the surface of the details contained in the story. I’d urge you to read the whole thing, but if you’d like to do so, you better have your credit card number handy.

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9 responses to “Upwardly mobile Hispanic evangelical converts?”

  1. I don’t know how relevant this would be to the story, since it deals more with conversions to Protestantism, but within the Catholic sphere, the practicing Catholic Hispanics tend to veer towards the Charismatic Movement in terms of spirituality. It seems like Hispanic presence in the movement would parallel what Paredes said about the search for a real experience with God. At least, that has been the case in my home parish with a majority Hispanic population, as well as the other neighboring parishes. Maybe a different angle on the changing currents of approaches to spirituality would have been good here?

    • That’s what I was wondering too… Did the article touch upon the Catholic Charismatic Movement? On top of that, this whole upward mobility hypothesis seems like an odd idea for our current culture. Since the middle class is now going to church less and finds church in general less important to having a relationship with God in comparison with previous generations, the whole argument seems shaky from the get go.

  2. I don’t find this surprising at all. One of the reasons my father left the Catholic Church as a young man to become a Protestant and a Freemason was the knowledge in his mind that such was the path to success in America. And it worked out pretty well for him, so he was right.

  3. If you don’t want to pay tribute, you might consult your local library. 🙂
    We still have a copy, although Time as a news magazine is nearly worthless.

  4. I don’t know how Time handled the following aspect of the issue, but upward mobility through religion is not some sort of new American phenomena. About a century ago, according to my family’s lore, my Protestant grandparents moved from membership in a Methodist Church to membership in a Unitarian Church (Now, I believe, it is Unitarian-Universalist). Why, I asked, as I grew older. My mother said it was because the people who had the money in our city and suburbs were Unitarians and her father, my grandfather, was an architect who needed their business. She explained that Protestants tended to worship together based on income starting as fundamentalist Baptist eventually “graduating” to the Episcopal Church. My father, an Irish Catholic, explained-with tongue in cheek- that no matter their wealth, Catholics all worship at the same “denomination” known as the parish church.

  5. From my own experiences in working with the Hispanic community in the US, I have some theories as to why so many Hispanics are turning to Protestantism:

    (1) Small Evangelical “storefront churches” provide a social network that many recent immigrants lack
    (2) A desire to “seeking a break with the past”, as the article says, and build a new, distinctly American life. There might not be any evidence proving this phenomenon, but it make sense considering the context.
    (3) The ability to participate fully in church life while divorcing and remarrying or cohabiting. (Also see the extremely high Hispanic teenage birth date).

  6. It seems the missing concept is ‘anti-clericalism’, a dislike for the professional clerics who run Catholocism. As my Hispanic neighbor explained it:

    Hispanics love the Catholic Faith,
    Hispanics are fed up to here with the way the RC is run,
    Hispanics hate the hierarchy.

    Another factor, at least here in SoCal, is the mainline churches have agressive Hispanic outreaches. They have big signs advertizing Spanish language services. Several LCMS churches even put up bilborads promoting their schools in Spanish. And, they emphasise the smaller congregation with its opportunities to get to know each other.

    It would be helpful to know where this is happening. In SoCal and throughout the Southwest, there are large Hispanic communities with families that have lived in the US for generations. Are these people also pouring into Protestant churches or is it just recent immigrants?

  7. Ironic that they would see Protestantism as “moving upward”, considering that recent studies show that Protestants (both mainline and evangelical) actually have LOWER income, on average than Catholics in this country. (Boy, was Max Weber wrong!)

    Of course, if they REALLY wanted to move upward economically they’d become Eastern Orthodox (who on average have the highest incomes of all).

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