The theological, cultural, and political shifts evidenced in Latino Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism are among the most dramatic changes in recent US American Christianity. This ecclesial tradition was once unique for its prophetic utterances from the pulpit, as well as its distinctive musical rhythms and sounds. Formerly known for its preference for hymnals and acoustic pianos, its culture shifted and Latinos/as now sprinkle their music, liturgy, and sermonic stylings with the sazón of their own culture. Pianos gave way to the guitarras, congas, maracas and güiros. Coritos (short hymns) took the place of hymnals, and quickly No Hay Dios Tan Grande Como Tu, expressed in the rhythmic pulsation of the clave I or clave II, replaced the grand old hymn How Great Thou Art.
Both the sermons and the coritos were a clear contrast to the ways in which their Anglo evangelizers had taught Latinos/as to “do church.” Now, the Latino/a Evangelical and Pentecostal tradition is more or less a carbon copy of its White counterpart, evidenced by the mimicking of the now stale rock-inspired musicality, the pop-psychology-type sermons, and the altars turned musical stages. In addition to adopting a caricature of White Evangelical liturgical and homiletical practices, Latino/a Evangelicals have also embraced the often intertwined cultural and political idiosyncrasies of their White counterparts, as we saw most recently in their support of conspiracy theories behind the COVID-19 pandemic and their ridiculing of states’ mask policies.
We see this wholesale adoption of White Evangelical practices in the Latino/a Evangelicals’ increasing support of the White nationalist philosophy which undergirds the White Evangelical theological position. The 2016 presidential election, Trump’s subsequent term in office, and the 2020 presidential election have made this all much more publicly clear. According to research undertaken by Claremont McKenna religious studies professor Gastón Espinosa one month before the election, more Latino/a Evangelicals supported Trump than Biden, the only group among Latino/a Christians whose voting preference tilted toward Trump. In fact, the poll showed 48% of Latino Evangelicals supporting Trump for re-election. Biden led Trump among Latino/a Catholics and Latino/a Protestants. The Latino/a Evangelical vote was something Trump coveted, creating along the way the “Evangelicals for Trump” movement and receiving the endorsement of Miami megachurch pastor Guillermo Maldonado. While further research in light of the actual election results is still ongoing, it is quite possible that Trump’s victory in Florida, for instance, was in many ways made possible by a large swath of Latino/a Evangelical voters. Espinosa’s poll showed not only that Trump was increasing in favor among this bloc, but also that Latino/a Evangelical voters would potentially increase Trump’s share of the Latino/a vote overall and hence increase his likelihood of victory in the Sunshine State.
The quantifiable evidence of the Latino/a Evangelical and Pentecostal embrace of White Evangelical theology and culture has been tracked by Janelle Wong’s excellent work, Immigrants, Evangelicals, and Politics in an Age of Demographic Change. There Wong notes that Latino/a Evangelicals tend to share more of the conservative ideology of White Evangelicals than their Black counterparts, including its support of Trump. Wong’s study, undertaken a year after the 2016 election, noted that a third of Latino/a Evangelicals supported Trump. Hence, if Espinosa’s pre-November 2020 poll is accurate, and his past polls would suggest yes, Latino/a Evangelical and Pentecostal support for Trump increased by a whopping 18% in four years!
Latino/a Evangelical and Pentecostal voter preference is a manifestation of the socially conservative ideology espoused by their White counterparts. As Wong explained, Latino/a Evangelicals share with Whites a disdain for the LGBTQ community, overwhelmingly support a ban on same-sex marriage, the criminalization of abortions, support for the death penalty, and other social issues. Wong did notice some deviations between Latinos and Whites when it came to economic issues, like taxing the rich and government-sponsored universal health care, with Latino/a Evangelicals tending to support those issues in larger numbers than their White counterparts.
Interestingly, Black Pentecostals and Evangelicals have followed a different track from Latinos/as. Blacks, for the most part, have resisted the capitulation to White Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism that is so evident among Latinos/as. Across a myriad of social issues and voter preferences, Blacks have been historically consistent in their postulations, and have tended to resist the political and social ideologies of Whites more than their Latino/a neighbors. This is something Wong has likewise noted in her work. Not that Black Pentecostals and Evangelicals are thoroughly progressive in their social and political leanings, but they have been less rigid in their own conservatism than Latinos/as. This can be seen, for instance, in their vote preference for Joe Biden in 2020. In a survey conducted by Pew Research, 90% of Black Protestants preferred Biden over Trump.
I submit that Latino/a Evangelicals and Pentecostals must be more like their Black brothers and sisters. And I say this knowing that while key differences exist in the plight of both oppressed groups, Blacks and Latinos/as share many similar struggles, including cultural and racial oppression and economic injustice. Yet, why then have we Latinos/as been more willing to capitulate to White theology and culture, rather than stand alongside our Black brothers and sisters?
While the response to this query is wide-ranging and indeed complicated, the legacy and psychological trauma of colonialism and conquest among Latinos/as runs deep and continues to shape our theology, ecclesial practices, and political and social leanings. Furthermore, the eventual indigenization of Black Christianity has a longer history in the U.S. than Latinos/a Christian expressions. Latino/a Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism arose only in the twentieth century, a direct result of aggressive and deliberate White Evangelical and Pentecostal evangelistic efforts. Thus, Latino/a Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism are a direct product and offspring of their White counterparts. And while indigenous efforts did take place within the Latino/a Evangelical and Pentecostal church, recent practices have catapulted them back to their parental conception, though now with new twists and theological and cultural turns.
Clearly there are other theories behind this Latino/a capitulation. But the fact remains that Latino/a Evangelicals and Pentecostals have chosen the path back to captivity; they have returned to Babylon.
Latino Evangelical leaders warrant the brunt of a necessary castigation for leading astray Latino/a Evangelical and Pentecostal adherents. They have led their people in deviating from the prophetic roots of the Latino Evangelical and Pentecostal theological and ecclesial traditions, prophetic roots that were strong enough to counter the ecclesial and political powers and denounce injustice in the name of the Gospel. Instead, they have capitulated to the agenda of White Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, an agenda that denigrates the understanding of the human being as the imago dei and instead has sold out the Gospel truth of liberation to sustain political power and influence. Latino Evangelical and Pentecostal leaders’ capitulation to the agenda of White Evangelicalism has resulted in them being content with the scraps and crumbs, the leftovers of what their White counterparts’ feast. Those scraps and crumbs take the form of having their picture taken praying or eating with the President of the United States, and having coffee with those in political and ecclesial power. Has the dynamic, earth-shaking engagement for which Latino/a Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism was once known lost its bite, its leaders now content with political and ecclesial porridge?
Latino Evangelical leaders are leading their followers into a modern-day lion’s den. The tradition needs modern-day Daniels willing to grab and muzzle the lion, not the cowardly acts of those willing and eager to bow down to the Nebuchadnezzars of the world. Only in this way can the Latino Evangelical and Pentecostal church become again a locus of survival and struggle against the injustices that continue to denigrate, delimit, and kill.
It is not too late for Latino/a Evangelicals and Pentecostals to retrieve their prophetic legacy. If they have the courage to do so, they will again be able to embody in word and deed the liberative power of the Good News they profess.