Latino Religion in the U.S.: Demographic Shifts and Trend
The association between Latin Americans and Catholicism is so strong that it belies a surprising fact: Almost one quarter of all Latinos in the United States are Protestants.
Of the 41.3 million Latinos in the United States 2004, about 23 percent (9.5 million) identify themselves as Protestants or other Christians (including Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons). Moreover, 37 percent (14.2 million) of all Latino Protestants and Catholics say they have been born again or are evangelical, according to statistics compiled in the volume, Latino Religions and Civic Activism in the United States (2005, Oxford University Press).
To put these numbers in national perspective, there are more Latino Protestants in the United States than American Jews, Muslims, Episcopalians or Presbyterians, said Gastón Espinosa, assistant professor of Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College and a co-editor of Latino Religions and Civic Activism in the United States.
“When you take these bits and pieces of information and put them together, you get a picture that at first glance might seem counterintuitive,” said Espinosa, who has spoken at numerous FACS programs on Hispanic Churches in the Local Community.
Despite the surprising percentages of Latino Protestants, the vast majority of U.S. Latinos, 70 percent, are Catholics, making the Catholic Church, and the icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the most identifiable symbol of Latino religion. In 2005, there were approximately 29 million Latino Catholics in the United States, an all-time high.
"Although Latinos leave the Catholic Church, especially among subsequent generations, the 70 percent figure has appeared to remain relatively stable for the past decade, largely due to immigration," Espinosa said. “Catholic immigration from Mexico is so massive, it keeps the percentage stable because it replenishes the ranks of those Catholics that switch to Protestantism.”
A demographic sea change
According to the Census Bureau, the Latino population in the United States grew from 22.4 million in 1990 to 41.3 million in 2004, adding a staggering 18.9 million people in 10 years. Broader estimates, which include Puerto Rican islanders (4 million) and undocumented immigrants (5 million), put the U.S. Latino population at over 50 million.
In 2003, Latinos surpassed African-Americans as the largest minority group in the United States. Latinos now represent about 14 percent of the U.S. population. This spectacular growth is a result of both immigration and high domestic birth rates.
Of the 32.5 million foreign-born residents in the United States in 2002, about 16 million originated from Latin America and Spain, according to the Census Bureau.
About 53 percent of all immigrants to the United States come from Latin America. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans make up 58 percent of all foreign born Latin-American immigrants.
About 93 percent of all Latin-Americans, coming from 22 countries, self-identify as Christian. Of the foreign-born Latinos in the U.S., 74 percent identify themselves as Catholic, while 18 percent consider themselves Protestant or non-Catholic.
Mexico, second to Brazil, has the largest Catholic population in the world; and not surprisingly, the largest number of Catholic immigrants to the United States come from Mexico. Mexico also sends the largest number of Protestant immigrants to the United States. Mexicans come to the United States in such large numbers that they bolster both the Catholic Church and Protestant congregations.
“Mexico is the largest Catholic and Protestant-sending country to the United States. Everybody wins numerically. Catholic and Protestant denominations are growing in raw numbers,” Espinosa said.
Latino religious affiliation
According to the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life national survey, Latino religious affiliation in the United States breaks down this way:
- 70 percent of Latinos are Catholic, translating into 29 million Catholic Latinos in the United States (compared to 22 million white mainline Protestants).
- 23 percent of Latinos are Protestant or "other Christian" (including Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons). That translates to 9.5 million people.
- 85 percent of all U.S. Latino Protestants identify themselves as Pentecostals or evangelicals. That translates into 6.2 million people.
- 37 percent of the U.S. Latino population (14.2 million) self-identifies as "born-again" or evangelical. This figure includes Catholic charismatics, who constitute 22 percent of U.S. Latino Catholics.
- 26 percent, or 7.6 million, of all Latino Catholics self-identify as being born-again.
- 1 percent of Latinos identify with a world religion, such as Buddhism, Islam or Judaism.
- .37 percent of all Latinos are atheist or agnostic.
Evangelization of Latino Christianity
The vast majority of Latino Protestants consider themselves to be evangelical or "born again” – that is, they report to have had a “personal conversion experience related to Jesus Christ,” Espinosa said.
Evangelicals believe in sharing their faith through active proselytizing and missionary work. Their inspiration comes through being born-again – the defining experience for evangelicals.
Latinos often substitute the term evangelical for Protestant, because many Latinos feel Protestant is too closely associated with Anglo-American culture.
The largest subset of Latino Protestants are Pentecostals. Pentecostals believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit exist in the present time. Pentecostals believe their bodies can be inhabited by the Holy Spirit, which can involve speaking in tongues, miraculous healings and divinely inspired prophecies.
Aggressive proselytizing, the intense worship experience, healing, the emphasis on conversion, transformation, and increased leadership opportunities in the ministry have all contributed to the trend of "Pentecostalization" of the Latino church, Espinosa said. The emphasis on youth ministry and popular culture is another important draw to Latino Protestant churches.
Healing and empowerment
Healing is one of the most important aspects of Latino Pentecostal spirituality, Espinosa said. Since many Latinos have low-paying jobs that do not provide health insurance, they go to traditional healers or Pentecostal churches for healing.
Another important factor in the Pentecostalization of Latino religion is lack of leadership opportunity in the Catholic hierarchy, in which Latinos are underrepresented. Latinos make up about 40 percent of all U.S. Catholics, but less than 8 percent of American Catholic priests are Hispanic. Of the 47,000 Catholic priests in the United States, only 2,700 are Hispanic – many of whom come from Columbia and Spain, Espinosa said.
"There is lag time in leadership development in the Catholic Church," Espinosa said.
The lack of a strict hierarchical structure in Protestantism, particularly in some Pentecostal denominations, allows more leadership opportunities, including opportunities for women in the ordained ministry not available in the Catholic Church.
"It's an issue of empowerment: If you lop off the educational requirement [of mainline churches], then you can go directly to positions of leadership, based on demonstrated commitment and personal piety. And one or two years of Bible school training is all that is required to be a pastor," Espinosa said.
Many Latino Catholics – in both Mexico and the United States – are suspicious of the trend toward Pentecostalization, fearing it will lead to further defections from the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Charismatic Movement
Within the Catholic Church, the Charismatic movement is popular and gaining ground among Latinos. Catholic Charismatics believe the Holy Spirit manifests itself in them, borrowing many elements of Pentecostalism. The movement emphasizes conversion and spiritual renewal through Jesus Christ.
The Charismatic movement is controversial among more traditional Catholics, who see the Catholic Charismatic movement among Latinos as a "Protestant Trojan Horse," Espinosa said.
But Mexico, with 90 million Catholics, isn’t about to take on the character of the Protestant American South. “Mexico is one of the largest Catholic countries in the world, and it has a vast and rich tradition in the Church,” Espinosa said.
Others view the Charismatic movement as a way to stem defections from the Church. Espinosa said for every one Latino who converts or returns to Catholicism, four defect or leave the Church. Latino Catholic affiliation drops from 74 percent among the first generation to 62 percent by the third.
But the percentage of Latino Catholics has remained relatively stable for a decade, while they continue to grow in raw numbers due to immigration and high birth rates.
Both the Catholic Church and Latino evangelical churches are active in outreach to gang members and providing faith-based social action programs.
"Latino Protestant and Catholic groups offer alternatives to gangs. And it's not just getting clean, but staying the course," Espinosa said.
An icon of Los Angeles, Father Gregory J. Boyle, a Jesuit priest, works to reform gang members in one of Los Angeles' most dangerous neighborhoods, Boyle Heights/Hollenbeck.
Latino Pentecostal churches dot the landscape of Los Angeles and serve as beacons of hope against the gang culture. These churches are particularly active in reaching out to the deadly MS-13 Mara Salvatrucha gang. Many members of MS-13 are former child soldiers from the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s. Screenwriter Oscar Torres chronicled this experience in his film, Innocent Voices.
"Gangs are a way of survival in the city. If you are not in a gang, you get beat up. So what do you do if you don't want to be in a gang, and you don't what to get beat up? You join a church," Espinosa said. "You're also seeing the growth of Latino evangelical pop culture as an alternative Latino gang subculture."
The immigration debate
The debate over immigration heated up recently with an article in Foreign Policy magazine, The Hispanic Challenge, by Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington.
Huntington states that Latinos do not assimilate in the way prior immigrants did; and if the current tide of mass migration isn't stemmed, the United States could balkanize into two competing cultures, creeds and languages.
Espinosa disagrees with Huntington's dire scenario. But he pointed out that Latino immigration to the United States is fundamentally different than prior waves.
"The fact that we share a border with Mexico means Latino immigration should be considered very different. However, the idea that Latinos will come in and completely assimilate like the Irish or other ethnic groups is somewhat problematic," Espinosa said.
Prior waves of immigrants from overseas came during specific periods and often related to specific historical events, such as the Irish potato famine and the Acadian expulsion. But after the upheavals, immigration from these countries reduced, allowing successive generations to assimilate. But immigration from Mexico and Latin America only continues to accelerate, with no end in sight.
The current debate on immigration tends to line up along those, like Huntington, who say Latinos are fundamentally different from prior immigrants, and those who say Latinos will, in time, assimilate like other immigrant groups have.
"I argue something in the middle: Latinos do in time adopt American customs and values and tend to reflect larger U.S. political, social and moral attitudes, albeit with a Latino inflection and sensibility," Espinosa said. "They're still going to harbor strong attitudes toward family and personal piety that you wouldn't see in the average third generation immigrant."
Latino immigrants, in turn, influence not only the general American society but also other generations of U.S. Latinos. Each new wave of Latino immigrants “re-acculturates” American Latinos to their cultures of origin, Espinosa said.
"The constant steady stream of new immigrants causes the Latino experience in the U.S. to be constantly reinvigorated and re-imagined," Espinosa said.
In terms of religious denominations, Latin American immigration is having a dramatic impact. “Latin American immigrants are revitalizing the church here. And they remind American Latinos that they are Latinos,” Espinosa said.
Despite Huntington's premise that Latinos don't assimilate, Latino religious affiliation does change by generation, and it begins to take on more of the character of the host country.
According to the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life national survey:
- The first generation of Latino immigrants is 74 percent Catholic, and 15 percent Protestant.
- The second generation is 72 percent Catholic, and 20 percent Protestant.
- The third generation is 62 percent Catholic, and 29 percent Protestant.
Catholic priest and scholar Andrew Greeley predicted in 1988 that within 25 years, half of all American Hispanics would not be Catholics due to defections.
“Were it not for the massive influx of largely Catholic immigrants arriving in the United States over the past decade, Greeley’s predictions might have already come to pass,” Espinosa said.
“The relatively high overall percentage of Catholics is also due to the creative work of a growing number of liberationist and activist Latino priests, Catholic youth programs, social programs that address the needs of the poor and immigrants, increased lay participation, and the growth in Catholic Charismatic movements.”
About 94 percent of U.S. immigrants from Mexico were baptized as Catholics, but some convert to Protestantism later. Some Latinos, both in Mexico and the United States, convert to Protestantism for a year or two, then go back to the Catholic Church, Espinosa said.
“They try out religious pluralism for a while, then decide they don’t like it and go back,” he said. “There’s a lot of switching.”
For every one Latino who returns to the Church, about four leave, Espinosa said. Tracking the people who leave and return is a compelling story for journalists to tackle.
“We have the number, but we don’t know the details of that story – which would be a great one to tell,” he said.
Latino Religions and Civic Activism in the United States
Edited by Gastón Espinosa, Virgilio Elizondo and Jesse Miranda, 2005, Oxford University Press.
Hispanic Churches in American Public Life
Many of the statistics cited in this backgrounder can be found Hispanic Churches in American Public Life: Summary of Findings
Samuel P. Huntington discusses the cultural and economic impact of immigration from Mexico and Latin America in this Business Week magazine cover story.