Are Hispanics Changing the Face of Evangelical Politics?

Featured Image Credit: Al Jazeera

by Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

In a previous post, “Does Social Conservatism Go Hand in Hand with Economic Conservatism (for Evangelicals)?” I wrote extensively about a book called “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” by Thomas Frank. The author argues that Kansas evangelicals have been duped by the Republican Party. Frank believes that the GOP has sold conservative Christians on the idea that their party will defend morality and Christian values. At the same time, the Republican Party is also advocating fiscal policy that would provide no benefit to many middle and lower class evangelicals. In essence, evangelicals in Kansas (and other places) are being sold a bill of goods. The book was published in April of 2005. I began my graduate studies in religion and politics in August of 2005. I thought a lot about Thomas Frank’s thesis while in my PhD program. Was Thomas Frank on to something?

It’s important to note that Frank’s thesis hasn’t held up well to systematic empirical inquiry. Larry Bartels wrote a solid rebuttal, and I have also shown than evangelicals are not social conservatives and fiscal liberals. In actuality, they are conservative on both dimensions. Frank seems to be making an argument about how evangelicals *should* vote, not how they actually do. But maybe Frank might be partially correct, he was just looking at evangelicals through a specific lens of white evangelicalism. What about other evangelicals? More specifically what about the growing number of Hispanic evangelicals in this country? Do they look like their white evangelical counterparts (who voted with the GOP 80% of the time) or maybe their African American brothers and sisters (who vote for the Democrats almost unanimously)?

Looked at in the most broad terms, how they voted for president in 2016, it seems that Hispanic evangelicals don’t really look like either group. While almost 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, only a slim majority of hispanic evangelicals cast their ballot for the GOP nominee. In contrast to white evangelicals, hispanics were more than twice as likely to vote for Hillary Clinton and voted for third parties at a rate that was similar to their white counterparts. However, was the 2016 election a deviation from the norm for hispanic evangelicals?

Obviously, Donald Trump did very little to curry favor with the hispanic vote in general. For instance this tweet from 2013:

Or this on from 2015:

One has to wonder, however if hispanic evangelicals are taking stronger cues from their racial background or their religious affiliation. The above graph displays how all hispanics voted in the last three presidential elections compared to Hispanic evangelicals. It is clear that Hispanic evangelicals are more amenable to the GOP’s candidate. That was especially evident in the 2008 race between Barack Obama and John McCain. Hispanic evangelicals were nearly twice as likely to have voted for McCain than hispanics in general. Notice also that the entire hispanic sample is clearly trending away from the GOP, but this is not the case for evangelical hispanics. In fact, hispanic evangelicals were more likely to have voted for Donald Trump than Mitt Romney (whose father was born in Mexico).

This compelled me to investigate the situation further. The above graph is called a ridgeline plot and visualizes how respondents are distributed across a continuum, in this case party identification. Higher peaks indicate more individuals responded in that manner to describe their party identification. The first two groups (white and black) vividly illustrate the deep racial divide that occurs in American politics. Obviously the vast majority of white evangelicals describe themselves as various types of Republicans. In contrast, African American evangelicals are almost completely concentrated in the “strong Democrat” category. Contrast these two ridgelines with the one for the hispanic sample. There are slightly more hispanic evangelicals who indicate that their party identification is Republican but there are still a significant number who describe themselves as independents or Democrats. Hispanics are much more heterogeneous than their white or black counterparts.

How do hispanic evangelicals compare to white evangelicals on social issues? The answer is clear and unequivocal: hispanic evangelical Protestants are more much pro-life than their white evangelicals. This is obviously surprising. What is also worth considering is that an evangelical hispanic is more than twice as likely to oppose abortion than hispanics in general. On same sex marriage the results indicate that hispanics are just as conservative as their white counterparts but much more conservative than hispanics in general.

It’s obvious that social issues are not pushing hispanic evangelicals toward the Democrats, so maybe it’s economics that are guiding some hispanic evangelicals to vote against the GOP. The CCES asks, “If your state were to have a budget deficit this year it would have to raise taxes on income and sales or cut spending, such as on education, health care, welfare, and road construction. What would you prefer more, raising taxes or cutting spending.” The distribution of responses is plotted above. It is nearly impossible to find any difference between the hispanic evangelical distribution and the white evangelical distribution. In short, hispanic evangelicals are not more economically liberal than their white colleagues. The reality is that they dislike raising taxes as much as anyone. So, is there someplace else to look for a difference? There is obviously an elephant in the room here: immigration policy. Maybe that will expose a gulf between hispanic and white evangelicals.

The results above do seem to illustrate a divide. For instance, hispanic evangelicals are 50% more likely to support a pathway to citizenship for those who are in the country illegally. But also note however, that less than half of hispanic evangelicals were in favor of a proposal that is very similar to the DREAM Act. It’s crucial to note, however, the comparison case. White evangelicals are the least supportive religious group when it comes to changing immigration rules of any major religious tradition in the United States. So in reality, that support is tepid among evangelicals generally.

Thomas Frank told a compelling story that resonated with a lot of media outlets. Liberals want to believe that the Republican party have duped poor evangelicals into voting for them. It would be convenient to believe the Frank hypothesis. However, the data provides zero support for the idea that evangelicals are only concerned with social issues when they pull the lever on election day. Evangelicals (both white and hispanic) are social AND economic conservatives. They are voting their preferences. If they should hold those preferences is not for a political scientist or a pundit to decide. While hispanic evangelicals may move evangelicalism slightly closer to the center, it’s unlikely that a drastic shift will occur any time soon.

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