Overall, the finding that younger Hispanics are proportionately more Protestant and that all Hispanics are becoming proportionately more Protestant over time suggest that the percentage of Hispanics who are Catholic may continue to slip in the years to come…This will be particularly true if today’s young Hispanics maintain their proportionally higher Protestant identification.
Catholic boosters clinging to the hope that Hispanic immigration will save the Church from a demographic train wreck will find some sobering news here. Hispanic immigration has so far kept the Church of Rome from collapsing in the same ignominious way so many mainline Protestant denominations have, but the Church can no longer count on Hispanics to fill its pews. As has already happened to mainline Protestantism, Catholics may find that between conversion to evangelical Protestantism and the rise of “none”-ism, their numbers will be seriously depleted.But it isn’t just conversion to evangelicalism that weakens the Church’s ties to America’s new immigrants. The American Catholic Church is not what it was. The networks of nuns, brothers, and other religious that met the needs of poor immigrants and helped them adjust to American life have largely disappeared. The Church no longer has these robust networks to help low income Hispanics the way it did past immigrant generations, and these declining numbers reflect that reality.So much for the religious story painted by the poll. But it also tells us a lot about American society more broadly. For those who worry about immigration’s cultural impact, this survey is one among many pieces of evidence suggesting that Spanish speakers are if anything more open to ‘American’ cultural values and forces than earlier waves of immigrants were. Not many Jews, Poles and Italians converted to Protestantism in their early years in the US, and those religious differences contributed to the formation of parallel sets of institutions ranging from day schools to colleges.Those networks won’t be as strong for the new immigrants, and whether this is a good thing or a bad thing we should not underestimate the willingness of this latest wave of immigrants to embrace what they see as the American way.But the most startling implications of the trends reported by the survey are political. Being religiously observant in any faith correlates strongly with voting Republican; this goes double for evangelical Protestantism. There are exceptions to this trend, of course. Many Black Christians who theologically and culturally fit in the evangelical tradition are reliable Democratic voters. But overall the correlation holds: evangelical Protestants who spend a lot of time in church are among the most reliably Republican voters in the country.If a lot of Hispanics are picking up their Bibles and heading off to church, this suggests that over time the GOP share of the Hispanic vote will grow. Over the decades, another trend will likely reinforce that one: as immigrant groups become better established in the United States, their economic interests and their issue priorities often change in ways that benefit the GOP.Take immigration. This is a burning issue with serious personal stakes in many Hispanic households in America today. But Polish-American and Italian-American households don’t necessarily feel the same way. On the one hand, each succeeding American generation is a little farther from the homeland and the family ties are a little more attenuated; on the other, as other countries develop and their demography changes, there is less interest in the old country in coming to the new.This is already happening in Mexico. Since 2007 the percentage of Mexicans who said they would emigrate if given the chance has fallen in half; today, only 11 percent say so. This helps explain why Asians, more than Hispanics, are now the largest group of immigrants. As Latin American economies improve, and birth rates fall across the whole region, the salience of immigration will diminish for people who trace their roots to the Spanish speaking republics of our hemisphere.If immigration loses its punch as an issue, evangelical religion continues to gain ground, and the children of immigrants start to enjoy the better lives their parents sacrificed to give them, then over time we might well see a steady Hispanic drift to the right. Republicans can accelerate or retard that drift by being more or less welcoming and sensitive now, but the opportunity is real.For Democrats, this is one more reason not to be smug or to take Hispanics for granted. Other large groups have switched parties in the past (African Americans, Jews, southern whites and many ethnic Euro-Catholics have crossed party lines); this can and will happen again.[St. Patrick’s Cathedral image from Shutterstock]