April 27, 2007

Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion

Hispanics are transforming the nation’s religious landscape, especially the Catholic Church, not only because of their growing numbers but also because they are practicing a distinctive form of Christianity.

Religious expressions associated with the pentecostal and charismatic movements are a key attribute of worship for Hispanics in all the major religious traditions — far more so than among non-Latinos. Moreover, the growth of the Hispanic population is leading to the emergence of Latino-oriented churches across the country.

To explore the complex nature of religion among Latinos, the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life collaborated on a series of public opinion surveys that totaled more than 4,600 interviews, constituting one of the largest data collection efforts conducted on this subject. The study examines religious beliefs and behaviors and their association with political thinking among Latinos of all faiths. It focuses special attention on Catholics, both those who retain their identification with the church and those who convert to evangelical churches.

About a third of all Catholics in the U.S. are now Latinos, and the study projects that the Latino share will continue climbing for decades. This demographic reality, combined with the distinctive characteristics of Latino Catholicism, ensures that Latinos will bring about important changes in the nation’s largest religious institution.

Most significantly given their numbers, more than half of Hispanic Catholics identify themselves as charismatics, compared with only an eighth of non-Hispanic Catholics. While remaining committed to the church and its traditional teachings, many of these Latino Catholics say they have witnessed or experienced occurrences typical of spirit-filled or renewalist movements, including divine healing and direct revelations from God. Even many Latino Catholics who do not identify themselves as renewalists appear deeply influenced by spirit-filled forms of Christianity.

Similarly, the renewalist movement is a powerful presence among Latino Protestants. More than half of Hispanics in this category identify with spirit-filled religion, compared with about a fifth of non-Hispanic Protestants.

The study also shows that many of those who are joining evangelical churches are Catholic converts. The desire for a more direct, personal experience of God emerges as by far the most potent motive for these conversions. Although these converts express some dissatisfaction with the lack of excitement in a typical Catholic Mass, negative views of Catholicism do not appear to be a major reason for their conversion.

The practice of religion is not only often renewalist in character, but for most Latinos across all the major religious traditions it is also distinctively ethnic. Two-thirds of Latino worshipers attend churches with Latino clergy, services in Spanish and heavily Latino congregations.

While most predominant among the foreign born and Spanish speakers, Hispanic-oriented worship is also prevalent among native-born and English-speaking Latinos. That strongly suggests that the phenomenon is not simply a product of immigration or language but that it involves a broader and more lasting form of ethnic identification.

These two defining characteristics — the prevalence of spirit-filled religious expressions and of ethnicoriented worship — combined with the rapid growth of the Hispanic population leave little doubt that a detailed understanding of religious faith among Latinos is essential to understanding the future of this population as well as the evolving nature of religion in the United States.

The study documents how Latinos:

Have distinctive religious practices: Religious expressions associated with the pentecostal and charismatic movements are a key attribute of worship for many Hispanics in all the major religious traditions – far more so than among non-Latinos. Renewalist Christianity, which places special emphasis on God’s ongoing, day-to-day intervention in human affairs through the person of the Holy Spirit and appears to be much more prevalent among Hispanics than among their non-Latino counterparts.

Are transforming the Catholic Church: More than half of Hispanic Catholics identify themselves as charismatics, compared with only an eighth of non-Hispanic Catholics. While remaining committed to the church and its traditional teachings, many of these Latino Catholics report familiarity with supernatural experiences, such as divine healings and speaking in tongues, that are more typical of Protestant renewalist movements.

Attend houses of worship that have distinctly ethnic characteristics: Two-thirds of Latino worshipers attend churches that have Latino clergy, where services are offered in Spanish, and where most other worshippers are Latino. While Latino-oriented worship is most prominent among the foreign born and Spanish speakers, ethnic churches also are prevalent among native-born and English-speaking Latinos.

See religion as a moral compass to guide their political thinking: Two-thirds of Hispanics say that their religious beliefs are an important influence on their political thinking. More than half say churches and other houses of worship should address the social and political questions of the day. By nearly a two-to-one margin, Latinos say there has been too little expression of religious faith by political leaders rather than too much.

Combine religious and political affiliation: The study also sheds new light on the role religious affiliation plays on party identification among Hispanics. Latinos who are evangelicals are twice as likely as those who are Catholics to identify with the Republican Party. Latino Catholics, on the other hand, are much more likely than Latino evangelicals to identify with the Democratic Party. These differences rival, and may even exceed, those found in the general population.

Both the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Hispanic Center are projects of the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based, nonpartisan research organization that seeks to provide timely information, free of any advocacy, on issues, attitudes and trends that are shaping America and the world.

The study is now available at pewforum.org/surveys/hispanic.

Return to the Frontpage