Latino Protestants in America (Mark Mulder, et al) -- A Review

LATINO PROTESTANTS IN AMERICA: Growing and Diverse. By Mark T. Mulder, Aida I. Ramos, and Gerardo Martí. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. Xii + 206.


Having lived in Southern California for a good portion of my life, I am well acquainted with the significant presence of Latinos in the United States. While one might expect large numbers of Latinos to live in a state that borders Mexico, the fact is, Latinos are spread across the country. These are our neighbors who hail from lands across the Caribbean, South and Central America, Mexico, or who trace their ancestry back to the earliest days of European presence in North America. Yes, our Latino neighbors might be new immigrants, or they may trace ancestry back to the sixteenth century. Latinos make up the fastest growing demographic in the country, and despite stereotype they’re not all Roman Catholic.

I normally review books provided to me by publishers. In the case of this book, I purchased a copy at a conference because I was going to attend a session that featured the three authors. I decided to review the book on the blog because I believe this is an important book addressing an important conversation within our country and our denominations. Personally, I am interested in this conversation because I have Latino friends and colleagues, and I once served a congregation that hosted and continues to host a Latino Protestant congregation. I even had the opportunity to preach for them. My sermon was translated into Spanish a few sentences at a time. One thing I noticed is that a goodly number of the congregation understood me without any translation. I have also noticed the growing numbers of Latino Disciples congregations in Southern California and elsewhere, marking one of the few growth areas in my denomination. Whereas, when I was ordained in 1985 there were just a handful of congregations that were Spanish-speaking, now the largest church in the Pacific Southwest Region is a Latino congregation. Finally, with the immigration debate consuming significant oxygen in our political discourse, it might be worth our time to not only to consider what the growing Latino population means for the United States, but how the growing numbers of Latino Protestants will influence Protestant churches going forward.

This book, written by three sociologists (all Christian), is based on ethnographic studies of twenty congregations located in various parts of the country, with funding from the Lilly Endowment. They have chosen to use the nomenclature of Latino rather than Hispanic, because Hispanic has linguistic limitations that Latino does not. By using Latino, the authors can include source countries from the Caribbean and South America that are not primarily Spanish speaking. The purpose of the book, authored jointly by Gerardo Martí, Mark Mulder, and Aida Ramos, offer us a deep dive into the diverse faith communities that make up Latino Protestantism. They demonstrate that while historically the majority of Latinos in America have been Roman Catholic, that is changing quickly. They estimate that in the next decade or so, Protestants will reach parity with Catholics. In part this is due to conversion, but also to source countries.

The key here is to move past stereotypes. Not only is it wrong to assume that all Latinos are Catholic, but it is also wrong to assume that all forms of Latino worship are the same. Some congregations will fit stereotypes. Others do not. That is, there are Latino Pentecostal churches that are very rigid, quiet, and reserved, whereas a Mainline Protestant congregation might be exuberant in worship (though Mainline Latino congregations tend to be more traditional in orientation). Some congregations worship in English and others in Spanish or other language. They note that about 89% of Latinos in America are English proficient. So, part of the purpose of the book is to overcome our presuppositions. This is important because non-Latinos have been known to impose forms and expressions on Latino congregations. That is, some congregations assume they must live into stereotype, such as fiesta. Or, as is sometimes the case, Protestant denominations try to use Catholic imagery to attract Latinos, but again that is playing to stereotype.

Latinos make up the fastest growing demographic in the country. This is based both on immigration and high birth rate. We learn that while about 55% of Latinos are Catholic, that number is dropping quickly, so that before too long there will be as many Protestant Latinos as Catholics. This is due both to conversion and to immigration patterns—many new immigrants are coming from countries like Guatemala, which has a significant Protestant population. 

The book is divided into seven chapters, beginning with a chapter defining what it means to be a Latino Protestant. In other words, it is more than not being Catholic. They have a chapter on the early history of indigenous and immigrant Protestants, then turn to the current situation, noting the cause of conversion, as well as offering demographic background to the subjects. They divide the congregations into three categories—Pentecostal, Evangelical, and Mainline. There is overlap and difference here. They explore ethnic identity of the churches—while Mexicans make up the largest source group, there are significant numbers of Protestants from places like Puerto Rico, Central America, and South America. 

Chapter five focuses on the "centrality of 'Doing Church.'" That is, church life is very important to the Latino Protestant experience. While theologies and practices vary, Latino Protestants are more committed to congregational life than is true among White Protestants or even Latino Catholics. At the same time, the way in which congregational life, including worship is practice, varies greatly. Part of the reason for this is the felt need for social and spiritual support. It gives a sense of belonging in a culture where they are the minority. 

With the debates on immigration drawing our attention both to the presence and spread of Latinos in America. one would be interested in the political and social impact of this growing community. What these researchers find is that there is greater diversity of political interest and engagement than we might expect. While much has been made of the political implications of this demographic change, immigration isn't the only issue of interest. In fact, Latino Protestants, especially Latino Pentecostals, are very conservative when it comes to social issues. A majority oppose same-sex marriage and abortion, and therefore they have a lot of political affinity on those issues with conservative white evangelicals. So, while a majority are Democrats, they often share social views with conservative Republicans, which may explain the level of support that Donald Trump received despite his anti-immigrant rhetoric. This chapter on political and social engagement is important reading for anyone wishing to understand the future implications of this growing body of Americans. 

We are also treated with an examination of the impact of this growing faith community on Protestantism in general. Latinos tend to be more engaged and committed than their white siblings. Many mainline Protestant denominations see this group as a growth opportunity, but what will that mean for both? What happens when a predominantly white, predominantly liberal, denomination welcomes into its midst Latino congregations that are more conservative in their theology and social vision? Not only will they be welcomed, but will their voices be heard? I can already see the impact on my denomination by the growing presence of Latinos. There is a bifurcation in many ways. The majority of white clergy are relatively liberal on most issues, theologically and politically. This often puts us at odds with our Latino sisters and brothers. What will this mean for the future?

The authors admit that this is only the beginning of a broader study. The implications of their work are extremely important. Again, I come back to the issue of stereotype. As the authors note here and as we discussed at the conference, it is counterproductive to pigeon-hole Latino Protestants. Not all are engaged in regular fiesta, are emotionally expressive, or speak Spanish as their primary language (would you believe that Spanish is not the primary language of most Latino Protestants?). More study is needed. The authors are not finished. This might best be called an interim report. While it is not the final report, it is must reading for anyone interested in the future of the church in America.

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