More Latino Americans Are Losing Their Religion

More Americans are abandoning religion, reducing its claim on their lives, or not taking it up in the first place, than was the case seventeen years ago. Those are the top-line conclusions of a report that the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit polling group based in Washington, D.C., published earlier this month. The report, based on a survey conducted among a representative sample of nearly six thousand people, who answered a series of multiple-choice questions, compared the results with those produced by a similar survey in 2006.

That news as such is not surprising—it comports with reports by Gallup, Pew, and other survey organizations. But it does raise a question about the tightening of restrictions on legal abortion and the expansion of protections for religion by the U.S. Supreme Court: How can it be that religion is at once declining in Americans’ individual lives and surging in our civic life? One answer was proposed by Kelefa Sanneh in an article about Christian nationalism for this magazine. The sharp recent drop in religious affiliation—from seventy per cent in 1999 to forty-seven per cent in 2020, according to a Gallup poll—“helps explain the militance that is one of the defining features of Christian nationalism,” Sanneh observed. “It is a minority movement, espousing a claim that might not have seemed terribly controversial a few decades ago: that America is, and should remain, a Christian nation.” (This point aligns with the recent Supreme Court rulings that protect the free expression of religion as a right threatened by an anti-religious majority.) Another answer is that the withdrawal from religious affiliation of tentative or passive believers (“nominals,” as they used to be called) gives free play to the hard-liners who remain: they’re now at the center of many congregations rather than on the fringes, and pastors who used to tailor their preaching to a mixed group of the passionate, the dutiful, and the curious now preach to the choir, literally and figuratively.

Within the P.R.R.I. report, however, is a set of statistics about religion and U.S. Hispanics (as the report terms this population) which ought to be news, for it runs counter to the conventional wisdom about Hispanics and their influence in a swiftly changing American society—on religion and in public life, including electoral politics. Since the nineteen-seventies, as Central and South America became the primary sources of immigrants to the United States, people who observe and comment on religion here (those attentive to Catholicism in particular) have sketched a scenario in which they would emerge as a decisive force in American religion—and, for some commentators, as a kind of rescue squad. Historically, Central and South America were predominantly Catholic regions, owing to five centuries of missionary efforts, European imperialism, and Cold War alignments whereby Catholicism was made a means of “containment” against Communism. By the time of the surge in migration to the U.S., that was changing, as evangelical Protestant missionaries in the region gained converts from Catholicism, offering lay-leadership roles, more dynamic worship, closer attention to the Bible, and independence from the Catholic Church’s alliances with autocratic regimes.

As the story was told, those immigrants would reinvigorate American Catholicism as they settled and made lives in the United States. At the same time, the competition for believers between the Catholic Church and Protestant faiths would prove to be the latest iteration of the “free market” model of American religion. Whereas in premodern Europe, and then in Latin America, the recognition of a “state church” made religion omnipresent but static, the United States’ “no establishment, free exercise” approach sponsored competition for believers, and many experts see this as the reason that the U.S., an outrider among the world’s most prosperous nations, still had relatively high levels of religious affiliation. For U.S. Hispanics, strong ties among religion, ethnicity, and everyday life would produce the “intense religiosity” that commentators such as Ross Douthat, of the Times, still see as the bright future of religion in America, a bulwark against “liberalism’s profound post-Christian drift.”

These developments were also expected to have a pronounced effect on American politics. Although Hispanic Catholics came from twenty countries, commentators often treated them en bloc, as follows: many had firsthand experience of immigration, tended to be moderate or conservative on social issues such as abortion and gay rights (in part owing to religious beliefs), and had no deep historic ties to either major political party. This could make them swing voters, and would help make states with large Hispanic populations (Florida and Arizona, to take two) battleground states, where an appeal to those voters could spell the difference between victory and defeat. Then, in March, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, became Pope Francis, and there came predictions that the presence of the first Pope from Latin America would spur the emergence of a distinctly Hispanic Catholicism in the United States.

The P.R.R.I. report tells a different story. As of 2020, according to the survey, the United States is forty-two-per-cent white Christians. Twenty-five per cent are Christian people of color; of those, a fifth are Hispanics, and almost seventy per cent of Hispanic Christians are Catholics. Six per cent of Americans are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, or other; and twenty-seven per cent are religiously unaffiliated. That last estimate has risen eleven percentage points since 2006.

What’s striking about the report’s profile of Hispanic Catholics is that their rates of disaffection with religion track almost exactly with those of white Catholics. (Douthat noted this trend in a 2019 column about a Pew survey.) Since 2013, the proportion of Hispanic Catholics who go to Mass regularly has dropped in near-lockstep with the proportion of white Catholics who do (from seventy-two per cent to forty-seven per cent among Hispanics; from sixty-eight per cent to forty-five per cent among whites). Meanwhile, the proportions of Hispanic Catholics and white Catholics who consider religion “not important” in their lives have risen together (from two per cent to thirteen per cent among Hispanics; from seven per cent to sixteen per cent among whites). Statistically, the particular traits associated with Hispanic Catholics have had no discernible effect; they are withdrawing from active participation in the Church in the same proportions as the ethnic Irish or Germans or Italians whose ancestors came to this country, as Catholics, a hundred or more years ago.

What might explain this? It could be seen as an expression of simple assimilation: as Hispanics new to this country began to worship in predominantly white churches, their habits of affiliation (and disaffiliation) came to resemble those of whites. But the P.R.R.I. survey data suggest otherwise. More than three-quarters of the respondents categorized as Hispanic Catholics said that they attend church in congregations that are mainly Hispanic, and three-quarters of those categorized as white Catholics said that they worship in congregations that are mainly white. For all that, those Hispanics who do remain Christians (both Catholics and Protestants) are more “optimistic about the future of their church” than their white counterparts are: more than eight in ten Hispanic Catholics, compared with seven in ten white Catholics.



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