Study: Hispanics Driving Change In U.S. Religion

Jeffrey Weiss, Dallas Morning News, April 25, 2007

A major study released today offers a close look at how Hispanics are changing the way religion is practiced in the United Statesand how American culture is affecting the faith of Hispanics who come to this country.

The study, by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, is based on bilingual interviews of more than 3,600 people nationwide.

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The study details ways that distinguish Hispanics from non-Hispanics. They include:

* Denominations. About 68 percent of Hispanic adults identify themselves as Catholic, compared with 22 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 4 percent of non-Hispanic blacks.

* How they experience their faith. About 29 percent of Hispanics who attend worship services say they speak in tonguesa hallmark of Pentecostal of Charismatic worshipcompared with only 11 percent on non-Hispanics. About 45 percent of Hispanic Catholics say they have witnessed or received divine healing, compared with 21 percent of non-Hispanic Catholics.

* Where they choose to worship. About 66 percent of Hispanics who attend church say their church has a Spanish priest or pastor, a Spanish-language service, and a predominantly Hispanic congregation. Even for Hispanics who are third-generation or higher, about 42 percent report attending a church with all three characteristics.

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Those numbers mean that Dallas-area churches are particularly challenged to meet the cultural needs of the newcomers, local religious leaders say. Local churches have changed their style of music, introduced rituals and traditions that immigrants have brought from their homelands, and increased Spanish-language and bilingual services.

The Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life conducted a public opinion survey among people of Latino background or descent on the topic of religion. The study was conducted via telephone by ICR, an independent research company based in Media, Pa. Interviews were conducted from Aug. 10 to Oct. 4, 2006 among a nationally representative sample of 4,016 Latino respondents age 18 and older.

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[Editor’s Note: The complete report “Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion” along with various report materials can be accessed for downloading or on-line reading here.]


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 traditionsfar 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.

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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 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.

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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 characteristicsthe prevalence of spirit-filled religious expressions and of ethnic-oriented worshipcombined 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.

Beyond the strictly religious realm, this study suggests that the roles Latinos play in U.S. politics and public affairs are deeply influenced by the distinctive characteristics of their religious faith. Most Latinos see religion as a moral compass to guide their own political thinking, and they expect the same of their political leaders. In addition, across all major religious traditions, most Latinos view the pulpit as an appropriate place to address social and political issues.

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.

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The centerpiece of the study is a telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 4,016 Hispanic adults conducted between Aug. 10 and Oct. 4, 2006. The survey included an oversample of 2,000 non-Catholics, which permits an examination of the growth of evangelical and pentecostal Christianity among Latinos, including the process of conversion, in unprecedented detail. The sampling methodology also provided for robust numbers of respondents in all the major country-of-origin segments of the Hispanic population, allowing for detailed analysis of results by this important variable.

Both the extent of renewalism and of ethnic-oriented worship were further examined in recontact interviews with 650 Catholics drawn from the sample of the first survey. The research team also examined data from a large body of surveys previously conducted by both projects, particularly the latest of the Forum’s extensive surveys of religious belief and behavior in the general population, which offer various comparisons between Hispanics and non-Hispanics on many points.

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[Editor’s Note: The complete report “Changing Faiths: Latinos and the Transformation of American Religion” along with various report materials can be accessed for downloading or on-line reading here.]

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