As the Latino population in the United States grows, there is a reasonable assumption that the proportion of U.S. Catholics who are Latino would similarly increase. This understanding derives from the fact that most Latinos have roots in Latin America, the most Catholic region in the world where Catholicism has been passed down through many generations. The percentage of American Catholics who are Latino is currently 34 percent. Interestingly, however, the percentage of Latinos who currently identify as Catholic is substantially lower than the percentage raised Catholic (53 percent vs. 69 percent). This drop in Catholic identity has occurred because of two competing trends: increasing religious disaffiliation and the rise of born-again Christians or “evangélicos.” (For more on Latinos and disaffiliation, stay tuned for Part Two of this blog series). The percentage of Latinos raised evangelical Christian is only 7 percent, but nearly twice that many (13 percent) currently identify as evangélico. This shift can also be traced back to significant changes in the religious composition in Latin America where the dominance of Catholicism is not as large as it was in previous generations.
A recent report by Chile-based survey research firm Latinobarómetro shows that the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, has not abated the defection of many Catholics in the region. Between 1995 and 2013, for example, Latinobarómetro found that Catholic affiliation declined 13 percentage points. In 1995, 8-in-10 (80 percent) residents of Latin America identified as Catholic compared to two-thirds (67 percent) in 2013. It’s not a stretch, then, to connect the growth of evangelicals in Latin America and among Latinos in the United States. Evangelical Christianity, particularly many of the Pentecostal denominations flourishing in Latin America today, arrived as missionaries from the U.S. moved to evangelize in the region. Likewise, some early Pentecostal leaders in the U.S. came from within the Latino community, who helped organize churches and their communities, according to Professor Arlene Sanchez-Walsh, an expert in Latino Church Studies.
The increase of evangelicals is more pronounced in Central American countries. Not only do Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua no longer have a Catholic majority (47 percent of the population in each country is Catholic), the second largest religious group consists of evangelicals (40 percent, 41 percent, and 37 percent in each country, respectively). El Salvador still features a Catholic majority (54 percent), but the percentage of evangelical Christians has almost doubled since 1996 (from 15 percent to 31 percent). Among Latinos in the U.S., those with roots in Central America and the Caribbean are the least likely to identify as Catholic (45 percent) and the most likely to identify as evangélico (16 percent). To put it differently, Latinos with roots in Central America and the Caribbean are over-represented among evangélicos: 21 percent of Latino adults have roots in Central America and the Caribbean, as do nearly 3-in-10 (27 percent) of evangélicos, but fewer 1-in-5 (18 percent) Catholics hail from Central America and the Caribbean.
The symbiotic relationship between Latin American evangelicals and Latino evangélicos in the U.S. continues today. Historian R. Andrew Chesnut notes in this interview that, in a strange twist of fate, many churches with roots in Latin America are now sending missionaries to the U.S., particularly to preach to Latino immigrants arriving from Mexico and Central America. As the transnational links between Latin America and its U.S. diaspora improve thanks to easier communications and travel, expect these links to strengthen and for evangélicos to become a more prominent segment of the American evangelical community.