Most Hispanics believe they can influence public affairs, but only 22 percent receive encouragement from their religious leaders to get involved in specific social, educational, or political issues, according to a recent study.

"Our research found that 62 percent of Latinos want their churches or religious organizations to become more involved with social, educational or political issues, but only 22 percent had actually been asked by their church, religious organization or leaders to participate in these kinds of activities," study project manager Gaston Espinosa says.

There is therefore a disconnect between what Latinos are willing to do and what their leaders are asking them to do, he says. "This represents a tremendous opportunity for Latino religious leaders if they are willing to seize the moment."

In the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life (HCAPL) study, released last month, shows 58 percent of surveyed Latinos expressed interest in politics and public affairs, and 54 percent said they believe they have a say in government decisions.

"Many people think that because Latinos come from countries where the governments are often repressive that they would thus shy away from social engagement here in the United States," Espinosa says. "This is not the case. In fact, Latinos want their churches to become more involved in social, educational and political issues, although less so in politics."

Not that Latino church leaders are unaware of the potential in their pews. Preliminary findings announced last summer indicated most Hispanic religious leaders would like their congregations to be more active in public affairs. Jesse Miranda, founder of Alianza de Ministerios Evangelicos Nacionales (AMEN) and co-director of the study, noted: "Some of the leaders are saying, 'I need to get the people involved a little more.'"

Outreach by Hispanic religious bodies includes helping to secure jobs and better wages and working conditions. It also includes immigration aid, ministry to gangs, childcare, after school care or mentoring, and drug rehabilitation, according to the study. Additionally, says HCAPL codirector Virgilio Elizondo, Hispanic churches help conduct English and citizenship classes and operate shelters for unwed or battered women.

The Pew Charitable Trusts-funded study found that 32 percent of Hispanics believe they have "some" influence, and 22 percent "a lot" of influence, over government decisions. 27 percent feel they have "very little" influence, and 19 percent say they have none at all.

Moreover, 50 percent of all Latinos—48 percent of Catholics and 61 percent of Protestant and other Christians—believe that religious leaders should try to influence public affairs.

This commitment to social engagement was evident in Latino attitudes towards helping undocumented immigrants. Three quarters of the Latinos surveyed said they want their churches or religious organizations to aid undocumented immigrants even when it would be illegal. Sixty-one percent believe that illegal immigrants should be eligible for government assistance such as Medicaid.

Religion provides "a great deal of guidance" to 67 percent of Latino "Protestants and other Christians" (a survey category that includes Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses). Among Latino Catholics, the figure is 49 percent. Overall, 53 percent of Hispanics indicate religion provides such guidance.

Another 22 percent of Latinos say religion gives them "quite a bit of guidance." Only 18 percent say it gives them "some guidance," and 7 percent none.

Espinosa says the HCAPL study was the largest bilingual survey in U.S. history on Latino religion and politics. It included a random-sample telephone survey of 2,310 Latinos across the United States and Puerto Rico (2,060 excluding Puerto Rico, which is not included in the released figures). The leadership survey included 268 Latino religious and lay leaders attending 45 congregations. They represented 25 religious traditions in 8 urban and rural areas.

The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute conducted the telephone surveys from August 21 to October 31, 2000.

Jeff M. Sellers is an associate editor of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

See Sellers's earlier reports on the Hispanic Churches in American Public Life study:

Despite Protestant Growth, Hispanic Catholicism Holds Steady in U.S. | Younger generations leaving for Protestant churches, but immigrants make up difference (Feb. 7, 2003)
Hispanic Swing Vote Potentially Volatile | But overwhelming support for prayer in schools, vouchers, and charitable choice didn't translate into support for Bush over Gore (Feb. 14, 2003)