SACRAMENTO, Calif. As the Democratic Party platform has turned more to the left on matters of life, faith and family, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said the door to the Republican Party is widening for Latino evangelicals.
"The Democratic value system embedded in their platform does not reflect the values of the Hispanic community," said Rodriquez, whose group represents 40,000 churches. "So it's a party that wants to reach the Latino community, that has reached it for years based on its issues of social justice and education reform. Now it's coming across the wall that some Latinos are swaying away from the Democratic Party because it has turned too far to the left."
Particularly disturbing to Rodriguez and his constituents was the recent floor debacle at the Democratic National Convention over the removal of the word "God" from the party platform. It took three confusing votes on live TV and a robust chorus of yeses, nos and boos before convention chairman Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared the delegates had successfully voted to reinstate God into the platform.
"It was not only the omission of God, it was the response from the crowd," the national leader said. "We all saw it. We all heard it. We all know the majority of the people on that floor were not in favor of reincorporating the term God. We saw it as a nation. The world heard it. Through parliamentary manipulation the result was otherwise.
"Now you can imagine a Hispanic believer saying, 'Why do I want to be a part of a party who has a problem with God?' The Christian worldview is not just something for the Hispanic faith community. It's everything. It's the optic that drives us."
Still, the party lines can be confusing for Hispanic evangelicals. The hard-line stance against immigration by Republicans is also a game changer for evangelicals who believe the Christian response should be more compassionate and charitable on social justice issues.
"The Republicans have a good platform, but the rhetoric kind of pushes us, alienates us," he said. "So here we have a Republican Party whose immigration rhetoric conveys a mixed message of whether or not they like Latinos and we have a Democratic Party that through its platform conveys a message that does not necessarily resonate with the Christian Latino worldview so that Latino Christian is standing in the middle saying 'Where do we go?'
"My answer is at the end of the day its not about the donkey or the elephant, it's about the agenda of the Lamb. That means the Latino community really has an opportunity of redeeming both narratives."
The Hispanic vote is absolutely critical in an election that has been within percentage points for months. According to Rodriquez, the Hispanic faith community played a significant role in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, when the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa Bay and Orlando proved to be a tipping point in electing George W. Bush. The corridor is heavily populated with Christian Latinos.
"The Hispanic community, because of its Christian worldview, can turn an election one way or the other," Rodriguez, an Assemblies of God minister, said. "Now, we are no longer just in Florida and California and Texas. We are spread across the country. Because of that, I think that this community, this demographic, I believe, has the potential to be a major player for years to come."
One of the major factors for Hispanic evangelicals in play this election cycle is the federal Health and Human Services mandate in the Affordable Care Act, which is forcing religious institutions such as schools, hospitals and parachurch organizations to provide life-ending contraceptives through their employee insurance plans.
"We find that to be morally reprehensible and egregious, and it runs counter to our religious liberty and even to the First Amendment to a great degree so we are pushing back as a community," Rodriguez said.
Working both sides
Rodriguez said his group's approach is to work with Republicans to establish a more prominent biblical justice approach to such issues as poverty, education, incarceration and re-entry, and affordable housing. At the same time, they are working to move Democrats back to the center on prolife and homosexual issues.
"I think Hispanic evangelicals have a role in prophetically addressing both parties with integrity in order to change the narrative," he said.
"It's what I call 'reconciling Billy Graham's message of salvation through Christ and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s march for justice.' It's both righteousness and justice. It's covenant and community. It's the image of God and the habits of Christ."
Truth to power
The tightrope, he said, is to engage party leaders without becoming part of the system.
"In order for us to maintain the integrity of our prophetic witness we can't marry a political ideology," he said. "We are called as Daniel and Joseph and Esther and Paul to speak truth to power. We have to be independent enough, with integrity, to speak into the party apparatus."
In the end, Rodriguez said Hispanic evangelicals must search their heartsand soulsagainst the backdrop of a biblical worldview.
"One of the messaging components that we share with our constituents across the country is when you go to the voting booth do not vote as a Hispanic, as a black, brown, white or yellow person," he said. "Do not vote your cultural heritage or your ethnicity. Vote vertical. Vote your Christian worldview. You are first and foremost a Christian, a child of God."
He likened the concept to a cross.
"When we vote it's an act of prophetic witness, so we can't take it lightly. We need to be very careful in letting our horizontal reality guide us in how we vote. Our vertical voting will have horizontal consequences."
Christian Hispanics split over political parties and issues
• Evangelicos support DNC's emphasis on social justice, education
• Evangelical Hispanics drawn to RNC's policy of life, family