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Abortion leads one way, immigration another for many evangelical Latino voters

Pastors in the Tampa Bay area are trying to help parishioners apply Christian values in deciding between Trump and Biden.
Angel Marcial Jr., a leader of the evangelical Vertical Church in Largo, is helping congregants apply Christian values to issues such as abortion and immigration as they choose between candidates for president.
Angel Marcial Jr., a leader of the evangelical Vertical Church in Largo, is helping congregants apply Christian values to issues such as abortion and immigration as they choose between candidates for president. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 8, 2020|Updated Oct. 14, 2020

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LARGO — The pastor’s message has been loud and clear to the parishioners at the evangelical Vertical Church in Largo: Study the choices and vote.

“It is our duty and job to defend the ethical and moral values that guide us,” said Angel B. Marcial, 30, a Puerto Rican native. "And that must be done by voting.”

How you cast your ballot, he adds, is up to you.

But Marcial, who is also youth director for the Southeastern Hispanic Region of the Tennessee-based Church of God, is spending a lot of time helping people navigate a conflict over issues that is separating many Latinos from other white evangelicals.

Historically, the evangelical community has supported the Republican party in the belief it more closely aligns with Christian values in general and rejects abortion and gay marriage in particular.

Still, said Marcial, “That does not mean we do not think about our immigrant brothers who are suffering,”

Among many Latino evangelicals, in fact, immigration and social justice are prompting a re-evaluation. Some feel torn between their religious beliefs and their racial identity.

How they come down on the dilemma promises to help sway the outcome of the election: White and Latino evangelicals overall cast ballots at a rate nearly double their share of the population — 26 percent compared to 15 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

At the center of the dilemma is President Donald Trump.

Trump has pledged to restore Christianity as a political force in America and to name Supreme Court justices who oppose abortion. He has seen two of his appointments seated and a third awaits Senate hearings. At the same time, many Latinos are disturbed by Trump’s vilification of undocumented immigrants and his hard-line stance against protesters seeking racial equality.

Like Marcial, Josué Carbajal, 34, the Mexican-born pastor of the Living Grace Church in Plant City, encourages his followers to study and pray as they find their way politically. But he doesn’t provide them with one.

“I do not suggest candidates or parties," said Carbajal, who also administers youth ministries at some 80 local evangelical churches. “There are Christian and biblical foundations to consider, but in the end, the decision is up to the individual and no one else.”

The 50 members of Carbajal’s church are mostly working people from Mexico and Puerto Rico. At least 90 percent are registered voters. Many, like their pastor, are still trying to choose between Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

“I am analyzing everything because it is a difficult and contradictory choice,” Carbajal said. “There are immigration issues that concern us, but on the other hand, there are things that we cannot stop listening to, such as abortion and the decision between life and death.”

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These issues sparked a wide-ranging discussion during July and August, when Latino evangelical churches in Florida took part in the annual Mission Talk conference. This year, the conference that began in Orlando in 2016 was held online but still brought together authorities on poverty, education, diversity, immigration and racial reconciliation.

President Donald Trump, shown here in January during a Miami appearance with evangelical leaders, enjoys more support among evangelicals overall than he does among those who are Latino.
President Donald Trump, shown here in January during a Miami appearance with evangelical leaders, enjoys more support among evangelicals overall than he does among those who are Latino. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]

Latino evangelicals tend to be more conservative than Latino Catholics, the religious affiliation identified by most people within the demographic, said Susan MacManus, University of South Florida political science professor emeritus.

But more importantly, MacManus said, studies by religious scholars and polling firms like Pew Research Center have long recognized the need to separate whites from blacks and nonwhites when analyzing the voting patterns of evangelicals.

“Race and ethnicity often play a bigger role among minority voters than party or religion,” she said.

A recent online survey commissioned by Vote Common Good, a self-proclaimed Christian group working to unseat the president, found that a perceived lack of kindness in Trump is moving faith-driven voters away from him in numbers large enough to affect the outcome of the election.

In Florida, the survey found a 13-point swing away from Trump and toward Biden among evangelical voters who backed Trump in 2016. Among Catholics, the swing was 11 points.

The poll was conducted Aug. 11 to Aug. 26 by a consortium of four public and private universities and surveyed 1,430 registered voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Michigan. The margin of error was 2.5 percent.

Immigration policy may drive more Latino evangelicals this fall to vote differently than white evangelicals, said Paul Djupe, a political scientist at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. They already were: In 2018, only 55 percent identified as Republicans compared to 80 percent among whites and Latinos overall, Djupe said.

Republican candidates might have fared better among Latino evangelicals, he said, had they adopted the recommendations of their party’s “Autopsy Report” eight years ago, calling for comprehensive immigration reform. The report was commissioned, in part, because of Republican Mitt Romney’s poor showing among people of color in his 2012 challenge of President Barack Obama.

Coronavirus and the Trump administration’s response also haven’t helped the standing of Republicans among Latinos overall ― a population that has recorded a disproportionate share of infections and hospitalizations from the disease.

Politics has worked its way into the daily work and prayer of evangelicals but hasn’t interrupted it, said Landy Feliciano, 41, a pastor at La Senda Antigua Evangelical Church in Tampa. Together with her husband Josué, also a pastor, the couple ministers to a congregation of about 200.

“Our responsibility as believers and citizens has not changed," she said. "That is why we constantly talk about everything that is happening.”

For Pastor Marcial, also, the conversations about voting — the role of the family, racial equity, following moral and ethical principles — have grown as a part of his work.

“Knowledge is the beginning of power. We tell people they need to exercise their rights with knowledge," Marcial said. “At the end of the day, you have to evaluate all the options.”

• • •

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