I’m encouraged by examples of low-income people and people of color becoming more active and influential in U.S. politics. This is a crucial part of building the political will we need to move toward the end of hunger and poverty.
One example is the National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NALEC), which has strengthened the voice of Latino Evangelicals on poverty-related issues. This week’s webcast in my “Poverty, God, Politics” series features Rev. Gabriel Salguero, Founder and President of NALEC.
Gabe starts by countering a couple popular misconceptions about Evangelicals and Latinos. He is deeply rooted in Puerto Rican Pentecostal church life, but studied at Princeton and Union seminaries. His thinking has been influenced by Catholic Social Teaching and Liberation Theology. This might not be the academic and theological background that people would expect of a Pentecostal preacher.
He then presents data on diversity among Latinos. In the United States, we have grouped people from various nations together as Latino, but each of these nations has its own culture, ethnic mix, and history. Latinos are also diverse in religion, with large concentrations of Catholics, Evangelicals, and religiously unaffiliated people.
Latinos are very diverse politically - 37 percent Democrat, 25 percent Independent, and 21 percent Republican. Many people swing from one party to the other in different elections. That - and the fact that one in four children born in the United States is now Latino - add to their political importance.
Bread-and-butter issues (COVID, jobs, housing) are the highest priority among Latino voters. These are survival issues for many Latinos; hunger and poverty are twice as prevalent among Latinos as among non-Latino White people. Many Latinos are also concerned about abortion and same-sex marriage, issues that are stressed in Catholic and Evangelical churches.
Most Latinos favor humane immigration policies, and their churches (especially Catholic parishes) sometimes organize advocacy on immigration issues. But contrary to what I used to think, immigration is not a high priority among Latino voters. This helps to explain why Congress hasn’t updated the nation’s immigration policies for 35 years. Gabriel Salguero says that advocacy partners, politicians, and the press most often seek his views on immigration issues, even though the people he represents are more concerned about hunger and poverty within the United States.
Gabe and other Evangelical Latino pastors founded NALEC eleven years ago. Inspired in part by the hard-won political achievements of African American churches, they decided to organize Latino Evangelicals for advocacy on common-good issues from a Gospel perspective. Their issues agenda has reflected the Bible’s focus on poverty.
NALEC has grown to include 3,000 churches. They have no communications staff, but get significant media attention. Gabe is courted by politicians in both parties, and the Democratic Party asked him to pray at the beginning of their 2020 convention. It helps that there are concentrations of Latino Evangelicals in some of the swing states.
NALEC is a leader on immigration issues. They have repeatedly brought hundreds of people from across the country to speak with members of Congress on these issues. Pentecostal youth choirs have rocked Capitol Hill with songs about Jesus and justice. NALEC has also organized Evangelical churches to take care of unaccompanied migrant children until they can be reunited with their families.
I asked Gabe how the Biden administration should respond to the recent influx of undocumented immigrants. He welcomes the return to more humane immigration policies. He recommends partnership with faith groups to help take care of children, more judges and attorneys to process claims for asylum, and restoring the aid to Central America that President Trump slashed.
NALEC has also become a leader on questions of funding for safety-net programs and tax credits for low-income workers. They are a strong partner in the Circle of Protection, working with diverse church bodies and organizations to influence and then pass the massive legislative packages that have moved through Congress during the pandemic. On these issues, they are moved both by religious conviction and by the pressing needs of many of the people in their churches and communities. Their personal connections to the realities of poverty and near-poverty add to the intensity and credibility of their advocacy.