Untapping the Potential of Black, Latino, and Asian American Evangelical Voters

AP Photo/Branden Camp

Parishioner Bea Warbington-Ross sings during a worship service at First Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia

White evangelicals have been in the media spotlight since they helped Donald Trump secure the presidency nearly two years ago. But there’s a critical blind spot in the common narrative about this faith group’s politics: White people are far from the only evangelicals in the United States. Today, one out of every seven evangelicals in the U.S. is of Asian or Latino origin, and together with African American evangelicals, non-White evangelicals make-up nearly one-third of the evangelical population overall. These groups have been largely ignored by the news media, yet this cohort will likely be a game changer in American politics.

With the United States undergoing tremendous demographic shifts, religious voters of color are an untapped and growing constituency, one that’s within reach of both parties. Yet there is little indication that the Democratic and Republican parties have grasped the potential of mobilizing the diverse members of this faith community around the complex issues that matter most to them like immigration, tax reform, and social spending.

The political attitudes and behavior of Latinos and Asian Americans in this faith community are not well established. Their racial identities and the sets of issues affecting them as people of color in the United States, such as immigration reform, are largely seen as driving them toward the left. Meanwhile, issues tied to religious identity, like abortion, are seen as a distinct advantage to the right. 

As I conducted research for my latest book, Immigrants, Evangelicals, and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change, I found that Asian American, Latino, and black evangelicals’ politics look very different from their white counterparts. Despite similar theological beliefs and, in many cases, higher rates of church attendance and more fundamentalist religious orientations, only a minority of these worshippers of color say they voted for Trump. 

Evangelicals are more conservative than the general population, but the people of color in this faith community are much less conservative than either white evangelicals orwhites more generally. In my analysis of data from over 10,000 respondents, I found that on many issues, including voting for Trump, Asian American, Latino, and black evangelicals report more progressive leanings than even non-evangelical white people. Further, the differences between white and non-white people persist even after factoring in socioeconomic status, general attitudes about the role of government, and party identification.  Nor do they disappear when I considered only young people or only people living outside of the South.

Perceptions of racial discrimination work in very different ways among white and non-white evangelicals. One critical driver of white conservative political belief is the perception that whites face levels of discrimination that are on par or even higher than discrimination against Muslims and people of color. These perceptions are closely tied to conservative political attitudes for whites. But perceptions of racial discrimination against their own groups does not lead to more conservative political attitudes among Asian American, Latino, and black evangelicals.

In Southern California and Texas, I found that race matters in evangelical communities. Nowhere is this clearer than in the ways that white and non-white people talked to me about race. A Japanese American man in West Covina, outside of Los Angeles, implied that issues of race in the U.S. would not disappear in the near future. He told me, “No matter how long I stay here, how much I assimilate American values and American traditions, my face will always pass me out as someone who does not belong.”  

But a white man in the same Southern California region claimed that race should not be a critical part of the national dialogue, arguing “I don’t believe there is such a thing as racial equality or inequality. We’re forced to think of things in racial terms. I certainly have no reason to believe that’s anything that God necessarily wants, for us to think in terms of white, black, brown, Asian, whatever.” These conflicting viewpoints on race help to explain the current political divides between white and non-white evangelicals. 

How might Asian American, Latino and black evangelicals change political dynamics in the United States? The issues that bring these religious people of color together are at the heart of the Democrats’ agenda: taxing the wealthy, universal health care, and combatting climate change. Evangelicals of color also, perhaps not surprisingly, exhibit less hostility towards immigrants. 

I found that that less than a quarter of African Americans, Latinos or Asian American evangelicals believe that immigration hurts the economy compared to half of white people. However, there is one issue bridges the color line: abortion. All evangelicals remain firmly opposed to the procedure. Tapping into this discontent on abortion could be part of a winning strategy for the political right. But it is also very important to note that, so far, conservative attitudes on abortion have not produced increased support for the Republican Party among most evangelicals of color. 

Asian American, Latino and Black evangelicals may not be dominating the news cycle these days, but they should not be neglected in stories of American politics or the two major parties. Very rough estimates based on exit poll data and indicators of evangelical identity from other sources suggest that whites made-up about 70 percent of all evangelical voters in 2016.  Whites in this faith community are experiencing a population decline, while the proportion of Asian American and Latino evangelical voters is growing. Major Republican Party donors like the Koch brothers began making deep investments in Latino faith communities prior to the 2016 election.  But the Democrats have yet to shower the same attention on Asian American, Latino and black evangelicals.  They are missing a major opportunity. 

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