Latino religious leader Rodriguez courts the left, right for immigration reform

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010; A03

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez wants immigration reform, and believes building bridges across political divides is how to win it.

As president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, he has made himself at home with secular progressives and right-wing evangelicals, with liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

Rodriguez, 40, describes the 16 million Latino evangelicals he represents as a mix of "Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. -- with a little salsa tossed in." He sees himself that way, too.

Like most Latino evangelicals, his political alliances are not cemented. As he and several thousand others from his group prepare to descend on Washington Sunday, his message is this: Stand in the way of an overhaul of immigration policy and we will oppose you -- Democrat or Republican. Because the way to win, Samuels believes, is to press when pressing is necessary.

The marchers, who will include evangelicals arriving in church vans and buses from, by Rodriguez's count, 17 states, will demand that President Obama keep his campaign promise to make it possible for many of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to become citizens. They are to meet on the National Mall, hold an interfaith prayer service with 5,000 religious leaders, and protest alongside Hispanic Catholics and a diverse group of what organizers say will be tens of thousands of immigration activists from across the country.

"If not the Obama administration, with a Democratic Congress, then who?" Rodriguez asked. "If not now -- then when?"

Hispanics are the fastest-growing part of the U.S. population; evangelicals are the fastest-growing part of the Hispanic religious community. And Rodriguez, head of the NHCLC for a decade, has been watching those two trends as they merge to form a potent swing vote. The biggest test of the community's power comes now, Rodriguez says, as they press Obama and Congress to overhaul immigration law during the next few months.

On the political spectrum, he places himself somewhere between white evangelicals, two-thirds of whom vote Republican, and black churchgoers, two-thirds of whom vote Democratic.

"The brown comes along and says, 'Why can't we have both?' " Rodriguez said. He strongly opposes same-sex marriage and abortion, and he cares about reducing poverty and improving the education and justice systems.

It is from that central position that Hispanic voters, and more precisely Hispanic evangelicals such as himself, have become one of the factions that help sway critical elections. In 1996, about 66 percent of Latino Protestants voted for Bill Clinton. In 2004, 63 percent went for George W. Bush. In 2008, Obama won 57 percent of their support.

Bipartisan outreach

For the past decade, Rodriguez has made connections across political lines by seeking common ground. It began when Bush's team invited him to the White House and later asked him to join Karl Rove's weekly strategy calls. Then Rodriguez started getting calls from congressional leaders, both Republicans and Democrats. Last year, he prayed for Obama at a private service along with Bishop T.D. Jakes and mega-church pastor Joel Hunter.

"No one knows how to label me," Rodriguez said with a smile.

In 2000, he took over a small group of pastors and built one of the country's largest associations of Latino evangelicals, with 25,434 churches.

About 10 million Latinos voted in the 2008 presidential election, and evangelicals are considered to make up about one-third of the Hispanic vote. But their political impact is larger than their numbers, said Gaston Espinosa, a professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College and author of "Religion, Race, and the American Presidency" and several books about Latino Protestants.

His research also found that as many as 600,000 Latinos convert to evangelicalism every year, and Hispanic evangelicals tend to vote at higher rates than Hispanic Catholics. They are also heavily concentrated in swing states, such as Colorado, Florida and New Mexico.

Rodriguez will now find out whether the community's clout and his hold-hands-with-everyone-approach help advance the contentious issue of overhauling immigration law. He is not naive about all those friendships he has made.

"I've been with people that I pray with, who are some of my greatest friends on the right, who'll say they want to deport 12 million people," Rodriguez said. "Or they'll say -- and this is how they'll say it -- 'Why doesn't your people learn English? If they can't, they need to go.' "

He shook his head.

He has no illusions on the other side either, and some on that side, in turn, view him with suspicion. Bruce Wilson, a founder of an online publication opposed to the religious right, calls Rodriguez proof that the "new face of the politicized Christian conservative movement is not exclusively associated with the Republican Party."

"It's an extremely cynical approach," Wilson said. "Rodriguez wants to play both sides."

The way Rodriguez sees it, he might be working both the right and the left, but he sees no conflict. "Sometimes I do feel a little schizophrenic," he said. "But I let both sides know what I'm doing. I operate in integrity."

Still, navigating the partisan divide, especially in Washington, has its risks.

Take the call Rodriguez received last year from the office of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), asking that he testify in support of Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination. Proud of the racial barrier she would break, Rodriguez's conference of churches had issued a statement backing the nomination -- with a caveat over abortion policy.

But word got out that Rodriguez planned to testify before Leahy's panel. Calls came in from "friends on the right" who said they would refuse to back immigration reform if he testified. "They were bartering with me," Rodriguez said.

In the political calculus, it was clear that Sotomayor would be confirmed with or without Rodriguez's support. He turned down the invitation to testify, but sent for the record a statement supporting Sotomayor.

Losing the burgeoning support of white evangelicals for immigration reform was a bigger risk, Rodriguez decided.

A balancing act

Last month, Rodriguez was speaking to the Oak Initiative, led by pastor and televangelist Rick Joyner, who has built a large ministry in Fort Mill, S.C. Rodriguez, who is on Oak's board, describes it as "the Christian tea party without all the anger." For the most part, the conference attendees, who came from around the country, are fans of Fox News commentator Glenn Beck and fear that big government is bankrupting the nation.

Rodriguez worried that they might be vulnerable to what he has called the "xenophobia and anti-Latino rhetoric" of some on the right.

"It's 2010. The old modus operandi will not succeed. It's going to take white, black, brown to win elections," he told them.

As evidence, he talked about the support evangelicals across racial lines were able to build for Proposition 8 in California, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. After the speech, the 150 activists in South Carolina took a straw poll; each one supported making it possible for illegal immigrants to become citizens.

Rodriguez counted it a small victory.

There have been larger ones. After what he described as a few years of lobbying, the National Evangelical Association's board voted in October to support an immigration overhaul.

"Immigrants are a part of who we are, and we see the question through the lens of people we know and care about," said Galen Carey, the group's D.C.-based government affairs director. "It's not just an abstraction."

Rodriguez knows the chances for change this year are slim amid the debate over health-care and economic recovery efforts. For now, he continues to push right-wing evangelicals to support the policy. If the makeup of Congress changes after November's midterm elections, he thinks Latino evangelicals could persuade Republicans to get behind the issue.

To skeptics, Rodriguez points to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the last major overhaul of immigration law to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants.

"Ronald Reagan supported it," Rodriguez said.

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