The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Will Latinos become Republicans? Not if it depends on being religious.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) speaks at the September 2012 National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (John Raoux/AP)
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As far back as Ronald Reagan, politicians have been urging Latinos — who historically have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats — to move over to the Republican Party. The idea has been that, putting questions of immigration aside, Latinos as a whole are conservative about hard work, family values, and religious dedication, which Republicans generally consider to be “their” values.

But do they stay that way once they are in the U.S.? If the Republicans continue being the party of strict borders, English-only, and deportation, they’re unlikely to get the first generation to become Republican voters. And like other immigrant groups, Latinos become more Americanized — secularized — with each generation.

In debating why, political science has had two main theories: modernization theory, which suggests that those who come from less developed countries become more secular with each passing generation, and existential security theory, which predicts that when people are more economically secure, they no longer turn to church or religion for reinforcement.

In our forthcoming Politics & Religion paper we tested these theories.

Using data from the 2006 Latino National Survey, we found that, indeed, each generation of Latinos is less religious, which would support the modernization theory. But we also found that the more economically secure the individuals were — i.e., if they had jobs — they became less likely to go to church regularly.

If being religious is what makes you a Republican, that’s bad news.  And yet Republican presidential candidates have at times succeeded in attracting Latino voters; the peak, to date, came when President George W. Bush got roughly 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004.

Many attributed the younger Bush’s two presidential election victories to his ability to attract Latinos and evangelicals, both considered very important for Republicans in the future.  Perhaps future Republicans will succeed as well — but it’s unlikely appealing to Latino religiosity will be the key.

Sarah Allen Gershon is associate professor of political science and director of graduate studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Ga. Adrian D. Pantoja is professor of political studies and Chicano studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. J. Benjamin Taylor is assistant professor of political science at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Mass.