When the Rev. Gabriel Salguero stands to talk politics with rooms full of Latino evangelical ministers, he often starts by mentioning his concern about the state of the family, including the unborn.
But when Salguero stood, Bible in hand, in a Cleveland meeting space Saturday filled with about 500 people, he quickly moved on to his expectation that people of faith will aggressively support public policies that address poverty, immigration and yawning education disparities.
"We're saying let's look at what the Bible has to say about immigrants and poor people and education," said Salguero, the New Jersey-based president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, in a telephone interview before the event with The Huffington Post. "The whole moral landscape. When we hear xenophobic talk, we say, remember immigration is on our agenda. When we hear people who are dismissive about programs that support poor women and single mothers and try to stop displacement from foreclosure, we say, we are listening."
Salguero's speech and his preview were emblematic of the demands that leaders of key Latino evangelical organizations are making this year, in the run up to the presidential election. Both left- and right-leaning Latino evangelical groups are staging multi-city voter registration and mobilization drives over the course of the next few weeks. And leading figures on either end of the political spectrum are focused on some of the same not-so-typical evangelical political priorities.
As President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have launched the de-facto start of the general election campaign, each side has rolled out Spanish-language television ads and bilingual web sites. But inside the Latino electorate is a veritable sea of subgroups with distinct experiences and political interests. One of them, the nearly 10 million-member Latino evangelical community, makes up 15 percent of the nation's eligible Latino voters, according to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study.
Unlike their white evangelical counterparts who are a reliably Republican voting block, the country's Latino evangelicals are spread more widely across the political spectrum, said Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life.
About 30 percent of Latino evangelicals identified as Republicans in a 2010 Forum on Religion and Public Life survey. Another 40 percent described themselves as Democrats. Among white evangelical adults, 63 percent identified themselves as Republicans and just 18 percent described themselves as Democrats.
Still, Latino evangelicals often register as far more conservative than similar voters in polls that include questions about abortion, gay rights and same-sex marriage, Lugo said. But those same born-again Latino evangelicals also typically indicate broad support for public programs that assist the poor and expand public spending or access to health care, according to Lugo.
"It's a difficult dance," Lugo said. "To appeal to these voters a candidate basically needs to go right and left, be both conservative and liberal then somehow hone in on the policy priorities that will bring these voters to the polls."
Former President George W. Bush's much-talked ability to connect with and win Latino voters was driven largely by the fact that Bush secured the overwhelming majority of Latino evangelical votes, Lugo said. He noted that many of those same voters supported Obama in 2008.
"We are, in essence, the ultimate swing vote," said Salguero, who supports expanded government spending on both social services and also programs that provide assistance to the poor and reliable pathways to self-sufficiency. But Salguero resists being branded a progressive or liberal. "This is not a community that is prepared this year to be held hostage by one ideology or another," he said.
The Cleveland event where Salguero spoke this weekend was part of a seven swing-state tour dubbed Tu Decides (You Decide). At Tu Decides events in key states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Nevada, Salguero is hoping to draw diverse audiences of Latino, black and white evangelical ministers, willing to preach the gospel of political engagement from their pulpits and facilitate the process of registering thousands of new voters.
The evangelical coalition could not provide a tally of voters registered in Cleveland last week. But each of the nearly 500 pastors who attended the event, according to Salguero, will likely repeat the Tu Decides message to their congregation. Many of those congregations average well over 1,000 members, he said.
This election cycle, Latino evangelical voters are likely to face a choice between Romney, a candidate who has rejected several immigration reform proposals focused on young undocumented immigrants, and Obama, an incumbent who failed to deliver on promised comprehensive immigration reform while deporting a record number of people.
The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the California-based president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, has been involved in similar events around the country this year aimed at engaging Latino evangelicals in the election process. Rodriguez personally favors smaller government and policies that facilitate entrepreneurship rather than expanded government dependency, he said. But, he also ranks comprehensive immigration reform and attacking the nation's 50 percent Latino drop out rate among the concerns around which all evangelicals should rally.
"If we could reconcile Billy Graham with Dr. Martin Luther King, we would be happy," Rodriguez said. "The Hispanic evangelical community is a Billy Graham, Martin Luther King Jr. community. We embrace and support Billy Graham's message of personal salvation and living a righteous life and Martin Luther King's message of reforming society and living in a just society. Our politics reflect that."
Rodriguez says in the last 14 months alone, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference's voter registration initiative has put 362,000 new, mostly Latino voters on the rolls in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.