12/03/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Faith vs. Politics: Hispanic Evangelical Voters Still Split

On a crisp Sunday afternoon shortly before the election, Islem Good is still torn between the Democratic and Republican nominees. While she supports Barack Obama's economic policies, the self-identified born-again Christian from the Dominican Republic is troubled by the candidate's positions on abortion and gay marriage.

"Obama really touches on issues that hit home to the average people. People like us," said Good, 28, gesturing to her husband and their 13-year-old son after a morning service at the Manhattan Bible Church, one of the city's lnwood's bilingual congregations.

"I don't agree with McCain's financial plans. I'm one that believes that Bush's policies are flawed." But, she says, "as a Christian, I feel like voting for someone who doesn't believe in the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage would be kind of like degrading my spiritual beliefs."

After helping President Bush secure a second term victory in 2004, Hispanic voters have been abandoning Republican candidates and returning en mass to the Democratic Party, polls show. Democratic identification in this group now tops Republican identification by 39-points--the largest split in a decade, according to a Pew Hispanic Center National Survey. Support for Obama among registered Latino voters outnumbers support for McCain by a margin of nearly three to one, Pew found.

But for evangelical Christian Latinos like Good, deciding between the two candidates is taxing -- a choice between voting one's moral values and voting one's pocketbook.

It comes down to two things, Good explained: "My beliefs versus things that affect me directly. That's why I'm really torn." She asks why neither party has produced a candidate she can agree with on both fronts. "Why not?!" she yells to a room filled with fellow church members, throwing her arms up in exacerbation.

Hispanics represent the largest and fastest growing minority group in the country, accounting for half of the US's population growth between 2000 and 2004. Numbers are expected to further triple by 2050, increasing from 15 percent to 29 percent of the population, according to US census predictions.

"They're a growing electorate with growing power," said Mark Lopez, Associate Director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

And while only half of those individuals are eligible to vote, large Hispanic electorates are concentrated in some of the nation's most hotly contested battleground states, including Florida (14% Hispanic), Nevada (12% Hispanic) and Colorado (12% Hispanic).

This means Hispanic support can either make or break a candidate. Polls are now showing New Mexico (37% Hispanic) leaning Democratic, following a Republican win in 2004.

According to the National Journal, Democrats have captured the Hispanic vote in each of the past five presidential elections. However, in 2004, Bush was able to win a majority of the evangelical vote, boosting his support from 44 percent to 56 percent by appealing to conservative values and adopting more liberal immigration policies. This, according to some, provided the 1% overall margin that Bush needed to take the election.

"The biggest reason for Bush's victory was that he finally cracked the Democratic stranglehold on the Hispanic vote," Dick Morris wrote in 2004.

This year, both campaigns have dedicated millions of dollars to wooing the Hispanic vote. The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee alone have reportedly spent upwards of $20 million on Latino organizing and advertising--twice the amount Bush and Kerry spent in 2004.

But the Hispanic vote, as Bush's numbers show, is not a cohesive voting block. Over the past decade, polls have shown a growing divide between Roman Catholic Hispanics and evangelical Protestant Hispanics, both in their party affiliations and priorities.

More than two-thirds of Hispanics identify as Roman Catholics, while about 25 percent identify as Protestant according to a 2007 Pew study. Of Protestants --many of whom have converted from Catholicism--more than 80 percent identify as either born again or evangelical.

According to Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, evangelicals make up at least one-third to 40 percent of the Hispanic voting electorate.

Hispanics of all persuasions say that religion plays an important role in their voting decisions. Two-thirds of Latinos have said that their religious beliefs are an important influence on their political thinking, and most agreed that there has been too little expression of religious faith by political leaders rather than too much, according to earlier Pew data.

Yet Latino evangelicals are twice as likely as Latino Catholics to be Republican, and are much more conservative, not only than Latino Catholics, but than evangelical whites.

A joint poll released last week by the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the Jesse Miranda Center for Hispanic Leadership, and Faith in Public Life found that Obama is leading McCain by 17 points (50 to 33 percent, with 10 percent undecided) among Protestant Latinos--a substantial margin, but one that is much smaller than among Latino Catholics.

The survey, which questioned only Protestant Latinos, also reported that a large majority of respondents said abortion, immigration and gay marriage as are very or extremely important issues when it comes to deciding how to cast their votes come November. Over 30 percent also agreed that they will leave their party if it doesn't find "a more positive way to address immigration reform and welcome immigrants."

These numbers highlight the importance of immigration--an issue that has received relatively little attention this election cycle by the candidates or mainstream press.

"It's a way of telling who's on your side and who's not on your side," explained Katie Paris, Director of Communications Strategy for Faith in Public Life.

She believes that if McCain had continued campaigning against his party in support of comprehensive immigration reform, he likely would have earned greater Latino support. "Had he been willing to be a true maverick, we might see things looking a bit different," she said.

In 2006, McCain sponsored and voted in favor of legislation that would allow millions of illegal immigrants to apply for legal status, provided they pay a fine. He also supported the distribution of temporary worker visas, with an option for later immigration. Since beginning his campaign, however, he has shifted his focus to border security -- and, in 2007, he voted in favor of declaring English the country's official language. Neither position was popular among Hispanic voters.

"It disappeared as an issue because both parties put it under the canopy of 'don't ask, don't tell' -- because it's such a wedge issue" Rodriguez argued. "That's the great juxtaposition right now. The Latino Protestant resonates with the Republican Party on social conservative values, but they can't support a party that uses nativist rhetoric. They're caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place."

In addition, Rodriguez believes the Democratic party is getting better at distancing itself from pro-abortion rhetoric, as demonstrated by the recent implementation of an abortion reduction strategy in Denver, which he said is helping Obama with Protestant voters.

Meanwhile, Catholic Hispanic voters are growing increasingly secular.

A recent poll by Catholics for Choice found that "Catholic voters show little interest in so-called values issues to help them decide who should be the next president," with seven in ten saying their bishops are unimportant to them in voting decisions and that they do not feel obligated to vote against candidates who support abortion rights.

According to the latest Pew polling data, registered Latino voters overall rank education, the cost of living, jobs and health care as their top four priorities this election season, with crime, and then the war in Iraq, and then immigration, trailing behind.

Lopez argues that Latinos have been harder hit by the economic downturn than other groups, and are therefore especially interested in economic solutions.

On the northern tip of Manhattan, the differences between the two groups were unmistakable.

At the evangelical Manhattan Bible Church, where 85 to 90 percent of congregants are Hispanic, voters were mixed in their views about the candidates. While the troubled economy was mentioned frequently, moral issues were at the forefront of voters' minds.

"It's very difficult," said Juan Lagares, 61, a math teacher who traveled from the Bronx to attend the Sunday service. While the Dominican native ranks the economy is his top priority this election, he also finds Obama's views on abortion and same-sex marriage disconcerting.

"I usually try to vote for the candidate who is pro-life, who defends marriage between a man and a woman only," Lagares said. A candidate's stance on these "moral issues," according to Lagares, "tells you a lot about their character." Like Good, Lagares remains undecided.

"I have to say, I'm really not excited about everything that's going on, but I'm going with my morals," agreed Yanara Reda, 38, a registered nurse from Rockland County who will be casting her vote for McCain because of his views on abortion and gay marriage.

Manhattan Bible Church Pastor Bill Devlin, a registered Democrat who once ran unsuccessfully for office in Philadelphia, said that while he cannot legally tell his congregants explicitly how to cast their vote, he himself is voting for McCain.

"I only vote for, and I only encourage people to vote for, pro-life candidates. I think that that needs to be the rule of thumb in any election," he declared with conviction. "For me, it's a defining--not even an issue--a mandate. Life is the paramount pre-eminent mandate."

But just around the corner, at the Catholic Church of Saint Jude (Iglesia De San Judas) in Inwood, where joyful song is replaced by white robes and formal column processions, Obama was clearly the candidate of choice.

When asked what issues were driving their votes this election season, the answer was unanimous: Congregants were worried about rising prices, higher college tuition, and looking for change.

"I like that he's about students in college. Because I have a student in college," explained Libbys Medina, 50, a kindergarten teacher from the Dominican Republic who lives in Inwood and plans to vote for Obama.

While issues like abortion and gay marriage were a consideration, Catholic voters here were willing to overlook disagreements with Obama's position on these matters.

"I think that is very important for us Catholics. We do not support gay marriage and abortion." But, she continued, "I think Barack Obama left the decision to the woman."

Her pastor, Fr. Elias Isla, has not told his congregants to support any one candidate, and only encourages them to fulfill their duty as Christian citizens by voting. "I don't think it's wise to tell them to vote for any specific candidate," he said.

Instead he encourages his congregants to vote for those who will help the community by committing themselves, first and foremost, to education.

Though Isla is "deeply pro-life," he said that abortion is "a very delicate" and "difficult" issue. "I believe most of our leaders, they are not in favour of abortion," he assured me. The difference, he maintained, is that some people are not ready to go as far as others to defend life. "Even someone who's pro-life has to have a responsibility to everybody."