Church and States -

Church and States

How Hispanics are turning American Christianity Catholic


Church and StatesTimes change, even religiously, even in America. Just ask Luis Lugo. The director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the U.S.’s leading think tank on religious trends, came to his adopted country from Cuba in 1962, only two years after an American presidential election had turned on whether a Roman Catholic man could be trusted to lead the nation. Now 58, Lugo can look over extrapolations from population trends and predict a once undreamt-of future. Propelled by mass immigration from Latin America, the U.S. Catholic Church, already the country’s largest denomination, will, in a few decades, contain the majority of American Christians. It’s not quite the Catholicization of America, Lugo notes—increasing numbers of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and the religiously unaffiliated will prevent that—but it does mark “the Catholicization of American Christianity.”

That alone is enough to signify an extraordinary transformation. Eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. once described anti-Catholicism as “the deepest bias in the history of the American people.” Almost every dominant strand in American thought has had a problem with the Church of Rome. From the militantly Protestant first colonists, who characterized the pope as the Antichrist or the Great Whore of Babylon (epithets still occasionally heard now), to the republican hostility that saw the Catholic Church as a despotic foreign body in secret control of its treasonous American adherents, to progressives who see it as the very fountainhead of misogyny and homophobia, anti-Catholicism has been as American as apple pie.

The intolerance reached its violent peak in the 1830s and ’40s as the first wave of mass, non-traditional immigration brought boatloads of Irish Catholics fleeing disease and famine. The so-called nativist reaction was brutal at times. In 1844 riots in Philadelphia resulted in numerous deaths and widespread property damage, including, Lugo notes, the fiery destruction of the first campus of what would become Villanova University, his alma mater. The century that followed was (relatively) peaceful, but equally hostile. The resurrected Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s rode on a tide of anti-Catholic rhetoric, and John Kennedy, who narrowly won the 1960 election after reassuring Americans he did not take marching orders from the pope, remains the only Catholic U.S. president in history.

But even before Catholic numbers began their current expansion, a more genuine peace was beginning to break out, Lugo says. “When everyone assumed this was a Christian country, the fight was over ‘Whose Christianity?’ ” But in the culture wars of recent decades, Protestant and Catholic diehards found themselves on the same side of issues like abortion and gay rights. “Ecumenism of the trenches,” is Lugo’s summation.

The establishment of common ground may help sweeten for other American Christians the bitter pill of the coming Catholic majority. But swallow it they will have to, should the trends hold that Lugo sees in “the three dynamics” of American religion: the ease with which people switch between religious affiliations in the U.S.; the faith of immigrants; and differential fertility rates. “Find yourself on the wrong side of all three,” Lugo explains, “and watch your population crater: think Jews or Episcopalians.” (At 1.7 per cent of the current American population, Episcopalians, who produced 11 U.S. presidents, are statistically unlikely to see another.)

Not that Catholics are on the “right” side of all three dynamics, Lugo points out. Native-born Catholics now have the same low fertility rate as most U.S. groups, and they abandon their cradle faith as often as native-born Protestants. For every convert, American Catholicism loses four born-to members, and a remarkable 10 per cent of U.S. evangelicals are ex-Catholics. But Catholicism scores big on the other dynamics: arrivals from Latin America keep refilling its pews, and not just in the first generation. Hispanics have by far the highest fertility rates in the U.S. Among American adult Catholics under 40, Lugo says, almost half are Hispanic already. Just as Catholics are becoming a majority of American Christians, Hispanics are becoming a majority of American Catholics.

They will bring fundamental changes with them, according to Lugo. “Up to half are charismatics,” he says, “churchgoers who like their services with handclapping, divine healing, speaking in tongues.” They may change more than services. As voters, Hispanics cross American political fault lines in novel directions: progressive on some hot-button issues (immigration), deeply conservative on others (abortion). “Big-government social conservatives,” Lugo calls them. The political fallout is less clear to Lugo than the religious, but he is certain of one thing, that the changes in American Catholicism are “a leading indicator” of the future of the nation as a whole: “to know what the U.S. will be like in three decades, look at the Catholic Church.”


Church and States

  1. I must admit I don't like the charismatic side of Hispanic Catholicism, and I'm hoping that changes with some increased education. Philosophy is the cure for spirituality that focuses solely on pleasurable experience.

    I don't think that Hispanic immigration will be enough to keep the Catholic Church from shrinking in the coming decades in the States, and certainly not in Canada. Hispanic Catholicism itself is bleeding out a lot to Pentecostals and Evangelicals. Other Catholic demographics are hemorrhaging members either because they feel that the Catholic intellectual tradition is folly (to agnosticism and atheism) or because they think that being intellectual about God is folly (evangelicals or "emerging church" depending on your politics). After all, the current zeitgeist is reason opposing faith, not faith intertwined with reason.

    Catholics in America have always likewise been big-government social conservatives, so I don't see any change happening there. It is just the naked disdain for the party bosses in the Democratic party for orthodox Catholicism (as well as in the Liberal and NDP parties in Canada) that has driven Catholics over to the republicans (and Tories).

  2. Basically it's the growth of the Hispanic population that is leading to the growth of Catholicism in the US at the moment, but this is ethnic religious loyalty, not necessarily adherence to a set of religious beliefs. The former generally leads to a high rate of cradle-faith loss, so we can expect that rate to increase drastically in coming years. It may even be enough to cancel out the increase due to population expansion, making this article's prediction of Catholic dominance in America a doubtful one.

    That said, it would be very interesting if the US begins to reflect Catholicism in coming years. What would that look like? Apart from the obvious items like the elimination of legalized abortion, euthanasia, and gay marriage, would the US also become less militantly anti-monarchy?

    • I don't see why. It isn't like the Church crowns Emperors anymore, or subscribes to a notion of divine kingship. Why exactly would being Catholic make you pro-monarchy?

      • Not pro-monarchy, but not vehemently anti-monarchy.

        The Catholic Church is not a democratic institution, something which diehard Protestants still bring up against her to this day. Also, the Catholic Church has traditionally held that there is nothing inherently wrong with monarchical rule; several canonized saints were monarchs and are viewed as having carried out their duties as a monarch in an exemplary manner.

        The US, on the other hand, was founded partly with the mindset that monarchies are inherently unjust. You can see this persisting into the 20th century with examples like Wilson's refusal to listen to the Austro-Hungarian Emperor's advice concerning the miscibility of ethnic groups in Eastern Europe (a mistake we are still living with to this day) because Charles was an unelected Head of State.

    • Latinos are much more religious and devout than Anglophone North Americans… thus it is very likely that Christianity in the United States will be more charismatic and conservative…