RELIGION AND THE POLITICAL
AND CIVIC LIVES OF LATINOS
DAVID L. LEAL
This chapter explores the role of religion in Latino1 political and civic lives. It addresses not only how religion affects traditional measures of political participation but, more importantly, how the support of religious institutions and the inspiration of faith have contributed to the preservation and empowerment of Latino communities in the past and the present.
The role of religion in Latino communities is not well known. Although most political scientists have a vague sense of Latinos as a Catholic population with some Protestant adherents, there is little understanding of how religious organizations and belief have shaped Latino political life. In fact, the more common view is that religion is an impediment to Latino participation rather than an important lens for understanding the past and present. For others, religion is simply irrelevant. As Stevens Arroyo (1998, 163) noted, “The study of religion among Latinos and Latinas has often suffered from unstated sociological premises. Sometimes it was approached as an anachronistic religious expression doomed to assimilation; at other times, it was viewed in a romantic light as folk customs without importance to religion in the United States.”
For political scientists, one of the challenges is that much of the writing on Latinos, religion, and politics is outside of the discipline. The extant literature is largely the product of sociology, religious studies, history, and theology. The primary goal of this chapter is therefore to introduce political scientists to this broader literature. Although a single chapter cannot include all relevant topics and references, it can provide an overview of the subject as well as serve as the starting point for an exploration of this growing literature.
Espinosa et al. (2005) discuss the almost complete absence of religion in accounts of Latino history and politics. They note that “people are often surprised to see how crucial religious faith was to [César] Chávez’s struggle for social justice” (4). They contrast this to the scholarship on