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Salguero: Hispanic Evangelicals Beginning to Exert Influence in Immigration Debate

October 13, 2010

The immigration debate has drawn Latinos into the public square more fully than ever before and Hispanic Protestants in particular, the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, a noted progressive Latino Evangelical author and thinker, told an audience at Mercer University this week. Salguero addressed this issue and called on Christians to make their voices heard in the debate as the first speaker hosted by Mercer’s Center for Theology and Public Life.

Salguero focused on how Hispanic experience has informed Hispanic Evangelical engagement in the immigration debate, and on how that debate was being shaped today. He responded to the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s book, “Who Are We?,” which claimed that America is defined by an Anglo-Protestant ethic, including the individualism, English language, hard work and that the U.S. is “a nation of settlers” who came to develop a new nation based on the rule of law, rather than as a nation of immigrants. Huntington argued that previous waves of immigrants had assimilated into this settlers’ ethic, but a variety of factors led Hispanics to resist this, causing a crisis. Salguero took aim at these arguments, pointing out that followers of Christ from varying backgrounds both Hispanic and not, understand that they are integrated into the global church, rather than assimilated. He called for resistance to debates that are framed in these terms.

“It is possible to integrate the rule of law with respect for human dignity,” Salguero said. “The Scripture has done it all the time. Jesus puts it this way: ‘humanity was not made for the law, but the law was made to serve humanity,’ So what we say as people of faith is that if the law is breaking people, then the law is broken.”

Drawing on diverse sources from the Bible to Pew Research Center polls to St. Augustine and Hegel, Salguero sought to highlight distinctions among Latinos and the ways in which Latinos have been drawn into the public sphere through the immigration debate. As an American brought up in a diverse religious and ethnic environment, Salguero’s background and vocation have made him keenly aware of the contrast of the teachings of Christ, and the failure of American policy to live up to those teachings.

Salguero is director of the Hispanic Leadership Program at Princeton Theological Seminary and he and his wife, Jeanette, are senior pastors of the multicultural Nazarene congregation The Lamb’s Church in New York City. He has written extensively on immigration reform, public policy, ethics and race, and multicultural and indigenous leadership. Salguero gave four addresses at Mercer’s Macon and Atlanta campuses on Oct. 11 and 12.

“The immigration debate has been a watershed moment for Hispanic Evangelicals. Before that, they were not really asked into the conversation, they were not part of these national coalitions,” Salguero said. “But the immigration debate, for better or for worse, catapulted Hispanic Evangelicals into the national scene.”

Hispanics, or Latinos, are not a monolithic ethnic group, coming from different regions, religions and world views, Salguero said, but upon their arrival in America they often develop the identity that is “pan-Hispanic or pan-Latino” in response to political and social pressures. Of the estimated 46 million Hispanics in the United States, as many of 9 million of those may be Protestants, and of those, Salguero said, they are mostly Pentecostal and “overwhelmingly charismatic.” Many are a part of megachurches, from those pastored by Latinos, to a large proportion of Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church. While Hispanic Evangelicals have long had a history of grassroots action and community development, the immigration debates have led various political groups to seek them out as partners in changing the debate. Hispanic Evangelicals have also sought to organize themselves into groups around political and social activism.

Hispanic Evangelicals have a wide variety of theologies, and political leanings, from the more progressive groups who tend to come from more mainline Protestant denominations to the more conservative, from the Pentecostal traditions. Whatever their traditions, they have been drawn in by the immigration debate. Fueled by a new generation that can communicate on the political stage in English, and are American citizens, and by the demographics of a fast-growing population, Hispanic Evangelicals have now begun to assert themselves, and bring their sensibilities to the argument.

“This tells us that Latino Evangelicals are coming of age in engaging the public sphere,” Salguero said. “Why? Because we have second generation Latinos and Latinas who… are fully hybrid. They pray in Spanish, but they speak English.”

Hispanics have a deep understanding of being the outsider, and their varied roots, their “mestizo” or mixed backgrounds, help them to understand there is a hybrid nature to culture, and to divinity.  They also bring a culture of grassroots “everydayness” to the experience of helping others. Even their understanding of God is shaped by a difference in translation in John 1, “in the beginning, there was the word,” but in Spanish “word” is replaced by “verbo” or action word. By exerting their right to migrate – legally or illegally – and by their suffering through this experience, and the pains of integration or assimilation, Hispanics have developed a different perspective that adds to the debate, Salguero said.

“Hispanic Evangelicals have been arguing for common sense immigration reform from a variety of perspectives. Number one, from a moral perspective…it is in keeping with the best Christian understandings of how we treat the stranger. The second is that it is in keeping with the best of U.S. ideals. The third is that it makes sense economically,” he said. “So Hispanic Evangelicals came to the forefront talking mostly about Christian responses to immigration, but the other issue they are addressing is poverty. What Hispanic Evangelicals are trying to do, with varying degrees of success and failure, is to stake out their place for an indigenous given-ness, an indigenous particular contribution to the public policy debate. So when they talk about poverty, they are arguing that there is something particular, there is something indigenous, an experience that they bring.”

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