Public Research Institute Looks at the Diversity of American Evangelicals

This series on evangelical Christianity is a collaboration with the “Sacred Writes” project at Northeastern University and is funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

When Gabriel Salguero introduces himself to people by name, he reckons that most jump to the same conclusion. They hear his Hispanic surname and figure straightaway: “Oh, he must be a Democrat.”

But when Gabriel Salguero mentions that he’s also an evangelical pastor, he says most people assume just the opposite.

“They’ll be like, ‘Oh … a Republican,’” he said. But Gabriel Salguero is keen to point out that neither assumption is true.

“Guess what, I’m Hispanic and evangelical,” he said. “Work it out!”

As the 2020 presidential campaign heats up, evangelical Christians will be getting more and more attention in the news media. They always do during election season. But people who identify as evangelical or born-again Christians are more than just a voting bloc.

Evangelicals make up a huge swath of the US population. About 1 in 4 Americans identify as Protestant evangelical, according to the Pew Research Center. In a handful of US states, about half of the population is evangelical.

The broad category of evangelical Protestants includes many different Christian denominations. But if you ask people if they think of themselves as either an evangelical or born-again Christian, around 40% of the US population has consistently identified as such going back to the early 1990s.

The evangelical church as a whole is still about 75% white. But that group is shrinking. In 2007, the Pew Research Center found that more than 80% of evangelicals were white. It’s Latinos who are the fastest-growing group of evangelicals in America, however.

“Evangelicals are not a monolith,” said pastor Jeanette Salguero. She and her husband Gabriel Salguero are two of the pastors — Jeanette Salguero is also the chief operating officer — at Calvario City Church in Orlando, one of the biggest Latino-led megachurches in Florida.

Calvario reflects some of the big shifts happening in American evangelicalism.

At the pulpit, Gabriel Salguero and Jeanette Salguero are a dynamic duo. During a recent Sunday service, they stride back and forth across the stage, pulling the congregation into a sermon based on the Book of Ruth. Gabriel Salguero preaches in Spanish with Jeanette Salguero translating into English and at certain moments, they switch and it’s vice versa.

“In the Bible, there are very few books named after women,” Gabriel Salguero told the congregation. “But it does not mean that women are not important,” he said with gusto, getting approval from his wife, Jeanette Salguero. Then, Gabriel invites the men in attendance to show some enthusiasm for this point not once, but twice.

The diversity in the pews at Calvario is striking. The place is mostly full on this Sunday. At capacity, the main worship hall holds around 4,000 congregants. They are white and brown and black, with some people dressed up and others, not so much. A majority of the congregation is Spanish speaking, but Sunday services are in both English and Spanish, with Portuguese and Haitian Creole available in simultaneous translation.

Pastor Gabriel Salguero says evangelicals tend to share a set of common core beliefs.

“They have a high view of scripture. They believe in Christ as the only savior. They believe in eternal life, and evangelical comes from euangelion from the Greek, which is to ‘share the good news,’ he explained in an interview after Sunday service.

“We’re committed to the gospel of Christ in a way that transforms society,” Gabriel Salguero said.

During his sermon, Gabriel Salguero reminds the congregation that the mission of Calvario City Church is not to build a great church. It’s about building a great city, he says. That is part of the church’s motto. And for the Salgueros, the word “city” has a broad meaning.

Gabriel Salguero has served on a White House advisory council and led prayers at the Democratic National Convention. He and Jeanette Salguero co-founded the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, which represents the fastest-growing group of evangelicals in America.

‘I don’t like that word’

Another pair of alternative Christian voices spend a lot of their energy talking about faith outside the typical church setting. They regularly discuss the word of God and how it relates to current events on “The Red Couch Podcast with Propaganda and Alma.”

Jason Petty is better known as spoken word artist, and rapper, Propaganda. He says he got the stage name from his cousin. “We were 16 and thought it sounded cool. And it stuck.”

Propaganda grew up in Compton, California, the son of a Black Panther, and he went to a black and Latino Baptist church. He says he always thought of civic engagement as just part of what being a Christian was all about.

“Food banks and homeless shelters … you were already engaged in civic duty because it was necessary for survival,” Propaganda said.

It can make for some real moments of discomfort, he says, when he gets invited to take part in conferences or other public forums with some of his fellow Christian leaders. Propaganda has continued to work with evangelical Christians of all stripes. And people seem to appreciate his take, even if his music points out where he thinks mainstream Christian leaders have failed.

“Why would we listen, when American churches scuff their Toms on our brothers’ dead bodies, as they march to stop gay marriage?” Propaganda raps in Lecrae’s, “Gangland.”

“We had issues with Planned Parenthood, too. We just cared about black lives outside the womb just as much as in.”

In his track, “I Don’t See It,” Propaganda rails against what he sees as suburban complacency.

“Perfectly manicured lawns and them safe schools and parks is a good place to raise a beer belly, right? And them identical strip malls on every corner of your mind can feel a little claustrophobic, right?” he raps. “Don’t you dare close them curtains; it ain’t nighttime.”

Propaganda performed that song at a Christian conference in 2015, at a time when Black Lives Matter protests were gathering steam, and he was frustrated that many of the pastors in attendance seemed more interested in designing their church buildings than working toward peace and justice.

“Cities across the country are in violent protest right now, and you all are sitting around talking about planting churches and whether you should have multisite cameras? That’s what you’re worried about right now?” he remembers thinking at the time.

There are times when he needs to step back, Propaganda says.

“For my own sake of me not snapping at my children, I’m going to keep a distance,” he said.

Today, 1 in 4 American evangelicals is nonwhite, and the fastest-growing group of evangelicals are Latino. But increasingly, many Christians of color are distancing themselves from the label “evangelical” altogether. That is how Alma Zaragoza-Petty feels. She is married to Propaganda and co-hosts “The Red Couch Podcast” with him.

“I don’t like that word,” Zaragoza-Petty said. “I just don’t like terms that label people, but this specific term is also particularly annoying to me. And I don’t like to get associated with it.”

Zaragoza-Petty, an academic in education policy, says she shares certain Christian beliefs with evangelicals, but she does not see herself as one. And that is especially true since white evangelicals voted in such huge numbers — around 81% — for Trump.

“I feel like, evangelical to me seems like a white person, that’s probably Republican, who has very conservative views,” she said. “That’s what I imagine when I think of the term.”

Her parents immigrated to the US from Mexico, and Zaragoza-Petty grew up in both countries. Because of her background, she says, sometimes evangelical Christians don’t always see her as fully one of their own.

“They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s cute. You’re a Christian, but you’re a Latina Christian.’ So, it’s different,’” Zaragoza-Petty said. “That’s often how it felt.”

Propaganda and Zaragoza-Petty are probably far from the stereotypical born-again Christian in America. They’re at the margins, in a sense, but so are a lot of Christians, who appreciate that the couple brings their faith into conversations about gender, race and social justice.

“The hope for the podcast is that we can start to center a little more some of the marginalized voices in the Christian community, so that other folks who are like us … can start to see that it’s not just them,” Zaragoza-Petty said.

Sometimes, difficult conversations just don’t happen in the church, she says. But she says they are still needed.

“We have to start engaging with each other,” Zaragoza-Petty said. “Hopefully, in a way that’ll be loving, but also pressing in on some issues that really need to get talked about.”

They might not be pastors at a church, but the podcast — along with Propaganda’s music — offers the couple different opportunities to be Christian leaders with their own type of ministry. In a regular segment on the podcast, they discuss issues in the headlines through a very specific cultural lens. It’s called “Hood politics.”

“We break down politics, basically saying, if you understand gang life, you understand politics,” Zaragoza-Petty said. “Because it’s basically the same thing. It’s just dudes, but they have fancier cars, fancier suits and more money.”

The subject matter of their podcasts can get pretty bleak, and they’re a far cry from some Christian conversations that focus simply on prosperity and positivity. Unlike many evangelicals, Propaganda says he’s not necessarily counting on God to suddenly swoop in and save the world from all of these problems in his lifetime.

So, what gives him hope to keep speaking up?

“History pushes on,” he said. “It’s going to work out because it always does.”

“In the meantime, there are people in front of me that I can reduce their suffering and I can reflect this truth … the narrative that I believe Jesus presented to us. I can reflect that in the world … for the little bit of time I got.”

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Source: Public Research Institute