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California and the West

Conference Studies Interplay of Latino Faith, Politics

Culture: Cesar Chavez's success and the furor over Elian Gonzalez are used as examples of the mingling of the two spheres.


SANTA BARBARA — Was legendary labor leader Cesar Chavez a religious mystic or a master manipulator? Did the tug of war over little Elian Gonzalez reveal him to be a political pawn or a Jesus-like Messiah child? And what does all this say about Latinos, and the power of religion in their communities?

These were among the controversial questions asked this weekend at a national conference on "Hispanic Churches in American Public Life" at UC Santa Barbara.

Although religion has shaped political involvement in the nation's Latino community, scant research has analyzed the relationship between activism and faith. Now, as the Latino population emerges as a political force nationwide, scholars from across the United States and Puerto Rico have embarked on a groundbreaking three-year study of Latinos and religion.

Funded by Pew Charitable Trusts, the $1.3-million project is the largest and most comprehensive study ever conducted on the impact of religion in the Latino community.

The two-day conference on Friday and Saturday explored the issue of religion among Latinos, including such diverse perspectives as Mexican American Catholics in the Southwest, Cuban Jews in Miami and Pentecostals in Puerto Rico. The sometimes heated dialogue set the stage for the next phase of the study, which will survey 2,400 Latinos of all faiths on their political practices and religious beliefs.

Father Virgilio P. Elizondo, founder of the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio and co-director of the project, said he hopes the research will foster understanding of the role of churches in society.

"Is religion a form of escape or does it help people?" Elizondo asked. "Does it give you strength to act politically? To elect a school board member? To elect a president? We need to study these things and find ways to make churches more effective."

One unusual characteristic of the study is that it includes Catholics and evangelicals, two groups who are often at odds with each other. Jesse Miranda, a prominent evangelical scholar from Los Angeles who is also a co-director of the study, said the project presented the groups with an opportunity to begin a dialogue.

"Yes, we differ with respect to church. But outside those walls, we have a lot in common. We both care about issues like health insurance and education," said Miranda, who also serves as president of the National Alliance of Evangelical Ministries.

Currently, there are about 31 million Latinos in the nation, with 10 million in California. Approximately 65% are Roman Catholic and about 20% are evangelical Protestants. The remainder embrace numerous other faiths such as Santeria, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Bahaism and New Age religions.

The project on Latino religion is one of several studies funded by Pew to examine the impact of faith on American life. The foundation is also funding studies on Protestants, African American churches, Muslims, Jews, Catholics and evangelicals.

At the conference, scholars held provocative discussions about how faith influences politics. But the most heated exchanges came after a presentation on Cesar Chavez by Luis Leon, assistant professor of religion at Arizona State University.

Leon argued that Chavez fused his deep spirituality with political power to form a religion of revolution. Some scholars criticized his paper, saying he had incorrectly defined "religion." At one point, clearly frustrated, Leon shot back: "I defined it. You just refuse to accept it."

"I'm not surprised by the reaction," Leon said after the exchange. "I knew this would shock people because I'm saying the United Farm Workers became a religious movement. That's a controversial thing to say."

Miguel A. De La Torre, assistant professor of religion at Hope College in Michigan, explained how the religious community in Miami transformed Elian Gonzalez into a sacred figure to counter their image of Cuban President Fidel Castro as Satan. De La Torre said the use of religious imagery was employed not only by Catholics, but also by Cuban Jews.

One Cuban Jew told De La Torre: "Like Moses, Elian is drawn from the waters, escaping the Pharaoh Castro. And like Moses, the hopes are that Elian will lead his people to the promised land of Cuba."

Lester McGrath of the Evangelical Seminary in Puerto Rico analyzed the creation of a coalition of churches that formed to protest U.S. Navy military exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

Reflecting on the papers about Elian and the Vieques conflict, Allen Hertzke, political science professor from the University of Oklahoma, said the presentations showed how religion touches places deep within the soul that the secular world does not.

"We learn how the seemingly religious has political implications. At the same time, something political like a protest can become sacred," Hertzke said.

Many of the presentations included examples of how Latinos formed religious groups in attempts to garner political power, such as creation of the church-based United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) in East Los Angeles. Some scholars, such as Elizabeth Conde-Frazier of the Claremont School of Theology, said the fusion of politics and religion is often the only outlet for minority communities.

Latinos have created these "religious spaces" to supplement their lack of traditional political power, Conde-Frazier said.

"But, has the religious structure zapped our energy and made us dependent? We have to ask these questions," she said. "In some communities, they've given us the crumbs off the plates. How empowering is that?"

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