Jan 16, 2024 - Politics & Policy

War in Gaza tests historically strong Latino evangelical support for Israel

Photo illustration of of Pastor Gabriel Salguero and Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, a church, and churchgoers, with the Star of David from the Israeli flag in the center

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Top left: Gabriel Salguero. Bottom right: Samuel Rodriguez Jr. Photos: Willie J. Allen Jr. for the Washington Post and Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The war in Gaza is testing the historically strong support evangelical Latinos have given to Israel.

The big picture: Divisions over the Hamas-Israel war highlight bubbling tensions among Latino evangelicals in the U.S. as congregations grow in numbers and become more diverse.

Details: It's not uncommon to see an Israeli flag in many Latino evangelical church auditoriums or in prominent places in churches, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez Jr., president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, tells Axios.

  • "There is a super commitment on behalf of Latino evangelicals with Israel, especially the Pentecostal ones. It's one of the most unreported stories," Rodriguez says.
  • That commitment includes singing Jewish-influenced songs in church and keeping up with events in the Middle East, he says.

State of play: The Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack prompted many Latino evangelical leaders like Rodriguez to sign letters and post messages in support of Israel.

  • But as images started to emerge of the death and destruction from Israel's bombardment in Gaza, some Latino evangelicals also felt compassion for Palestinian people who were killed and injured, Bishop Raymond Rivera, founder and president at the Latino Pastoral Action Center Inc., tells Axios.
  • Rivera says many evangelical Latinos in "no way" justify the killing of civilians in Gaza "under the guise of some religious priority." They also don't "feel that anything Israel does is okay" like "some other evangelical brothers" do, he adds.
  • More than 24,000 Palestinians — the vast majority children and women — have been killed in Israel's bombardment and ground offensive since the war began, according to the Ministry of Health in Hamas-run Gaza.
  • Rivera, who doesn't fly any flags inside his church, says some Latino evangelicals prioritize Jesus' calling to help the most vulnerable in times of crisis while others focus on conservative policies like abortion and supporting Israel with no exception.

Yes, but: Some Latino evangelicals feel torn because many Jewish leaders and rabbis have been allies in civil rights movements and immigration reform, Rivera says.

Hispanic Protestant share of population, by county
Reproduced from PRRI, 2020 Census of American Religion; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Background: Since the 1980s and 1990s, there's been a strong Zionist movement among Hispanic evangelicalism in the U.S. and Latin America, Gabriel Salguero, president and co-founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, tells Axios.

  • Salguero says that's because Latino worshipers have been influenced by white evangelical missionaries who were connected to the politically conservative Moral Majority, the defunct political movement aimed at supporting policies of the Christian right.
  • Like white evangelicals, Latino evangelicals believe there must be a strong Israel before there can be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and before the end times.
  • "Some believe that supporting Israel is supporting God's plan," Rivera says.

Zoom in: Some leaders mix political ideology with biblical theology, and that has caused a split between very conservative and moderate Latino evangelical leaders on many issues, Salguero says.

  • That includes divisions on how Latino evangelicals should address immigration reform, civil rights and racial inequality.
  • Some have endorsed Democrats, while others strongly back Republicans.
  • Little data exists on Hispanic evangelicals' voting behavior over time. A large percentage are immigrants, and Gen Z Latinos who are becoming of voting age now appear to be more progressive than their parents, California-based GOP consultant Mike Madrid tells Axios.

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