Early in 2010, multiple news articles described how some Latinos are converting to Islam, apparently a new trend among Latinos in the United States. Because Latinos are an overwhelmingly Christian ethnic group, an increase in Latinos identifying with Islam is by itself an interesting subject. It is even more interesting because the media’s coverage of Latinos and religion tells us something important about America’s uneasy relationship with secularism and how that has led to the underreporting of a bigger story—increasing numbers of nonreligious Latinos.
There has been ample coverage over the years of the rise of Latino Protestants, in particular evangelical Protestants. Numerous articles have discussed how this group’s growth is transforming the Latino community. But Latinos are still overwhelmingly Catholic, which makes perfect sense considering the heavy historical influence that the Roman Catholic Church has had in the national histories of those who now comprise the Latino ethnic category.
But media portrayals of Latinos as a religious population hide the fact that American Latinos are increasingly rejecting religion. In March 2010, researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, reported on changes in religious identification among U.S. Latinos as seen in the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) 2008. Unfortunately, very few media outlets covered what may be the most important finding of the Latino report (titled “U.S. Latino Religious Identification 1990–2008: Growth, Diversity & Transformation): that the U.S. Latino population is becoming more secular. Both Latino and mainstream U.S. media ignored the ARIS 2008 results showing that the percentage of Latinos with no religious identification doubled, from 6 to 12 percent, in one generation. This doubling of the Latino secular population is in line with previously reported national trends about other Americans with no religion. This group—known as the “Nones” after the most common response to the main ARIS question, “What is your religion, if any?”—is a combination of self-identified agnostics, atheists, humanists, seculars, and “Nones.”
ARIS 2008’s findings on the rise of the Nones in the general U.S. population were widely featured in American mainstream media, including a major story in prominent newspapers such as USA Today and airtime on popular news programs like ABC World News and NBC Nightly News. The same was not the case with the ARIS Latino report.
Ironically, Catholic media provided the greatest coverage of the Latino report. Catholic columnists and bloggers stressed in their reporting the increasing raw number of Latino Catholics in the United States—fueled in part by immigration— and downplayed the huge losses of Latinos to secularism. For their part, the Latino Protestant media remained mum to the best of my knowledge, and mainstream Latino media did not devote any significant time to the news. The media outlets that published stories about Muslim Latinos ignored the vastly more significant growth in the number of new Latino Nones.
Despite being the second-largest religious group among Latinos (after Catholics) and the fastest-growing religious group within the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, Latino Nones are usually ignored by both Latino and general U.S. media. The media are more interested in stereotyping Latinos as a God-fearing, Virgin-worshipping, religiously conservative group. For this reason, featuring Latino Muslims in stories makes more sense than featuring atheist and agnostic Latinos, despite the latter being much more numerous than the former.
Let me explain. According to ARIS 2008, 427,000 out of 32 million Latinos identified with non-Christian world religions such as Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, or Scientology. Of these, just about 75,000 Latinos self-identified as Muslim. Meanwhile, the number of self-identifying atheist and agnostic Latinos alone was 463,000 among 3.8 million total Latino Nones. This means that there are six times more Latino atheists and agnostics than Latino Muslims, and there are more Latino atheists and agnostics than the combined total of Latinos claiming identification with all other non-Christian world religions.
Though the net growth of Latino Nones was similar to the net growth of Latino Protestants (about 3 million in each category over eighteen years), there have been no major stories about how secular Latinos may change the political landscape of the United States. Instead, Americans are fed a diet of how evangelical Latinos will deal with the Republican Party and how they might weigh the party’s anti-immigration positions against their personal religious and social conservatism—even though there is no evidence that Latino evangelicals are significant players in the Republican Party coalition.
There is evidence, however, that Nones are affecting Latinos’ political leanings. ARIS 2008 shows that Latino Nones are five times more likely to prefer the Democratic Party over the Republican Party and have become more pro-Democratic over time. This may explain why Latinos have leaned more Democratic in recent elections: the fastest-growing segment of the Latino population is becoming more pro-Democratic.
Why this code of silence about a large group of Latinos that is becoming increasingly influential? I have two hypotheses. The first explains this group’s lack of visibility in the American mainstream media. The second addresses the invisibility of Latino Nones in Latino media.
Religious Latinos are prominently featured in the American media thanks to their visibility. It is easy to photograph Catholic Latinos carrying saint or Virgin Mary images while participating in a procession. Evangelical Latinos tend to be very loud and good at gathering attention. Even Muslim Latinos are visible thanks to the way they dress (which explains the focus on Latina Muslims). To find religious Latinos it is only necessary to go to a place of worship where the main language is Spanish, then report about the increasing number of Spanish-speaking churches and how Latinos, presumably unable to adapt to life in the United States, crowd these places in search for identity, community, and some help from the Big Guy upstairs.
In contrast, though Latino Nones (including atheists and/or agnostics) are all around us, they are hard to find. Latino Nones are less likely to attend religious services, more likely to have graduated from college, and more likely to speak English. Latino Nones, especially atheists and agnostics, are invisible in American society because they do not fit the stereotype of the poorly educated, Spanish-speaking religious fanatic. The normalcy of Latino Nones is their greatest liability and the driving force of their invisibility. They don’t have crucifixes hanging from their necks or Bibles under their arms. Instead, they study, work, and live their own lives. As such, the media ignores them because they are not exotic or interesting. Yet, Latino Nones are not only invisible in their own country and its mainstream media; they are also invisible within their own community.
The reason is that for many Latinos, a self-image as a deeply religious group (regardless of religion, though overwhelmingly Christian) is seen as an important part of their identity. I realized this while teaching courses in Latino studies at the college level. I would start the semester brainstorming with my (mostly Latino) students about what it means to be a Latino. Some of the first responses were “faith,” “religion,” or some variant.
Religious authority figures are featured prominently in Latino media as leaders in debates. Until recently, a popular Spanish television talk show was hosted by Padre Alberto Cutie, a Catholic priest who later left the clergy in disgrace after it was discovered he was having an affair, thus violating his celibacy vows.
Religious imagery has often been used by Latinos. Cesar Chavez rallied farm workers using the Virgin of Guadalupe as a symbol. More recently, the Virgin of Guadalupe has been used in protests against Arizona’s anti-immigration law. This imagery is readily picked up by mainstream as well as Latino media and leads to the impression that all Latinos are religious when in reality they are not. Latino Nones are invisible in the Latino community because acknowledging their existence means acknowledging that a big part of Latino identity is unnecessary.
This image of Latinos as a people with a rich religious history betrays the rich history of secularism in Spain and its former American colonies. Liberal governments came and went in Spain throughout the nineteenth century. That century’s civil wars in Spain and the Latin American wars of independence were greatly influenced by the secular American and French revolutions. Mexico’s 1857 and 1917 constitutions included articles separating church and state. The 1868 uprising against Spanish rule in Puerto Rico was based on liberal principles, including the abolition of slavery. After the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), won by the Fascists, a liberal Spanish Republic in Exile settled in Mexico City.
This tradition extends to the present day—some of the most important secular victories in the world have occurred recently in Latin America. Uruguay is one of the most secular nations on Earth. Forty percent of Uruguayans claimed to have no religion in a 2006 population survey, including 17 percent who identified as atheist or agnostic. Argentina became the first country in Latin America to approve marriage equality for its gay and lesbian citizens.
Mexico City, meanwhile, has had its own record of enacting secular policies. It became the first major city to approve same-sex marriage and adoption rights for gay and lesbian citizens. These decisions were upheld by Mexico’s Supreme Court, which ruled that same-sex marriages performed in Mexico City must be recognized by Mexico’s other thirty-one states.
And yet, the rapid growth of secularism among Latinos in the United States continues to be ignored.
Latino Nones have to live in a dual world without being acknowledged in either one. In the mainstream world, Latino Nones do not pass the “exoticism” test; they are not “Latin” enough. In the Latino world, Nones defy the self-image of the whole group; there, too, they are not “Latin” enough. In both cases, an important part of the Latino narrative has to do with paying lip service to the supernatural, something Latino Nones are less willing to do. Yet, little by little, Latino Nones—like the rest of American Nones—are shaping America and their own communities’ future. Will anyone notice?