Are Latinos Part of the Great American Culture Wars?

For decades, Latinos have been portrayed as "Republicans in training" by hopeful GOP operatives. After all, we were told, they are Roman Catholic, family-oriented, oppose gay rights and abortion. Not so fast, said Democrats. Because they tend to be poorer, younger, less educated, and highly reliant on public services, the rationale went, Latinos would remain Democratic voters for the foreseeable future.

The exit polls from the last several elections, and the confirmation of the latest census numbers confirmed that Latino voters are a large and growing force in the American electorate. But it's less than clear whether they will punch their weight, or even decide to play, in the battles of social issues that have marked so much of recent politics.

This is one part of the electorate that will resist easy categorization or simple assignment to one side or another in the country's family fights. Look at abortion. A majority of Latinos tell public opinion researchers they call themselves "pro-life," yet Latinas have abortions at a rate out of proportion to their share of the US population. Yeah but... they are more heavily concentrated in the child bearing years so it's no wonder they terminate more pregnancies, they are more likely poor, and more likely to already have children. Like many Americans, while considering themselves pro-life, they oppose making abortion illegal.

Gay rights? The picture is mixed. Some polls show Latinos heavily oppose gay marriage, others show them narrowly favoring it. Like other Americans, the more likely they are to have a gay friend or family member, they more likely Latinos are to favor gay marriage. When in the opinion sampling questions frame gay marriage as a civil rights issue, Latinos move heavily from one side to the other. Latinos still see themselves as vulnerable to prejudice and discrimination.

When I was a kid, the conversation among Latinos about homosexuals could be scathing... dripping with condescension, disdain, caricature. Hey, I'm old, but I'm not that old. Just as attitudes toward gay people have moved light years in four decades in the wider population, they have moved light years among Latinos.

On this week's Destination Casa Blanca we were joined by a panel of experts who specialize in understanding the religious, social and political sentiments of Latinos, native born and immigrant, legal and illegal. The subtleties of this fast-growing group was not lost on our guests. They brought a wealth of insights drawn from the latest research.

Latinos are mostly Roman Catholic, but less so with each generation. The richest and poorest Latino families are more likely to remain Catholic. The middle group, assimilating and aspirational, are more likely to join Protestant churches. The churches they join are home to an emotional, sometimes ecstatic form of Christianity. In many cases, the desire to be "more American" by moving to Protestantism is neutralized by the churches themselves being home to lower-income, and often Spanish-speaking congregations.

During the decades when religion surged into American politics, with both big parties attempting to grab some of that energy, Latinos were not big players. Here and there religious right movements and organizations worked hard to bring Latinos on board. For the most part, however, they were included in the wide-angle tableau, but not at the top of the institutional flow chart.

As we get ready for the next big battle for national political power, you can bet political professionals are trying to figure out how and where to include religious appeals in the campaigns, and to whom they'll appeal. Should campaign surrogates go and speak to pastors? At a time of severe economic distress, will social issues play much of a role in the upcoming campaign at all?

In every election, it seems, the political maturation of the Latino electorate continues. Urban and suburban, religiously more diverse, economically striving, Latinos are more like other Americans than campaign consultants may care to admit. While still more likely than the rest of the population to live in extended families, they become less so with each passing decades. Less likely to divorce than other Americans, their divorce patterns shift closer to American norms as time in the country grows.

Among immigrant groups, Latinos are a little different. Unlike arrivals so many places on the planet, they've been coming for a long time, and keep on coming. They have been in the country for centuries, longer than there's been a country, and they arrived yesterday. They are English- and Spanish-dominant, Catholic, but increasingly Protestant. They won't stand still for a family portrait. It's hard to get more than 50 million in the picture.

I'd be interested in hearing from you about how your religious convictions affect your political sentiments. Do the teachings of religious authorities have an impact on the way you vote? When candidates mention their own religious affiliations or use religious language as part of their political appeal, does it bother you, or attract you to a campaign?

Please post your thoughts here. Go to the Destination Casa Blanca web site to watch excerpts of the program,

As always, you can watch the program in its entirety on Thursday nights, on various cable and satellite providers and streaming over the web at 9pm Eastern. Join us next week as we mark the 30th anniversary of AIDS, and consider the terrible impact on the Latino community.