An Immoderate Proposal: Sam Rodriguez, “Centrist” Evangelical, to Give Benediction at RNC

 Xenophobi[c]. Nativis[t]. Quasi-racist.

These are among the words the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, used to describe the Republican Party shortly after the 2008 Republican National Convention. Two years later, in 2010, he described as “legislative nativism” Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, which was boosted by the “xenophobic” Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a scheduled speaker at the 2012 Republican National Convention this week.

Despite these criticisms, and just six months after tweeting that “Any candidate that seeks the endorsement of Sheriff Arpaio also seeks the rejection of the Hispanic community,” Rodriguez will deliver the benediction for the RNC’s first full day of events on Tuesday. 

While he may quietly pray for the party to abandon its xenophobia, quasi-racism, and nativism, the GOP is just hoping he can provide them some cover—and perhaps a few extra votes—by bringing a Latino face to the convention stage.

A savvy self-promoter, Rodriguez has marketed himself as the representative of a constituency that could deliver those extra votes to both Republicans and Democrats. But although he was once heralded as a leading representative of a “new” evangelical movement that rejected polarizing rhetoric, he has since evolved into to a sharp-tongued crusader against health care reform, marriage equality, and reproductive rights. Those views might make him welcome in the GOP, even if the party hasn’t exactly welcomed his efforts to move it forward on another issue near and dear to him: immigration reform.

Back in 2008 and 2009, Rodriguez was promoted by Democratic-leaning groups Faith in Public Life and Third Way as a centrist evangelical who had grown weary of the culture wars and wanted to bring evangelicals into a “broader” movement, which he described as where “John 3:16 converges with Matthew 25,” and where “Billy Graham meets Martin Luther King,” that would address poverty, immigration, and the environment. Rodriguez called this “browning” the “greatest transformation” in American evangelicalism in 100 years, and committed himself to “building bridges rather than walls.” 

In January 2009, Rodriguez endorsed the “Come Let Us Reason Together” governing agenda put out by the centrist think tank Third Way, which aimed to find “common ground” between progressives and conservatives on “hot-button” issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. He said at the time, “I wholeheartedly endorse and approve of not only the agenda but the entire effort to reconcile our nation, addressing wedge issues from a moral and faith platform that builds bridges and fosters fraternity for the common good.”

Yet just eleven months later, Rodriguez was joining forces with the Family Research Council and The Call, along with the most conservative members of the Republican Party, to denounce the then-pending health care reform bill because, opponents claimed, it included federal funding for abortion. (It did not.) Rodriguez was a featured speaker on the co-sponsored “prayercast” with Republican Senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Sam Brownback of Kansas, Reps. Todd Akin (R-MO), Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Trent Franks (R-AZ), Randy Forbes (R-VA), and Mike McIntyre (D-NC), on which he claimed that “the same spirit of Herod who 2000 years ago attempted to exterminate the life of the Messiah today lives even America” because the health care bill “incorporates death and infanticide all under the canopy of reform.” He prayed that Americans would “come together and rise against the spirit of Herod, a culture of death and moral relativism.” 

His zeal for the “common ground” agenda on abortion and same-sex marriage appeared to vanish. He formed a strategic partnership with Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. He joined religious right leaders in protesting the opening of a Planned Parenthood facility in Houston, Texas, charging that the “spirit of Herod” was behind it and that “abortion is anti-Latino, anti-black and anti-life.” He continued to align himself with the Republican Party on reproductive and LGBT issues, even as evangelical promotion of immigration reform fell on deaf GOP ears. More recently, Rodriguez jumped on board the anti-contraception bandwagon, supporting conservative opposition to the Affordable Care Act contraception coverage requirement on “religious freedom” grounds.

Yet Rodriguez’s actual electoral usefulness to the GOP—apart from providing an evangelical face for convention coverage—appears to be exaggerated. His NHCLC likes to boast that it represents “34,200 member churches and 16 million constituents,” so Rodriguez promotes himself as the spokesperson for a large and increasingly important constituency. But according to data collected by the Pew Hispanic Center last year, just 13% of the 50.7 million Latinos in the United States identify as evangelical—or around 6.5 million people.* (The overwhelming majority, 62%, identify as Catholic, 6% mainline Protestant, and 14% unaffiliated.) And the Hartford Institute estimates that there are 314,000 Protestant and other Christian churches in the United States—so Rodriguez is claiming to represent more than 10% of those, even though he represents a demographic that constitutes just 13% of the Latino population.

In a recent interview with the Arizona Star, Rodriguez claimed to represent 40,118 affiliated churches nationwide—nearly 6,000 more churches than his website claims.

While it’s true that Latino evangelicals tend to trend Republican more than Latino Catholics do, they still favored Barack Obama over John McCain 54-33% in the last presidential election, according to Pew Hispanic Center data. According to the Center’s 2011 National Survey of Latinos, although Latino evangelicals lean Democratic (44% to 37% for the Republican Party), they do so less vigorously than do Latinos as a whole (64% Democratic, compared to 19% for the Republican Party).

Rodriguez is correct that his constituency is conservative on social issues; according to a 2012 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, “Hispanic Americans who identify as a born-again or evangelical Christian are nearly three times (2.7) more likely than Hispanics who don’t identify this way to say that abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.” But, PRRI also found, only 30% and 26% of Latinos respectively believe that abortion and same-sex marriage are “critical issues facing the country.” So much for fighting the spirit of Herod, Sodom, and Gomorrah.

Noting the growth of this demographic, however, the liberal Center for American Progress contended, “Latino evangelicals constitute a significant presence in the swing states of Nevada, Florida, Colorado, and New Mexico, where they may play a decisive role this year.” But Molly Rohal, a communications associate with the Pew Hispanic Center, said, “We do not have large enough samples in our national surveys to analyze Latino evangelicals at the state level. The sample sizes in the state-level exit polls from 2008 are also a bit too small to analyze Latino evangelicals separately.” In other words, data on the influence of Latino evangelicals in swing states is simply impossible to quantify, in part because they are not sufficiently numerous to provide a statistically reliable sample size.

Rodriguez told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes recently, “There’s a brand new movement emerging in America. It’s center-right, it’s not hard right, it’s that circle of protection, but with social conservative values that do not alienate or polarize.” Given his fondness for comparing abortion rights supporters with a king who tried to murder the baby Jesus, Rodriguez has, I suspect, a different definition of “alienate” and “polarize” than most people do—one that will fit right in at a convention where Rodriguez himself will, if his past comments are any indication, feel alienated.

*Rodriguez sometimes includes what he calls “born-again Catholics” among those he represents, though the Pew survey referenced above actually asked whether respondents were born-again, which would, ostensibly, include born-again Catholics: “What is your present religion, if any? Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular? Do you think of yourself as a Christian or not?, Would you describe yourself as a “born-again” or evangelical Christian, or not?”   

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email