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The Longer Hispanics Experience U.S. Culture, The Less Socially Conservative they Become


August 20, 2013 – After significantly influencing the 2012 presidential election, Hispanics captured the attention of the nation’s leaders and media. Now, as the debate over the future of immigration continues, political liberals and conservatives alike may be surprised to learn about the values and priorities of today’s Hispanics in the U.S.

Research from Barna: Hispanics, in partnership with the American Bible Society, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and OneHope, reveals that the faith and social values of Latinos may be more conservative than many cultural observers realize. As America’s fastest growing demographic segment, Hispanics demonstrate high commitments to the Christian faith and to traditional concepts of family.

In fact, foreign-born Hispanics who currently reside in the U.S. are often more socially, spiritually, and politically conservative than are those Hispanics who are citizens. The implication is that the longer the Hispanic community experiences U.S. cultural norms, the less socially conservative its members become. In the broadest sense, this creates a fascinating paradox for policymakers and politicians: social conservatives stand to gain more allies by pushing for aggressive immigration reform, while liberals who advocate for reform are likely to find fewer allies on social and moral issues among foreign-born Hispanics who are given a path to citizenship.

How Conservative are Hispanics?

Given their relationship-driven culture, it is perhaps not surprising that Hispanics in the U.S. place high value on the traditional family. Three-quarters of all Latinos in the U.S. say that the traditional family is the main building block of a healthy community (78%). Seven out of 10 believe it is best for children to be raised by parents who are married to each other (69%). In addition, Latinos remain markedly committed to preserving the traditional family structure. Half say they are “very concerned” about the breakdown of Hispanic families.

When it comes to typically hot-button social issues, homosexuality and abortion, most Hispanics embrace conservative points of view. On the issue of same-sex marriage, considered an important voting issue to many evangelical Christians, two-thirds of Hispanics say marriage should be defined as a relationship between one man and one woman (66%). And the majority of Hispanics in the U.S. (73%) believe that adoption or parenting are better choices than abortion for a woman who is not ready to be a mom.

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The Foreign-Born Gap

While on the whole, Hispanics are more conservative than might be expected, one of the key findings of the research is a significant gap between U.S.-born Hispanics and foreign-born Hispanics.

On almost all counts, U.S.-born Hispanics (including those born in Puerto Rico) are much less conservative in their social views than are those born elsewhere. For example, foreign-born Latinos are more likely to see family as important (81%); more concerned about the breakup of Hispanic families (65%); more likely to be embrace a traditional view of marriage (73%); and more likely to reject abortion as a solution for not-yet-ready moms (87%). The one exception to this rule is the opinion it is best for children to be raised by married parents. Still, the difference is slight—71% of second- or third-generation Hispanics hold this belief, compared to 65% of first-generation Hispanics.

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What This Means for Immigration Reform

What do Hispanics really think about immigration? Despite what might be expected, only half of Hispanics in the U.S. are strongly concerned about immigration (53%). Of course, immigration is of higher concern for those Hispanics not born in the U.S. (65%) than for those born stateside. Still, most Hispanics in the U.S. are more concerned about issues that pertain to their practical livelihood, such as employment (57%) and education (58%). On the same level as immigration, about half of Hispanics say they are “very” concerned about healthcare (54%) and affordable housing (52%).

Yet immigration is more than a political issue to many Hispanics. For many Latinos, immigration connects with their biblical convictions. Two-thirds of Hispanics, for example, agree they have “a biblical responsibility to show hospitality to strangers and immigrants.” This number rises among Protestant Hispanics—three-quarters of whom affirm the same. Yet one-half of Hispanics hold this view in tension with another biblical principle: that Christians are called by God to obey the government. Again, this number is higher among Protestant Hispanics (85%). In other words, the immigration debate raises many conflicting attitudes among Hispanics, and especially so among the nation’s increasing percentage of Evangélicos.

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Insights on the Research

The 2012 presidential election confirmed the collective influence of Hispanic voters and raised questions about what that impact might look like in the future. With roughly 600,000 Hispanics in the U.S. turning 18 every year, the question of immigration and related reform looms large for the next election cycle as well as for the emerging contours of American culture.

Realizing the weight of Latinos’ social and political opinions, both Republicans and Democrats seem to be redoubling their efforts to promote immigration reform. At least part of the strategy must contemplate that the longer the Hispanic community dwells in the U.S. context, the less socially conservative its members seem to become. It is important to remember that correlation does not imply causation—meaning the reasons underlying these shifts cannot be uncovered via survey research.

David Kinnaman is the president of Barna Group and helped initiate the launch of Barna: Hispanics, a new division of the 29-year-old research firm. Kinnaman comments on the implications of the Hispanic study in this way: “Coupled with their above-average religious participation and engagement, Hispanics have the potential to be big supporters of ‘family values’ or ‘socially conservative’ candidates. However, they did not vote that way in 2012, with a majority of Hispanic voters aligning with Barack Obama over Mitt Romney.

“In broad strokes, it is a strange conundrum: Republicans have been the most opposed to immigration reform, but stand to gain the support of many Hispanics on social matters if they can also address their economic concerns; Democrats have been more willing to address the concerns of immigrant communities, but Latinos may not share many of the same liberal social policies. In more stark terms, comprehensive immigration reform has the potential to create a pool of Hispanics who are more socially conservative than the Democratic Party would like and more politically moderate than Republicans would want.

“The pattern is important because it means that future attempts to connect with Hispanic constituents must bear in mind that naturalized citizens and undocumented residents are actually quite conservative on social matters. Moreover, Hispanics in general are more socially conservative by comparison to other U.S. residents, a trend that is likely to grow as the nation’s Hispanic community edges more toward Protestant expressions of Christianity. Even if some Latinos who reside in the U.S. are not yet voters, they could be significant allies to social conservatives and likewise their views could reshape the priorities of progressive politics in the years to come. Because of these underlying perspectives, means that Hispanics will transform traditional party politics in the next decade.

“Leaders in the arenas of politics, faith, and media must be wary of reaching out to the Hispanic community for utilitarian purposes—for example, that evangelicals might support reform measures on the conditional basis that Hispanics share their social values. Greater understanding of this demographic, however, particularly against misconceptions, can only aid the reform process. What is needed is a comprehensive engagement on the issues that concern Hispanics, including family, marriage, and life as well as employment, housing, healthcare, immigration, and education.”

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About the Research

A complete description of the methodology is available here.

To learn more about the Hispanic population, order the groundbreaking report Hispanic America. It is available in English or Spanish.

The Barna study includes any Hispanic living in the U.S. and did not screen based on residency status, so the research represents native-born U.S. citizens who are Hispanic and foreign-born Latinos. This latter group includes both naturalized citizens and undocumented residents. For the purposes of confidentiality, the study did not distinguish naturalized citizens from undocumented residents.

About Barna Group

Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each update on the latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org).

© Barna Group, 2013.