LAS VEGAS -- Services at the Spanish-language chapel of a Las Vegas Evangelical church are anything but quiet. On Tuesday nights, at least 60 Latinos gather to praise God with arms in the air before Bible study begins.
The International Church Las Vegas En Español, which opened four years ago, sits in a western suburb of the city, on the main campus of International Church. About six tables are set up for Bible study, during which women (and men in a separate room), bring coffee and snacks and study passages of the Bible after worship songs.
The pastors -- Katia and Sergio Ocanas -- are in their 30s and lead a congregation of about 150. They offer morning lessons on Sundays for people new to this denomination.
Professor Gastón Espinosa, who teaches religious studies at Claremont McKenna College, explains that "Evangelicals derive their name from their emphasis on preaching the Good News" or evangelion, "about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and the belief that anyone who puts their faith and trust in Jesus and asks him to forgive them of their sins, will go to heaven."
Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, has been charting the relationship between religion and politics among Latinos in the U.S. On Oct. 18, the Pew Forum released its latest study, titled Latinos, Religion and Campaign 2012, which shows that Latino Evangelicals who are eligible to vote are coveted by both parties.
“In 2004, for instance [Latino Evangelicals] went heavily for George W. Bush. They swung in 2008 and voted overwhelmingly for Obama, about 60 percent or so,” Lugo said. “So we know this is a swing constituency, getting a read on where they stand is very important.”
That’s because these voters are concentrated in battleground states. Roughly 24 million Latinos in the U.S. can vote. Of those, 16 percent are Evangelicals who are less likely to favor Obama than Latinos as a whole.
So, a GOP candidate with a mix of religion, social conservatism and an immigration reform platform could pick up more Latino Evangelicals. Voters like Oralia Meraz of Las Vegas who says she will vote for Gov. Mitt Romney.
“To me, what are really important are values -- those that my parents taught me as per God’s word,” Meraz said. “I will guide my vote on that."
Republican-leaning Evangelical leaders argue that voters like Meraz feel alienated by President Barack Obama.
Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an Evangelical umbrella group, says many in his flock are turned off by Obama’s support of same-sex marriage, his failure to act on immigration reform and the large numbers of deportations that have happened over the last four years.
“If the question is: Does Romney stand a strong chance of courting the Latino Evangelical vote in 2012? The answer is yes,” Rodriguez said. “I’d be surprised if he doesn’t carry at least 65 percent of this community.”
Both of the presidential candidates have tried to court Latino Evangelicals. "Mitt Romney, for example, visited Billy Graham to receive his political blessing a few weeks ago and he had Samuel Rodriguez of the NHCLC give the closing benediction on the opening night of the Republican National Convention, a highly coveted spot for any national religious leader," Espinosa explained by email. "He also invited Latina Evangelical pop music star Jaci Velasquez to perform at the RNC."
President Obama appointed Rodriguez to his White House Fatherhood and Abortion Reduction task forces, Espinosa added, in addition to inviting him to pray at his Inauguration, among other invitations to Latino Evangelicals to sit on his White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Advisory Board.
But the Pew study shows these voters also have other concerns -- which may keep them in the Democratic camp.
“One way to think about Latino Evangelicals is to think of them as big government social conservatives,” Pew Forum’s Lugo said. “They take very strong conservative positions on the social issues but on the role of government they prefer a larger government providing more services on things like education and health care, which Latinos rank among the highest.”
Juan Carlos Orozco is an Evangelical convert who became a citizen in 2005. He says he voted for Obama in the last election.
“Like a lot in the Latino community, I’m a Democrat but a very right-wing Democrat,” Orozco said. “My personal belief is that if Jesus were here today he’d vote Democrat.”
Of course not everyone in his church agrees.
“There’s a torn bipartisan operation going on. Some argue with me that if Jesus were here he’d be Republican,” Orozco added.
Most religious Latinos are Catholic. And of these, 75 percent of Catholic Latinos support Obama. Still Republicans may want to look to the future for support from this evangelical bloc. Their numbers are growing inside this country, and many more immigrants are arriving here who already identify as evangelicals.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been modified to correct the spelling of Luis Lugo's name.