A Latinx Evangelical Pastor Tries to Thread the Ideological Needle in the Trump Era

In this image from video, Rev. Gabriel Salguero delivers the invocation during the first night of the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. Associated Press

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.Rev. Gabriel Salguero is an influential evangelical pastor in Orlando known for the passionate bilingual sermons he delivers with his co-pastor and wife, Rev. Jeannette—he usually speaks in Spanish as she translates to English. They have an undeniable spark on stage thanks to their rapid-fire Puerto Rican New Yorker energy (they left the city for Florida six years ago), and their swift interpretation of each other is hypnotizing.
When Salguero is talking politics, which he does with increasing regularity these days, he often likes to share a version of this: “People see me and say, ‘Oh he’s Latino, he must be a Democrat.’ Then they say, ‘He’s evangelical, so he must be a Republican.’ Then they say, “He’s a Latino evangelical? What is he?’”
Latinx evangelicals, Salguero notes, tend to support humane treatment of migrants at the border, a path to citizenship for young immigrants, criminal justice reform to end racially motivated police killings, and government assistance for those in need. But they also typically oppose access to abortions and same-sex marriage, and are concerned with issues of religious liberty. They are, Salguero likes to say, “the quintessential swing voters.”
About 11 percent of the United States’ 90 million evangelical Christians are Latinos, and many of them live in swing states like Florida, where polls currently show Joe Biden holding a slight lead over President Donald Trump. While Latinx evangelicals tend to be more conservative than Latinx Catholics, they are still significantly less so than white evangelicals—and, like Salguero, many are unaffiliated with a political party. In assessing the Latinx electorate, FiveThirtyEight noted that “the group among which Biden is most liable to struggle—and where Trump may have the most success picking up or maintaining support—is among evangelicals, who make up the vast majority of Latino Protestants.” 
After earning about 58 percent of the Protestant vote in 2016, Trump has made a bigger effort to court Christian voters in 2020, touting his support for school prayer, tough restrictions on abortion, and the appointment of more conservative judges across the country. The campaign has “carefully targeted evangelical Latinos with political recognition, high-profile surrogates and digital ads,” as well as host dozens of virtual events, according to a Washington Post story. Earlier this year, not long after a post-impeachment trial editorial on Christianity Today called for the removal of Trump from office, he chose to address evangelicals nationwide from Ministerio Internacional El Rey Jesús, a church in Miami.
The Biden campaign, meanwhile, rolled out a faith outreach program with a focus on Latinx communities over the summer. As the Associated Press reported, Biden held virtual events in Florida and focused on communities that “could play pivotal roles in the election—including Latino evangelicals.” Last month, Biden launched Creyentes con Biden (Believers with Biden), an effort to bring together “Latino faith voices and discuss ways to get involved in our Latino faith engagement efforts.”
To get a better sense of how the campaigns’ efforts were landing with voters, particularly in Florida, I reached out to Salguero, the president and co-founder (with Jeannette) of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. When I first met the couple in the summer of 2016, they were preaching to a 4,000-person congregation at a megachurch called Iglesia Calvario. I saw how political they could get in a Sunday service without mentioning a party or candidate by name, speaking instead about how Jesus would have responded to the need of immigrants at the border. One evening, I witnessed the church’s lobby transform into a voting registration site with mostly Latinos filling out forms. At one point, an impromptu salsa dance party broke out. A Latina member of the congregation said she didn’t think the Salgueros’ message was political, because the pastors were simply “awakening the people’s senses that we are discriminated in some manner, and we are not supposed to do that because we are the children of God.”
Four years ago, Salguero was firm in his belief that Latinx evangelicals shouldn’t be blind in their allegiance to one political party, even as his sermons walked the line of criticizing hateful rhetoric from Trump. When I called him in late September, he told me he feels that even more strongly today. “There’s a real tenor and tone of hyperbole partisanship, and I don’t think people when they come to worship God want that,” he said. “I think they want truth. I think they want justice. I think they want conviction. They want to know what the Gospel has to say about their everyday life and policies that impact their everyday life, and they want it without political idolatry or partisan idolatry because we live in a tragically unnuanced political landscape.”
Salguero hasn’t publicly endorsed either candidate this presidential election cycle. When I asked him who he and members of his congregation support in 2020, he said, “Latino evangelicals are politically homeless”—a description that’s increasingly making the rounds these days. Neither major party, he said, “speaks to the totality of the Hispanic evangelical voting priorities.”
Sure, I said, but does one get closer? At this, Salguero quickly repeated, without any notable reaction, “I think that Hispanic evangelicals are politically homeless”—making it clear that he wasn’t going to tip his hand. I chuckled, and for a brief moment, so did he.
“I have people in our congregation who have voted for Trump and people who would never vote for Trump,” he said. “That’s why we don’t endorse candidates, but we do get behind certain policies, because we need real autonomous civil leaders to speak into this hyperpolarized moment.”
It’s true: Salguero hasn’t shied away from speaking out on a number of policy issues, from social justice to abortion. Earlier this year, he joined other faith leaders in publicly asking President Trump to stop his attack on DACA, criticized the president’s “misogynistic language used by the president,” and put out a statement in support of the racial justice movement and police reform in the aftermath of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. He has testified before Congress in support of giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, “fundamentally” disagrees with “children being caged at the border,” and criticized the government’s response to a pandemic that is killing people of color at higher rates. At the same time, Salguero joined 100 Christian leaders this summer in a public letter urging the Democratic Party to “recognize the inviolable human dignity of the child, before and after birth.” 
He served as President Obama’s faith-based advisory council and says he has also been in communication with the Trump administration in a similar capacity. The Biden campaign reached out to Salguero last month, and the two had an “instructive and fruitful conversation” when Biden visited Florida. And though the Trump campaign didn’t reach out for a meeting when Trump went to Florida in September, Salguero says he’s been on “many email chains and conversations” with the White House about “issues that impact the Latino faith.”
Rev. Robert Schenck, a prominent evangelical minister and president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute in Washington, DC, said Salguero’s cautious approach is not unusual. “A pastor doesn’t want to do anything that either creates tension, division, or distress within the congregation, and I think that’s a good impulse,” said Schenck, who hosts a monthly call with Salguero and about 30 other evangelical leaders from across the country. Still, he said, there are many churches that are either all-in with a progressive social agenda, or all-in for the Republican Party.
In his 40-year career as a minister, Schenck says he has never seen such division within the evangelical community. And it’s not just across political lines: Thirty years ago when he would preach at a mostly-Latino and Spanish-speaking church, he would go back to the white churches and tell those congregations about “how beautiful” it was to have seen those churches packed. “Back then, people would cheer,” Schenck said. “Now, when I talk about the growth of large Spanish-speaking congregations, people look at me very suspiciously, like, ‘Wow, that’s not good.’ That’s something completely different than what it was before.”
Schenck blames Republicans—and Trump, in particular—for fostering “suspicion and even contempt for Latinos” in the white evangelical community. After “a lot of prayer and consideration,” Schenk told me he voted early for Biden, the first time he’d voted for a Democrat—for any office—in 44 years.
Unlike Schenk, Salguero won’t publicly back a candidate, but one could argue he has dropped some hints here and there about his personal preference. At this year’s virtual Democratic National Convention, for example, Salguero made an appearance to lead a prayer, as he did at the in-person DNC in 2016. But when I pressed him on it, he said, “Praying is a nonpartisan activity, so I can be very transparent and say that if the RNC and GOP invited me, I’d go pray with them.” 
Before our conversation, I had watched Salguero speak at a virtual panel titled “Pastoral Leadership in a Politically Divisive Climate.” One of the questions from the attendees was about how pastors should negotiate policy versus character—what should pastors do when they join political conversations? Salguero encouraged other pastors to do as he does, to try to not look at it as a binary, and he used a very Latino way to explain this.
“I love me some arroz con pollo, and when I eat arroz con pollo, I don’t think, ‘Man, do I have to choose between the arroz and the pollo?’” Salguero said. “This whole plate has to be digested in a way that blesses me, and so I think that is a way to disciple people to say, ‘You have to look at the whole thing.’”
Salguero is using his platform to try to guide a new congregation—a mix that includes Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, and other Central and South Americans who’ve recently arrived in Central Florida—through an incredibly divisive election cycle by looking at all the issues that matter to them, and avoid becoming one-issue voters. “This is not easy,” Salguero said in the panel.
And as the election nears, Salguero has continued to tighten this message. In a short video sermon from early October titled “Faith on the Ballot,” Salguero spoke directly to Latinx evangelical voters, asking them to remember that God judges not just individuals, but nations. Jesus, he said, is asking them, “How did you vote? How did you treat the least, the last, and the lost?”
“This November, like every election cycle, I’m asking you as a follower of Jesus Christ: Did you vote on those values that were important to Jesus?” he said. “Yes! Life, pro-life, the sanctity of life. Yes! Racial justice and reconciliation. Yes! Poverty. And yes! El inmigrante y la inmigrante, our sisters and our brothers from all over.”
“Someone has even asked me, ‘Pastor Gabe, how would Jesus vote?’ The truth is,” Salguero said, tossing his hands in the air, “I don’t know how Jesus would vote. But I do know that Scripture has some principles that cannot be ignored—in our private lives and in our public lives.”