Rev. Samuel Rodriguez represents tremendous vote-getting power for a demographic that could sway the 2012 election: the ethnic Christian vote. A Sacramento-based pastor and the founding president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, he’s known for his efforts to see that Hispanic Christians have a political voice.
But rather than using his influence to propel a particular political party or candidate, Rodriguez wants to use it to mobilize the Hispanic Christian voter base. “I want the candidates to endorse us and our position, not the other way around,” Rodriguez said.
Since starting the NHCLC in 2001, Rodriguez has become the “go-to guy” for political and religious leaders looking to partner with Hispanic Christians.
In August, he was a speaker and honorary co-chair for The Response prayer rally organized by GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry — causing some to speculate that Rodriguez would throw his support to Perry: “Getting Rodriguez on board with The Response is a coup d’état that should have Democrats shaking in their boots,” Grace Wyler wrote in the Business Insider.
But Rodriguez said he isn’t going to endorse anyone, and his involvement in The Response wasn’t a political statement. He said the agreement behind the prayer rally was that it would not be political.
“My commitment is to engage the Hispanic community in prophetic action, swaying them from apathy,” Rodriguez said. “I’m not committed to the donkey or the elephant. I’m committed to the agenda of the Lamb.”
Still, even as Rodriguez strives to walk the middle road, he generally appears to lean conservative. This makes his recent challenge to the Republican presidential candidates to clean up their rhetoric on immigration even more significant.
UrbanFaith recently spoke with Rodriguez about the issues and values that resonate with the ethnic Christian community and their growing political influence, as well as the challenge of confronting the anti-immigrant mood that has settled over the Republican Party. The interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.
UrbanFaith: Looking at what’s playing out in the political field right now, from President Obama to the rising GOP candidates, what could be the impact of the minority Christian vote?
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez: The ethnic Christian vote will play a significant part in the 2012 election. It’s more energized and mobilized than ever before. The reason is that we really want to see a righteousness and justice agenda, that’s both John 3:16 and Matthew 25, that represents our Christian value system in a way that is comprehensive. It’s not the agenda of the donkey or the agenda of the elephant that really resonates. As a Christian, I’d encourage all African American, Hispanic and other ethnic minority groups that are Christian to vote our Christian faith. Those values transcend any and all other values.
What do you mean by a ‘righteousness and justice agenda’?
That’s an agenda that supports and defends the values that are biblical, values that help the family continue to be the institution where God glorifies himself. Biblical values of life, reconciling those with horizontal values of biblical justice, like fighting poverty, addressing issues of education, confronting racism, human trafficking, sex trafficking, injustices throughout the world.
We have a prophetic voice as the church. Our prophetic voice is both vertical and horizontal. We speak both to the church and to the community. We’re both righteousness and justice, we are sanctification and service, and we are both Billy Graham and Martin Luther King Jr. We have to speak with anointing, moral clarity, integrity, and above all we have to speak with love and passion.
What are some of the key issues important to minority voters right now?
First would be the economy. The poverty rate in the communities of color, especially the African American community, continues to increase in a very aggressive manner. We have Latinos and African Americans confronting an economic reality that we as communities have been confronting for decades. So the level of anguish in communities of color is greater than in the general community.
In addition to the economy, we’re looking at education, high school drop out rates over 50 or 60 percent. That means over half of the kids of color never graduate from high school. This is an epidemic that needs to be confronted sooner than later. Right now, we’re ignoring it. That increases the propensity for the proliferation of gangs, teen pregnancy, fatherlessness, so many other social ills that are totally weighted to the lack of educational mobility.
Third is the issue of the family. How do we strengthen the family? How do we address the number of fatherless homes in urban centers in communities of color around our nation? So we need to strengthen the family in order to push back any social ill that I mentioned previously.
You’ve said before that the Republican Party needs to change how they’re handling immigration to get the Latino evangelical vote. Is that still a major factor too?
Oh sure, the Republican Party has done a terrible job in reaching out to the Latino community, by embracing an immigration reform stance that’s not just anti-illegal immigration — it seems to be very anti-immigrant. And that’s the problem. On the other hand, the Democratic Party has equally failed the Hispanic community on the immigration issue. We had a Democratic majority in both houses and a Democratic president. They made us a promise that they would pass immigration reform and they did not. So the Democratic Party did fail the Hispanic community, and the Republican Party has alienated the Hispanic community. Both of them are going to have to repair the breach in order to engage in the election.
I recently wrote about the ‘Rainbow Right,’ or African-, Hispanic- and Asian-American Christians who are becoming conservative despite being part of a racial group known for a liberal bent. Is that a trend?
I don’t embrace the nomenclatures that try to pin us on the right or the left. I’m committed to the agenda of the Lamb. The donkey’s not going to own me, and the elephant’s not going to own me. This Rainbow Right idea, it is what it is. There must be a Rainbow Left, right?
African Americans defended Proposition 8 in California, even more than Hispanics and whites. How can African Americans, in one ballot, be successful in November 2008 in protecting the biblical definition of marriage in the state of California, and they also vote for Obama in the same day? Does that make them Rainbow Right African Americans? No, it’s because the African American community and the Latino community have values and we’re not going to stick to the marching orders of one political party.
The moment you see African Americans say, ‘There are certain things in the Democratic Party that don’t resonate with us, and we’re going to push back,’ and that they embrace ideas that are conservative values — I don’t think it’s justifiable to deem them as the Rainbow Right. It’s just African Americans, Hispanics and Asians saying, ‘We don’t like to be held hostage by any political party.’ It’s a political moment of emancipation.
That’s powerful. I’d love to see more African Americans in the Republican Party, and I’d love to see more Asians in the Democratic Party. My point is, I’d love to see diversity in both parties. But I would love to see communities say, the idea of voting one party line for the rest of my life — I don’t think I should be subjugated to that. We should vote the candidate according to the values that they hold near and dear.