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New Gallup Report on Hispanic Catholics

Tuesday, February 26, 2013 12:00 PM

An ABC News/Univision report this morning, based on findings from an analysis of the Gallup daily tracking poll from January 2012 to January 2013, says that Protestants are doing a better job than Catholics at attracting young Latinos. These reports have been seen and shared by a large number of people both within pastoral ministry circles and in the general population. Several individuals have asked Fe y Vida’s Research Center staff to comment about the quality and accuracy of these reports, and to provide some context with respect to the Catholic Church’s response. In this post, I will take a look at some of the strengths and weaknesses of the Gallup survey and the report of its findings.

Sampling challenges in the Gallup survey

The Gallup daily tracking poll data utilized in the report includes surveys of 28,607 Hispanics, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. They were contacted by either cellular or landline phone, and respondents were given the option of answering questions in either English or Spanish. The results were weighted for unequal selection probability, non-response, and national demographics of gender, age, race/ethnicity, education, region, population density, and type of phone, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s March 2012 Current Population Survey (CPS). In other words, this is probably the largest and best collection of data on Hispanic adults outside of the Census itself, and since the Census Bureau does not track religious affiliation, there is no better source of data on the changing religious identities of U.S. residents from one year to the next. The statistical margin of error for the Hispanic respondents is ±1%.

That said, there are two limitations to this data that could affect the findings. First, the surveys do not include individuals or households without any telephone at all. In recent years, the number of Hispanic households without telephone service has been declining, but even in 2012 more than 6% of Hispanic households had no telephone. Due to the low income levels and higher Catholicity of recent immigrants and migrant workers, Hispanics without telephones are more likely to be Catholic than those with telephones, including among young adults.

Second, the survey data has not been weighted for generation—meaning we do not know whether young immigrant Hispanics are adequately represented in the survey. We know anecdotally that immigrants—especially undocumented immigrants—are more reluctant to respond to surveys than their U.S.-born and citizen counterparts. This effect is likely magnified among immigrant young adults, who tend to have arrived more recently than older immigrants. Again, since immigrants are known to be more likely to identify as Catholic than their U.S.-born adult children or grandchildren, the effect of underrepresentation in this group is that the findings will skew toward lower proportions of Catholics. A well-constructed sample weight that accounts for generational differences could correct for any such sampling errors, but this was not done. Without access to the original database, it is not possible to know how badly the data is biased—but we can infer that it is likely off by more than the statistical 1%.

Oversights and errors in Gallup’s analysis

To its credit, the survey methodology used by Gallup has been repeated over time, so the trends identified in the survey are a reliable reflection of real changes in the religious affiliation and identification of U.S. Hispanics. Nevertheless, beyond the data itself, there are some significant problems in the analysis and interpretation contained in the Gallup report:

  • Utilizes a biased measure of religiosity. The first half of the Gallup report describes a large “religiousness gap” between Protestant and Catholic Hispanics across all age groups. However, one of the two criteria for being classified as “very religious” is that the survey respondent attends religious services almost every week, or more. That criterion works well for Protestant Hispanics because most of them attend small neighborhood-based congregations that are easily accessible on weekends. For Catholics, transportation to church can be a major challenge for three reasons:
    1. Catholic parishes are more geographically spread out than Protestant churches—especially in areas like the South that have historically had few Catholics, but which are now seeing the fastest growth in the Hispanic population;
    2. The local parish does not always provide services in Spanish, making it necessary for some Hispanics to travel even greater distances for Mass;
    3. About 42% of U.S. Hispanic families have income of less than 150% of the poverty rate (versus 18% for non-Hispanic white families), which limits their ability to travel large distances for weekend religious services—and the National Study of Youth in Religion (NSYR) demonstrated that Hispanic Catholics benefit on average from even less income than other Hispanics, due to the higher rate of Catholicity among low-income immigrants.

    Thus, Protestant and Catholic Hispanics do not have equal access to attending religious services, which limits the usefulness of this measure as a component of religiosity comparisons.

  • Does not account for religious conversions as a factor. If religious service attendance were eliminated as a contribution to “religiosity,” Hispanic Protestants would still be more religious than their Catholic counterparts, as demonstrated by the higher number of “not religious” among Hispanic Catholics compared to Protestants (18% vs. 11% respectively). While this difference is real, it is to be expected in light of the fact that a large majority of Hispanic Protestants in the U.S. have experienced a personal religious conversion at some time in their adult lives and therefore have made a conscious decision to affiliate with their church. Many Hispanic Catholics have also experienced a personal religious conversion—especially among those who have been reached by the Charismatic Renewal—yet the majority of Hispanic Catholics are either lifelong Catholics who have always been devoted to their faith, or lifelong Catholics who have either never been especially devoted to their faith or have gradually fallen away from the practice of their faith (nominal or cultural Catholics). It would be enlightening to compare Hispanics who were raised Catholic from birth with Hispanics who were raised Protestant from birth, but that data is not available in the Gallup study.
  • Lacks comparisons with non-Hispanic Catholics. The Gallup study reports a decrease in both religiosity and Catholicity among Hispanic young adults. This is undoubtedly real and is a major concern for those of us who are dedicated to the pastoral care, accompaniment, formation, and evangelization of young Hispanics. However, the report does not provide comparable statistics for Catholics of other racial backgrounds. Without such comparisons, one cannot determine whether this trend will lead the Catholic Church in the U.S. to become more or less Hispanic in the future. Other studies have shown that Hispanic young adult Catholics tend to retain their Catholic identity longer and with greater intensity than other young Catholics today. Given the size and quality of the Gallup sample, it would be very helpful to know whether that trend is supported in its findings.
  • Does not analyze the impact of country of birth with respect to age group differences. The second half of the Gallup report describes the declining Catholicity of younger Hispanics, and this is undoubtedly true, despite the sampling problems described above. However, because there are significant religious differences between immigrant and U.S.-born Hispanics, it is important to understand that the generational profile of young Hispanics differs greatly from that of their older Hispanic counterparts. The following table shows the generational differences between the age groups presented in the Gallup report, according to the March 2012 CPS:


    Ages 18 to 29

    Ages 30 to 49

    Ages 50 to 64

    Ages 65+

    Immigrant (1st Gen.)





    2nd Generation





    3rd+ Generation





    It is a mistake to compare young Hispanics to older Hispanics without recognizing that the experience of Catholicism in Latin America is significantly different from that in the United States, and this has a great impact on the way people integrate their religious identity as adults. Because a large majority of Hispanic young adults in the U.S. were born here—while roughly two-thirds of older Hispanic adults were not—the decline in Catholicity among the youngest Hispanics must be seen not only as a consequence of age differences, but also of cultural and linguistic differences.

  • Downplays the trend toward religious disaffiliation. The Gallup report highlights the growing proportion of Protestants among Hispanics today, especially among young adults. This is true, but it is also true that the proportion of religious “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) is growing four times more quickly—an increase of 4% from 2008 to 2012, compared to just 1% for the Protestant Hispanics. An earlier post in this blog took an in-depth look at this phenomenon. The ABC News/Univision report picked up on the Gallup finding and reported that “Protestants have seemingly done a better job of attracting young Latinos.” Considering that despite its biased sample and analysis, the Gallup survey still found more Catholics than Protestants among the “very religious” young Hispanics, that conclusion is certainly debatable. But more importantly, these reports provide little commentary on the bigger story, which is that the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated are growing by leaps and bounds among Hispanics, especially among young adults.
  • Does not address religious changes among young Hispanic Protestants. The lack of a drop in the proportion of Hispanic Protestants in the young adult age group begs the question of whether the Protestant churches are doing a better job at retaining their Hispanic members than the Catholic Church. The Gallup report does not address this question, but one wonders: does the recruitment of Hispanic Catholics into the Protestant churches hide a simultaneous loss of the Protestant faithful to Catholicism, to other religious groups, or to no religion at all? Fortunately, the longitudinal NSYR study sheds some light on this question. By tracking a group of adolescents over a five-year period from 2003 to 2008, the following changes in religious affiliation were identified:
  • Changes in Religious Affiliation from NSYR Wave 1 (2003) to Wave 3 (2008)

    Hispanic Catholics

    Hispanic Protestants

    Hispanic “Nones”

    White Catholics

    White Protestants

    White “Nones”






















    Later this year, the NSYR researchers will contact the young adults they initially interviewed 10 years ago for a fourth wave of survey questions. The findings of that research will provide important insights into the continuing changes in young adult religious affiliation, but because it is a longitudinal study, it will not reflect the religious beliefs and practices of more than a million young adult Hispanics who came to the U.S. after the first survey. Until then, the Wave 3 data from five years ago provide some important clues.

    What they show is that Hispanic Protestants did, in fact, demonstrate a higher degree of retaining their religious affiliation than either Hispanic Catholics or white Protestants—as long as you don’t count denominational changes within Protestantism as a change in religious affiliation. Nevertheless, they were nearly as likely to switch to a Catholic affiliation as Hispanic Catholics were to become Protestant (4% vs. 6%, respectively—a statistical tie). Compared to their white peers, Hispanic Catholics were just as likely to retain their religious affiliation as white Protestants, and more likely to do so than white Catholics.

    On the other hand, young Hispanic Catholics and Protestants were both three times more likely to abandon religious affiliation altogether than to switch to the other faith tradition, and current trends suggest that the rate of abandoning organized religion has increased in the last five years. Also, the unaffiliated Hispanic teens from the first survey were two times more likely to become Protestant than Catholic. So while the numbers do support a conclusion that Protestant churches are seeing a greater degree of success at attracting or recruiting young Latinos, it would be wrong to conclude that the Catholic Church has been ineffectual when: a) nearly 1 in 10 unaffiliated Hispanic teens became Catholic over a five year time span; b) nearly the same proportion of young Latino Protestants were becoming Catholic as the reverse; and c) more young Hispanic Catholics remained Catholic than their white Catholic peers.

In this context, the emphasis on the loss of young Latino Catholics to Protestant churches smacks of sensationalism, while the more important story—that young Catholics and Protestants alike are increasingly abandoning religious affiliation altogether, irrespective of racial/ethnic background—was completely ignored. For more information about efforts at the national level in the Catholic Church to improve and expand outreach to Latino/a youth and young adults, see Part 3 (pages 8 to 10) of Fe y Vida’s research publication Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry in the United States: Bridging Hispanic and Mainstream Ministry…

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Posted by Ken Johnson-Mondragón | in Demographics, Pastoral Issues | 1 Comment »

One Comment on “New Gallup Report on Hispanic Catholics

  1. New Gallup Report on Hispanic Catholics – Instituto Fe y Vida – Charismatic Feeds Says:

    Cited in the Charismatic Church source.

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