The Political Conversion of New York's Evangelicals

By ANDREA ELLIOTT

New York Times

November 15, 2004

The signs are all around. Storefront churches dot the commercial landscapes of the Bronx and Queens. Twice as many churchgoers - about 15,000 - pray weekly at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, compared with five years ago. Some 200,000 New Yorkers tune in daily to Radio Vision Cristiana, an AM radio station. And last March, thousands of evangelicals gathered on the steps of the State Supreme Court in the Bronx to protest the idea of same-sex marriage.

Evangelism is flourishing not just in the red states of the nation's heartland, but in the urban, liberal stronghold of New York City, where thousands of evangelical churches are anchored in working-class neighborhoods. Whether it will evolve into a local political force, as it has nationally, remains an open question. But a range of interviews with pastors, congregants and religious experts suggests that a new debate - and perhaps a political conversion - is taking place in parts of the city's minority neighborhoods, swaths that Democrats have long claimed as their own.

It is a conversion that prompted Jeanmarie Salazar, a Puerto Rican mother of four in the Bronx, to vote for President Bush even though his economic policies troubled her. And a conversion that caused Harold Thompson, an African-American from Flatbush who lived through the civil rights movement, to part with a lifetime of voting Democratic, citing the "immorality that is destroying our country."

Both Ms. Salazar and Mr. Thompson belong to evangelical churches whose leaders have spread a single but potent message: Faith trumps everything else, even traditional party alignments.

"They're beginning to think about the social transformation of New York City," said Tony Carnes, a sociologist of religion at Columbia University.

Precisely determining the number of people who consider themselves members of evangelical churches or movements is difficult. Mr. Carnes said that he conducted a census of the city's evangelical churches and estimated that 1.5 million New Yorkers attend them. A separate study, conducted in 2000 by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, put the number of evangelical New Yorkers closer to 1 million, said Vivian Klaff, a professor of sociology at the University of Delaware who analyzed the study's data.

If a fully accurate count of evangelicals in the city is difficult to achieve, it is even harder, at the moment, to define the voting patterns of evangelicals. But the number of Protestant New Yorkers who cast ballots for a Republican president more than doubled in the last four years, to nearly a quarter of those surveyed at polling sites by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. And a recent study by Mr. Carnes suggested that a majority of evangelical church leaders in the city were breaking with tradition and voting Republican: of 1,006 ordained ministers surveyed last year, Mr. Carnes found, 55 percent said they planned to vote for Mr. Bush.

About 30 percent of the ministers were black and 30 percent Hispanic, reflecting the demographic breakdown of the religious group, Mr. Carnes said.

"It's a significant development," said Randall Barnes, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College. But, he added, the Republican Party in New York City is "still a decade or two away from making significant inroads into that community."

Any measuring of the political clout of evangelicals in the city, now or in the future, is complicated by the fact that a sizable portion of them are from other countries, and some are not eligible to vote, said Mr. Carnes, who conducted his study with a team of pollsters at the International Research Institute on Values Changes, an independent research group in New York City. The study was financed by the Christian Cultural Center, a charismatic evangelical church.

But the results indicated a shift to the right among voting evangelicals. In a separate study he did in 1997, Mr. Carnes said, only 22 percent of the city's evangelical church leaders surveyed identified themselves as "politically conservative."

In the aftermath of the election, an increasingly complex image has emerged of the Christian electorate - one that is not entirely captured under the religious right rubric. In New York City, there are the evangelicals who consider themselves liberal and voted for Kerry but find that they are missing from the mainstream image of their faith.

But then there are those, like Mr. Thompson, who broke with tradition for the first time to vote Republican.

And while many New Yorkers have loudly voiced their sense of alienation from the faith-based vote of the red states, the city's evangelicals, in numerous interviews, said they felt a similar invisibility in the Democratic stronghold they call home.

"You feel like you're alone," said Abraham Lopez, 19, as he stood on a recent Saturday outside the Assemblies of United Christian Churches on Third Avenue in the South Bronx.

Perhaps no single event better captures the group's presence than a same-sex marriage protest on March 14 in the South Bronx.

Led by State Senator Rubén Diaz, 150 Bronx churches closed for the day. They sent their congregants to the steps of the State Supreme Court on the Grand Concourse where thousands of people - estimated at 8,000 by Mr. Carnes, who used two methods to count the crowd - filled the streets. A large banner hung between two pillars, reading, "No to Homosexual Marriage."

"We said, 'Sunday nobody goes to church; we'll go to the street,' " said Mr. Diaz, one of the most noted of the city's Hispanic evangelicals. Mr. Diaz, whose South Bronx district includes about 250,000 people, is both an evangelical pastor and a registered Democrat.

"I am a conservative Democrat," Mr. Diaz, 61, said in a telephone interview from Puerto Rico. "When it comes to education, when it comes to health, when it comes to jobs, I'm a Democrat. When it comes to moral issues - marriage, abortion - I'm not a Democrat."

Mr. Diaz has a history of stirring controversy with his conservative stands on same-sex marriage and abortion. In 1994, after he organized a voter drive for Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani , Mr. Diaz, then a city councilman, vocally criticized the Gay and Lesbian Olympic Games. Mr. Giuliani then issued a statement distancing himself from Mr. Diaz's views. In 2003, Mr. Diaz filed a lawsuit, which is still pending, against the city over the opening of a small public school for gay students. He defends his positions unflinchingly, saying things like he "cannot wait" for the reversal of Roe v. Wade and eagerly admitting that gay rights activists have picketed his church.

Several political strategists who have worked with Republicans and Democrats said that no one with Mr. Diaz's conservative views would be able to win a citywide or statewide office. But in local city politics, like races for the State Assembly and the City Council, the faith-driven agenda might have greater impact.

"In a Democratic primary where you take the party affiliation question out of play, then I think it could become a more powerful influence," said Kieran Mahoney, a Republican political strategist whose clients have included Gov. George E. Pataki.

Pedro Espada Jr., who lost to Mr. Diaz in the primary this year, said he had no doubt that the evangelical movement could sway local politics. Mr. Espada, who was ousted from his Senate seat by Mr. Diaz in 2002, tried to reach out to evangelical voters by visiting Bronx churches.

"They would say, 'Espada, we would vote for you but you are not a Christian,' " Mr. Espada said. But other politicians were more skeptical that the group's members would be driven by religion when they entered the voting booth.

Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president who is running for mayor, said, "Issues of faith and family matter, but so do issues of how we support our families, equal access and opportunity, housing, education, health care, jobs."

While Hispanics and African Americans in New York City have traditionally voted Democratic, those who attend evangelical churches may feel a different pull.

José Casanova, a professor of sociology who specializes in religion and politics at New School University and has studied evangelicals around the world, said that even if they are poor, they tend to vote for conservative candidates.

"They do not so much identify with their economic position right now, but with the one they ought to have with the help of God," he said. "They are very conservative and pro-market and do not expect the government to help them."

It is not clear how pervasive this view has been in New York City's evangelical community. But the Rev. A. R. Bernard has made a point of preaching economic independence and social conservatism at the Christian Cultural Center, where more than 90 percent of congregants are African Americans or black immigrants.

"We are teaching them self-reliance," Mr. Bernard said. "We have a whole new generation of people of color who have grown up without legal and racial barriers. They have experienced unprecedented wealth, unprecedented education, a position in the marketplace. So once you have something to conserve, you become more conservative."

Mr. Bernard, who said he voted for President Bush, does not publicly endorse candidates. However, he did tell his congregants that they should question the tendency to vote along traditional party lines.

Two of his church's members, Raina and Robert Bundy, said they decided to vote for Mr. Bush by following the news, watching the debates and, ultimately, praying over their choice. Like many African Americans, they said they were brought up to vote Democratic, but now compared the tradition to their mothers' old recipes for collard greens.

"We don't use fatback, it's all about olive oil now," Mrs. Bundy said. "You don't keep cooking something even though you know it's not good for you."

Marjorie Connelly and Jennifer Medina contributed reporting for this article.