Last week, National Baptist Day was held to celebrate the 120th year of Baptist presence in the country. No less than President Duterte, alongside politicians, was there as the keynote speaker.
Although the Philippines is categorically secular, the Constitution sees nothing wrong with religious events where politicians are main guests. Secularism, as qualified by the Supreme Court, embraces benevolent neutrality, a principle that recognizes the role of religion in public life and society.
Thus, religious activities are exercised in government offices and public spaces. Depending on their magnitude, holidays may even be declared. Furthermore, Filipinos take for granted the pervasiveness of religion in government events, political rallies, and public schools. I have explored these issues in my previous work on religious freedom and Church-State relations in the Philippines.
No doubt that the work of Baptists is to be commended. Their congregations have benefited communities around the country since the early 1900s. Even President Duterte began his speech by recognizing them as partners for peace and progress.
But a few things during National Baptist Day were troubling. As members of a democratic, secular, and plural society, we need to call them into question.
The first is anti-Catholicism. President Duterte exploited the opportunity to attack the Catholic Church during the event. Not only did he recount the curse he hurled at Pope Francis while campaigning in 2016. He claimed too that “maybe it’s good to bullshit the bishops. It might make you win.”
The president also observed that priests and bishops have already turned silent. For him he has won the “war against the Catholic Church.”
For the president the trick is a no-brainer: One only has to say “putangina ninyo” (you’re sons of whores) and then “panalo ka na” (you win).
To attack the Catholic Church in a Baptist gathering seems bizarre, but perhaps not when one digs deeper.
Benny Abante, who prayed for the president, was in charge of the event. The House Minority Leader is at the same time a prominent religious leader in Manila. Representative Abante is the senior pastor of Metropolitan Bible Baptist Ekklesia. He is also the president of the Bible Believers League for Morality and Democracy (BIBLEMODE), the main organizer of the National Baptist Day.
His record as a religious leader speaks for itself.
In 2018, Pastor Benny came to Duterte’s defense after the president was criticized for calling the God of Catholics “stupid.” To defend Duterte, Pastor Benny used the pulpit on a Sunday morning to attack Catholicism: “The President did not learn what the Bible says but he learned catechism…He learned false teachings from false prophets, false priests, and false bishops.”
It was a theological sleight of the hand. By turning the attention towards Catholicism, Pastor Benny freed President Duterte of any accountability.
The president fed his listeners anti-Catholicism and they laughed and lapped it up.
The other issue is the political and moral baggage of National Baptist Day.
Very telling has been the reaction even among pastors. In a Youtube commentary, a preacher questions, for example, how the event became a political show. Juan Ligas quotes a minister critical of the gathering: “All of Baptist principles were flushed down the drain just for the sake of political leverage. That was the goal of this meeting, nothing more, nothing less!”
For him and other pastors, faith conceded to political interest. This, in my view, is a valid criticism.
Indeed, how far can Christians really go with allying with a regime known for its excesses? Something must be amiss with President Duterte talking about human dignity in his speech. Something must not be right too with Benny Abante praying for the success of Duterte’s campaign against criminality.
Baptists themselves have raised concern over this “unholy alliance.”
On social media, Kristoffer Pasion, a Filipino historian, minced no words: “As a Baptist, I denounce this and the disgusting hypocrisy of these church leaders who invited Duterte & LAUGHED at his curse-laden speech.”
His post attracted a number of reactions, including this one: “Baptist din po ako. Pupunta po sana ako sa event pero nung makita ko mga guest puro politicians hindi na po ako tumuloy. Napakinggan ko sa radio ang speech ni PRDD at nakakalungkot dahil pinapalakpakan ng ating mga kapatid na Baptist ang pagmumura at pambabastos sa kapwa.”
(I’m a Baptist too. I was supposed to go to the event, but when I saw that the guests were all politicians, I decided not to go through with it anymore. I heard Duterte’s speech on the radio and was saddened by our Baptist brothers clapping at his cursing and his vulgarity towards others.)
This is the irony of the National Baptist Day.
A religious event meant to bring believers together turned out to be divisive, not because of doctrine but politics. Dissenting Baptists could see through it all.
Their choice not to be there was not only political. It was moral.
Faith and demcoracy
Religion, in contrast to stereotypes, is capable of self-criticism. This much is true in the case of the negative reaction to National Baptist Day.
People of other religious groups may not care about this event. But its controversies demonstrate for all of us an important lesson.
Faith has a contribution to deepening democracy.
How so? Despite the mistakes they have committed in history, religious traditions around the world have also played a role in advancing human rights, ending slavery, and holding governments accountable.
In the Christian tradition, this is the point of doing theology. It is not simply about personal salvation. It asks how else God might be moving in the world today.
Ultimately it asks what believers can do to make it a better place.
For the philosopher Charles Taylor, faith embraces “the human power of self-transcendence, the capacity to go beyond self-rated desire altogether and follow a higher aspiration.”
It is therefore wrong when religious convictions are sacrificed on the altar of political ambitions. When that happens, believers laugh at a time they are supposed to mourn. – Rappler.com
Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is a sociologist of religion and the Director of the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University. He is the lead editor of the Routledge Handbook of Religion in Global Society (forthcoming). In 2017 he was awarded one of the eight Outstanding Young Scientists by the National Academy of Science and Technology. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.