Faith and Spirituality

[OPINION] Exploiting religion in the name of free expression

Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio

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[OPINION] Exploiting religion in the name of free expression

Raffy de Guzman/Rappler

'With the unabated rise of networked disinformation, Duterte’s God narrative blurs the precarious line between free expression of religious views and of political support'

“Who are you to initiate an investigation here?” This was how former Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte warned the International Criminal Court over the tribunal’s decision to resume its investigation into the previous administration’s war on drugs. “You are just looking for trouble. And if you’re looking for trouble, trouble will come,” Duterte proclaimed as he earned the convivial approval of his interviewer, Kingdom of Jesus Christ (KJC) founder and pastor Apollo Quiboloy.

Duterte’s remarks were part of the January 30, 2023 episode of “Gikan sa Masa, Para sa Masa (From the People, For the People),” a broadcast program hosted in the palatial studio of the Sonshine Media Network International (SMNI), the media arm of Quiboloy’s KJC.

The ties that bind religion and politics are central to the subject of human rights and public affairs. The freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression are two interrelated rights, yet as former United Nations Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed observed, the freedom of religion or belief can be used to justify violent extremism or human rights abuses as seen in societies as diverse as Jakarta, Dhaka, and Lahore. 

In the Philippines, the churches and their leaders play an active role in public affairs, including elections and political campaigning. Many of the dominant churches run their own prominent media channels and companies such as the Catholic Church’s Radyo Veritas, Jesus is Lord Church Worldwide’s (JIL) Zoe Broadcasting Network, Iglesia ni Cristo’s (INC) Christian Era Broadcasting, and KJC’s SMNI.

Under Duterte, we have seen the magnified role of churches and their leaders in shaping political life, for better or worse. Even though Duterte is no longer in office, we continue to witness the more pronounced dynamics among political leaders and church leaders that can potentially redefine the relationship of religion, politics, and the publics. And this precisely is the case on Facebook.

Duterte’s God narrative on Facebook

Although notorious for cursing the Pope and spewing his “God is stupid” remarks in a country of over 80 million Catholics, the putative religious persona of Duterte on Facebook presented an alternate narrative designed not only to amplify the leader’s rhetorical style but also to tap into the religious imaginations of his target publics.

There are key narratives that persistently deodorized the anti-God, strongman image of Duterte, as my review of religion-related posts of pro-Duterte Facebook pages showed.

The most prominent narrative holds that Duterte is a God-fearing leader who is revered by his people because of his deep religious faith. Duterte is religious, so it seemed, because he was constantly photographed kneeling and praying in church and in communal spaces. The page President Rodrigo “Rody” Roa Duterte Supporters, for instance, came up with the post “Duterte is a gift from God to the Philippines,” followed by a call to #PROTECTDUTERTE, claiming that the leader’s life was endangered by elite forces determined to overthrow his government. In various posts, Duterte was shown meeting with known church leaders, namely, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle and Archbishop Emeritus Ricardo Cardinal Vidal of the Catholic Church and Executive Minister Eduardo Manalo of INC. Duterte was likewise being prayed over by Brother Eddie Villanueva of JIL and Quiboloy of KJC.

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Another salient narrative has to do with the political and personal bond of Duterte and Quiboloy, alleging that the pastor serves as the voice of God in politics. Here, Quiboloy was depicted as a dependable ally of Duterte and someone who gave the leader an opportunity to present his vision for the country before the church members of KJC. The page Duterte Social Media Supporter even mainstreamed Quiboloy’s message of support for Duterte during the 2016 elections, where the pastor was quoted as saying, “They (presidential candidates) are all my friends…. (But) without batting an eyelash, I can tell you I am behind Mayor Duterte.”

And the narrative of Daily Prayer claims that collective aspirations need not promote any religious denomination. Instead, simple messages like “Thank You Lord” and “Amen” are good enough to lure the religious appeal of the digital publics. Unlike symbolic posts easily identified with churches and religious groups (like the Catholic cross and images of Jesus), this narrative attempted to connect with social groups such as health professionals and overseas workers by publishing prayers for the groups’ welfare amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

These key narratives – Duterte is a religious man, political leader, and church leader, and that faith can be expressed in non-partisan way – deliberately reinforced the pious identity of Duterte as someone who can be identified with different strands of faith and the faithful.

But with the unabated rise of networked disinformation, Duterte’s God narrative blurs the precarious line between free expression of religious views and of political support, paving the way for political entrepreneurs and social media extremists to manipulate religiosity as a way to consolidate sympathy from the digital publics.

What the contentious identity of religiosity tells us is that, while it may sound banal to use religious sentiment to drum up support in presumed devout societies like the Philippines, it remains to be seen to what extent this scenario can inspire political participation in the name of religion.

It would be easy to assume that the church will remain a formidable force in politics, but understanding the innovative ways in which religion and God are used to draw political following in an increasingly polarizing environment would require more serious attention. –

Jefferson Lyndon D. Ragragio is an assistant professor at the College of Development Communication, University of the Philippines Los Baños. He has a PhD in media studies from Hong Kong Baptist University. He tweets @JeffRagragio.

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