The 2022 national and local elections have resurfaced the dynamic but tense relationship between religion and politics in the Philippines. In this context, one may reasonably ask those enthusiastic about this relationship: is religion a part of the problem or solution to the quality of democratic politics in the Philippines? Given that the 2022 elections may be a matter of life and death for our democratic system, it has become imperative to understand religion’s critical role in national politics and governance.
In a particular way, Filipino Catholics, who comprise the majority religion at least nominally in this country, must answer the question. Perhaps more than ever, the 500th anniversary of the Catholic brand of Christianity’s coming to the Philippines poses a timely challenge to its members to harness their religious faith in the political marketplace as a force for transformative change in local society. As Catholics who take their faith seriously, we attempt to answer the question by surfacing the patterns of behavior of the three main actors in the ways religion intersects political life in the Philippines: the politicians, religious leaders, and ordinary voters.
First, while some politicians tend to use religion for political mileage, others criticize it for being meddlesome. As if their guns, goons, and gold are not enough to get themselves elected, traditional politicians inject “God-talk” into their self-advertisement for political mileage. It is not uncommon to hear some candidates claiming to have heard their God asking them to run for public office! More recently, others have tried to project a religious persona by having campaign posters showing them in prayer, attending Mass, and organizing inter-faith prayers to broaden their religious base. Most obviously, some regularly seek the endorsements of leaders of sects and denominations. After the elections and once they are in power, it would be natural to ask what difference religiosity would make in their governance and decision-making, especially in a potential conflict between their vested interest and the common good.
Second, there are the bishops who have customarily intervened in local elections, doing what Pope Benedict XVI called the Church’s religious tasks of forming consciences for responsible citizenship. Believing that religion must not be confined to the private sphere of prayers and devotions, the prelates have made religion public by issuing pastoral letters to help members develop a more critical sense of political matters. However, as previous election results have shown, the so-called Catholic vote has remained a pipe dream. In this 2022 election, out of a greater sense of urgency, some church leaders and church-mandated lay organizations have uncharacteristically declared explicit support for Vice President Leni Robredo, to the chagrin of her opponents. However, as David Buckley pointed out in his study (Catholicism’s Democratic Dilemma: Varieties of Public Religion in the Philippines, 2014), it seems like a big gamble because the bishops, who also face internal political differences, yet struggle to turn their perceived influence into a unified political stance or command vote. Although trust and confidence in religious authorities remain high among individual believers, the results of the last three elections have put their moral suasion in governance and politics under serious doubt.
Third, there are the voters who, squeezed between the first two actors, will ultimately decide the political fate of the candidates. On the one hand, they are vulnerable to traditional politicians with vaunted money and machinery to capture their votes. Before and during elections, voters who have been deprived of their economic rights would very likely abdicate their political rights in exchange for immediate monetary gain. On the other hand, they are generally inclined to believe that the religious influence on governance and politics should be limited and that religious leaders should not try to influence how people vote in elections. Thus, in the parable of the sower of the seed, many voters may be likened to the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it and make it unfruitful (Matthew 13:22).
From a sociological perspective, one may view the political behaviors of the three actors as the interface of two distinct but interdependent systems, each influencing and being influenced by the other. For better or worse, politics has ramifications on religion, just as religion has equally important ramifications on politics. Moreover, after all things have been said and done, the voters have reached a crossroads in the election season. In particular, the Catholic voters have the 2022 elections to prove that their religion and their leaders are clinging to what little hope they have to make right of what they could not accomplish in the last three elections: to persuade the Catholic voters to choose the candidates they deemed suitable for the country. It may be now or never. – Rappler.com
Noel Asiones is an academic researcher from a leading university in Manila. He is a practitioner of public theology, which is the engagement and dialogue between institutional religion and society in the marketplace of ideas.
Orlando Cantillon is the current parish priest of the Archdiocesan Shrine of St. Anne in Sta. Ana, Taguig. He was a former missionary in East Timor and Indonesia but is now working in the country as a manager of a church-based cooperative.