Public Life and Religion

edsa.jpg (21133 bytes)

Social science is replete with questions of how much of politics and religious matters should mix when it comes to determining public policies. For although the two appear separable and by law ought to be, contemporary Philippine political history is a witness to how much influence religious groups or movements have on some of the most urgent and vital national issues. This is not without precedent in this predominantly Catholic land as Jose Rizal's undying novels, still taught in the country's secondary schools, bear witness to.

At the very heart of the citizen

In fact one could say that the hundreds of years of Christianity and other faiths in the country have gone to the very essence of being Filipino. Citizenship has been as much a responsibility of the churches to promote as well the government's, in great measure perhaps owing to the poverty of the people and inability of government to attend to each and every inhabitant. No religious group fails to establish doctrines and opinions on every significant secular matter. No Administration, from the national government down to the village level,  has assumed power and exercised it without an eye to the preferences and political muscle of the different churches and religious movements.

This does not mean that every Filipino belonging to a certain faith observes his group's tenets, religious or political; but in the Philippines one cannot fail to notice how voting and non-voting adults have some awareness of each group's political leanings. Or how certain government policies bear on the beliefs of certain groups. Thus to be a citizen in the Philippines means being aware not only of matters of government, but also of religious dynamics from the level of the neighborhood prayer associations to the politico-religious internecine at the nation's capital, Manila.

Religion and the birth of the nation
For centuries, when Spain ruled the archipelago using both soldiers and friars, politics and economics were dealt with in consultation with the authorities of the religion of the Empire, Roman Catholicism. The souls of the "indios" or the indigenous people were the domains of priests, but sometimes even the former's management of personal businesses, particularly if they were from the more endowed class and aspiring to be closer to the Spanish rulers. A reading of the Spanish colonial history may not indicate which had the upper hand in governing  this colony at any one time: the church hierarchy or the civil government. Collision between the two interests often ended up in ways that favored the religious establishment.

TMLocsin_rizal1.JPG (68573 bytes)
The Heroic Confession: A Novel  
by Teodoro M. Locsin

Nationalistic movements against Spain thus had to confront not only the secular authorities; pro-independence fighters must struggle against the influence of a pacific religion whose doctrines called for the submission of the individual will to the current hegemony of Spain and its colonial government all over the world. A nation that emerged from this context carried its idiosyncrasies to the present where politician and priest speak the same language.

Cues and ties

It is therefore not surprising that in the country today, Filipinos unconsciously look for cues from their religious leaders about how to regard politicians, their platforms, and their activities. The power of spiritual advice drawn from centuries of experience reverberates in varying measures among different religious classes.  Such influence, nonetheless, has sometimes made governing difficult and confusing at best, and captive to the inefficient patron-client system at worst. Some might say that intermingling of the spiritual and the secular is good neither for government nor for church; but then wouldn't it be hard to practice your faith if the government neglects you? And, conversely, wouldn't it be difficult to participate in politics if your beliefs predispose you towards one spectrum alone? Thus both the religious and the political appear to have certain claims from each other.  Definitely it is central to issue of viability of democracy for Third World countries such as the Philippines.

The Philippines is not alone in experiencing the consequences of mixing the Roman faith with systems of governance; Spanish conquests in other parts of the world like Latin America also made effective use of the doctrines of the Church to facilitate [cultural] colonization. The cross, with its "impressive display of pomp and circumstance, clerical garbs, images, prayers, and liturgy" was even better than the sword in enticing the natives to the new rulers. Read the essay: Religion in the Philippines

Religion had also been used by the Americans when their turn came to be imperial in the world stage. In the Philippines, the use of religion by the American masters was more subtle and oriented more towards the capitalist system. Read: Religion and Secularization in the Philippines and Other Asian Countries

Government and soul: the policy nexus

edsa_shrine.jpg (8031 bytes)erap_resign.jpg (8769 bytes)
Photos by:, 2001

This module is unable to catalog the political opinions held by the different religious groups in the country. However, a casual glimpse at some political battles and direction of programs in the following areas will show that religious influence is alive and well:


Religious Influence

bulletPopulation and development
Population control policy in the country has long been ineffective, unable to arrest the growth bears heavily on scarce economic resources; religious lobby is credited for demolishing some recommended actions, such as the use of artificial contraceptives, to limit the growth
bulletAppointments in government positions
Part of the clientelist framework that has so dominated the political landscape, executive appointments to key  positions usually reflect which religious groups were owed from recent elections or for the passage of certain programs
Most of the electoral reforms arising from the ouster of President Ferdinand Marcos were championed by religious authorities; the Catholic Church remains active in monitoring the conduct of elections. Elections in the country is also increasingly becoming a competition between religious flocks, to see which ones could make or break the next government administration
bulletDeath penalty
Upon assuming the Presidency, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued a moratorium on executions in response to religious demands
bulletDemocratic vigilance
The two revolts at EDSA (1986 and 2001) against a tyrant and a licentious leader are the strongest proof so far that religious authority in the Philippines has become the people's ally and refuge against bad governance; the toppling of Marcos and Estrada has also raised concern that democracy may be ill-served by the extra-Constitutional strength of "people power".

Back to top