Notes from the Field

Religion and Politics Mix in the Philippines

February 29, 2012

Religion is once again in the headlines about the Philippines as 600,000 members of the home-grown Iglesia ni Cristo (INC – Church of Christ) held a prayer rally in Manila yesterday. Meanwhile, Catholics cheered the Vatican’s formal announcement last week that the second Roman Catholic Saint from the Philippines, Pedro Calungsod (soon to be known as San Pedro de Cebu) would be formally canonized on Oct. 21, 2012.

Black Nazarene in Philippines

The annual procession of the “Black Nazarene” attracts hundreds of thousands of devotees over a 6.3 kilometer route through the streets of Manila. Photo by flickr user incrediblethots.

As has been the case since Spanish colonial times, religion and politics are inextricably linked in the Philippines. Although no politicians were allowed to speak at the INC rally, it was widely perceived to be in support of embattled Chief Justice Renato Corona, whose chief defense council in his Senate Impeachment Trial, Serafin Cuevas, is a prominent member of the INC. The event is in line with the long tradition of politicians of all stripes courting the support of the INC, whose members are instructed to vote as a bloc for whoever is designated by their leaders (currently headed by Eduardo V. Manalo, grandson of founder Felix Manalo).

Roman Catholic involvement in politics is equally well-known, with the most famous example being Cardinal Jaime Sin calling on Filipinos to go out in 1986 to join military rebels at Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA) at the beginning of the People Power Revolution that ousted the authoritarian President Ferdinand Marcos. An interesting symbolic representation of the intertwining is that the 1995 visit by Pope John Paul II was in fact commemorated by an overprint on Philippine currency. (As was the canonization of the first Philippine saint in 1987, San Lorenzo Ruiz de Manila.)

As is the case in other parts of the world, there are increasingly more evangelical charismatic Christian organizations being established – which in the Philippines, naturally have political connections. Within the Catholic Church, there is El Shaddai, headed by Mike Velarde whose son Rene is a member of congress for the Buhay (“life”) Party List. On the Protestant side, there is Jesus is Lord (JIL) headed by Eddie Villanueva whose son Joel in turn served the maximum three terms as party list congressman and was appointed by the Aquino administration to head the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA). “Bro. Eddie” himself has run repeatedly for president, though his vote percentage totals are always in the single digits.

Given its reputation as a devout Christian nation (and willingness to put Roman Catholic symbols in the currency), some may find it surprising that the Philippine government has been reaching out to Muslims, having recently instituted two official Muslim holidays: Eid’l Fitre and Eid’l Adha. Meanwhile, in the 2010 presidential elections, Muslim organizations endorsed a conservative Protestant, saying that, “Bro. Eddie Villanueva, being a man of God, can bring the much-needed moral fiber in our decadent society and government.”

Religion in politics is often overshadowed by some of the more spectacular exhibitions that catch the attention of the global media – such as the penitents who are whipped or even nailed to the cross every Holy Week as re-enactments of the passion of Jesus Christ as related in the Bible. Or the annual procession of the “Black Nazarene” (a statue of Christ carrying the cross) through the streets of Manila that attracts hundreds of thousands of devotees over a 6.3 kilometer route (that took 22 hours to cover in January 2012). Less spectacular, but no less striking, even to Catholic foreigners, is the widespread devotion to the child Jesus (Santo Niño).

Such practices can be seen as manifestations of what anthropologist Niels Mulder would call “localization” of the Christian tradition as imported into the Philippines – or Filipinization. He posits a familial relation, so that flagellants are trying to help Christ and share his ordeal; the infant Jesus being easy to please (and dressed up as a fisherman or fireman) and thus a good channel for granting petitions; specific statues of Christ or saints as representations of power so that merely touching them or wiping one’s handkerchief on the feet transmits blessings. These are religious practices that are not necessarily connected to church-going and the Catholic hierarchy does try to understand these phenomena of the popular religion of their congregation.

This religiosity in politics and life recalls the pre-colonial world of pervasive spirits – both mostly benevolent anitos and malevolent aswang – in which most Filipinos still operate. (Mulder specifies his research was “among members of the educated, urban middle classes of Tagalog Filipino society.”) In a strange place one can still speak to the spirits to assure them that no harm is meant, that “we are just your grandchildren.”

Occasionally a foreign observer gets bewilderingly caught up in this, as Daniel Engber, senior editor at Slate, recently endured during a climb up Mindanao’s Dulang-dulang volcano, undergoing what he called a “spiritual protection racket” before climbing. The ceremony, which included a ritual slaughter of chickens, “done solely for the benefit of some imaginary beings, makes no sense to me,” he wrote.

On the other hand, he made it up the mountain (“tempting fate” as he put it) and back down again without mishap.

This is the sixth posting in the series, “A Representative Professor,” a weekly series during a teaching sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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