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Church groups play politics to maintain relevance

But the picture has changed since the Marcos era

Church groups play politics to maintain relevance

A protest against the Philippine bishops' stance on the Reproductive Health Bill

Joe Torres, Manila

May 10, 2013

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Religious groups around the country have recently become more aggressive in playing politics, apparently to preserve their influence, if not their relevance, in society.

Catholic Church leaders, Protestant pastors, and emerging faith-based organizations have become crucial players in politics, some even trying to harness their “authority” in exchange for material or political favors. 

During elections, religious groups project themselves as moral beacons that guide the faithful in making what are supposed to be enlightened political choices. 

Catholic bishops, for instance, have lobbied against the recent passage of a reproductive health law and are actively campaigning against candidates who supported the bill.

It is not something new. During the martial law years, Church groups, through various pronouncements and “prayer rallies,” emboldened the ranks of the opposition fighting the 20-year rule of Ferdinand Marcos. 

Church leaders during the years of the dictatorship found themselves in a distinct position of influence because of the brazen ineptness of government institutions. The struggle against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos became a morality play that forced bishops, priests and pastors to assert their authority. 

After the fall of Marcos in 1986, Catholic bishops justified their involvement in politics as a way of addressing social inequities. The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines in 1992 encouraged more active participation of Church groups in the elections. 

The bishops said Philippine politics “has been most hurtful for us as a people. It is possibly the biggest bane in our life as a nation and the most pernicious obstacle to our achieving full development.” 

They said the Church can intervene in the electoral process during “extraordinary” situations.  “This happens when a political option is clearly the only one demanded by the Gospel." 

They reminded priests and nuns that they are bound by the “preferential option for the poor.” The clergy are supposed to involve themselves in politics “if the welfare of the majority is at stake,” a condition which observers say is open to the most liberal interpretation. 

Other religious groups also discovered the potential of transforming traditional faith-based organizations into effective political machineries. Some political parties that are backed by religious organizations won seats in Congress by riding on the voting power of their respective flocks. 

The role of the religious sector has evolved and diversified through the years. From bestowing sacramental sanctions on the state and its actions, several religious groups have taken on more active and deliberate roles and even tried to influence government policies. 

“Under any condition and under any regime, the Church must stand for the majesty of truth. The Church must take to task perpetrators of any form of deceit and deception, any use of terror to coerce the people into submission, even if tactics are used against a presumed godless enemy," said Protestant theologian Sharon Rose Joy Ruiz-Duremdes.   

In the context of the elections, Ruiz-Duremdes said the Church must demand the truth and must ensure that the sanctity of the electoral system is upheld. 

This is, however, problematic especially in an electoral system controlled by traditional politicians, oligarchs and the ruling class. Activists say Church leaders have acted as a social force to help preserve the unjust property relations that favor the ruling elite. 

During the administration of former president Gloria Arroyo, Church leaders refused to raise an active voice against what militant groups called the “puppetry, militarist and anti-poor policies” of her administration. The Church even endorsed Arroyo’s quest for another term in office. 

Political leverage and specific concessions from politicians seem to be among the reasons why religious groups are keen on endorsing candidates during elections. 

A United States country report on the Philippines during the time of Arroyo said “the Catholic Church’s influence on the government was quite evident in the lack of resources devoted to family planning and the prohibition of divorce.”

Catholic bishops successfully projected an image of influence in politics. Arroyo shot down proposals to tax churches and religious groups as the government sought ways to deal with a debt crisis. 

But recent political exercises proved that Filipinos don’t vote according to the dictates of their religion or the candidate's church affiliation. Although highly influential, Catholic Church leaders, for instance, did not swing an election with their endorsement. 

 “What is certain is that Filipino Catholic voters don't vote as a bloc,” said political analyst Luis Teodoro. 

Yet Filipino politicians don’t take chances and prefer to err on the side of the assumption that there is such a thing as a Catholic vote. They have their photographs taken while receiving the sacraments or visiting a priest or kissing the hand of a bishop. 

In Monday’s elections, religious groups can create a lot of noise. But can they deliver? Or are they just toothless tigers that can only growl but don’t really have the teeth to bite? 

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