How the church amass influence in Philippine politics

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FILE PHOTO: Philippine television evangelist and presidential candidate Eddie Villanueva (L) of Jesus Is Lord (JIL) church is endorsed by popular Filipino actor Piolo Pascual (R) during his final campaign rally at a Manila park May 6, 2004. Running under the flatform of ending corruption and restoring moral standards in governance, Villianueva is fifth and last in various opinion polls ahead of the May 10 presidential elections. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV  CC/TW
FILE PHOTO: Philippine television evangelist and presidential candidate Eddie Villanueva (L) of Jesus Is Lord (JIL) church is endorsed by popular Filipino actor Piolo Pascual (R) during his final campaign rally at a Manila park May 6, 2004. Running under the flatform of ending corruption and restoring moral standards in governance, Villianueva is fifth and last in various opinion polls ahead of the May 10 presidential elections. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV CC/TW

In 2010, a young boy, aged 13, went around his community, alone, holding a flyer of his favored candidate for the 2010 Philippine national elections. He felt that, since he was not yet of age to vote, he had to do everything to ensure that his candidate from a church would win, even if that meant campaigning for this aspirant alone.

For him, a born-again Christian heavily influenced by the teachings of his church, it was extremely important that for the destiny of his country to be fulfilled as foretold by several evangelical ministers from all over the world, a man of God must be the next president of the Republic. This was his rallying message to those who dared ask a young, non-voter why they should vote for his preferred candidate.

And of course, the young boy was me, and my then preferred candidate was Bro. Eddie Villanueva, the head of the Christian denomination Jesus is Lord Movement, and an incumbent Deputy Speaker of the Philippine House of Representatives as the first nominee of Citizens Battle Against Corruption (CIBAC) Party-list, whose former representatives include his son, Senator Joel Villanueva, and son-in-law, Sherwin Tugna.

Years later, this young boy could only sigh a relief that his candidate more than ten years ago, despite promising six years without corruption because “the world is too poor to buy my convictions on the principles of truth, justice, and righteousness,” didn’t even come close to winning. While I believe that the church must play an active role in seeking accountability and demanding justice from the powers-that-be, using biblical scriptures, or any religious texts for that matter, is no way to govern an inclusive and democratic society like ours.

History of church in politics

Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos (2nd L) and Head of El Shaddai Mike Velarde (R) at the the Pro-Catholic Born again religious group El Shaddai prayer vigil overnight celebration in Manila on May 1, 2016. (Photo: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos (2nd L) and Head of El Shaddai Mike Velarde (R) at the the Pro-Catholic Born again religious group El Shaddai prayer vigil overnight celebration in Manila on May 1, 2016. (Photo: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Religious leaders wielding enormous power and influence in the Philippine political scene is not new, no matter how explicit the separation of church and state is in our constitution.

During the Spanish colonial period, it was the religious priests who also acted as the political leaders of the colonial Philippines. And even though the Americans established a more secular society with formal separations of power between the two institutions, it also paved a way for patronage politics where the elites and wealthy families vie for power through the endorsement of the church.

However, during the Marcos Sr.’s Martial Law and the Estrada presidency, the church took on a more active role in standing up against injustices and corruption. But in the post-EDSA years, and with the Philippine politics becoming more pluralistic and the advent of civil society organizations due to opening up of a more democratic space, mega-churches have likewise increased their influence on matters of the state through mobilizing its followers and carefully-crafted church teachings aim at using Biblical scriptures to justify its involvement in public affairs.

The ways church influences Philippine politics

Members of Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) gather at the Philippine Arena Dome during their 100th anniversary in Bocaue, Bulacan, north of Manila on July 27, 2014. A Philippine Christian church famed for its discipline, money and political power marked its 100th anniversary on July 27 with more than one million followers expected to join the celebrations.  AFP PHOTO/NOEL CELIS        (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Members of Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ) gather at the Philippine Arena Dome during their 100th anniversary in Bocaue, Bulacan, north of Manila on July 27, 2014. A Philippine Christian church famed for its discipline, money and political power marked its 100th anniversary on July 27 with more than one million followers expected to join the celebrations. AFP PHOTO/NOEL CELIS (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

According to scholars John Choo, Evelyn Tan, and Daniel P.S. Goh, in their study “Christian Megachurches and Politics in the Philippines,” the religious churches flex their influence in three ways: “engaging the elite,” “galvanizing the grassroots,” and “ministering to the middle.”

Churches who practice bloc voting like Iglesia Ni Cristo (INC) is a prime example of the first. With 2.6 million members all over the Philippines as of the 2015 Census, politicians seek the endorsement of this church knowing all too well that, even though their voting population is only minute, their ability to rally their followers to back the church’s candidates may make or break a hotly contested election, said sociologist Jayeel Cornelio.

But unlike other religions, INC has a strict rule of prohibiting its members in running for public office, in order “for INC members to remain morally untainted.”

However, there are churches who rally behind their leaders seeking office. Energized by the “prophetic messages” of Christian evangelists anointing Bro. Eddie Villanueva as God’s preferred president for the country, Jesus Is Lord movement, and other affiliate evangelical churches, twice tried to elect him as the leader, to no avail.

For the second way, it is most evident during the 1986 and 2001 People Power Revolt, where Jaime Cardinal Sin, then the archbishop of Manila, called on the faithful to topple the government due to mounting corruption and dire human rights situation.

Meanwhile, the INC, in 2015, gathered in EDS and in front of the Department of Justice when then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said that she will open an investigation into allegations made by its former member against the church. They felt that the government mustn't intrude in the internal business of the church, and so they mobilized their followers to stand their ground and insist on their independence.

The third, however, is done through church-sponsored civil society organizations promoting good governance and public accountability to make it look like the church is a passive actor on politics. This is done through small Bible study groups, like Peter Tan-Chi’s Christ Commission Fellowship’s Fellowship of Christians in Government (FOCIG), dedicated to ministering to rank-and-file government officials and employees.

Reimagining the church’s role in society

Catholic priests pray over Philippine Vice President and presidential candidate Leni Robredo and her vice-presidential runningmate Senator Kiko Pangilinan, in a church in Manila, Philippines, April 22, 2022. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez
Catholic priests pray over Philippine Vice President and presidential candidate Leni Robredo and her vice-presidential runningmate Senator Kiko Pangilinan, in a church in Manila, Philippines, April 22, 2022. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

A case has been made that the church, as a divine institution and God’s sacred mission to the world, must not meddle with the affairs of the state in order to remain above temporal matters.

In a public debate hosted by GMA several years ago that resurfaced again during the elections, Former Ang Dating Daan Leader Bro. Eli Soriano said that since the church, like any other human enterprise, is fallible and prone to mistakes and error, they must not bring shame to the name of the Lord by endorsing politicians and anointing them as God’s chosen candidate, but in the end, commit graft and corruption.

Ang relihiyon sana, gamitin sa mga bagay na pang-panginoon, hindi sa mga bagay na temporal, kagaya niyang eleksyon at pagi-endorso ng kandidato,” he famously said, which garnered intense applause and cheer from the audience.

(Religion should be used for matters related to God and God only, not on temporal things like the election and endorsing politicians.)

Soriano even went so far as to say that, unless the politics of “utang na loob,” or debt of within, is eradicated, graft and corruption will still thrive in Philippine politics, and religious leaders will continue to capitalize its influence for their own interest.

Kinakapital ng religious leader yung kanilang grupo para makakuha ng pabor sa gobyerno na siyang pinanggagalingan ng graft and corruption,” he said.

(Religious leaders capitalize their group in order to gain favors from the government where graft and corruption comes from.)

Whether we like it or not, religion will not cease to have an influence in our everyday affairs. Majority of Filipinos still take to heart the teachings of the church, and it still guides them in every decision that they make. And for the past few years, the church has proven to be a formidable ally in defense of justice and human rights, at a time when violence, whether online or on-the-ground, is being normalized.

And now that it seems history is repeating itself again, the church, like the rest of us, is facing a forkroad – whether to be complicit in the revision of history, or like before, be an active force that will stand with the people and reject the lies, hate and vitriol that’s becoming the norm in our society.

Marvin Joseph Ang is a news and creative writer who follows developments in politics, democracy, and popular culture. He advocates for a free press and national democracy. The views expressed are his own.

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