Manila, Philippines — The Philippines was a colony of Spain for more than 300 years. Religion was the main weapon used by the Spaniards to subjugate the local population. It would also become Spain’s most enduring legacy to the Philippine nation.
During the struggle for independence in the late 19th century, local uprisings were also directed against abusive Spanish friars. The revolution forced Spain to cede the Philippines to the United States but the Catholic Church remained a powerful political and social force in society. The revolution also failed to confiscate the friar lands throughout the country which constitute the church’s economic clout.
Today, the Philippines is still the only Catholic-dominated nation in Asia. There are no more Spanish clergy in the country, but bishops remain very influential in almost all aspects of Philippine social life.
The Catholic Church played a crucial role during the two People Power uprisings in 1986 and 2001, which led to the downfall of Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada. It was always the strong opposition from bishops which forced politicians to abandon their plans of amending the Constitution in the past ten years.
One of the reasons why President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is still in power despite numerous corruption and other embarrassing scandals hounding her government is because most of the country’s bishops have chosen to remain silent over political issues. Myanmar’s silent Buddhist monks have to teach the silent Philippine bishops how to shepherd the faithful in condemning injustice, bad governance and repression in society.
Most Filipino politicians are afraid to antagonize the Catholic hierarchy. But every now and then, some politicians manage to articulate their frustrations over the excessive intervention of church authorities in the political affairs of the country. The church uses its influence to oppose population control programs, reproductive health services and the divorce law.
Sex scandals have also tarnished the reputation of the Catholic Church. One bishop was accused of sexual harassment by his personal secretary. Priests keep a vow of poverty, but many of them maintain lifestyles that can be described as luxurious by Philippine standards.
The Catholic Church, despite its weaknesses as an institution, continues to remain relevant in the eyes of the people. In fact, most people are turning to religion “in search of secure moorings in a shifting world.” Like in other parts of the globe, there is a revival of interest in religion in Philippine society.
The Catholic Church does not have a monopoly over the people’s pursuit of religious salvation. Catholic charismatic groups, evangelical Christian formations, protestant churches, Christian born again missionaries and even Islamists are enjoying renewed enthusiasm from the people, especially the poor.
In 2004, the leader of an evangelical Christian group ran for president and managed to clinch a respectable showing in the polls. In the recent elections, the top winners in the party-list system were the religious-backed groups. One charismatic group is able to gather more than 1 million people every week in the national park; something which the Catholic Church has not yet achieved. A Catholic priest defeated two moneyed politicians and became the governor of Arroyo’s home province.
How do we explain the people’s fanatical participation in new religious formations? Why are evangelical leaders enjoying high popularity these days?
It’s not enough to describe the religious nature of Filipinos. The revival of interest in religion has something to do with the dislocations of the Philippine economy in recent decades. The people are clinging to religious associations hoping to achieve a sense of personal fulfillment in this chaotic and materialistic world.
The extraordinary rise in the number of Filipinos leaving the country has changed traditional Filipino institutions, especially the family. More than 8 million Filipinos are now working in different parts of the world. Families separated for long periods of time lead to broken marriages, depressed children and dysfunctional family relationships. Migration of workers is destroying the traditional Filipino family, the basic unit of Philippine society.
The neoliberal turn of the economy has ravaged the domestic manufacturing and agricultural sectors of the country. Flexible or contractual labor has diminished the organized strength of labor unions. The growth of the service sector has created an army of individual workers with little or no sense of collective solidarity.
Individualism and entrepreneurialism as virtues have gained prominence. Citizens have been transformed into consumers. Government has abandoned social welfare and allowed the free market to take care of peoples’ needs. Ownership of money and the capacity to multiply wealth have become the all-encompassing measures of success in society.
These shifts in the economy have threatened social stability. Individuals who were once part of a collective, like labor unions, farm cooperatives and intact families, are now alone, probably unemployed or underemployed and overwhelmed with the consumer culture that pervades society today.
This “individualistic society of transients” generates the longing for common or shared values. Religion becomes attractive to individuals, workers, and consumers who feel alienated in society. As philosopher David Harvey puts it: “In moments of despair or exaltation, who among us can refrain from invoking the time of fame, of myth, of the Gods?”
Filipino politicians and businessmen are aware of the special new role of religious sects today. Economic favors are now granted to friendly religious leaders. Corporations are hiring workers who belong to big churches that forbid members to join labor unions.
In 1978, the Republican Party of the United States forged an alliance with evangelical Christian leader Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” movement to dominate U.S. politics. This partnership allowed the Republican Party to impose neoliberal prescriptions in the U.S. economy which favored big business at the expense of the working-class movement.
In the Philippines, politicians are linking with church groups to keep the electorate under their command. The public should be wary of this alliance. What will stop politicians from signing “morality” programs with church leaders that would be against the political and economic interests of the faithful? There is need for non-religious new collectivities and social solidarity groups in Philippine society today.
(Mong Palatino is a Filipino youth activist, news editor of Yehey!, a Philippine-based web portal, and a Global Voices correspondent. His Web site is http://www.mongpalatino.motime.com, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ©Copyright Mong Palatino.)