Religion and democracy

I’ve often been asked what I think of the candidacy of Brother Eddie Villanueva, the founding leader of the Jesus is Lord movement.  My quick answer to this question is: Nothing in our Constitution prevents a person of God from running for public office or from being appointed to one.  His fitness or suitability for public office must however solely be judged by his secular qualifications and experience.  An appointment or vote that considers a candidate’s faith or level of piety would clash with the civic principle separating religion from the state.

I personally like many of the positions that Villanueva has taken on crucial issues. I think they are positions that any thoughtful Filipino would take regardless of religious persuasion.  Being himself a democrat, Villanueva has said he is not running as a religious leader. Yet because his public persona is completely entwined with his position in a religious movement, he cannot help but be perceived as someone who is cashing in on religion to win public office.  In the end, this will not do his religious group any good.

There is, clearly, no way of knowing precisely what criteria voters use in deciding whom to vote for in an election.  Religiosity may well be one of these, and candidates do often seek to project a church-going image to win votes. But so long as religiosity or piety or membership in a church is not a legal requirement for public office, the constitutional principle that protects the secular nature of our society is not violated.

Indeed there are religions and churches that test the limits of a secular society. If one belongs to a church or a religious community that takes its faith as the sole guide for action in the world, one may be commanded by its leaders to vote in a particular way.  But so long as the option to drop or change one’s religion is there, the right to disregard unacceptable orders from religious authorities is assumed.

To my mind, the ground for the emergence of a politician running on a message of religious righteousness has long been prepared by the intrusion of Catholic piety into the spaces of the secular state. Religious statues have long migrated from church altars to the corridors of government offices.  It is now standard practice to open every official meeting or function with a prayer or invocation or Biblereading that is unmistakably Catholic in tone.  The Catholic Mass is routinely celebrated on official time on government ground.  It is no longer considered improper for a government official to cite his or her own religious beliefs as a ground for determining public policy.

This development has no doubt been made possible in large measure by the dominant role played by the Catholic Church in the closing years of the campaign against the Marcos regime.  But it has also come hand in hand with the failure of our civic institutions – notably the schools and the mass media — to offer a broader range of social ideals to our people. The surge in crime and corruption in our society, coupled with the inability of the state to regulate greed and protect the underprivileged, has paved the way for the return of religion as the exclusive fount of correct behavior.

I hope readers do not misunderstand me.  I am not against religion.  I grew up in a community that considers it almost obligatory for a family to offer a son to the priesthood.  One of my brothers is a Catholic priest, and I am very proud of him.  I believe religion, as an abiding source of ideals, has an important place in a person’s life. But I have grave reservations about churches playing a dominant role in the governance of a society.  I believe it goes against the ethos of a modern democracy.  To mix churches with politics is to move closer to the kind of religious fundamentalism that has bred the militant religious warriors of the present period.  The use of religion as an instrument of political goals is precisely what religious fundamentalism is about.

Sociologists have long predicted that with modernity and the growing rationalization of the various spheres of social life, religion would eventually retreat from the public domain and become synonymous with “what one does with one’s solitude.”  For a host of reasons, this is not what is happening today.  Far from withdrawing into the private realm, religion is playing the public role it once assumed during feudal times – a mechanism of social control in league with the state.

It all begins as a benign offer to supplement institutional efforts at reform.  Bureaucrats in revenue-collecting agencies are recruited to join prayer or Bible study groups in the hope of instilling in them ethical behavior based on fear of God.  Then it spreads to the ranks of the judicial system and the police, until it engulfs the entire bureaucracy.  Sometimes it is able to stem corruption, but on the whole it is unable to cure habits that are ingrained in the system itself. In any event, is there anything wrong with religion seizing our collective life as a nation?

I submit there is.  Allowing religion to invade spaces reserved to the state invites the danger of the state being embroiled in destructive religious conflicts not amenable to peaceful resolution.  The peaceful co-existence of various religions is possible only under a constitutional order that guarantees freedom of thought and religion. Such an order is also one where the government takes the utmost care not to be seen as favoring any particular church or religion in the pursuit of its work.  This is the essence of the principle of separation of church and state.


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