Pacman and religion

Saranggani Representative and iconic boxing champion Manny Pacquiao appeared on GMA-7’s early evening news the other night in his latest incarnation—as religious preacher.  Seated in the audience was no less than the president and CEO of the TV station in which he hosts a show, lawyer Felipe Gozon. The boxer-congressman-media star and celebrity endorser paced the stage like a televangelist-on-training, diffidently reading and interpreting biblical verses projected on a screen. He wore a chastened look, a stark contrast to the mean and taut face he carries into the boxing ring. He seemed sincerely lost in awed contemplation of ancient passages, even as he eagerly drew from the well of what sounded like a conversion experience.

Yet, one can’t help wondering what this is about. The very public way in which the congressman chooses to reflect on what is supposed to be a profoundly personal transformation provokes skepticism. He is quick to explain this by saying that the Lord is wise to employ celebrities like him to endorse the way of faith. That is a fitting line to enunciate in this season of Lent. But it really tells us more about the ways of our celebrity-crazed society than about the meaning of Christ’s way.

The way of the early Christians was to withdraw from the public eye precisely because they believed that the ideal of holiness was best realized when they avoided the spotlight.  Such a community, writes Hannah Arendt, “has to do its work in hiding, because to be seen and heard inevitably takes on the glow of appearance in which all holiness—no matter how hard it tries not to—instantly becomes hypocrisy.”

The retreat from the “public-political arena” did not mean withdrawal from human affairs.  The Christian community understood Christ’s message as a mandate to claim the terrain of interpersonal relationships by living the way of neighborly love. Indeed, Mathew (6: 1-6) lays down a rigorous set of rules that enjoin the Christian from beholding or advertising his good deeds. “But when you do merciful deeds, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does, so that your merciful deeds may be in secret, then your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”

It is inevitable, however, that the space carved by the faithful in society will itself become public and open, and therefore potentially political. St. Augustine, above all, recognized this, and, instead of turning away from politics, he sought to influence politics in order to build the “city of God” in this world. Still, the Christian message remained: Even as faith must influence the secular public realm, care must be taken so that the space in which the faithful assemble does not itself become a place for display and appearances. This double task has not at all been easy for the Church to maintain. A religion that seeks to mould politics opens itself to a politics that rides on religion. This is what happened throughout the Middle Ages.

In her wonderful book, “The Promise of Politics,” Arendt sums it up very well: “The Church needed politics, both the worldly politics of secular powers and religiously oriented politics within its own ecclesiastical realm, in order to be able to maintain itself on earth and assert itself in this world…. And politics needed the Church—not just religion, but also the tangible, spatial existence of religious institutions—in order to prove its higher justification and legitimation.”  But, all this came to an end with the Reformation.  In the modern period, religion withdrew from the public sphere to become, in William James’ memorable words, “what one does with one’s solitude.”

Some say the privatization of faith, as anticipated by secularization theories, was never fully achieved. Be that as it may, one cannot help but marvel at the way faith is publicly displayed today in American politics. One of the top contenders for the Republican Party presidential nomination, Rick Santorum, told an ABC television program audience: “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute. The First Amendment means the free exercise of religion and that means bringing people and their faith into the public square.” In calling for a “family values-oriented” society, Santorum opposes same-sex marriage, contraception, pornography, etc. juxtaposing these with pedophilia and bestiality. He has been quoted as saying that the spread of liberalism and moral relativism in the Catholic Church has been responsible for the many cases of child and sexual abuse committed by priests.

Is it farfetched to think that Pacquiao is being styled this early as the Filipino Santorum?  Whoever cooked this up is thinking strategically. For there is no doubt that the Pacman is looking towards a full-time career in politics once he retires from boxing, which may be sooner than his fans imagine. Born in December 1978, he will only be 34 in May 2013, a few months short of the minimum age for senators, and only 37 in 2016, not old enough to run for president. He may run for governor of his province next year and win handily. Given his name recall, he could become a senator in 2016. But, for someone with his ambition, the presidency is the ultimate destination.

What to do to stay in the limelight in the next 10 years is the big challenge. Joseph “Erap” Estrada showed it could be done. Winning a senate seat in 1987, he went on to claim the presidency 11 years later, using a political network woven from the strands of his iconic status as a movie hero. But he didn’t have the Church on his side. Pacquiao is blazing a new path by adding religion to the two spaces—show biz and politics—that he already occupies. That is worth watching. One can only hope the faith community is going into this with open eyes.