By the time Bongbong Marcos stepped into the spotlight of his first presidential debate that was hosted by a religious leader who claims six million followers, rival Leni Robredo had secured a rare endorsement from 500 priests, nuns and lay people.
One week into the official campaign, candidates are hoping men and women of God would convince their followers to pick them on May 9. It's a staple of Philippine politics where despite the constitutional separation of church and state, religious beliefs dictate who can get married, that they should stay together until death, and that they should not use condoms to plan their families.
Before Tuesday evening's debate at the luxury Okada Hotel, Kingdom of Jesus Christ leader Apollo Quiboloy, who calls himself the "Appointed Son of God", declared his 100% support for Marcos and his running mate, Sara Duterte. Quiboloy did not appear during the debate that was aired by his TV channel SMNI.
“For some religious groups, endorsing candidates can either be because the candidates represent the values, principles and preferred policies and programs being promoted by the religious groups as well as their vision of a good society,” University of the Philippines political science professor Maria Ela Atienza told reportr.
“They also endorse candidates hoping that their interests will be protected if these candidates win,” she added.
The Catholic Church as an institution doesn't endorse candidates. However, the signatories to the endorsement for Robredo released Tuesday cited her leadership qualities: moral ascendancy, respect of human rights, and patriotism.
Why candidates seek church leaders’ support?
As much as some religious groups need politicians for their own interests, candidates also seek their support because they believe it would increase their chances of winning the elections.
“Candidates seek the endorsement of religious groups because there is a notion that churches characterized by strong organizational discipline engage in bloc voting which, politicians believe, can muster the needed numbers in elections,” UP political science professor Alicor Panao told reportr.
“The Iglesia ni Cristo, for instance, is vocal about its candidate endorsements and adamant about its justification of bloc voting as a mode of strengthening the congregation’s unity,” he added.
In 2016, Iglesia ni Cristo endorsed to its estimated the million members the presidential candidacy of then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. Six years earlier, it also carried the presidential bid of the late President Benigno Aquino III. Both of them won the elections.
So does this mean that an endorsement from a big religious group is a ticket to election victory? Not necessarily, the political analysts said.
“It depends on the numbers of registered voters in that group as well as whether they really vote as bloc. It also depends on the issues at play during the elections and campaign season as well as the strength of other groups,” Atienza said.
Studies that looked into the link between church endorsements and electoral success are also inconclusive, Panao said. In the Philippines, even the success rate of an endorsement from Iglesia ni Cristo is inconsistent, he added.
While Aquino and Duterte won, former Sen. Mar Roxas and Marcos, whom the Philippine-based religious group also endorsed in the past two presidential elections, were not as lucky. In the 2016 elections, only nine of the 12 senatorial candidates the Iglesia ni Cristo endorsed won.
Panao also cited a local study which showed that popular candidates are more likely to be endorsed by church groups.
“In other words, those who would get endorsed by the church are those who are already massively popular and enjoy easy name recall in the first place,” he said.
What about the separation of church and state?
Some critics raise the constitutional provision on separation of church and state whenever religious groups involve themselves in politics and even in the elections. Are church leaders violating the Constitution if they endorse a particular candidate?
The provision on the separation of church and state simply means that there is no state religion, and people freely express their faith without government interference. It also means the government cannot pass a law that prohibits the free exercise of one’s religion, the analysts said.
“It does not mean that churches and other religious groups cannot express their views on politics and various social issues. Members are citizens, too. So, they also enjoy the basic rights as well as responsibilities as members of society,” Atienza said.
Think of it as more of a prohibition to the state and not to the church itself, Panao said.
“A church is not violating anything even if it gets itself entangled in the social and political affairs of the state, as when, say, religious leaders endorse certain candidates as embodying their spiritual tenets before the congregation. It is typical for religions to preach certain social ideals based on a divine vision of what society ought to be,” he added.
So, should you vote for who your church endorses?
As the May 9 elections draw closer, Filipino voters will have to face the difficult task of choosing the leader who will bring the country out of the pandemic. Some may even consult their faith and examine candidates based on what the teachings of their church.
While there is nothing wrong with religious groups supporting candidates, voters should not cast their votes based on these endorsements alone, Atienza and Panao said.
“If Filipinos feel strongly about the values of their church or religious group that they belong to, they should not just listen to church and religious leaders. They should evaluate if candidates truly exemplify the values that they hold dear,” Atienza said.
Religious leaders must also allow their followers to freely choose whom to vote. After all, the exercise of the people’s right to suffrage is what makes a republic truly sovereign and democratic, Panao said.
“Christian churches, regardless of denomination, have taken a two-fold task of providing spiritual nurture and working actively to achieve social and economic justice. Social justice entails allowing people their basic freedoms,” he added.
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