News and Features

The Religious Vote: A Preliminary Analysis

Let me be very blunt here: Filipinos put more faith in the church than in the government. Just recently,the church was rated as one of the most trusted institutions in the country held in confidence by a staggering 68% of our population strongly dwarfing the 15% trust rating of the government despite improvements from the previous administration. Christianity also controls many educational institutions in the Philippines with the Catholic Church alone extending its influence to schools upon schools in the nation. Also the dwindling mass attendance cannot immediately mean the decline of the religion’s role in socialization but may only be an indication of emerging approaches to the faith (spirituality vs. religious) rather than a lasting loss of interest for religion in general. It is no surprise then that religion would want to play a major role in Philippine politics as it has been known for a long time to already do. The proclamations done by the El Shaddai and the Bloc Voting alleged of the Iglesia ni Cristo are contemporary instances of religious participation in politics. But this election offered something different: the participation of the Catholic Church through the (unofficial) campaign of some of the Bishops for or against certain candidates basing on the same candidates’ stand on the RH Law.

A common way of looking at this is to suppose that the phenomenon is an indication of our backwardness or the remnants of the feudal relations in the Philippines where the church’s spiritual and economic power translated to political clout. These analyses are worth considering but as I have argued elsewhere we cannot reduce our analysis of religious occurrences as plainly that. Thus, what I offer here is a way to make sense of why the Bloc Voting of the Iglesia ni Cristo is expected to deliver results. I hope in the process to inspire insights among readers on why the Catholic vote seemed to have been under much scrutiny in its bid to influence the elections.
The question on how INC managed to establish this voter behavior is difficult to answer because of the scant data available and most of these reflections where drawn from the work of R. Reeds. In here, I would argue that the INC leadership wields charismatic authority in tandem with strong institutional control particularly in the education of its ministers and the management of its locales. On the other hand, the Catholic Church, though traditionally involved in politics, suffered from inexperience, dissent within its ranks and the looseness of the administration among local bishops.

Charismatic authority is authority that depends upon the personal qualities of the leader in order to be effective. Drawing from Reed, we get the sense that the founder of the INC was indeed charismatic and has been known to be an “eloquent speaker who fashioned a convincing interpretation of the bible that appealed to Filipinos across the social spectrum”. But it is his assumption of the role of God’s messenger that finally sealed his charismatic authority over the church. So strong is his hold over the institution that alongside his death were expectations of INC’s decline. His successor did not waste time, however, and immediately did visits among the different locales creating a sense of relationship. But charismatic authority cannot last long on itself.Alongside it is a legal rational form of authority which depends on established rules and frameworks to maintain its hold over a group of people and in this instance, a church. This form is evidenced by a strictly controlled system of formation of its ministers confined within particular complex in Quezon City and an organizational structure of checks is maintained that links even the lowest of locales to the central leadership. This system not only ensures the continued doctrinal unity within the community but also obedience among its ministers and followers to the central authority because the system allows for social control.

In contrast, the Catholic Church suffered from different views inside the same institution. Bishops, to illustrate, maintained very different views of PPCRV with Bishop Palma expressing his personal support andBishop Arguelles severed his ties from it. Endorsements too proved to be a polarizing issue as one group of catholics decried the calls of the White Vote movement to endorse candidates taking it as an insult to the capacity of ordinary Catholics to decide for themselves. Related to this issue is the previous pronouncements of Pope Benedict XVI against endorsements made by the church seeing it as only damaging to its moral ascendancy.Beyond media hyped events, however, the church hierarchy are losing itsaudiencewith the dwindlingChurchattendance because of new approaches to the faith. There are less and less church attendees and therefore less and less audience and listeners for the Catholic Hierarchy, at least, in the voting population. Emergent in the Philippine Catholic landscape too are the emphasis on spirituality over religiosity that puts the individual self as the sole arbiter to God and eschews the role of church as the sole path to the Divine, at least, initially, for the Catholic Church. Moreover, the Roman Church in the Philippines does not enjoy the same regulatory structure similar to the INC because the local bishops are autonomous each other and are only subject to the authority of the Pope or the Papal Nuncio.

What is evident here is the institutional genius built and maintained by the INC and its existence may be a condition of possibility (but definitely not the cause) of the credence given to its bloc voting as opposed to the Catholic Church who despite being a long time power in the Philippines remain seemed to be a newbie in terms of influencing voter behavior outside extra-constitutional ways – like the EDSA Revolution. The charismatic authority emanating from the center is both augmented and magnified by the legal rational authority established along every level of government thereby ensuring influence on voter behavior while as we observed such measures are absent from the Catholic side of spectrum.

Naturally, there are more factors to be considered in trying to understand this phenomenon in Philippine society. Institutions, though they may be strong, are still subject to larger social realities like the economic development or the lack thereof of a nation. The reader may argue that the strong presence of a religious corporation in the Philippine Elections is an indication of a collective delusion for a nation that is used to smiling in the face of misery or indicative the unifying force of religion. The aforementioned analysis does not preempt this views as long as empirical proof are provided.

I would like to end with the following reflection points. First, the institutional model Iglesia ni Cristo built proved to be useful to influence behavior, however, this authority is wrapped with repercussions in the afterlife. Assuming that church incursion to the process is undesirable,  what form of institutional model can more secular organizations adapt to neutralize the religious effect? Second, the Catholic Church  is bound to learn from its ‘mistakes’ from the previous elections. Can we expect a more effective Catholic Church in the future?

I hope the reader will try to react with their own reflections below.

Yvan Ysmael Yonaha (@YvanYonaha) is a Development Practitioner, Technology Enthusiast and Productivity Buff. Yvan holds an AB Degree in Sociology from UP Diliman. He is a former instructor in the Department of Social Science for the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Marikina, and currently works for Ateneo de Manila University as a formator of the Office of Social Concern and Involvement.