BLESSED BALLOTS: BLOC VOTING IN THE IGLESIA NI CRISTO AND THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE PHILIPPINES

Friday, May 6th, 2011, 00:00 WIB

“Religious solidarity” is almost always a misnomer or sociological synecdote, inasmuch as what involves is never just belief or ideology, but involvement in and identification with a whole community... [T]he compellingness of that identification is never just a spiritual or ideological fact. It emerges from participation in a social world, with its distinctive patterns of morality, class, and power. Religion in this broader sense, therefore, is always an index of more than itself. However rich its meanings, its authority is never just ideological. It depends, too, upon the social and political structures in which it is embedded and their ability to reproduce commitments to its ideals and lifeways (Hefner, 1990, p. 223).

 

 

BLESSED BALLOTS: BLOCK VOTING IN THE IGLESIA NI CRISTO AND THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH

IN THE PHILIPPINES

Roy Allan B. Tolentino

 

 

Abstrak

This article highlights political action from exclusive Christian group in the Philippines, Iglesia ni Cristo (INC).  This group ,which has been growing since the early 20th Century and has approximately 1 million members, differentiate itself from Catholic Church and mainstream Protestant Churches, not only as to its doctrines but also to its political policies. Both Catholic and Protestant Churches tend to take some distance to politic in practical level, except at times country is in crisis. INC does the other way around. In General Election, INC specifies particular candidate as the one and only candidate to choose for its members. This policy is based on not only political consideration, but also theological grounds in accordance to the notion of the true unity of churches. Due to that political policy, INC becomes a group which is often approached by politicians.

Keywords: political ethics, Christian sects, Iglesia ni Cristo, the Philippines' religion and politics
 
(The abstract is originally written in bahasa Indonesia)
 
 
1. Introduction

“Religious solidarity” is almost always a misnomer or sociological synecdote, inasmuch as what involves is never just belief or ideology, but involvement in and identification with a whole community... [T]he compellingness of that identification is never just a spiritual or ideological fact. It emerges from participation in a social world, with its distinctive patterns of morality, class, and power. Religion in this broader sense, therefore, is always an index of more than itself. However rich its meanings, its authority is never just ideological. It depends, too, upon the social and political structures in which it is embedded and their ability to reproduce commitments to its ideals and lifeways (Hefner, 1990, p. 223).

While Robert Hefner’s assessment of the place of religion in the construction of solidarity and identity was initially ascribed to the communities of java, his observation holds true for societies in general. While religion serves to create certain demarcations within society, these boundaries are inextricably bound up with other relationships; in some cases, religion may draw the overt boundaries, but other, more covert differences are always in play. This is not to say, however, that religion becomes only a tool – or at worst, a margina factor – in the construction of identity. In the life of an individual, religious identification can be more powerful than national identification, and the solidarity found in religious groups can provide a sense of community which citizenship cannot. Moreover, religious groups can exert power as a subgroup within the context of a particular society; enough power, at times, to change the way society is configured and affect state policy. Inasmuch as there exists in certain regions of the world a so-called separation between religion and state, it is naive to assume that religions and states do not exert influence upon each other.

This essay will reflect upon two examples of religion-state dynamics in the Philippines. These two examples are not meant to be representative of the situation in the Philippines; they reflect, rather, two possibilities in which religious groups are able to exert force upon the Philippine state. First, we will examine the phenomenon of bloc voting in the group Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), a cult of Christianity which emerged in the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century and has gained a large following over the last 95 years. “Under the leadership of the Manalo family, the Iglesia has played a quite but often decisive role in elections through its membership of one million.” (Abinales, 2005, p. 267). Second, we will turn our attention to the somewhat more complex pressure exerted by the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, which takes form not in bloc voting but in lobbying for policies. We shall also examine how sub-groups in the Catholic Church are perceived to influence election outcomes.

 

2.  Religion and Societal Cleavage

Before we examine these two cases, it will be necessary to justify our selection of these examples. The second example is a bit more obvious, as Catholicismis the majority religion in the Philippines, and the Catholic Church (in particular, the Catholic Bishops’ conference of the Philippines or CBPC) still has clout in influencing the actions of its adherents. The Catholic Church has been a key player in Philippine history, most significantly in the 1986 EDSA Revolution; furthermore, the Church still finds it necessary to comment on certain social and political issues in the form of pastoral letters and statements. While members of the Church hierarchy are forbidden from interfering directly in politics,(1) bishops and parish priests are still influential enough for their endorsements to matter.

The Church of Christ or Iglesia ni Cristo, on the other hand, aside from being in conflict with other Christian denominations in the Philippines, has been perceived to play a key role in Philippine elections. Inasmuch as the INC leadership takes pains to denounce Catholics, Protestants and other Christian groups as being "false churches," INC finds itself corted by Catholic and Protestant politicians alike during election season. Filipino politicians make a great effort to attend large INC celebrations due to the fact that the INC leadership prescribes bloc voting for INC adherents. While some Catholic and Protestant groups are suspected of engaging in bloc voting, there is no official directive from the Council of Churches or the Roman Catholic archbishopric. INC, on the other hand, even takes pride in its tradition of bloc voting, for reasons that will be explained later.

From these very brief descriptions, we can already see how there particular groups are able to define and position themselves in the political sphere. Manza and Wright provide a general rubric of how groups in societies participate in political conflict. According to Manza and Wright, "any enduring and significant social cleavage, whether based on class, race/ethnicity, linguistic preference, region, gender, or religion, will find varying degrees of expression in political conflicts at four distinct levels: (a) social structure; (b) group identity; (c) political organizations and party systems; and (d) public policy outcomes." (Manza, 2003, p. 298). While the Catholic Church in the Philippines generally tends to favour political exertion in terms of public policy, INC has a more direct hand in affecting electoral outcomes by its endorsement of certain candidates.

Manza and Wright, however, look more deeply into the dynamics of voting behaviour, and identify four factors or key differences which seem most significant in influencing how religious groups vote.

The first and most basic of these cleavages is between voters who attend religious services and consider religion important in their lives, from those who are not engaged in religion. The most straightforward measure of engagement is attendance at religious services. Church attendance may be important for political preferences for several reasons: (a) it provides reinforcement of religious beliefs and ethical precepts; (b) it may reinforce group identities, especially in ethnically – or linguistically rooted churches; and (c) it it connects religious beliefs to the larger world, including politics (Manza, 2003, pp. 288-299).

Despite being the majority religion in the Philippines (and perhaps because of it), the Roman Catholic church obviously counts among its number nominal or Sunday Catholics. While many Catholics will say that their faith remains important for them, many will also hesitate before obeying any recommendations from the archdiocese. From personal observation, those Catholics who tend to be more active in their parishes or other communities will be more receptive to pastoral letters. The greater number will probably listen but not necessarily agree or follow. The situation in INC is quite different, and perhaps better described by the second key factor:

The second, and most commonplace, way in which the religious cleavage shows is to examine differences between denominational families, at least in those countries where at least two or more donominations claim the allegiance of substantial proportions of the population (Manza, 2003, p. 229).

Within the Christian context of the Philippines, INC is one of the larger groups, and as has been mentioned earlier, quite active in denouncing the heresies of other Christian denominations. Aside from their criticism of catholics and mainstream Protestants, INC also targets other Christian groups.(2) The cleavage created by these rivalries tends to be more apparent outside of Metro Manila, where entire towns are fought over by competing ministers. Still, INC has grown to nearly 10 million members all over the world, spread primarily by migrant workers who are INC members. Non-Filipinos who become members of INC usually do so by marrying into an INC family. As such, INC tends to be more exclusive, and religious solidarity is is perceived to be strong. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, because of its history and majority presence, has tended to be more loose in terms of enforcing doctrine and practice. According to Manza and Wright, "a third religious cleavage concerns the impact of religious beliefs held by individuals, as opposed to denominational memberships or identities." (Manza, 2003, p. 299). Such a cleavage is quite apparent in the Catholic Church in the Philippines, typified by the recent debate regarding reproductive health.

The last factor identified by Manza and Wright has to do with local context:

Finally, a number of analysts have examined the "contextual effects" of local religious communities or individual churches. Individual church leaders provide sources of information and opinions to lay members that may sometimes be at odds with national denominational positions. Local congregations sometimes engage in political projects that draw in members into various forms of political action and experience (Manza, 2003, p. 299).

While it is true that at the parish level, the Catholic Church may engage more directly in the political life of the local community, it does so without any directive from the hierarchy. Parish priests are given autonomy to cooperate with local government, and at certain times, even oppose it. Local branches of INC, on the other hand, follow directives issued by the national church leadership, including whom to vote for in the national and local elections.

 

3. Iglesia ni Cristo: Theological Considerations

While we have thus far alluded to the bloc voting practices of the INC, we have not yet explained how this particular policy fits into its identity as a religious group. It is time, then, to provide a brief summary of the history and theology of the Church of Christ.

The Iglesia ni Cristo was incorporated on 27 July 1914 by Felix Y. Manalo (1886-1963). The verb "incorporation: is significant because in INC theology, the Church of Christ was founded by Jesus Christ himself, but Felix Manalo was "God's last messenger, whom he sent to re-establish the Christian Church to its true, pristine form."(3) Manalo had been raised a Catholic in Rizal province, but drifted away from Catholicism when he witnessed the sound defeat of a Catholic priest by a Protestant minister in a public debate. Manalo then became an evangelist in the Methodist tradition, then a pastor in the Presbytarian Church, then a pastor among the Seventh Day Adventists, but eventually grew dissatisfied with all established religions. Manalo reportedly withdrew from religious affairs, became acquainted with free-thinkers and atheists, found their views fallacious as well (Manalo apparently found the time to open a barber shop, too). In 1913, Manalo supposedly had reached a point when his search for truth could no longer be set aside, so he sequestered himself and studied the Bible intensely for three days; he emerged afterwards with a sense of clarity that "that religion or man's way back to God must be fully in accordance with the will of God contained in the Bible, and that he was being sent to preach and the true religion so that God may bring near his righteousness to men in these last days."(4) While we do not have room to cover the entire history of the INC, suffice it to say that their growth has been steady over the past decades, enough to claim that they are the second largest religious group in the Philippines and are larger than the population of Jehovah's witnesses worldwide.(5)

In terms of theology, however, Erano Manalo, a son of Felix Manalo, has produced a booklet outlining the basic tenets of INC. A sampling runs as follows:

 

  1. The words of God are written only in the Bible. The Bible should be the only basis of service to God. This is the truth which will teach man salvation from punishment on Judgement Day.
  2. The Father who created all things is the only true God. There is no Trinity, no three persons in one God.
  3. The belief that all churches belong to God is false. Christ founded only one true Church - the Church of Christ (Iglesia ni Cristo).
  4. The Church of Christ is the Church that Jesus will save (Acts 20:28) because he made this Church His body and heads it Himself - before God, the Church and Christ are one new man (Eph.2:15 NKJV; Col.1:18 NKJV). This is the reason why Christ is able to answer for the sins of His Church without violating God's law that whoever commits a sin, the same must die for that sin (Dt.24:16). Hence, the belief that salvation can be attained by means of faith in Christ alone, even without membership in the Church of Christ is false. The Church is necessary, not because it saves, but because it is the entity that Christ will save (Eph.5:23 TEV).
  5. The Church built by Christ during the first century has apostatized (Acts 20:29). It was led away by false prophets which arose in the Church after the time of the Apostles (Mt.24:11 RSV), and those who remained firm in the faith were slain by ravenous wolves (Mt.7:15). The prophesied false teachers who led the Church away were the Catholic priests. They introduced false teachings (1 Tim.4:1,3) into the Church, until the Church became the Catholic Church - a church essentially different from the Church of Christ as described in the Bible.
  6. The apostasy of the Catholic Church from the Church established by Christ in the first century took place with their turning away from the teachings of God taught by Christ and His Apostles (Worship of Images, Mass, Popes and Priests as vicars or successors of Christ, Mediator Saints, Purgatory). Therefore, the apostasy takes place whenever there is a teaching of God of the Catholic Church violates. In view of this, all the doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church should be rejected.
  7. We should not be surprised at the number of churches today that are not of Christ. It is not Christ who established them but the enemy or the devil (Mt.13:24-30, 36-39 NKJV). These churches that do not belong to Christ are the Catholic Church and her offspring, the various Protestant denominations and sects. Only one Church belongs to Christ, the Church of Christ.(6)
Of course, the INC ministers will be more eloquent in their exegesis of Bible passages confirming these beliefs. Among other beliefs are the super-humanity of Jesus Christ, an obligation to attend worship services, and prohibitions against eating blood and marrying those of other faiths. What is of interest for us, however, are certain articles emphasizing the necessity and unity of the Church of Christ. For example: "One should not deny the necessity of one organized church as the Church of Christ;" and even more telling: "Each member should submit to the Administration placed by God in the Church by means of total agreement with the teachings and rules observed in the Church of Christ." Finally, the clearest articulation of unity vis-a-vis politics: "The Church of Christ believes that unity is God's teaching and that division within the Church is an evil thing. This unity is implemented by the Church of Christ not only during election time but also in all its works in the service of God."(7)
 
While these are principles held in common, based on the teachings of the INC, its members are also eloquent in defending these views. As one blogger emphatically states in a post responding to criticism against the INC:
 
No.3 "INC members are just puppets of their church administration; they were dictated and forced. They take away
the freedom of their members instead of voting in their own conscience."
 
Really? This was the kind of mind of many nonmembers because they cannot understand well, they were blinded
what maybe church authorities statements about voting in OWN CONSCIENCE. First of all, no individual members of
the INC have been DICTATED or FORCED to JOIN THE CHURCH. Converts baptized in the church through
RECEIVING DOCTRINES and BIBLE LESSONS. THEREFORE, If they wholeheartedly believe on it and understand it,
they will be BAPTIZED. In the CASE of the UNITY in the CHURCH, this called "BLOCK VOTING" is a right of suffrage. Meaning, members HAVE THE TRUST to the Church administration whether whom to VOTE. BECAUSE THE CHURCH
HAVE THE DOCTRINES THAT IS WRITTEN IN THE BIBLE THAT IS, BE UNITED! (in all ASPECT) Second, IT WAS
THE MEMBERS who will write the name and put in the ballot boxes therefore, it is not contrary to the LAW. Meaning,
it is IN THE MEMBERS if they will FOLLOW AND OBEY DOCTRINES IN THE CHURCH AND COOPERATE TO THE CHURCH ADMINISTRATION, period! Furthermore, members were not DICTATED or FORCED whom to vote because it is in THEM
or it is their DECISION if they will follow one of the teachings in the bible. It is like this; they were not forced and dictated to do good because it is IN THEM if they will do good/God's will or to be bad/evil.
 
In addition, there are advantages to this practice, HOW? Ok, may I ask you:
 
WHO CAN BE INFLUENCED BY THE POLITICIANS WHOM TO VOTE? A regular voter or voter who participates in the
called "BLOCK VOTING"? WHO CAN BE PAID BY THE POLITICIANS WHOM TO VOTE? A regular voter or voter
who participates in the called "BLOCK VOTING"?(8)
 
As the fiery rhetoric of this blogger indicates, for the INC members, the logic behind bloc voting appears to be theological. Inasmuch as individual voters still cast their own votes, these votes have been decided in advance by the Church leadership in order to demonstrate the unity of the Church of Christ. Despite this theological underpinning, however, the INC remains a powerful operator in the electoral process.
 
When the last INC Executive Minister, Erano Manalo, passed away in August 2009, his son, Eduardo Manalo, took over. Eduardo Manalo had already been overseeing this aspect of administration in the INC even while his father was still living. According to a local article, "the younger Manalo called the shots on political decisions 'at least in the last two elections.'"(9) The article goes on to describe how the INC conducted itself in the 2004 presidential elections. "In the 2004 elections, the INC, instead of having to choose between actor Fernando Poe Jr. and Lacson, passed the ball to the two warring opposition bets. When Poe and Lacson failed to settle their differences, the INC did the next best thing: it threw its support to President Arroyo. Since it was a close race between Arroyo and Poe, the INC vote was seen as a deciding factor in favor of Arroyo."(10) Moreover, "political analyst say that INC's bloc-voting members can spell the difference in tight presidential, senatorial, and local races. Candidates fiercely contest the INC endorsement, and they will have to pass through a wringer before any endorsement is given."(11)
 
Historically, though, the political influence of the INC has not been occasional, emerging only during election periods. The INC has also been known to influence the appointments of justices to the Supreme Court. "In 2006, the INC endorsed Presbitero Velasco Jr. for the Supreme Court. He bested four other shortlisted candidates... When asked in an interview weeks after his appointment to the Supreme Court about the endorsement he got from the INC... Reyes replied, 'Don't I deserve backing?'"(12) Reyes' rather flippant remark reveals the extent to which the endorsement of the INC is accepted, even desired, in the judiciary. This influence in the Supreme Court has produced decisions favorable to the INC, particularly in cases involving its rivals. One recent case involves derogatory remarks made by the leader of already-mentioned Ang Dating Daan (ADD), a known competitor of INC. "In a consolidated decision penned by Justice Presbitero Velasco Jr, the 11 majority justices upheld the MTRCB move to suspend ADD after its host, Eliseo Soriano, uttered offensive and obscene remark against Ang Tamang Daan host Michael Sandoval. Soriano founded the religious sect ADD, a breakaway group of the Iglesia ni Cristo sect. The ADD TV program is aired on UNTV 37. Members of the two religious sects have been at odds for years, on and off court."(13)
 
With the 2010 national elections just a few weeks away, the INC has yet to publicize its endorsements. I expect, however, that these decisions have already been made; the INC leadership is just waiting for the proper time to reveal their candidates. While the INC has had its history of exerting political pressure through bloc voting, the Roman Catholic Church has had a more complex history. 

 

4. The Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines: De jure Separation?

Catholicism has been part of the fabric of Philippine culture for the last four centuries; it is impossible to consider Filipino social history without a view to the role of the Catholic Church has played. However, from the consolidated power of the church and colonial government in the Spanish era to the endorsement of candidates during the post-Commonwealth period, the Catholic Church in the Philippines has become more aware of the separation between Church and State. This separation became more dramatic in the context of oppression in the Marcos regime. Many factors converged to produce a Catholic Church that was more cognizant of the demands of nationalism:

Activism addressing national and social themes also emerged within the Catholic Church, whose political influence had grown with its anticommunist offensive of the 1950s. U.S. colonialism had left the Catholic hierarchy foreign, replacing Spanish clergy with American and European priests and nuns. The hierarchy also remained hostile to Philippine nationalism (notably in the Rizal bill debate), which it associated with the anti clericalism of the 1896 Revolution. It was only in the 1960s that the issue of Filipinization within the Church was finally addressed in conjunction with the call of Rome's Vatican II council to "indigenize" the postcolonial churches. Activism was further encouraged in the 1960s and 1970s when Popes John XXIII and Paul VI directed Catholics to be concerned with social justice as well as spiritual salvation. Younger priests, nuns, and lay members became directly involved with peasants and workers through the Church-sponsored Federation for Free Farmers and the National Social Action Secretariats (Abinales, 2005, p.268).

These movements came to a head with Marcos calling for snap elections in 1986, and the EDSA Revolution which lead to the presidency of Corazon Aquino. Corazon Aquino had the support of the Catholic Church during the election period, and it was the Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Cardinal Sin, who made the call for the citizenry to go to the streets and protect the elements of government who had finally rebelled against Marcos. In the years following the EDSA Revolution, with a whole country getting used to democracy again, the Catholic Church settled into the a more passive role, a role determined in part by the 1987 Constitution. Article II, Section 6, of the 1987 Constitution says that "the separation of Church and State shall be inviolable." Joaquin Bernas, a Jesuit priest, lawyer and expert on the Constitution, clarifies the meaning of this separation:

The constitutional command, however, is more than just the prohibition of a state religion. That is the minimal meaning. Jurisprudence has expanded it to mean that the state may not pass "laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another." That is the "separation part" of the constitutional command. The other part is the "free exercise clause." Both are embodied in one sentence which says: "No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."(14)

 

[cont]...

 

This essay is published in Gema Teologi, Jurnal Fakultas Theologia, Vol. 34. No. 1. April 2010, Universitas Kristen Duta Wacana, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

For complete version of the essay, please contact ICRS-Yogya at icrs@ugm.ac.id