The Philippines is regularly pointed to as one of the more religious countries on the planet. World Values Survey data show that 86% of Filipinos rate God as “Very Important” in their lives, topping states such as Poland and Iran. On a casual trip to the mall on Sunday, I discovered packed chapels adjacent to designer shops. The religious community in general in the Philippines, and the Catholic Church in particular, played a crucial role in toppling the Marcos regime and ending martial law rule. Surely, in such an environment, clerics are a prime driver of election results?
Without a doubt, the Philippines has seen religious involvement in electoral politics. For example, Fr. “Among Ed” Panilio, a Catholic priest, served a term as governor of Pampanga province from 2007-2010. Bro. Eddie Villanueva, a prominent evangelical leader, has run for president twice, and various legislative lists such as Alagad are tied to religious communities. The Iglesia ni Cristo, a Protestant denomination, is famous for explicit endorsement of candidates, with the perception that loyal members vote in a bloc in accordance with leadership pronouncements. Although official religious parties are disallowed (as is the case in Senegal), a range of individual and institutional electoral involvement nonetheless takes place within this formal restriction.
These examples, however, may overstate the role of religion in driving Filipino voting behavior. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) resists endorsement, and bishops enforce canon law requiring priests to be suspended from active ministry if they seek office. Among Ed faced just such a restriction when he decided to serve as governor. Brother Eddie pulls millions to his prayer rallies, but only 3% of the 2010 electorate. There is some sense that religious groups also fear the internal dissension that may accompany electoral participation. Couples for Christ, a high profile Catholic Charismatic group, has split in recent years due in part to tensions from electoral involvement.
Interestingly, public opinion data show that for all of their religiosity, Filipinos are hesitant to accept religious electoral mandates. Newly released International Social Survey Programme data from 2008 is striking: 69% of Filipinos agree that “religious leaders should not influence votes.” Even more notable is the fact that this opinion is most firmly held by those with the utmost confidence in the churches. Those who have “complete confidence” in the churches and religious organizations are fifteen percentage points more likely to agree that religious leaders should not influence votes than those who have “very little confidence” in the churches. In a simple multivariate analysis controlling for age, sex and education, this relationship holds up. This appears to indicate that a certain understanding of religious-state differentiation is actually quite prominent among Filipinos, despite religion’s significant public importance in the country.