Three years after assuming the presidency and 27,000 dead bodies later, his administration has now set a new record: a whopping +72 net satisfaction score for general performance, the highest rating for any administration in the Philippines since 1989. The midterm elections in May 2019 have put his allies in power: new Filipino senators include Imee Marcos, daughter of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and Bato dela Rosa, ex-National Police Chief and Duterte’s drug war henchman. With a weakened political opposition, and critics like Senator Leila de Lima and Rappler’s Maria Ressa facing relentless persecution, Duterte is now enjoying the tightest grip on the Filipino nation that any president has enjoyed since Marcos.
How did this man become so powerful? Duterte’s rise has been the stuff of legend: he’s Duterte Harry, the strongman politician, an outsider to imperial Manila, the foul-mouthed son of Davao who tells it like it is and gets things done. But other, more complicated stories persist on the sidelines of this grand narrative to explain Duterte’s authoritarian hold over the country.
There is, for instance, his strange relationship with religion. The Philippines is a deeply religious country. Of its 105 million people, 80% are Catholic, 10% are Evangelicals and Protestants of various denominations and 5% are Muslims. Indigenous churches like Iglesia ni Cristo and the Philippine Independent Church constitute 3%, while the rest are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints, Buddhists or adherents to forms of indigenous spirituality practised by the ethnic groups known as the lumad. Religion is widely held by Filipinos as the nation’s moral conscience and a guarantor of ethical behavior. So why do so many support a vocally anti-religious president like Duterte, and condone the state-sponsored killings that take place under him? Why does the Catholic Church, influential in inspiring the 1987 EDSA Revolution that toppled the Marcos regime, appear so feeble in the face of Duterte’s ferocious attacks? Examining the evolution of religious language-use in the Philippines may provide some answers.
The Philippines is a deeply religious country… So why do so many support a vocally anti-religious president like Duterte, and condone the state-sponsored killings that take place under him?
Language and politics
Changes in language and politics often go together. New ways of speaking can communicate a national optimism, such as when Barack Obama’s campaign was dominated by a rhetoric of hope. At other times, forms of speech can signal social threats. Viktor Klemperer and Lynne Tirrell point out that the smear campaign against Jews in 1930s Germany and the labelling of Rwandan Tutsis as “inyenzi” (cockroaches) paved the way for Nazism and the Rwandan genocide respectively. As the use of dehumanising terms increased in these countries, so did the violence, both in terms of brutality and occurence. In the Philippines today, researchers note, the president uses “gutter” language to galvanise his supporters en masse. As Randy David puts it, the vocabulary of Dutertismo, “is pure theatre—a sensual experience rather than a rational application of ideas to society’s problems”. In her work, Sharmila Parmanand targets Duterte’s “macho” language, which reinforces misogyny, “builds support for authoritarian projects and stigmatises criticism against his administration”.
Religious language makes a regular appearance in Filipino political discourse. Duterte himself has used messianic discourse to assert his political relevance; in 2016, he proclaimed that “if only to save this country, I can run for president”. Bible verses often pepper the speeches of his ally, Senator and boxing champion Manny Pacquiao. In the 2018 UN General Assembly, Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano claimed that the Philippine government is “on track in salvaging our deteriorating country from becoming a narco-state”. In common usage, “salvage” usually has a connotation of “rescue”, “rehabilitate”, or “save from destruction”. In the Philippines, however,“salvage” has a different meaning with a chilling resonance in the post-Martial Law Filipino consciousness. Jose Lacaba explains: “To salvage is to save things from a wreckage, but the visual similarity of the word to the Tagalog salbahe (naughty, abusive), which is itself derived from the Spanish salvaje (savage), inevitably led to the present denotation of salvaging as extrajudicial or summary execution of both criminal and subversive elements.” Thus in the Philippines, to salvage means to kill, not to save. When Cayetano says that Duterte’s administration is salvaging the country, he seems to be nudging at the idea that the saving can be done through the killing. Thus, when Filipino politicians talk about “salvaging” the country, they are suggesting that they save it through the act of killing.
Religious language makes a regular appearance in Filipino political discourse… research shows that militant Christian leaders, rather than condemning extrajudicial killings, are using religious language to justify the brutality of Duterte’s politics.
In the grassroots, Jayeel Cornelio’s and Erron Medina’s research shows that militant Christian leaders, rather than condemning extrajudicial killings, are using religious language to justify the brutality of Duterte’s politics. Who are these militant Christians, and why do the words they use matter?
According to Cornelio, Christian groups in the Philippines are militant in four senses. First, intellectually, these groups share a literalist view of scripture, adopting a fundamentalist approach to divorce, same-sex marriage and abortion. They are also militant spiritually: Iglesia ni Cristo, Ang Dating Daan and the Kingdom of Jesus Christ follow a Restorationist theology, framing their movements as the only authentic form of Christianity. Third, they are militant politically: Jesus is Lord has fielded political candidates, and members of Iglesia ni Cristo (INC) vote as an entire block. Many politicians shamelessly court militant Christian leaders to secure their electoral support. Finally, these Christian groups are militant institutionally and follow a top-down hierarchy, i.e. followers obey whatever leaders declare the right course of action. Militant Christian leaders in the Philippines make ideal political allies for despots like Duterte. The benefits are clear: In 2016, for example, INC backed Duterte’s presidential campaign, despite rumors of Duterte’s involvement in vigilante killings while mayor of Davao; two years later, Duterte appointed INC leader Eduardo Manalo as a Special Envoy for Overseas Filipino Concerns in 2018.
While the Catholic Church in the Philippines has eight times more members than all competing Christian groups combined, it has been struggling to turn its social capital into a unified political voice. It has come under fire for three reasons: first, it faces credibility issues due to corruption, sex abuse scandals, and political collusion; second, Duterte has been aggressively attacking the Catholic Church, which he calls “the most hypocritical institution in the entire Philippines” and threatening to behead a bishop who condemned his drug war and third, many Filipinos are unhappy with the Church’s involvement in politics, calling for the separation between Church and State. The Catholic Church’s weakened authority has opened the doors for other groups to make themselves relevant in the drug war.
Duterte’s government is interpreted as part of God’s divine judgment… drugs are framed as a spiritual problem… drug users are described as anomalies in an essentially just society.
Cornelio and Medina recently conducted interviews in Payatas, a poor urban community in Metro Manila, where 65 individuals were killed during anti-drug operations in 2017. Initially, they were supposed to survey how the Catholic Church, which was critical of Duterte and his drug war (and correspondingly, the target of Duterte’s ire), was responding at the grassroots. Since various religious groups were involved in the area, they broadened their study to include a more diverse group of Christian leaders. As they spoke to Catholic priests, Evangelical pastors, a Charismatic leader, a Baptist preacher and lay leaders from an Evangelical church and a Basic Ecclesial Community, three key themes in religious language-use emerged from discussions with militant Christian leaders on the drug war.
First, Duterte’s government is interpreted as part of God’s divine judgment. According to Julius, a Baptist Pastor, “God needed to appoint Duterte in order to get Filipinos to repent.” Ross, a mega-church pastor with community outreaches to Payatas, says something similar: “God gave us government… to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. They have swords and guns for a reason.”
Second, drugs are framed as a spiritual problem. Nick, an Evangelical Pastor, thinks that his primary task is to remind people to return to “how God has designed them.” When drug users realise what God’s plans are for them, he believes that they will “flee from their vices like substance abuse.”
Third, drug users are described as anomalies in an essentially just society. As Pastor Nick says: “it is God’s design that there is law and order in society. For example, we prohibit jaywalking because we don’t want anyone to die because of accidents. If you are law-abiding, you will be safe from any of these accidents. And you have to realise that the law of the land has God’s anointing. There is no law on earth meant to harm people. You look for one that hurts people. You will not find any. Never.” Duterte’s regime, in the eyes of these militant Christian leaders, is effectively addressing the political, moral and spiritual needs of society by weeding out its undesirables.
Let’s examine, as an example, the word “sinner”—a regular trope in religious language—as an emotive term in the Philippine drug war.
What kind of harm is generated by this unholy alliance of politics and religious language? Let’s examine, as an example, the word “sinner”—a regular trope in religious language—as an emotive term in the Philippine drug war. Its power removes need for other kinds of reasoning, at least for the militant religious leaders and followers that hang on their every word.
“Victim” or “sinner”? Emotive terms
Emotive terms are words that are conceptually pre-coded and emotionally charged. According to Fabrizo Macagno, they can “modify our judgment, arouse our emotions, and influence our decisions”:
[The philosopher Charles Leslie Stevenson] noticed there are words that do not simply describe a possible fragment of reality. For example, “terrorist” is not used simply to refer to a person who commits specific actions with a specific intent. Words such as “torture” or “freedom” carry with them something more than a simple description of a state of affairs or mere conceptual content (Stevenson, 1944, p. 210). These words have a “magnetic” effect (Stevenson, 1937, p. 16), an imperative force, a tendency to influence the interlocutor’s decisions (Stevenson, 1937, p. 18-19; see also Weaver, 1985). They are strictly bound to moral values leading to value judgments and potentially triggering specific emotions. For this reason, they have an emotive dimension.
Emotive terms work by suggestion, triggering particular reasoning mechanisms and moral responses (“Is the terrorist Muslim?”; “we don’t torture around here”; “freedom of speech is my right”). They can supply the hearer with “a pre-packaged suggested evaluation of an entity or event”. Despite appearing neutral, trivial or harmless, emotive terms may be covertly manipulative, shutting shut down criticism and distracting listeners from the real sources of a particular problem.
How does this apply to the word “sinner”? Consider how sin is conceived of in traditional Christianity. As a religious and social transgression, a sin is committed simultaneously against a person (or persons, or a community of persons) and the divine law. The sinner is accountable not only to the person wronged but also to a God that governs and maintains the moral and spiritual order. Sinning requires choice and moral agency; since sinners are at fault, they are bound to the consequences of their actions and deserve punishment. Absolution from sin involves both repentance and forgiveness, the latter often requiring divine intervention or the invocation of grace. Without such absolution, a deadly sin has grave costs in the afterlife; in Christian doctrine, the torment of hell enforces justice in its final form. Salvation is ultimately God’s call.
Sinning requires choice and moral agency; since sinners are at fault, they are bound to the consequences of their actions and deserve punishment… the story becomes brutally narrow when the drug user is seen as a “sinner”.
This description, while not exhaustive, gives a good idea of how the concept of sin works in a socio-religious framework. Some features of this emotive term exist in the reasoning of militant Christian leaders, which may explain their complicity and even active support for the drug war. As Cornelio and Medina point out, religious leaders respond differently depending on how they conceptualise the drug user:
If the person is seen as a victim of larger social forces such as poverty, the intervention of the church is more political and legal. But if the drug addict is primarily characterized as a sinful being, the response of the church is largely concerned with the person’s spiritual salvation. Many churches resort to this latter discourse, which, in our view, hints at an implicit religious underpinning for the popular support for the War on Drugs.
The moral elements of fault and responsibility are crucial. If drug users are framed as victims, they are not entirely blamed for their addiction. Wider social injustices such as extreme poverty, unemployment, social inequality and corruption are recognised as partially responsible for creating and sustaining a widespread culture of drug use. Of course, drug use was illegal and involvement in the drug trade carried heavy penalties even before Duterte came to power. But criminals could simultaneously be seen as victims, deserving of both reprimand and help. A more holistic strategy against narcopolitics would not be solely about retribution, but also the rehabilitation and social reintegration of drug users. This position was adopted by members of the Catholic clergy, interviewed in the study, falling outside the militant Christianity schema.
Conversely, the story becomes brutally narrow when the drug user is seen as a “sinner”. For militant Christian leaders, the drug war is presented as a weapon of God’s justice, which Duterte’s government is mandated to execute. For them, since policies and institutions are already just and ethical, culpability rests entirely on persons who transgress the law. In this narrative, the emotive term “sinner” fittingly provides the religious justification for punishment, suggesting that there is nothing wrong or horrific in killing these drug users, because they deserve to die. Since the concept of sin is “strictly bound to moral values leading to value judgments”, its use can also mobilise powerful reactions—self-righteous anger, blame, resentment and condescension—against drug users, who have repeatedly rejected God in favor of their addiction. This framing may “influence the interlocutor’s decisions”. Pastor Nick, for example, coordinates with the police and local community officials to identify and locate drug users—facilitating house visits from the Philippine National Police, which have occasioned thousands of arrests and deaths without due process.
The label “sinner”, in the Philippine context, perniciously licenses the view that drug users deserve extrajudicial retribution… Duterte himself recognises the power of “sin” as a concept, once admitting his only sin has been extrajudicial killings.
The label “sinner”, in the Philippine context, perniciously licenses the view that drug users deserve extrajudicial retribution. It also debilitates the capacity to frame the drug problem in its entire material and structural complexity. While the word “victim” can also be used emotively, it does not depend on religion to exert its conceptual power. A person can be a victim within a religious or secular framework. Moreover, the word “victim” does not have the same enfeebling effect on the religious response to the war on drugs.
Duterte himself recognises the power of “sin” as a concept, once admitting his only sin has been extrajudicial killings. While, legally speaking, the word “crime” is more appropriate, Duterte is deliberate in using this term: suggesting that God alone can judge him, and that he deserves to be cross-examined in a religious tribunal, not a political one. This framing is thus unsurprising, in light of Duterte’s (successful) attempt to evade the International Criminal Court.
Thus, Duterte’s regime finds an easy and cooperative ally in militant Christian language. Yet this dynamic is not exclusive to militant Christian leaders. If many Filipino users of religious language frame their approach using the “sinner” trope, it might help explain why 78% of Filipinos, many of whom profess to be religious and morally conscientious, nevertheless support Duterte and the drug war. and condone the extrajudicial killings. El Shaddai, 8 million strong and the biggest Catholic charismatic movement in the Philippines, recently expressed support for 14 senatorial candidates during the midterm elections, most of whom are allies of Duterte.
Narratives focusing on Duterte’s charismatic power have made it is easy to characterise his supporters as irrational and unreflective. But like Curato, who describes this support in terms of “seemingly opposing, yet mutually reinforcing, logics of the politics of fear and the politics of hope”, I think that there is more to the Duterte phenomenon than blind populist allegiance. People can support a divisive, violent leader for various reasons. But the justifications may vary across supporters; and more importantly, some forms of reasoning can lead to deadly results. The competing rationalities of religious leaders on the drug war reflect a divergence in how Duterte’s political role has been interpreted. The Catholic priests interviewed in the study, more liberal and progressive, see drug users as victims: products of a hostile environment, and not entirely culpable. Militant Christian leaders, who hail Duterte’s leadership as religiously mandated, see drug users as sinners who are blameworthy and punishable. Thus there are two positions, equally based on religious morality, which contradict each other.
Kill the guilty, and do it fast: Duterte’s administration is providing a service that countless politicians before him were afraid to deliver—a swift response to crime and a promise of security, at the expense of human rights. But what about the consequences of the bloodbath? Who responds to charges of police impunity? Who takes care of the drug war orphans? Alas, not Duterte’s government. Religious and humanitarian groups, as well as the media, are left to deal with this.
That condoning murder has even become a choice is but one of Duterte’s many sins.
Imagine the work that religious leaders have to aid and comfort the grieving. Some may try to convince people to rebel against a tyrannical, unjust government—not an easy or safe path to take. Others choose a different route: instead of condemning the state-sponsored killings, they brand the murders as just and sanctioned by God. This belief may make the pain and injustice easier to swallow, allowing life to go on as before. Militant Christian leaders have chosen this way of coping. That condoning murder has even become a choice is but one of Duterte’s many sins.
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Accessed May 30 2019. https://www.ucanews.com/news/upcoming-philippine-poll-divides-catholics/85118 Curato, Nicole. 2016. “Politics of Anxiety, Politics of Hope: Penal Populism and Duterte’s Rise to Power.” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 35, no. 3, 91–109. See Willis, Adam. 2019, Summer. “Church vs. State” for a good analysis of the Catholic Church’s complex role and response to the drug war: https://www.vqronline.org/reporting-articles/2019/06/church-vs-state Shim, Elizabeth. 2019, April 23. “Philippines’ ‘war on drugs’ is tearing families apart, analysts say.” Accessed May 31 2019. https://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2019/04/23/Philippines-war-on-drugs-is-tearing-families-apart-analysts-say/2081556053048/
Article: Tracy Llanera Illustrations: Marvinne de Guzman
This article is an edited version of an article originally published in Pragmatism Today: Tracy Llanera, “‘The Law of the Land has God’s Anointing’—Rorty on Religion, Language, and Politics”, special issue on Rorty and American Politics, Pragmatism Today 10.1 (2019) 46-61. http://www.pragmatismtoday.eu/index.php?id=2019summer1
Our thanks to the author and editors of Pragmatism Today.
Tracy Llanera is a Filipino philosopher. She is an Assistant Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut. Her website is https://tracyllanera.com/
Marvinne de Guzman
Marvinne de Guzman is an illustrator and animator based in Manila, Philippines. She likes collecting shapes and colors, and has worked on film, motion graphics, and editorial. You can check out her work at marvinne.portfoliobox.net or at Twitter @maruveen.