[OPINION] Divorce, death penalty, and the dangers of religious fundamentalism

Divorce and the death penalty are not dead.  

Over the weekend Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano expressed his intent of seeking consensus among his fellow representatives. For him, these measures are still on the legislative table but their progress depends on what his colleagues say.

In the spirit of democracy, to seek consensus is of course a noble endeavor. 

But it can also be treacherous. This is because the voice of the majority can be mistaken for consensus. 

Divorce and the death penalty are areas where the majority can be tyrannical.

Consider this reality. Divorce, while long called for in view of marital violence, is unpopular. Even Cayetano himself does not believe that “divorce is the solution.”

By contrast the death penalty has the support of the majority. Forget the fact that historical records show that that it has been ineffective, irreversible, and anti-poor. The point is that it has the favor of President Duterte himself. 

Religious underpinnings

Do politicians make these choices out of political convenience? That of course is undeniable.

But it cannot be denied too that these choices have strong religious underpinnings. Most of the time, the Bible is used – both by political and religious leaders – to discriminate against people they consider moral and social evils. 

Manny Pacquiao, poster boy of evangelical Christianity in the Philippine Senate, has no qualms in declaring that “God allows the death penalty to discipline the people and to punish those wrongdoers”. In Congress, Brother Eddie Villanueva and Benny Abante, religious leaders turned politicians, are supportive too of restoring the death penalty for certain heinous crimes.

The Bible also serves as a basis for Senator Tito Sotto’s opposition to divorce. Senator Joel Villanueva, another Christian leader himself, believes that Filipinos should not be “embracing” divorce because marriage "is such a sacred thing. We believe that we shouldn't allow people to be separated.” 

These politicians are not alone. With them are many other newly elected officials convinced that they have a divine role to play in rejecting divorce and reinstating the death penalty. 

In my view, the recent move to make reading the Bible mandatory among students is not accidental. It is part of a wider fundamentalist ethos in politics. 

Benny Abante claims that “if only biblical discipline, principles and standards are taught and inculcated in the minds of our children, there would be no much problems on leadership, governance, and peace and order.” 

This is a problematic statement not only for its analytical leaps. To invoke “biblical discipline, principles and standards” is a red flag for fundamentalism. It has no regard for divergent theological interpretations and the reality of religious diversity in the Philippines.

While I believe that religion has a role to play in deepening our values and democratic conversations, I have a problem with self-confident religious convictions. 

Inconvenient truth

Here’s the inconvenient truth. Violence in the household is as real as victims’ search for justice. 

When politicians rely on simplistic theological claims, they don’t help our society address these harsh realities. 

This is how fundamentalist readings of issues tend to be ultimately worthless. They simplify the debate in terms of right and wrong.

This is the misfortune of having religious fundamentalists in government. They draw on their literalist views to say no to divorce and yes to the death penalty – as if what they say is the final authority on these issues.

And because the discussions tend to be passionate, they fail to recognize the gray areas where authentic consensus could be achieved. 

There are, for example, valid theological justifications for divorce and compelling religious reasons to resist the death penalty. The rich heritage of faith shows that the answers do not come easy.

In the name of national holiness, religious fundamentalism in politics is unforgiving. And yet it is influential, no thanks to a regime whose reason for existence is to kill criminals and silence its critics.

In an ironic sense, religious fundamentalism is the backbone of a regime that has affronted God, faith, and human dignity. 

Greater secularism?

Some of my colleagues in the academe have called for greater secularism, one that rejects all forms of religious talk in the political and public spheres. They believe that eradicating religion is essential in fostering a rational citizenry.   

This, in my view, is untenable given the religious commitments of Filipinos. 

The majority of Filipinos are not only pious. Conscious or not, they also rely on religion to explain their moral and political choices. This is a point I have repeatedly made about other issues such as people’s resistance to gender equality and the support for the war on drugs.

One problem is that critical reflections about faith and political life are largely absent. Sermons delivered by priests, pastors, and televangelists are taken as the Word of God. In classrooms around the country, Christian living is taught as a set of unquestionable doctrines.

This religious environment where beliefs go unquestioned breeds fundamentalism. 

There is, however, an antidote. What our society urgently needs are critical conversations as to how faith relates to policies and politics. 

In our families, churches, schools, and the media, there must be space to discuss alternative religious views about divorce and the death penalty.

But these conversations must also confront realities. Violence exists in households around the country. The death penalty is ineffective in deterring crime. 

The best of these conversations will conclude that authentic faith works for justice. – Rappler.com


Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is a sociologist of religion at the Ateneo de Manila University. He has published extensively on religion and politics in the Philippines. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

Jayeel Cornelio

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is Associate Professor and the Director of the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University. A sociologist of religion, he is a recipient of the 2017 Outstanding Young Scientist Award from the National Academy of Science and Technology. He i...