[OPINION] A prayerful Congress

At the heart of Filipino religiosity is prayer.

“The family that prays together stays together,” so the saying goes. But even if people did not pray with their families, they still prayed on their own anyway.  

In fact, prayer is so vital to Filipinos that even if they did not attend Mass or any religious event, they would assert that they remained faithful by praying to God in their private moments.

And so prayer is arguably the most private of all forms of piety. 

The sociology of prayer

But prayer, from the point of view of sociology, is a consequential act. To pray is not only a personal expression of one’s faith. It is very much related to many other aspects of existence. 

For example, research shows that prayer affects well-being. To pray compassionately for other people fosters positive emotions and satisfaction with relationships. But it’s not just any kind of prayer. How we pray and what we pray for affect how forgiving we can be towards other people. 

Prayer too is politically consequential. This is because prayer articulates people’s moral dispositions – what they believe to be right, wrong, and their other non-negotiable virtues. Listen to what people pray for and you can readily discern the values they uphold and their thoughts about people who are not like them.

This is why we should be critical whenever we see people – especially politicians – praying in public. In a religious society like the Philippines, public prayers are accepted. In some cases, they are actively sought out, as in the case of our representatives who gathered around Alan Peter Cayetano to pray for him as the new Speaker of the House. 

On social media, religious individuals celebrated it as a remarkable act of humility.

We would like to offer, however, a different perspective. This is because religion in politics is a double-edged sword. To be critical is to discern what values these leaders uphold and how far-reaching their beliefs can be once they make political choices. In particular, hot-button issues to watch out for are as follows: death penalty, divorce, and gender equality.

Strange bedfellows

That politicians came together to pray is not the biggest irony. Our new leaders in Congress can already give us a glimpse of the clash of values that is to come.

Take for instance the issue of LGBTQ+ rights.

In a confounding plot twist, liberals and progressives have agreed to endorse and work with Manila representative and Baptist bishop Benny Abante as their minority leader. 

Abante is notorious in the LGBTQ+ community for staunchly opposing the anti-discrimination bill (or ADB, forerunner of the SOGIE Equality bill). In 2006, he gave a privilege speech against the ADB, saying it would “abet sin and ungodliness” and “invite the wrath of God upon ourselves and our God-loving nation.”

While Abante assured his colleagues in the minority that they are “free” to voice their respective advocacies, it remains to be seen how strong – or tenuous – this coalition would be. How would he effectively advance the interests of the House’s depleted minority, given their opposing stances?  

Bro. Eddie Villanueva, founder of Jesus Is Lord (JIL) Church Worldwide, sits as CIBAC party-list’s representative (also affiliated with JIL). He has also been designated Deputy Speaker. 

Last year, Villanueva joined a protest against the SOGIE Equality Bill organized by a group of conservative Christian churches outside the Senate. He told the LGBTQ+ that they “should not allow the non-believers of their lifestyle to accept their ways that will pave the way for eventual destruction of the Filipino culture and values.”

Villanueva is the father of Senator Joel Villanueva, who formerly co-authored the SOGIE Equality Bill but is now opposed to it on grounds of violating their religious freedom.

Meanwhile, Speaker Cayetano is a devout Born Again Christian, but had previously expressed openness for “same-sex unions.” House majority leader Martin Romualdez is an evangelical, but his wife is among the co-authors of the SOGIE equality bill last Congress. 

It remains to be seen if Abante, Villanueva, or their respective churches would influence their handling of LGBTQ+ legislation.

But as early as now, some conservative Christians have posted congratulatory messages for the House’s new “God-fearing” leaders, who will bring this nation back to God.

Uphill climb

Our new leaders are prayerful. But they pose a greater difficulty for LGBTQ+ advocates, who are hoping for a “rainbow wave” that would finally pass the SOGIE Equality Bill in the new Congress.

In previous years, the House was a source of hope for advocates. Contentious as the issue was, the bill brought together representatives from the majority and minority.  

Traditional politicians, liberals, and progressives worked together to put the bill on top, transcending deep political divides. It passed unanimously on third reading, 198-0. 

And yet the bill met its demise in the Senate, thanks to the (un)holy trinity of Senate President Tito Sotto, Senator Manny Pacquiao, and Senator Villanueva, all conservative Christians.

Podium or pulpit?

In our previous article, we discussed how religious freedom has been weaponized against LGBTQ+ rights. Here’s our fearless forecast: Expect more of this in the 18th Congress. Podiums will become pulpits. 

What this means is that the task of the LGBTQ+ community and its allies has just become much harder than it already is. Their vigilance and advocacy work are of greater significance now than they have ever been. 

But all is not lost. If there is one lesson to be learned from the sociology of prayer, it is this: It is not only about communicating with the divine being. It is also about people’s deeply held values. 

Therefore, in a real sense, the work cannot only be about alliance building. The bigger work for gender equality is about challenging fundamentalist beliefs whose political consequences are grave.  

From the chambers of Congress to the pews of the faithful, work must be done to counter the narrative that gay people are “worse than animals.” And it takes more than prayer to do just that. – Rappler.com

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD (@jayeel_cornelio) is a sociologist of religion in the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University. Robbin Dagle (@RCDagle) is Research Associate in the same department. With Dr Anjo Lorenzana, they are working on a book project that analyzes religion and gender in the Philippines. 

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...