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Politics, Religion & Ideology

ISSN: 2156-7689 (Print) 2156-7697 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ftmp21

Christianity and Duterte’s War on Drugs in the


Philippines

Jayeel Cornelio & Erron Medina

To cite this article: Jayeel Cornelio & Erron Medina (2019): Christianity and Duterte’s War on
Drugs in the Philippines, Politics, Religion & Ideology, DOI: 10.1080/21567689.2019.1617135

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/21567689.2019.1617135

Published online: 22 May 2019.

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POLITICS, RELIGION & IDEOLOGY
https://doi.org/10.1080/21567689.2019.1617135

Christianity and Duterte’s War on Drugs in the Philippines*


Jayeel Cornelio and Erron Medina
Development Studies Program, Ateneo de Manila University, Quezon City, Philippines

ABSTRACT
The War on Drugs defines Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency in the
Philippines. Although thousands have been killed since 2016, it
continues to enjoy strong public support. How does Christianity
respond? This question is pertinent given that religion has played
a prominent role as a civil society actor in the country. The study
interrogates how leaders of various Christian groups frame the
War on Drugs in Payatas, an urban poor hotspot. Our argument is
that the way a religious community responds to the War on Drugs
is heavily informed by how it understands the nature of the drug
user. They are either sinful human beings or victims of wider
social injustices such as poverty. Many religious leaders view them
as sinners whose ‘wickedness’ and criminal acts need to be
eradicated. Towards the end of the article, we explain this
distinction and suggest that the dominant view that drug users
are sinners hints at an implicit religious underpinning for the
popular support for the War on Drugs.

Duterte’s War on Drugs is not only a policy issue.1 It is also moral. Speaking before police-
men, the president declared that ‘it’s my duty to destroy people who will destroy my
country’.2 Duterte delivered this speech in response to criticisms from the US and the
European Union. But hardly anything about it is novel. In fact, this is one of the president’s
well-rehearsed lines, which bears a strong moral overtone. Favoring retributive justice,
Duterte is convinced that the death of drug users is justifiable.3 At the same time, the
war has become a duty for the nation, which for him is under threat. When he revealed
his plan to run years ago, Duterte proclaimed that ‘if only to save this country, I can

CONTACT Jayeel Cornelio jcornelio@ateneo.edu Development Studies Program, Ateneo de Manila University, 4th
floor, Leong Hall, Loyola Heights, Quezon City 1108, Philippines
*Initial drafts of this paper were presented at a seminar at the Southeast Asia Research Centre of the City University of Hong
Kong, the 2018 conference of the Philippine Sociological Society, and the 2018 International Conference of the Ateneo
Center for Asian Studies. We thank our colleagues and peer reviewers for their helpful feedback.
1
Some policy experts draw on other countries’ experience to show that a punitive approach is ineffective [see R. Mendoza, I.
Baysic, and E. Lalic, ‘Anti-Illegal Drugs Campaigns: What Works and What Doesn’t Work’, (Ateneo School of Government,
2016)]. Journalists argue that the policy is problematic from the start because the Philippine National Police, its imple-
menting agency, is known for its brutality and corruption [see S. Coronel, ‘Murder as Enterprise: Police Profiteering in
Duterte’s War on Drugs’, in Nicole Curato (ed.) A Duterte Reader: Critical Essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s Early Presidency
(Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2016), pp. 167–198]. Based on these assessments, experts have
pointed to other models such as harm reduction and the reintegration of drug addicts into society as more rewarding
in the long run.
2
F. Lim, ‘Duterte: It’s My Duty to Destroy Those Who Destroy Country’, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2017. http://newsinfo.
inquirer.net/910044/duterte-its-my-duty-to-destroy-those-who-destroy-country.
3
C. Mendez, ‘Duterte Justifies Bloody Anti-Drug Campaign’, The Philippine Star, 2016. https://www.philstar.com/headlines/
2016/08/30/1618854/duterte-justifies-bloody-anti-drug-campaign.
© 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
2

run for President’.4 The messianic discourse has identified the enemy in the form of crimi-
nality and illegal drugs. Based on national polls, these issues immediately displaced the
public’s other top concerns during the electoral campaign.5
The country’s Catholic leaders have responded by also invoking the nation. In a state-
ment that was widely read, Manila’s Cardinal Tagle wrote that ‘a nation cannot be gov-
erned by killing’. He then went on to call on ‘those who harm or kill others to listen to
their conscience, the voice of God that summons us to do good’.6 Church leaders
became increasingly vocal in the wake of casualties involving unarmed teenagers. One
case was that of Kian delos Santos, whose murder was caught on video. Thus, the Catholic
Church is now touted to be the ‘voice against a campaign of violence’.7 But they have also
become the target of the administration’s ire. On many occasions President Duterte has
accused religious leaders of hypocrisy. How institutional Catholicism is responding exem-
plifies the important role of religion in relation to the War on Drugs in the Philippines.
This religious concern serves as the take-off point of our study.
But instead of focusing only on institutional Catholicism, our study investigates what
different Christian groups are doing to respond to the War on Drugs in the community.8
This assessment is important. In the Philippines, Christianity has historically been an
active force for political mobilization.9 One reason is that Christianity is a potent resource
not only for religious leaders but also ordinary citizens when confronted with issues that
may challenge their moral sensibilities. The War on Drugs is one of those issues. For
example, various civil society actors have framed the problem as a religious matter by
invoking ‘thou shalt not kill’ in their slogans.10 At the same time, surveys show varying
attitudes toward the campaign. 51% of Filipinos disagree with the idea that drug users
no longer have the capacity to change.11
That our interest is in what Christian groups do at the level of the community is in itself
a crucial empirical intervention. The War on Drugs, inasmuch as it is a national policy
determined from the top, takes place in the form of police operations in neighborhoods
around the country. The policy, called Oplan Tokhang, is supposed to be straightforward.
Tokhang is a combination of Cebuano words for knock and plead. Law enforcers are to

4
N. Curato, ‘Flirting with Authoritarian Fantasies? Rodrigo Duterte and the New Terms of Philippine Populism’, Journal of
Contemporary Asia, 47:1 (2017), pp. 142–153.
5
R. Holmes, ‘The Dark Side of Electoralism: Opinion Polls and Voting in the 2016 Philippine Presidential Election’, Journal of
Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 35:3 (2016), pp. 15–38.
6
J. Aurelio, ‘Tagle: Nation Cannot be Governed by Killing’, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2017. http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/
929108/drug-killings-war-on-drugs-manila-archbishop-luis-antonio-cardinal-tagle.
7
S. Williams, ‘How the Catholic Church is Fighting the Drug War in the Philippines’, America The Jesuit Review, 2018. https://
www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/01/25/how-catholic-church-fighting-drug-war-philippines.
8
Philippine society is predominantly Christian. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority (2015) there are more than
74 million Roman Catholics, who constitute 80.6% of the religious population. Evangelicals are estimated at around 2.4
million. Apart from various Protestant denominations, the Philippines is also home to several indigenous churches such as
the Philippine Independent Church and the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ). For an overview of Christian diversity in the
country, see J. Cornelio, ‘Religious Freedom in the Philippines: From Legalities to Lived Experience’, The Review of Faith
and International Affairs, 11:2 (2013), pp. 36–45; J. Cornelio, ‘Religious Worlding: Christianity and the New Production of
Space in the Philippines’ in Juliette Koning and Gwenaël Njoto-Feillard (eds) New Religiosities, Modern Capitalism and
Moral Complexities in Southeast Asia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), pp. 169–197.
9
M.C. Astorga, ‘Culture, Religion, and Moral Vision: A Theological Discourse on the Filipino People Power Revolution of
1986’, Theological Studies, 67:3 (2006), pp. 567–601. https://doi.org/10.1177/004056390606700305
10
N. Alconaba, ‘Palace: Church Has Right to Protest’, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2016. http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/798775/
palace-church-has-right-to-protest-2.
11
J. Ballaran, ‘51% of Filipinos Believe Drug Suspects Can Still Change – SWS’, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2017. http://
newsinfo.inquirer.net/942092/breaking-news-sws-drugs-survey-killings
3

visit households with identified drug users to appeal to them to change their ways. The
problem, however, is that many household visits have turned out to be fatal. From 2016
to early 2018, the government’s official numbers show that 121,087 drug personalities
have been arrested and 4,021 killed during anti-drug operations.12 A few communities,
all of them poor, have become hotspots in the War on Drugs.13 No less than the
former Dangerous Drugs Board Chair Dionisio Santiago has critiqued the program for
claiming lives in poor areas.14

Methods and argument


The study focuses on Payatas, one of the poorest villages in Quezon City. Located in the
northern part of Metro Manila, Quezon City is known for its elite universities, television
stations, posh malls, and various national health centers. All these are indicative of a pros-
perous economy. But in Payatas, 60% of its 200,000 residents fall below the poverty
threshold. It is known for its landfill. But since 2016, it has become notorious too as a
hotspot of the government’s anti-drugs campaign. An investigative report by Patricia
Evangelista documents the household visits carried out by the police and village
leaders.15 On the pretext of gathering household information, the visits in some cases
also involved on-the-spot drug testing. Quezon City’s local government has insisted
that these drug tests were not coerced. The vice mayor herself believes that ‘if they’re
not hiding anything, it’s okay for them to be subjected to drug testing’. By 2017, at least
37 drug suspects have been killed during police encounters and 28 during buy-bust oper-
ations, all in Payatas.
Our research was initially interested in a Catholic parish in this village. We wanted to
investigate how much of its efforts embodied the critical posture of institutional Catholi-
cism described above. But in the course of our fieldwork we encountered a diversity of
local Christian denominations and groups in the community. Apart from Catholic
parishes, Payatas is also home to other Christian groups including Baptists, Evangelicals,
Charismatics, Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), and Ang Dating Daan (ADD). The project thus
evolved into documenting the responses of different Christian groups along denomina-
tional lines. We were guided by the following research questions: How do different Chris-
tian groups understand the War on Drugs in Payatas? How have they responded? And what
accounts for the differences in their responses?
To answer these questions, we pursued four main themes in our interviews. First, we
asked about their experiences as religious ministers in Payatas. Second, we asked about
their familiarity with the War on Drugs and President Duterte’s anti-drug statements.
Third, we asked the religious leaders about their specific activites to address the issue.
Fourth, we asked about their roles as Christian leaders in relation to Philippine politics

12
Philippine Information Agency, ‘#RealNumbersPH Update: Towards a Drug-Free Philippines’, 2018; Pulse Asia, September
2017 Nationwide Survey on the Campaign Against Illegal Drugs, 2017. http://www.pulseasia.ph/september-2017-
nationwide-survey-on-the-campaign-against-illegal-drugs/.
13
Reuters has a dedicated coverage to the campaign. Its journalists won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting.
This is the link to the coverage: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/section/philippines-drugs/.
14
L. Salaverria, ‘War on Drugs Not Antipoor’, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2017. http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/928221/war-on-
drugs-not-antipoor
15
P. Evangelista, ‘The Red Mark’, Rappler, 2017. https://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/investigative/188916-drug-testing-
payatas-quezon-city-police-drug-war.
4

and society. Some related questions about their views on governance and justice also
surfaced during the interviews.
We interviewed different religious leaders from September 2017 to January 2018. This
was an important period because significant public reactions to the anti-drug campaign
(especially by the Catholic Church) emerged around this time. We relied on qualitative
interviews because we were interested in what religious leaders were doing and why.
These interviews allowed us to bring to the surface tacit understandings of the War on
Drugs as it was happening on the ground. In this way, our project complements elaborate
journalistic accounts.16 As we coordinated the interviews, we also mapped the physical
locations of different churches on site. From there we started interacting with Catholic
priests. We sought their help to introduce us to other informants, who might not have
agreed without initial personal referrals given the controversial character of our study.
These informants include Evangelical pastors, a Charismatic leader, and a Baptist
preacher. We also interviewed two lay leaders. One is the head of a youth ministry in
an Evangelical church, the other the coordinator of a Basic Ecclesial Community. All of
these religious leaders are based in Payatas. But during the fieldwork, we decided to
include among our informants a few outsiders for the sake of comparison. One is a lecturer
in a nearby Protestant seminary and congregation. The others are pastors in a nearby
Evangelical church. We included them because of the extent of their involvement in the
War on Drugs. In spite of its proximity to Payatas, the seminary has decided to devote
its attention to helping another affected community in Manila. The Evangelical congrega-
tion, by contrast, has partnered with the police force instead of dealing directly with com-
munities affected by the War on Drugs. Real names used in this paper have been changed
to protect the identity of the participants. We could have included more informants but
many were hesitant or even non-responsive when we informed them about the nature
of our study.
Nevertheless, the interviews with our informants, even if limited, have allowed us to get
a glimpse of their divergent religious worldviews. Our argument is that the way a religious
community responds to the War on Drugs is heavily informed by how it understands the
nature of the drug addict. They are either sinful human beings or victims of wider social
injustices such as poverty. Many religious leaders view them as sinners whose ‘wickedness’
and criminal acts need to be eradicated. We will explain this distinction and its human
consequences. Towards the end of the article, we will suggest that the dominant view
that drug users are sinners hints at an implicit religious underpinning for the popular
support for the War on Drugs.

Christianity, complicity, and resistance


The theoretical backdrop of our study concerns religious groups’ motivations for engaging
the state. The literature in this regard identifies two themes: theological and political. In
this section the discussion is derived mainly from the experience of Christianity.
Studies show that one motivation is theological. For some believers, the authority of the
government is a divine mandate. This theological assumption arrests various forms of
resistance. The Latter-Day Saints are known for submitting to authority in many respects.
16
Ibid.
5

But their submission to authority assumes that the state respects freedom of conscience,
the right to property, and the protection of life. In the event that these freedoms are
not upheld, Latter-Day Saints do not necessarily mobilize themselves for political
action. Instead they may evacuate to other more inhabitable regimes, as their experiences
in different Asian countries demonstrate.17 There is, however, a theological position that
Christianity needs to be prophetic in relation to the state. This is because the state has to be
subjected to God’s will. For many religious leaders this is a compelling position. That this
is the case became evident in the recent debates surrounding the passing of the Reproduc-
tive Health Law in the Philippines. During its deliberations in Congress, many influential
Catholic figures expressed their opposition by invoking theological reasoning. Natural
theology, for example, was forcefully repeated in churches around the country to argue
against making contraceptives available using public funds. The religious motivation is
the ‘superiority of divine law over human law’.18 Reinforcing this point is the Church’s
discourse that the Philippines, in spite of its secular Constitution, is a Catholic nation.19
The assertion, of course, is not unique to the Philippines. It resonates with the militancy
of the American Religious Right, whose leaders believe that the government must submit
itself to the principles of the Bible.20
The second theme in the literature concerns the political atmosphere. Studies show that
the ability of a church to engage is shaped by how the state governs religious institutions.21
In countries where Christianity has played a role in democratic change, churches have
readily expressed their opposition to policies they deem morally unacceptable. This is
true in the Philippines as much as it is in Latin America. In some countries in Asia,
such as China and Vietnam, ‘placing one’s ultimate allegiance to an authority outside
the state may still place the Christian faithful in an antagonistic and dangerous position
in relation to state authorities’.22 However, these two illustrations are not to suggest
that Christianity is only either complicit (‘system-compliant adaptation’) or in conflict
(‘system-critical counter-public’) to the state.23 In some cases, the engagement is fluid.
In Singapore, whose state actively resists the political participation of religion by co-
opting it for certain social ends, churches have also been willing to step in when, in
their view, the government fails to fulfill its duties especially in relation to moral issues.24
The discussions thus far reveal a crucial analytical point: institutional self-perception. It
refers to how the religious institution defines itself theologically or politically relative to the
state. This means that while they can be complicit with the government, local churches can

17
G. Petersen, ‘Subject to Kings, Presidents, Rulers and Magistrates’ in Julius Bautista and Francis Khek Gee Lim (eds) Chris-
tianity and the State in Asia: Complicity and Conflict (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 166–183.
18
E.M. Genilo, ‘The Catholic Church and the Reproductive Health Bill Debate: The Philippine Experience’, The Heythrop
Journal, 55:6 (2014), pp. 1044–1055.
19
J.M. Francisco, ‘People of God, People of the Nation: Official Catholic Discourse on Nation and Nationalism’, Philippine
Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints, 62:3–4 (2014), pp. 341–376.
20
Alice Beck Kehoe, Militant Christianity: An Anthropological History (New York: Palgrave, 2012).
21
Z. Xie, ‘Why Public and Theological? The Problem of Public Theology in the Chinese Context’, International Journal of
Public Theology, 11:4 (2017), pp. 381–404.
22
J. Bautista, and F.K.G. Lim, ‘Introduction’ in Julius Bautista and Francis Khek Gee Lim (eds) Christianity and the State in Asia:
Complicity and Conflict (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 1–17.
23
A. Mayer, “The Church in the Limelight of the Public Square: An Alternative Community?’ in Stephen Van Erp, Martin
Poulsom and Lieven Boeve (eds) Grace, Governance and Globalization (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017),
pp. 248–260.
24
T. Chong, ‘Filling the Moral Void: The Christian Right in Singapore’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 41:4 (2011), pp. 566–
583.
6

also mobilize themselves as agents of change or resistance. The point is that their choices
are largely informed by how Christian groups see themselves as formidable institutions in
their respective communities. On the one hand, the choice is contingent on how much
space is afforded to religious groups by the political environment. In some cases, Christian
groups can position themselves as civil society actors. On the other hand, public engage-
ments are theologically driven even if the political environment may not be conducive.
This explains the rise of the Christian Right in recent years in such countries as Singapore
and Indonesia.25

Towards theologizing public issues


But to what extent are social issues themselves also influential to how the church engages
the state? This question, which underpins our present study, is largely unexplored in scho-
larship. Thus, focusing the attention on how religious groups understand political issues
serves as an empirical and analytical corrective.
Recent developments in public theology are helpful in this regard. They shift the analyti-
cal attention to the issues themselves and their potential in stirring up institutional action.
They highlight the role of Christian communities to contribute to public exchanges. After
all, public theology is about ‘theologically informed public discourse about public issues’.26
This definition needs to be unpacked. The dominant theme about public theology is that
theology (and religion in general) can be meaningful and useful in confronting real-life
situations and challenges experienced by people, whether they are believers or not. Gem-
erally, these public discourses are generated by religious experts and the lay for the wider
public. Thus public theology, while drawing on religious or theological resources, should
transform its insights using reasons that can be readily understood by the public.27
Hence, public theology has contributions to deepening democratic participation in such
areas as social justice and human rights, among other pressing issues.28
In a manner of speaking, public theology at once democratizes and theologizes different
opinions on public issues. As a result, these different theologically informed opinions chal-
lenge not just the wider society. They also challenge the assumptions of churches and religious
groups that have divergent worldviews. Exemplifying this point is the history itself of confl-
icting theologies concerning apartheid in South Africa, slavery in America, and the Nazi
regime in Germany.29 In China, where civil society is carefully managed by the state, a theo-
logical tension exists between churches that wish to be more publicly engaged and those that
‘rely on the principles of spirituality and salvation and tend to be against the public’.30

25
Chong, op. cit.; C. Hoon, ‘Religious Aspirations Among Urban Christians in Contemporary Indonesia’, International Soci-
ology, 31:4 (2016), pp. 413–431.
26
E.H. Breitenberg, ‘To Tell the Truth: Will the Real Public Theology Please Stand Up?’, Journal of the Society of Christian
Ethics, 23:1 (2003), pp. 55–96.
27
T. Meireis and R. Schieder, ‘Introduction: Democracy, Religion and Public Theology’ in Torsten Meireis and Rolf Schieder
(eds) Religion and Democracy: Studies in Public Theology (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2017), pp. 9–18; K. Day and S. Kim, ‘Intro-
duction’ in Sebastian Kim and Katie Day (eds) A Companion to Public Theology (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017), pp. 1–21;
E.H. Breitenberg, op. cit.; Mayer, op. cit.
28
C. Schliesser, ‘Theology and Public Democratic Institutions: Public Theology in the Context of the German and Swiss
National Ethics Councils’ in Torsten Meireis and Rolf Schieder (eds) Religion and Democracy: Studies in Public Theology
(Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2017), pp. 155–170.
29
Day and Kim, op. cit.
30
Xie, op. cit.
7

That public theology is dynamic means that it is open in at least three respects. One,
public theology embraces different sources. While public theology may emerge from the
reflections of formally trained religious individuals, it may also come from ordinary indi-
viduals. These include lay people like ordinary workers and artists. Joseph Rivera’s recent
work on political theology echoes this very point.31 His call is for ordinary Christians to be
engaged in an open dialogue (or civic friendships) with people of different religious beliefs
and political convictions. The dialogue is open because it is fundamentally dependent on
trust and respect which allow for divergent assumptions to be ‘challenged on both sides’.32
As a result, public theology does not aim for a religious takeover of the secular world.33
This accommodationist model is more pastoral than confessional, offering ‘wisdoms of
life where needed’.34 Two, public theology is open as to what the public constitutes.
Tracy, as cited in Day and Kim, argues that theology needs to establish a meaningful
equal interaction with the church, academy, and society.35 It is in this light that public
theology is not only concerned about the affairs of the state and its policies although
for the most part it is.36 It is also important to consider that although the public here is
defined in a broad sense, public theology ‘engages in advocacy for weaker publics, for
also publics can be exclusive’.37 The counterintuitive point therefore is that theological
reflections rely on religion as a force for the deepening of deliberative democracy. For
Rivera, participating in liberal democracy in itself recognizes the dignity of other
people, an idea that ultimately draws on Christian theology.38 He is right in proposing
that this recognition is exactly what makes it possible for Christians of different theological
and political persuasions to dialogue. Finally, public theology is open to different possible
engagements. Welker, as cited in Schliesser, proposes different roles for public theology: (a)
an advocate for a more caring system for the marginalized, (b) a consistent voice that
resists injustice, and (c) a community worker to improve people’s quality of life. Regardless
of these roles, democratic engagement is central once again.39 This is why Liren Gong
argues that public theology’s goal is to ‘express Christian values and ideas in non-Christian
languages by the principle of public reason. Its purpose is not merely to convince other
participants, but also to be willing to accept criticism and make self-amendment as
well’.40 Public theology, in this sense, is not simply about providing charity work or
health care.41 It has the goal of deepening democratic conversations and actions about
public issues. This matter will be revisited in the latter of this paper.

31
J. Rivera, Political Theology and Pluralism: Renewing Public Dialogue (Switzerland: Palgrave, 2018).
32
Ibid., p. 102.
33
A. Van Aarde, ‘What is “Theology” in Public Theology and What is “Public” About “Public Theology’, HTS Teologiese Studies
/ Theological Studies, 64:3 (2008); G. Smith, ‘A Popular Public Theology’, Political Theology, 16:1 (2015), pp. 20–32.
34
S. van Erp, ‘God Becoming Present in the World: Sacramental Foundations of a Theoogy of Public Life’ in Stephen Van Erp,
Martin Poulsom and Lieven Boeve (eds) Grace, Governance and Globalization (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017),
pp. 13–27.
35
Day and Kim, op. cit.
36
M. Levesque, ‘Political Theology Versus Public Theology: Reclaiming the Heart of Christian Mission’ (Unpublished thesis,
University of Western Ontario, 2014); M. Stackhouse, ‘Civil Religion, Political Theology and Public Theology: What’s the
Difference?’, Political Theology, 5:3 (2004), pp. 275–293.
37
Mayer, op. cit.
38
Rivera, op. cit.
39
Schliesser, op. cit.
40
Translated and cited in Xie, op. cit.
41
F. de Lange, ‘Public Theology and Health Care’ in Sebastian Kim and Katie Day (eds) A Companion to Public Theology
(Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017), pp. 325–346.
8

What issues are now at stake for public theology? The contemporary challenges to
democracy around the world demand critical reflections on the part of those involved in
public theology.42 In the context of the Philippines, the electoral triumph of President
Duterte has been depicted as a result of ineffective democratic institutions and the
public’s search for alternative power arrangements.43 Mark Thompson makes a forceful
argument by pointing out that Duterte’s regime, in contrast to the previous administration,
is an illiberal reformist.44 It focuses instead on a law and order narrative but systematically
attacks its critics and human rights activists. Its centerpiece policy is the War on Drugs,
which, as described at the onset, has seen a number of killings involving the police force.
The administration has branded both drug users and critics of the War on Drugs as
enemies of the state. Duterte’s penal populism, whose ‘language of toughness, control
and immediate gratification is prioritized over the long-term but tedious strategy of build-
ing an effective justice system’, has clearly gained traction.45 The results of a Pulse Asia
survey on public support for the campaign are telling. 88% of Filipinos are supportive of
the War on Drugs. And yet 73% believe that ‘extrajudicial killings or EJK’ are also happen-
ing.46 Given that majority of Filipinos are Christian, it is crucial to understand how
different religious groups approach the War on Drugs not just as a political but also a theo-
logical matter. We will get back to this pattern in the conclusion. But for now we turn to our
findings.

Theologizing the War on Drugs


Payatas, an urban poor community prominent in Duterte’s War on Drugs, is home to a
number of Christian organizations. We interviewed religious leaders with varying involve-
ments with the families of those who died. In what follows we spell out the different world-
views of religious leaders about their spiritual, social, and political roles and identities in
relation to the anti-drug campaign in Payatas. Specifically, these views are on (a) the pro-
liferation of illegal drugs as a socio-political issue, (b) the nature of drug users, and (c) their
specific responses to this program.
Our research has generated a diverse set of perspectives. If there is anything that can be
gleaned from the discussion on public theology above, it is that religious views on public
concerns are expectedly varied. Christian position can diverge. So while the noble goal of
public theology might be to make democratic interventions tangible in the community,
their specific objectives may not be uniform.47 In this light, our main argument is that
the response of religious communities to the War on Drugs is a function of their theolo-
gical interpretation of the drug issue. This argument goes a long way towards explaining
the absence of political engagements on the part of many local religious groups. In fact, we
noticed that there are two opposing dispositions toward the War on Drugs.
42
Meireis and Schieder, op. cit.
43
R. Foa and Y. Mounk, ‘The Democratic Disconnect’, Journal of Democracy, 27:3 (2016), pp. 5–17. https://doi.org/10.1353/
jod.2016.0049
44
M. Thompson, ‘Bloodied Democracy: Duterte and the Death of Liberal Reformism in the Philippines’, Journal of Current
Southeast Asian Affairs, 35:3 (2016), pp. 39–68.
45
Curato, op. cit.
46
B. Cupin, ‘Most Filipinos Believe EJKs Happen in War on Drugs – Poll’, Rappler, 2017. https://www.rappler.com/nation/
185424-pulse-asia-september-2017-war-on-drugs-survey
47
Day and Kim, op. cit.
9

Most of our informants are in favor of having a strong and decisive campaign against
illegal drugs. Those who favor the drug war cite its importance because, in their view, a
direct relationship exists between substance abuse and criminality. This is not simply
because they have bought into Duterte’s rhetoric. In some cases, criminality is very
personal.
Pastor Marco, who heads an Evangelical church, blames drug addicts in the community
for stealing their church’s musical instruments. Other Christian leaders believe that the
fundamental issue is spiritual, treating the use of illegal drugs as ‘a form of wickedness’
which ‘should be fought at all costs’. Thus the campaign for them is appropriate and
timely. But it needs to be emphasized that the spiritual perspective is not only a matter
of the heart. This is a societal concern altogether. According to Pastor Julius, who
serves a Baptist congregation, ‘society is eroding’ and ‘anybody who is not reunited
with the Father is going down’. This response came when we asked him about the role
of Christian leaders or pastors in talking about politics. Pastor Julius believes that while
people can be involved in political issues, people must also understand that there are
‘matters beyond their control’. Citing the election of President Trump, he said that even
though people might want other candidates to win, ‘God wanted Trump to win’. He
further claims that people need to accept Duterte if they really believed that God is in
control. He also affirms that Duterte is God’s way of ‘punishing’ Philippine society for
its sins. From this, he connects political events and separation from God. For him,
Duterte’s election is God’s way of testing the faith of Filipinos. He even uses Nebuchad-
nezzar’s example in the Bible where God allowed the king to experience suffering so he
could repent. He then concludes that ‘God needed to appoint Duterte in order to get Fili-
pinos to repent’. The political consequence of this religious reasoning is clear. These reli-
gious leaders, taken together, are supportive of the War on Drugs, with some of them even
welcoming the violence that has accompanied it.
By contrast, a few of our informants disagree with the War on Drugs altogether. While
they agree that the proliferation of illegal drugs is a problem, the approach of the admin-
istration troubles them. They present different reasons. Invoking the commandment ‘thou
shalt not kill’ is a common theme for these religious leaders.
Very vocal about this commandment are the Catholic priests we interviewed. Fr.
Martin, a parish priest, emphasizes God’s decree to preserve life. We ask Fr. Martin
about his opinions on Christian teaching about submission to the government. For
him, Filipinos need to understand why this text was written. Fr. Martin suggests that com-
passion for left-behind families and people in general comes first before submission to
government. Helping drug users does not mean tolerating them. Helping these people
is one way of imitating Christ who looks at people holistically regardless of their
present situations. We ask the same question to Fr. Marcelo, his colleague, who is even
more forceful: ‘Once a leader does not respect life … you are to topple him down’. For
Fr. Marcelo, the Bible verse that demands respect for authority is not an absolute injunc-
tion. He argues that there is only one fundamental principle in God’s kingdom: justice. For
him, ‘once a leader does not respect life, people do not owe him respect’. He considers that
helping the victims of War on Drugs is obeying God’s mandate even if it might cost him
his life.
But beyond the religious conviction, some leaders have also offered other reasons. Two
Catholic priests, who have longstanding pastoral work in Payatas, treat drug addiction not
10

as a criminal but a health issue. They also maintain that the current campaign is unfair
because more victims are noticeably poor. Thus, a lay leader in an Evangelical group
frames it as a ‘war on poor people who are using drugs’. Pastor Roldan, who oversees
two congregations, views it also as a problem of justice. ‘What I don’t appreciate is that
killing people means there is no more rule of law, no more due process’, he tells us.
Pastor Roldan has an attendee whose cousin was killed during a police encounter not
too far from his church. While Pastor Roldan supported Duterte in elections, he now cri-
ticizes the methods to address the problem especially when violent efforts were targeted at
poor users. In his view, this has left out drug syndicates at large. Equally critical are the
Protestant theologians we interviewed who assert that the drug problem as it is presented
to the public is manufactured, conveniently placing the blame on drug users. According to
Brother Arnold, the bigger problem is the global underground economy of illegal drugs,
alluding to a recent discovery that USD 123 million worth of methamphetamine hydro-
chloride was smuggled into the country.

Drug users: sinful beings or victims?


From the discussion above, it is already evident that our informants have two ways of char-
acterizing drug users. They are either sinful beings or victims. The former is the pervasive
viewpoint. These assessments also oppose each other. The former emphasizes the moral
depravity of the person. By contrast, depicting drug users as victims takes into consider-
ation wider social injustices that have led them to substance abuse.
As a deliberate act of sinning, taking illegal drugs, according to many informants, is
a consequence of people’s separation from God. This point is repeatedly brought up by
Pastors Nick and Julius. Each of them oversees his own Evangelical and Baptist con-
gregations in Payatas. To them the problem of substance abuse is a function of
one’s failed relationship with the Holy Spirit. In fact, Pastor Julius even likens drug
dependents to swine. Pastor Julius invokes Jesus’ injunction to cast not ‘your pearls
before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn against and rend
you’.48 During the interview, we ask him to explain this verse carefully. His first
reason is that focusing his church’s efforts on drug users is to miss the ‘more impor-
tant’ groups of people in Payatas like women and children. He points out that there are
‘more kids in Payatas than there are drug addicts’. But he also believes that sharing the
Word of God with drug users cannot be useful since they cannot pay attention because
of their ‘mental condition’. Following this reasoning, he concludes that to have Duterte
as president is clearly an act of God to ‘teach the country a lesson’. He believes that
drug addiction is a sinful condition that has its own consequences. The violence of
the War on Drugs is at one level a divine judgment and he leaves it up to the govern-
ment to fully execute it. At another, the anti-drug campaign is meant to convince the
rest of the public of what sin does in the end.
A similar point is raised by the pastors of a prominent megachurch in the Philippines
with community outreaches to Payatas: ‘God gave us government … to protect the inno-
cent and punish the guilty. They have swords and guns for a reason’. Having said that,
there are religious leaders who feel that they have a personal responsibility to hold
48
Matthew 7:6, King James Version.
11

sinners accountable for their criminal acts. In this case, the church needs to do concrete
actions to help execute justice. They are convinced that drug users are perpetrators of
crime and therefore must face the law. How is it done? Pastor Nick himself, an influential
leader in the community, has an active partnership with local officials to locate drug users
in their neighborhood. We will get back to this point in the succeeding sections.
But not all of our informants maintain an antagonistic position. Although sinners ‘have
a corrupted heart [who] will never meet God’s standards’, they are not irredeemable,
according to an Evangelical pastor. This position is a softer rendering of drug users as
sinners. In contrast to depicting them as swine, they can be rescued much easier
because people have a propensity to understand the Gospel. With much conviction,
some religious leaders reason out that the ‘love of God’ is waiting for them and ‘when
they return to God, they will regain their self-confidence’. This is the conviction of
some other pastors. As sinners, drug users are thus ‘targets of evangelism’, in the words
of an independent lay minister. This is a well-rehearsed point too for many of our infor-
mants, including Charismatic and Evangelical pastors. Repeatedly, we heard many pastors
argue that their primary calling is to ‘preach the Gospel’ and ‘save souls’. In this light, they
insist that extra-judicial killings, which are heavily reported in the media, go against the
Gospel. For them the Gospel ought to be heard by the ‘worst sinners’.
By contrast, other informants have characterized drug users as ‘victims’. Their use of
drugs is not a result of individual choices but one of structural causes like extreme
poverty, unemployment, and depressed social conditions in the area. This point is well
articulated by Catholic priests, Protestant theologians, and another Evangelical leader.
How do they explain victimhood? Drug users are poor not just spiritually, but also mate-
rially. We expected this view from the three Catholic priests we interviewed. Fr. Martin, Fr.
Marcelo, and Fr. Patrick have a longstanding relationship with Payatas as an outreach of
their religious community (based in another part of Quezon City). To them, drug depen-
dents are the church’s ‘public’. It is therefore imperative to also address their social and
material conditions to help them with their drug addiction.
At the same time, the War on Drugs has worsened the poverty of many of these families
who relied on the father. During an interview, a parish priest is indignant about this
reality:
Has the government done anything to help affected families? Did they visit the children? Do
they have psychological interventions? How about educational support? Food? Livelihood?
Sigh. I asked the local leaders here. What did they say? No!

It is very telling that in one parish alone, twenty families have been directly affected by the
War on Drugs. Most of the time, either the father or an elder brother was killed during
police operations. The War on Drugs, in other words, has only exacerbated their victim-
hood. This is why for religious leaders, people, especially those who profess to be Christian,
need to give them a chance. As a matter of fact, for Sharon, a youth minister, ‘not giving
them a chance is a form of injustice itself’.

Christian response
How social issues are understood and articulated by religious individuals is a crucial
dimension of public theology. As discussed at the onset, public theology is not just an
12

enterprise among academics but also other religious actors.49 Its point is for religion
to offer its perspectives on social issues in a critical and democratic exchange.50 But
at the same time, public theology has a performed element, usually in the form of acti-
vism.51 Aware of this possibility, we were thus interested in the relationship between theo-
logical views about the War on Drugs and the concrete response of different religious
leaders in Payatas. Indeed, in the course of our fieldwork, we noticed that all our respon-
dents have justified their level of engagement with the War on Drugs based on how they
understood the problem and the significant factors behind drug use. Their interventions
can be divided into two: spiritual and social and political.

Spiritual
Our informants who characterize drug users as sinful beings are convinced that their
response to the War on Drugs has to be spiritual. This means that theirs is devoid of
any democratic engagement with respect to the state, other churches, and civil society.
Nevertheless, these religious leaders are insistent that the spiritual has lasting conse-
quences on the social. This is why Pastor Ross, one of the ministers in an Evangelical
church, is unyielding: ‘Don’t underestimate prayer. Prayer is the main role or contribution
of the church’. In his view, with which many of his peers would agree, the church influ-
ences the future of the country by changing the character of its people. Thus when pressed
whether this was their public response to the War on Drugs, many of them would say yes.
This statement, of course, carries a very strong proselytizing overtone. We need to unpack
this point.
Church leaders have repeatedly pointed out that even with the problem of illegal drugs,
the real battle is about sharing the Gospel. This means that to address the condition of
drug users, their spiritual needs must be addressed. This is a consistent point among
our Charismatic, Evangelical, and Baptist informants. For Pastor Nick, his primary task
is to remind people— drug users included—to go back to ‘how God has designed
them’. When they realize what God’s plans are for them, they will ‘flee from their vices
like substance abuse’. How difficult can this be? According to Pastor Julius, the
difficulty lies in people’s ‘sinful nature and ignorance’, which hinders them to appreciate
eternal and spiritual matters.
But at the same time these Christian leaders are invoking the sovereignty of God over
the government, which, to an outsider, might be dissonant. Since ‘God does not change
and He is in control of everything’, no one can do things ahead of ‘God’s time’, according
to Pastor Julius. One respondent has pointed out too that trusting God is enough because
in the end, ‘God sets up kings and deposes them’.52 In addition, Pastor Ross reminds us
that ‘God gave us the government to protect the innocent and punish the guilty’.
How then has this spiritual vision translated to concrete actions? For our informants, it
is about doing what they have always been doing: to share the Bible with different people
49
Van Erp, op. cit.
50
Xie, op. cit.
51
Day and Kim, op. cit.
52
As discussed above, this perspective resonates with the interpretation of Latter-Day Saints (Petersen 2009). The oft-
repeated verse among many Christians in the country is from Romans 13:1 (New International Version): “Let everyone
be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities
that exist have been established by God.”
13

and to conduct evangelistic work. These are done in many ways: charity, financial
education, music training, and outreach activities to out-of-school youth. But the ultimate
objective is conversion. In their religious worldview, conversion has implications on the
future of the country. To them conversion is about godliness and a change in personal
character. Thus evangelistic outreach to students is crucial since changing their spirituality
is like helping them become positive influencers in the future. It is also by doing evange-
lism that they show that ‘we have a heart for the urban poor by targeting those who would
in the future make better policies for the poor when they hold positions of leadership’.
Pastor Julius agrees. As we end our two-hour interview with him, he brings us back
again to his main point: The church ‘can help strengthen democracy by changing the
behavior of people’. Interestingly, these activities are not specifically targeted at drug users.
But some other informants actively support the War on Drugs by relying on similar
religious convictions. The Evangelical Pastor Nick has partnered with local officials to
help them locate drug users in the community. He is in fact treated as a local chaplain,
a position he has used to launch ‘values-formation activities’ for officials and the police
force. His theological justification is very clear. To view drug users as sinners is to
address the War on Drugs with spiritual interventions. But in this case it is a theology
that merges with support for Duterte’s disciplinarian regime. Here, Pastor Nick affirms
a view of government as anointed by God to administer justice to stop people from
sinning. This position resonates with those that others have already said about divine
calling of authorities. For him,
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 realize 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.

In the course of our interview we point out to Pastor Nick that this position might be pro-
blematic since governments can commit excesses in exercising their powers. We ask
Pastor Nick to clarify his position. However, he only reasons out that people’s hearts
are ‘greedy’ and ‘in need of God’. What do people need to do then? Pastor Nick contends
that having more Christians in key leadership positions will help a lot. To have Christians
in public office is a great opportunity to conduct Bible study sessions or spiritual activities.
We will revisit this point in the latter section.

Social and political


The rest of our informants have gone beyond spiritual interventions. While they continue
their pastoral and parochial work, they have also initiated many interventions directly
related to the War on Drugs. Some take to the pulpit to preach about the excesses of
the campaign. Some others support the left-behind families of killed individuals. These
interventions—social and political in nature—are meant to address the unjust roots and
consequences of the War on Drugs. After all, as we have spelled out above, another
view of drug users is that they are victims. According to Brother Arnold, a theologian
in a nearby seminary, ‘the way to express your spirituality is to express it materially’.
Hence one’s action is one’s prayer. These narratives are from Catholic priests, Evangelical
14

pastors, and Charismatic leaders we interviewed. They are not the majority as far as our
informants are concerned.
Among all these informants, the Roman Catholic priests have arguably come up with
the most comprehensive interventions. Together with other volunteers, these priests
conduct regular sessions with left-behind families. These gathering include ‘sharing’ ses-
sions in which priests and other religious workers gather mothers and wives to talk
about their personal concerns and religious reflections. This informal meeting facilitates
Bible sharing and storytelling of how they have been coping. One priest, who is trained
in psychosocial interventions, helps in conducting these sessions. During these gatherings,
children have their own activities. They are also grouped together so they can play
together.
Apart from psychological help, these religious leaders also extend livelihood assistance
to families. This intervention is particularly welcome among those whose bread winners
were killed. Financial help is coordinated with the families through the help of the
priest and other volunteer workers. Financial helps includes a small amount of capital
to establish livelihood. Aside from this, the local Catholic parish has also provided
grants to left-behind children for their school uniforms, books, and other needs.
In other cases, priests are also helping address the legal situation itself. They have, for
example, been documenting extensively what they believe are cases of extrajudicial killings
in Payatas. They have concluded that this is a necessary intervention because people are
generally afraid to resort to legal remedy against the state and the police force. This senti-
ment is understandable given the asymmetrical power relations in this community. Inves-
tigative journalists have documented how police surveillance have been done in the name
of community profiling.53 These priests have also set up legal support system for affected
families. To what extent these interventions are working is yet to be seen. We have also
interviewed Brother Robert, who himself is an Evangelical and a lawyer. He helps
affected families to file cases. He frames his congregation’s intervention as follows: ‘You
help the poor by filing cases. We are not fighting the anti-drug campaign. We are
fighting summary executions because they destroy the Bill of Rights, the very pillar of
our democracy’.
Thus other religious leaders see the campaign as a challenge to the democratic prin-
ciples of right to life and right to fair trial. To support their case, our Evangelical infor-
mants cite Solomon, referring to his wise administration of justice. Concretely, Pastor
Roldan in some sermons, has mentioned his criticisms of extrajudicial killings: ‘I voted
for him. But what this administration is doing is no longer right’. Beyond preaching,
some leaders have joined political rallies and prayer vigils. When asked about their
opinion concerning the Biblical verse for obeying leaders, some of them point out that
it is not an absolute injunction for Christians. As a matter of fact, they say that once
leaders fail to uphold life, people can no longer dutifully respect them. Expressing dis-
agreement is not about rebellion but their way of showing that ‘it is better to obey God
rather than men’. In fact, for Brother Robert, religious people are obligated to disobey
injunctions that are morally wrong. This view clearly contests Pastor Nick’s take on the
church’s ‘prophetic role in the present’, which, in his view, is to be positively supportive
of the administration.

53
Evangelista, op. cit.
15

Clearly the social and political advocacies of these religious leaders on the War on
Drugs are inspired by their faith. Their resistance to the campaign is brought about by
their religious reasoning that drug users are vicitms. Hence they wish to fight for their
right to due process and, most importantly, life. To suggest that these social and political
interventions are no longer religious is therefore a mistake. According to Sharon, an Evan-
gelical youth leader, ‘the Lord said that He would spit you out if you were lukewarm. That
means you’re in the middle, playing it safe’. She goes on to reflect that ‘if you are a leader
you ought to have a stand. This is ultimately related to our faith in the Lord’. Sharon
clearly alludes to Revelation 3:16 (New Living Translation): ‘But since you are like luke-
warm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!’ Interestingly, this
verse is related to the spiritual condition of the church in Laodicea. But for Sharon, the
verse has a political application.

Conflicting responses
Our study has been interested in the relationship between theological views and the varying
responses to the War on Drugs. While it is a national program under the Duterte admin-
istration, much of it takes shape as interventions at the level of communities. It is for this
reason that we have focused on Payatas, an urban poor community that has now become a
hotspot in the anti-drug campaign. Our basic argument is that how religious leaders under-
stand the nature of drug users affects much of how they respond to the War on Drugs as a
whole. For some informants, that there are drug addicts is a result of wider social injustices
which Duterte’s policy does not address. This understanding is the basis for their assertive
engagements in public.54 These religious leaders have initiated different ways of responding
to the consequences of the War on Drugs. Some of them are social in orientation, as in the
case of providing psychosocial support to affected families and helping them with their legal
needs. Some others have become vocal in the public sphere. They have joined protests and
used the pulpit to critique the War on Drugs. By contrast, the majority of our religious
informants do not recognize the social dimensions of drug addiction. To them drug
abuse is at its core a spiritual condition. As a result, they retreat from confronting the
War on Drugs as a social or political concern.
Why do religious leaders have such conflicting viewpoints and responses? The immedi-
ate explanation might be denominational affiliation. But our research shows that it does
not robustly account for the difference. This is because there are religious leaders who
come from the same denomination but have opposing viewpoints. This point much is
clear in our community. At the same time, beyond Payatas, prominent Evangelical
pastors and Catholic priests have in their own ways made public statements about their
support for or resistance to the War on Drugs.55 Based on our interviews, we propose
that the difference lies in different kinds of pastoral encounters with drug users. This
idea needs to be carefully explained.
Without a direct encounter, the default mode is to theologize drug use as a spiritual
matter that calls for a spiritual response. The social distance affords religious leaders to
affirm their conviction that drug use is but a symptom of humanity’s general spiritual
54
Day and Kim, op. cit.
J. Cornelio, ‘God Gave Us Duterte’, Rappler, 2018. https://www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/206394-god-gave-us-duterte
55
16

malady. Pastor Julius is an example. When asked about his assessment of how widespread
drug abuse is in Payatas, he says that he has not met any drug user in his Baptist congre-
gation. This has led him to continue conducting religious activities in his community
without direct concern for the War on Drugs at all. However, this does not prevent
him from asserting that what he does is useful in keeping young people away from
illegal drugs. In fact, for him, such activities as gathering young people to learn a
musical instrument is useful in this regard. In this way, his church facilitates behavioral
change which can reduce the possibility that these young people will be drug users in
the future. As we have recounted above, other Evangelical pastors echo this point by focus-
ing on Bible fellowships catered for the youth. They justify their lack of direct involvement
with the War on Drugs by asserting that converting young people will turn them into good
citizens who can be the country’s ‘righteous leaders’ in the future.
Other congregations have had direct experiences with drug users. These experiences
shape the way they respond to the War on Drugs. In some cases, the encounter is in
terms of experiencing criminal acts by suspected drug users. That they have had deplor-
able encounters convinces them of the evil of drug use. It will be recalled, for example, that
Pastor Nick’s congregation blamed drug users for the theft of their musical instruments.
This experience does not only validate for him the sinfulness of drug abuse. It has also con-
vinced him that he needs to be proactive in assisting the local government in arresting
drug users in the community. He has thus established partnerships with the local govern-
ment to this end. In this sense, while Pastors Julius and Nick share the same opinion about
drug users as ‘sinners’, the latter’s direct experience of theft has convinced him to take a
direct action against them.
And yet there are other congregations whose members (or relatives of members) have
been killed by the War on Drugs. Their encounter with drug users is different in this
regard. In a manner of speaking, the violence is proximal which is in itself a powerful
explanation for viewing drug use and the War on Drugs itself as a personal and emotional
reality. At the same time, it is also possible that the experience has validated the inclination
for social justice among some of these religious leaders. This much is true in the case of our
Catholic parish priests and the Evangelical Pastor Roldan. A direct confrontation with
affected families has affirmed their theological understanding of drug users as victims of
wider social injustices. The War on Drugs adds to the layers of injustices drug users
already experience. This conviction drives them to conduct a more socially or politically
oriented response. Although the minority, they have been at the forefront of the social and
political interventions to help the victims of the War on Drugs.
We end this section by relating the discussion thus far to the broader arguments about
public religion discussed in the first part of this article. Public theology, as we have pointed
out above, is interested in how theological reflections on pressing public issues can stir up
institutional responses on the part of religious groups.56 And yet arresting public theol-
ogy’s potential to fulfill this mandate is the conviction among other religious groups
that they should maintain the spiritual character of their activities. The experience of
Christian churches in China testifies to this tension.57 How do our own religious infor-
mants fare in comparison?

56
Breitenberg, op. cit.
57
Xie, op. cit.
17

This is where our findings become interesting. To our informants, regardless of their
theological understanding of the drug user, their action has lasting consequences on
society. This is certainly the case for those who are more socially and politically
engaged. Their legal and political actions demonstrate the power of public theology
over drug use as a social justice issue. And yet even those who resort to only spiritual
responses insist that what they do have important social consequences. Repeatedly, we
heard pastors argue that conversion is about changing lifestyles, which could affect the
future of the country by preparing a generation of ‘God-fearing leaders’. When we chal-
lenged Pastor Julius to reflect on the political merits of this position, he responded by
asking us a rhetorical question: ‘Don’t you think that when you encourage somebody to
become better—and they do become better—that strengthens democracy?’ He then
argues that having a spiritually renewed population can enhance ‘democracy’ because
‘people are working for a better country, a better world’. Our other Evangelical pastors
also assume the same position. For them, the appropriate response is to focus on disciple-
ship and leadership development. In their view, character building is needed to bring
about change. When asked about the implication of this principle to the broader public,
they contend that ‘as people grow their relationship with God, they will inevitably make
an impact on the society that they live in’. Clearly, in the worldview of these religious
leaders, their spiritual activities have potential social and political consequences.
But in arguing so, they have deflected the immediate concerns, which are the social and
political aspects of the anti-drug campaign and the proliferation of substance abuse in the
country. These dimensions include economic hardships and asymmetrical power relations
that have seen a lot more poor people killed as a result. In so doing they miss out on the
potential of theological reflections to deepen democratic values and institutions. At the
same time, it may also be a symptom of how theological ideas are limited by the echo
chambers they inhabit in a generally fundamentalist environment in the Philippines.58
That this is the case means that opportunities for deliberation among religious leaders
of different theological persuasions are weak. In this sense, the direct and indirect conver-
sations among people of different beliefs that the political theologian Joseph Rivera calls
for are silenced by these echo chambers.59
Thus the potential of the majority’s theological reflections to deepen democracy given the
War on Drugs is arrested. This point is much clear in rendering drug users only as sinners
who need to be redeemed, if at all they are redeemable. This problem is evident too in the
action of a pastor who has actively partnered with the local government to identify drug sus-
pects in the community. This complicity turns a blind eye to the reality that Payatas has a
large number of documented killings in the War on Drugs. Collectively, their engagements
to support the anti-drug campaign are ultimately to support the status quo. This is the unin-
tended consequence of their religious conviction that ‘the eternal is more important than the
temporal’, in the words of some Evangelical leaders. Therefore, inasmuch as they argue the
social and political dimension of their spiritual convictions, the way they frame the public
issue that is the War on Drugs is in effect ‘anti-public’.60

58
J. Cornelio, ‘The Philippines’, in Kenneth Ross, Francis Alvarez, and Todd Johnson (eds.) Christianity in East and Southeast
Asia (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020).
59
Rivera, op. cit.
60
Xie, op. cit.
18

Nevertheless, it is not entirely hopeless. Our research shows that the promise of political
theology lies in pastoral encounters with drug users. This is especially the case if they chal-
lenge theological dispositions to recognize the social and political violence involved in the
anti-drug campaign. Thus the work of Fr Martin, Fr Marcelo, Brother Arnold, and Pastor
Roldan demonstrate the ability of theological reflections to speak to the wider social and
political injustices involved in the War on Drugs. Although they are the minority in our
research, they demonstrate the power of public theology to affirm liberal democracy at a
time of illiberal reforms in the Philippines.61

Conclusion
By way of concluding, we revisit some of the important findings about the wider support for
Duterte and his War on Drugs. We recognize that the president remains to be a very popular
figure. The most recent survey shows that 70% of Filipino adults are satisfied with his per-
formance. The accusations that there are far too many casualties in the War on Drugs do not
affect his popularity at all.62 In 2017, a national survey showed that 88% of Filipino adults
supported the War on Drugs. This was the case even if 73% believed that extrajudicial kill-
ings were also taking place.63 The government has taken great pains to justify the program
by providing what it calls ‘social cards’ or numerical figures demonstrating its successes. As
of late, it claims that 5,327 local communities have been declared drug-free and USD 376
million worth of illegal drugs and laboratory equipment seized.64 The argument is that
people feel safer now, which is why they remain supportive of the War on Drugs. No
wonder that for many people, according to another study, the killings are acceptable
because ‘these are the people that made our miserable lives even more miserable’.65
Our research suggests that there might be a religious dimension to the character of the
public support for the current regime. Our conjecture is this: There is an implicit theological
reasoning that underlies the wide support for the War on Drugs. This conjecture needs to be
validated in future research that involves everyday believers. However, for now, we take it
based on our findings that the silence of religious groups on the War on Drugs is not just
a chilling effect of Duterte’s systematic attack on them. It may be the result of the
absence of participatory deliberation about the common good even among religious indi-
viduals. Our research suggests that within religious groups themselves, theological oppor-
tunities to reflect on the complexity of governance, human rights and public accountability
is absent. This is similar to the point Cartagenas has argued years ago about the state of the
religious sphere in the country.66 What accounts for this absence?
As we have presented above, many religious leaders brought our conversations back to
the spiritual character of substance abuse in the country. In so doing, they have missed the
61
J. Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1994).
62
Social Weather Stations, ‘First Quarter 2018 Social Weather Survey: Pres. Duterte’s Net Satisfaction Rating a “Very Good”
+56’, Social Weather Stations, 2018. https://www.sws.org.ph/swsmain/artcldisppage/?artcsyscode=ART-20180411144206
63
Pulse Asia, September 2017 Nationwide Survey on the Campaign Against Illegal Drugs, 2017. http://www.pulseasia.ph/
september-2017-nationwide-survey-on-the-campaign-against-illegal-drugs/.
64
For the latest figures, refer to http://pia.gov.ph/realnumbers.
65
C. Arguelles, ‘Grounding Populism: Perspectives from the Populist Publics’ (Unpublished thesis, Central European Univer-
sity, 2017); J. Cabañes and J. Cornelio, ‘The Rise of Trolls in the Philippines (and What We Can Do About It)’, in Nicole
Curato (ed.) A Duterte Reader: Critical Essays on Duterte’s Early Presidency (Quezon City and New York: Ateneo de
Manila University Press and Cornell University Press, 2017), pp. 231–250.
66
A. Cartagenas, ‘Religion and Politics in the Philippines: The Public Role of the Roman Catholic Church in the Democratiza-
tion of the Filipino Polity’, Political Theology, 11:6 (2010), pp. 846–872.
19

social and political dimensions of the proliferation of illegal drugs. This pattern, however,
is not unique to our informants. It is quite evident too in the public statements of many
religious leaders who openly support President Duterte and his anti-drug campaign.67 In
fact, even the journalist Paolo Affatato argues from his investigative work that the support
finds its roots in ‘the conception of a God who eradicates evil, rather than redeeming the
wicked’.68 It is possible that the views of these religious leaders go unchallenged because
they remain in their respective echo chambers. Put differently, that theological opportu-
nities for reflection may be a symptom of the fact that Christianity in the Philippines is
dominated by fundamentalist discourses that are enhanced by Duterte’s illiberal
reforms.69 Their theological reasoning can be transmitted in their respective religious
communities, which, in turn, might affect how local believers understand and accept
the realities of drug abuse. And our research suggests that it is the pastoral encounter
with drug users that may validate or challenge their theological predispositions.
It is in this light that Rivera is thus right in his call for individuals of different theological
and political persuasions to engage and be challenged by one another. The higher goal is
that in spite of differences, they can identify a common project by ‘advocating for a
common cause and … recognizing that the world is a common habitation’.70 In the
context of the Philippine public sphere where dissent is now equated to being uncoopera-
tive with the government, this call needs to be heard now more than ever.71

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Funding
This work was supported by the Australian National University under the Philippines Project Col-
laborative Research Grants 2017.

Notes on contributors
Jayeel Cornelio is Associate Professor and the Director of the Development Studies Program,
Ateneo de Manila University. He is a co-investigator on the study ‘Who will bury the dead? Com-
munity responses in Duterte’s bloody war on drugs’. The other investigators are Nicole Curato
(University of Canberra) and Filomin Gutierrez (University of the Philippines).
Erron Medina is Research Associate in the Development Studies Program, Ateneo de Manila Uni-
versity. He is pursuing graduate studies in political science at the University of the Philippines
Diliman.

67
J. Cornelio, ‘God Gave Us Duterte’, Rappler, 2018. https://www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/206394-god-gave-us-
duterte.
68
P. Affatato, ‘Duterte and the God-Avenger’, Vatican Insider, 2017. http://www.lastampa.it/2017/08/05/vaticaninsider/eng/
world-news/duterte-and-the-god-avenger-YEOvvRVbngzzVjST6ZIZwJ/pagina.html.
69
Cornelio, op. cit.
70
Rivera, op. cit., p. 105.
71
J.V. Cabañes and J.S. Cornelio, ‘The Rise of Trolls in the Philippines (And What We Can Do About It)’ in Nicole Curato (ed.) A
Duterte Reader: Critical Essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s Early Presidency (Quezon City, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University
Press, 2017).