How did Pentecostals position themselves in this precarious power play? The following subsections provide a brief overview of the religious landscape and then a discussion of Pentecostal articulations drawn from interviews conducted during fieldwork between 2012 and 2015 and from brochures and position papers issued during this time.
Both El Shaddai and the Couples for Christ were established in the 1980s. While Couples for Christ was initiated by Jesuits, El Shaddai was founded by Mike Velarde, an entrepreneur turned televangelist. The charismatic renewal within the Catholic Church started as a movement that was rather critical of the hierarchy. Both groups have supported various administrations, despite employing a rhetoric that criticized the hierarchy's links with politicians and condemned liberation theology as too political.Footnote 34 Of the two groups, El Shaddai has been perceived as the greater embarrassment by the hierarchy. This was mainly due to Velarde's self-understanding as a televangelist and healer and his alignment with President Estrada, but also to El Shaddai's constituency, which unlike Couples for Christ, comes from the lower classes. After the ousting of Estrada in 2001, El-Shaddai founder Velarde found himself isolated. Couples for Christ congregations, in turn, were staunch supporters of Macapagal-Arroyo. When Macapagal-Arroyo chose Couples for Christ as her main partner, Velarde founded Buhay Hayaan Yumabong (Let Life Prosper), a political party whose aim was to promote traditional Catholic morals and family values.Footnote 35
Notwithstanding their tensions with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, Catholic Pentecostals supported its anti-reproductive health position. Due to competition for adherents and influence in political circles, El Shaddai and Couples for Christ started to outpace each other in their work to oppose reproductive health.Footnote 36 They organized rallies and seminars where “modern family planning” was defined as promoting a “culture of death,” contraceptive pills were oftentimes explained to be cancerous, and the intrauterine device, or IUD, was described as an abortifacient. During the election campaign, they printed placards that displayed the pro-reproductive health candidates under the heading “Death Team,” contrasting them with the church-leaning candidates, dubbed “Life Team.”Footnote 37 The objective was to stage one's own group as more actively life-affirming than the other and thus gain influence among both the Catholic hierarchy and the largely conservative population.Footnote 38
Older, So-Called Classical Pentecostals
The so-called classical Pentecostal denominations became visible in the 1950s as daughter churches of US denominations. Accordingly, they soon became members of the Philippine Evangelical Council of Churches.Footnote 39 Their identity marker was a rhetoric of exclusive focus on spiritual issues against the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, which they dubbed worldly and political.Footnote 40
Unlike Catholics, evangelical Pentecostals have always espoused less conservative sexual ethics. Certainly, abortion (which, however, had never been part of the final reproductive health law) and promiscuity were taboo. This was in full conformity with the attitude of the popular mainstream (as discussed in relation to Aquino's position in “Responsible Parenthood”). Yet, to avoid further stigmatization by the Catholic majority society, they never made much ado about it. In their counseling and teachings on marriage and family, however, they were firm defenders of artificial family planning, and they actively encouraged couples to get information about contraceptive methods, even to the point of offering financial support for those who wanted to undergo sterilization. This apparently nonpolitical attitude goes back to their traditional rhetoric of being solely “concerned with spiritual things.” It was a rhetoric inherited by US evangelical missionaries, who were advised to keep out from politics if they wanted to operate in the country. Thus, Pentecostals were perceived as being apolitical or quietist at best. What was overlooked or ignored, however, was that their actual practice differed from this, especially when it came to local politics.Footnote 41 When the debates peaked in 2012, also due to Aquino's reinvention of the meaning of reproductive health, the older Pentecostals followed the policy of not politicizing reproductive health. No public statement was issued by the denomination's leaders on reproductive health, and requests for the denominations’ official position were denied. Yet the older Pentecostal denominations generally referred to a statement issued by the Evangelical Council, which they had signed as members.Footnote 42 During the Macapagal-Arroyo presidency the council had kept a low profile in order not to lose its privileged position; Macapagal-Arroyo had appointed the Evangelical Council's top leader as spiritual advisor, which helped him to outmaneuver Villanueva whose movement represented the council's main rival in the competition for adherents and influence in the public sphere. Now, with Benigno Aquino as president, things had changed. At the peak of the reproductive health debates, the Evangelical Council released a position paper that was both pro-reproductive health and pro-government policy. Under the headline “Evangelical Churches Re-echo Strong Support for Rh Bill,” it stated, “When He [God] commanded … ‘Be fruitful and increase’ … He gave it to a world population of two. Now that the world population has escalated to seven billion … We restate: the RH Bill is pro-life, pro-development and pro-poor.”Footnote 43
The Evangelicals' pro-reproductive health statement, which the older Pentecostal denominations subscribed to, followed a threefold objective. First, it served to disprove the image of being otherworldly in a fanatical biblicist way,Footnote 44 as it staged the Catholic reading of Genesis one as being a literalist exegesis without any cultural contextualization and thus as being fundamentalist. Second, it served to dispel the image of being indifferent to social problems as it explicitly mentions the poverty issue. Third, and most importantly, it served to court the Aquino government, which in a manner typical for Philippine politics had turned its back on actors known to be close to the previous administration, such as the Evangelical Council's top leader, Efraim Tendero, who had been one of Macapagal-Arroyo's spiritual advisors.Footnote 45 In fact, not only had Aquino favored Philippines for Jesus leader Eddie Villanueva against the Evangelical Council, but he had also appointed his son Joel Villanueva a cabinet member.Footnote 46
Thus, Evangelical Pentecostals were able to keep their tradition of being focused on spiritual rather than worldly things (which is a political gesture) and yet fend off the perception of being indifferent to social issues. At the same time, given the pro-administration rhetoric of the position paper, they advertised themselves to the new administration as potential partners.
Newer, So-Called Independent Pentecostals
As a reaction to the US-leaning Pentecostal churches affiliated with Evangelical Council, a new branch of evangelical Pentecostals emerged by the late 1970s. These were churches founded by Filipino pioneers who had broken with their former US denominations to launch their own ministries and thus called themselves “independent.” Soon, the success of the native-run independent churches outperformed those of the older Pentecostals, who accused the younger churches of being syncretistic. Most prominent among leaders of these new independent churches was Eddie Villanueva. A Marxist activist turned evangelist, he founded the Philippines for Jesus Movement in 1983 after establishing a flourishing megachurch. From the beginning, it was conceived as a patriotic, US-critical alternative to the Evangelical Council drawing a large number of churches and ministries into the movement. In 1986, Villanueva launched Intercessors for the Philippines, the Philippines for Jesus Movement's teaching and mobilization arm created to “raise an awareness for the moral, economic and political issues of the country.”Footnote 47 When Villanueva founded the Bangon Pilipinas Party (or Philippines Arise) in a bid for the presidency in 2004, Intercessors for the Philippines was instrumental in running Villanueva's election campaign.Footnote 48 Although Villanueva's campaign was unsuccessful, his loss to Macapagal-Arroyo triggered the establishing of another influential suborganization of the Philippines for Jesus Movement, called Movement for National Transformation. When Villanueva ran for a second time in 2010, the Movement for National Transformation conducted a nationwide cadre program among Pentecostal churches. Defeated again, this time by Aquino, Villanueva ran for the Senate in 2013—also unsuccessfully. By now, however, Intercessors for the Philippines and the Movement for National Transformation had already started to differ on a number of issues, including questions of leadership, the role of reproductive health in political mobilization, and how to organize mass support for preferred candidates.
Like Protestants associated with the Evangelical Council, Pentecostals linked to Philippines for Jesus were traditionally in favor of contraceptives. Unlike the Evangelical Council, however, they were vocal about it. Since its beginning, Philippines for Jesus was thoroughly political. In order to distinguish themselves from the established mainline Protestants—who were perceived to be intellectual and all too rational—they still employed a rhetoric of “spirituality,” deploying phrases such as “we pray for a transformation” and “only the gospel can change the course of history,” when asked for a statement. Yet, as has already become clear from Villanueva's political activities and from those of Intercessors for the Philippines and the Movement for National Transformation, their practice was anything but escapist. Back in 2010, Villanueva was among the few presidential candidates whose platform included a decidedly pro-reproductive health policy. This was embedded in campaign slogans such as “revolution of righteousness,” “emancipating the people” and “empowering the people” against the perceived Catholic elites.Footnote 49 It was further embedded in his alliance with Nur Misuari, the founder of the first armed Islamic secession movement, and his alliance with leftist groups.Footnote 50 However, Villanueva drew his main constituency from the middle and lower classes, known for their conservative attitudes on moral issues. Thus, he needed to articulate his anti–status quo politics in a way that was compatible with the larger public. Just as Aquino's “Responsible Parenthood” would in 2012, he routinely distanced himself from abortion and staged himself as the candidate of a radical center. At the same time, he candidly challenged the neoliberal reproductive health ideology promoted by his presidential competitor, Aquino: “the so-called ‘population explosion’ is not the cause of poverty; rather, it is the effect of poverty … the real … issue, is … equitable sharing of resources.”Footnote 51
In 2013, when Villanueva ran for the Senate, he toned down slightly his critique against Aquino: the latter had given Villanueva's son a cabinet position, which Villanueva did not want to jeopardize. Furthermore, Villanueva was hoping to coopt the administrations party machinery on the local level for his own campaign.Footnote 52 Villanueva's moderate turn was criticized by Pentecostals within his party. In interviews with me, he noted that influential cadres accused him of becoming a compromiser, given that his son was now part of the oppressive class. For them, Aquino's discourse on reproductive health was a capitulation to the “neo-imperial dictate of the West” aiming at “decimating the Filipino population.” Thus, the same antagonistic lines between radical and pragmatic leftists which disaggregated the pro-reproductive health camp were present within Pentecostal members of Villanueva's party.
A remarkable shift also took place among the leadership of Villanueva's Philippines for Jesus Movement. Until 2011–12 both teaching arms, Intercessors for the Philippines and the Movement for National Transformation, did not themselves issue statements on reproductive health, but they did align with the position papers released by the Bangon Pilipinas Party and pledged full support to its standard bearer, Villanueva. However, in the wake of the new media hype, which occurred through Aquino's (re)invention of reproductive health, they changed sides. Intercessors for the Philippines issued an anti-reproductive health manifesto that urged the government not to push the bill through. Invoking phrases such as the “sanctity of marriage” and “freedom of religion,” the manifesto warned that the new law would be a gateway to abortion, divorce, and same-sex marriage, and that this would harm “the religious identity of the Philippines.”Footnote 53 Thus, practically, Intercessors for the Philippines aligned with the Catholic discourse. Yet they still allowed contraceptives such as condoms, as long as they were used by married couples, which made them appealing to Catholic middle-class people (even though the latter would keep decisions like these rather private). This shift allowed the leaders of Intercessors for the Philippines to emancipate themselves from the two-time presidential loser Villanueva and to present themselves as sensitive to the loopholes leading toward legalization of abortion they thought they detected in the reproductive health bill. It also allowed them to gain more popularity among Catholic constituencies as they adapted a rhetoric that was conservative and yet allowed for a less conservative practice than that promoted in the official teaching of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. In fact, the manifesto was actively disseminated by Catholic anti-reproductive health campaigners, thus providing Intercessors for the Philippines excellent publicity.
In a similar way, the Movement for National Transformation also changed sides in the debate on reproductive health. From 2012 onward its seminars, “Christian Politics,” whose primary public was Pentecostal pastors, included a large section on anti-reproductive health. This, at first glance, seemed to be in accordance with the officially morally conservative Catholic mainstream. It warned that the reproductive health law, especially its sections on mandatory sex-education in school, would lead society to sin and self-destruction. For example, the Kikay Kit, a sex-education pamphlet distributed by the United States Agency for International Development, was cited in order to warn that reproductive health would foster a culture of selfishness, particularly a section of the pamphlet that explained “masturbation” as “a way of knowing our bodies and release tension.”Footnote 54 This was read through the lens of a popular Augustinian theology of sin, where selfishness was viewed as the metaphysical root cause of all evil on earth and as the earmark of the civitas diaboli (kingdom of the devil). However, contrary to Intercessors for the Philippines and to the Catholic mainstream, the Movement for National Transformation conceived selfishness as greed, which was understood in a framework of Marxist social analysis. As was the case with the former Pentecostals, the critique of reproductive health served to politically mobilize churches. Given the constituency, it was necessary to articulate the political in the Pentecostal idiom. The powers to be challenged were called “Satan … and his sons.”Footnote 55 In contrast to the meaning of this phrase that one might expect from the current state of the research on Filipino Pentecostalism, however, the sons of Satan were not the unbelievers.Footnote 56 Rather, the sons of Satan were “the capitalist[s]” engaged in “systemic exploitation” along with multinationals: “Foreign Interest, Big Landlords, Big Businessmen, Key Government/ Military Officials, Judges [determined to] sustain their political power base.”Footnote 57
Quoting Mao Tse-tung, the 2012 Movement for National Transformation seminar explained that effectively changing the political status quo required Pentecostals to “build a political machinery” and “a mass line.” With regard to the machinery, the seminar recommended aligning with opposition parties at the local level.Footnote 58 With regard to the mass line,Footnote 59 the Movement for National Transformation recommended forming “a synthesis of the desires and aspirations of the people” to engage in “good propaganda … [that] is close to the hearts of the people … [to be] mobilized.”Footnote 60 To reach this aim it was necessary to employ the morally conservative discourse of the majority-population influenced by the Catholic hierarchy, in spite of inner-Catholic contestation.Footnote 61
With this shift from pro- to anti-reproductive health, the grassroots organization Movement for National Transformation aimed at emancipating itself from Villanueva and tried to launch a staunch bottom-up approach that would not focus on filing its own candidate and on the short-lived campaign period, but on long term political education at the grassroots (that is, the mass-line strategy mentioned above). After the 2010 defeat, the Movement for National Transformation's founder, Wyden King, a former cadre of the Communist Party of the Philippines, became critical of Villanueva's top-down approach. Reproductive health was a means to articulate an alternative, on the one hand, to the radical left that, according to the Movement for National Transformation, had opted for violence and operated with anachronistic Cold War paradigms. On the other hand, Movement for National Transformation presented itself as an alternative to the parliamentary approach of Villanueva, who although striving for social reforms was perceived as being shortsighted and having been co-opted by the government.