This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
How has a foul-mouthed, womanizing, Biblically illiterate populist earned the broad democratic endorsement of socially conservative, Christian voters? It’s a question that has prompted much liberal hand-wringing in the United States, but it has found an even more extreme manifestation in the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines.
In May 2016, months before Donald Trump claimed the White House, the Philippines voted Rodrigo Duterte to that country’s presidency. A crass, fire-breathing strongman with a shadowy history of violence in the southern city of Davao, where he earned the nickname “the Death Squad Mayor,” Duterte won a landslide plurality on fantastical campaign promises to clear Metro Manila traffic — some of the worst in the world — in 100 days, to weed out corruption at its roots, and, in his banner program, to scrub the country of crime and poverty through an unforgiving war on drugs.
More than four in five Filipinos identify as Catholic. By any metric, the Philippines is one of the most Catholic countries in the world. But Duterte has wasted little energy on the pretense of a pious life. He has instead presented himself as proudly irreligious, boasting of sexual escapades, cursing with abandon, and, famously, decrying Pope Francis as the “son of a whore.” He has also made good on campaign promises to brutally rid the country of drug dealers and users. Since Duterte took office, as many as 25,000 Filipinos have died in police operations and summary executions. “God will weep if I become president,” he said in 2015.
But despite bloodshed and blasphemy, Duterte has sustained soaring popularity. Until October of this year, Duterte’s approval ratings had hovered around 80 percent. Like Trump, President Duterte speaks without a filter. Like Trump, he is transparently irreligious. And like Trump, in spite of it all, he has found support deep in his country’s religious ranks.
From Vladimir Putin, a former Soviet spymaster who has recast himself as the protector of Russian Orthodoxy, to Viktor Orban, a former radical student leader who now vows to defend Hungary’s Christian values in Europe, to Trump himself, conservative populists around the globe have sought the support of religious leaders and religious voters alike.
But unlike these others, Duterte has made no show of pandering to religious sensibilities . Why, in a country far more uniformly religious than the United States, has he gotten away with it?
His success challenges assumptions about the very nature of religious appeal: If it’s not personal virtue or policies that conform with established doctrines, what is it that religious voters really want from their national leaders? When a tough-talking Duterte presented the public with a choice between a troubled church and himself, many of the devout opted for the latter.
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In the United States, Donald Trump has taken forced measures to court a white evangelical bloc that has loyally voted Republican since Ronald Reagan. Trump has given unprecedented media access to the Christian Broadcasting Network. He surrounds himself with figureheads of the evangelical movement, the television preacher Robert Jeffress, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., and the megachurch pastor Paula White. In awkward interviews in which he has declined to name a favorite verse from the Bible, he has nonetheless called it his favorite book and professed Christian faith.
Duterte, meanwhile, has made no such concessions. Instead, he has given Filipino Catholics every excuse imaginable to reject him. He once bemoaned that he missed the opportunity to participate in the 1989 gang rape of a missionary in Davao (refusing to apologize, he waived the line off as a joke, “gutter language”). He killed for the first time, he claims, when he was 16 years old, stabbing a man for a funny look. And once, he says, he threw a man out of an airborne helicopter. Beyond immoral boasts, Duterte has made the Philippine Catholic Church a public enemy, harping on its record of corruption and sexual abuse. In recent weeks he has maligned Bishop Pablo “Ambo” David, one of the most outspoken voices of the church hierarchy against the war on drugs, as a thief and a drug addict. Earlier this month he encouraged deadly violence against church leaders: “These bishops that you guys have, kill them,” he said. “They are useless fools.”
Despite his attacks on the church, Duterte was able to win early support from a significant portion of religious Catholics, especially those in the church who prioritized programs for their country’s poor, downtrodden, and forgotten. “Initially, I think there really were some sincere religious supporters of the president who thought that he could bring accountability, that he could combat corruption, and that he could prioritize the concerns of the average Filipino,” said David Buckley, a professor at the University of Louisville and the author of “Faithful to Secularism: The Religious Politics of Democracy in Ireland, Senegal and the Philippines.” The Rev. Ben Alforque, a priest in the province of Cebu whose parish has recently felt the brunt of drug war killings, argued that Filipino Catholics’ vote for Duterte was a “protest vote” against corrupt elites, many of them members of the church hierarchy. “Now we have a man who is a gate crasher. Who represents us. Who can do something for us. Even if he does it violently.”
Alforque is an organizer of the activist group Rise Up, which opposes the drug war that has become Duterte’s signature policy. Mostly under the cover of night, police drug busts in the now-infamous “Operation Knock and Plead” have left several thousand dead. Many more have been executed at the hands of masked vigilantes. An official government estimate released Tuesday put the body count at 5,000, but human rights groups say the figure could be as much as five times greater.
Yet Duterte has been skillful at blunting religious opposition to his presidency. He actually has “a level of experience working with religious elites,” according to Buckley, that made him “a subject of some real optimism” among segments of the Catholic population. Many religious environmentalists believed he would make environmental issues a national priority, and priests in the southern island of Mindanao, where Duterte is from, hoped that he could restore peace between militant insurgencies on the island. Buckley said that Duterte has “sophisticated relationships with religious actors” that have earned him religious support in an overwhelmingly Catholic but politically heterogenous electorate.
Duterte was raised Catholic, and his history in the church — he says he was abused by a priest as a boy — lends ammunition to his anti-establishment rhetoric. The Rev. Albert Alejo, a human rights activist and professor at Ateneo de Manila University, who overlapped with Duterte for a decade in Davao City, said that Duterte recognized the church as the most viable threat to his authoritarian leadership and, especially, to his war on drugs. Quickly and shrewdly, “he hit the church below the belt,” said Alejo, wielding the church’s record of sexual impropriety and abuse as moral leverage, and often brandishing the bestselling book “Altar of Secrets,” an expose on sex, money, and cover-ups among the Filipino hierarchy, as a weapon.
The same arrows that bounced off of Duterte stuck when aimed at the church. “It’s easy for him to admit it. It’s more difficult for the priests who are preaching good manners,” said Alejo. The church is made to look hypocritical while Duterte “becomes honest, authentic.” Ironically, then, the legacy of Catholicism in the Philippines allows Duterte more latitude: Buckley said that Duterte’s attacks on the Catholic Church do not register “as being anti-religious so much as anti-elite.”
Still, the president’s religious rhetoric can stretch beyond mere attacks on church institutions to undermine Catholic faith and Catholic believers. He has joked more than once about founding a “church of Duterte.” This year on All Saints Day, as people gathered by the thousands in cemeteries to pay respect to departed loved ones, Duterte questioned the foundation of the holiday. “Those Catholics are crazy,” he said, dismissing their saints as “fools” and “drunkards” and proposing himself as a worthier object of worship: “Santo Rodrigo.” Earlier this year, he aimed his favorite insult even higher than the pope, calling God himself a “son of whore,” and asking, “Who is this stupid God?”
Duterte’s open religious hostility does not seem to have lost him many supporters. In a less religious country like the United States, it is hard to imagine a major politician getting away with similar behavior. This is partially a difference of religious demographics. In the Philippines, “the Catholic vote” describes nearly everyone. It is not a demographic to be won, but rather the water in which every politician swims.
There are theological distinctions between evangelical Protestants and Catholics as well. As Karen E. Park wrote in the Catholic journal Commonweal before the 2016 election, to court the evangelical vote, Trump “doesn’t need works; he just needs to make an individual statement (accountable to no authority) that he is a Christian.” Duterte, meanwhile, has leaned on “a much more nuanced set of relations with religious leaders and with religion than Trump,” Buckley said, “I don’t think Trump thought about religion very much at all before he thought about getting involved with electoral politics.” In the Catholic Philippines, where faith is more rigidly defined and more necessarily evident, Trump’s fig leaf of religiosity could hardly hold up.
For many in the Catholic Church, Duterte’s election and the popularity of his drug war has revealed a grave moral crisis in the Philippines. “In the end, they are not just killing bodies,” Alejo said of the administration’s anti-drug operations, “They are killing our logic, and they are killing our moral foundations.” Bishop David calls his own diocese “a killing field” and has preached against what he names a “death of conscience” in the Philippines: “This government has succeeded in killing the conscience of the people in making it so easy for people to accept that these [victims of the drug war] deserve to die.”
The influence of the Filipino church, as with institutional religion in the United States, is waning. According to a Social Weather Station survey earlier this year, 41 percent of Filipino Catholics attend church weekly, down from 64 percent in 1991. Statements of national Catholic identity must be qualified, cautioned David. “The majority of our own Catholics are ‘unchurched’ Catholics.” David takes this as an issue of great personal anxiety. “As a church leader, I would say that I am a miserable failure in this diocese,” he said, “In spite of all the regular church services, in spite of all the masses that we celebrate, we have not quite succeeded in educating the consciences of the majority of people about even a basic sense of good and bad.”
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In his book “What is Populism?” Princeton professor Jan Werner Müller addresses the disconnect that many find between populist leaders and the people they claim to represent. “It might seem that the real populist leader is exactly the opposite of ‘us’ — which is to say ordinary,” Müller argues, “One chooses a populist politician because of his or her superior capacity to discern the common good, as judged by the people.” This is offered as an explanation for why a billionaire New York real-estate mogul can come to champion the Rust Belt working class, but the point applies just as well to why the irreligious can come to represent the religious: Neither Trump nor Duterte is evidently a good, practicing Christian, but this does not diminish their ability to serve as vehicles for the political interests of religious bases. To adapt a line from Müller, it would be naive to think that one has scored a decisive point against either American evangelicals or Filipino Catholics by pointing out that their political heroes are neither good evangelicals nor good Catholics.
Duterte’s bravado has served him well politically; for peaceable religious voters, a strongman can pursue goals and use methods that they, in good conscience, could not. Moreover, Duterte’s promise of order and stability — something the church itself might once have provided — meant more to voters in a devout country than whether a president abides by “thou shalt not kill.”
Still, some think that Duterte’s anti-Catholic rhetoric is beginning to fall flat. Recent polling suggests that he is hemorrhaging support, into the 50 percent range according to surveys released in October. Alforque believes Duterte’s crass language is “gradually losing its sting.” There was apparent backlash when Duterte elevated his attacks to God himself. “The Filipino spirit is like a pliant bamboo,” Alforque said, “but only up to a certain extent, then it snaps.”
What exactly is pushing former Duterte supporters to the brink, though, is not clear: the president’s nosedive in popular support coincides with rising inflation, a controversial tax, and resilient crime rates in the face of his war on drugs.
Nevertheless, like a tide receding from a rocky shore, Duterte is little by little exposing the fault lines of Catholic political support, uncovering the crooked contours of religious appeal. He sets an example that calls into question how much pandering is necessary — or if it is needed at all.
President Trump benefits from evangelicals’ decades-long habit of voting Republican, and from filling Supreme Court seats with nominees they like. In justifying support for Trump, Franklin Graham recently told Axios, “I never said he was the best example of the Christian faith. He defends the faith.” But what if he didn’t? Would evangelicals still back him? Maybe.
Or maybe the last, stubborn distinction between the politics of religion in the United States and the Philippines is this formality: In America, the president still has to fake it.
Adam Willis is a freelance writer.