Last month’s presidential election in the Philippines was deemed its most divisive to date. As the country inaugurates its new leader this week, are evangelicals ready to move forward?
The 2022 race in the 7,000-plus-island archipelago raised the typical election acrimony to new heights, including among Christians who championed the two leading candidates.
Brethren dissolved their friendships over political debates, mutually condemning each other for supposedly casting the future of the nation into ruin by the choice of their preferred candidate.
Churches reported how members left Bible study groups and even their local fellowships due to perceptions that their pastors or church officials endorsed “presidentiables”—presidential hopefuls—they opposed.
With president-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. formally taking his oath June 30, evangelicals have begun to come to a place of mutual understanding and have committed to pray for the new leader regardless of whether they voted for him.
Pastors, for their part, are channeling the momentum around the election to missional efforts to bless the country. They’ve discouraged members from burning bridges over politics.
“The church, your community, is your family. It will always be there for you in a way that your candidate might not be,” said Dennis Sy, senior pastor of Victory Makati, a location of one of the largest multisite churches in the Philippines. “Now that the elections are over, we are going to journey together whether we voted for that candidate or not.”
Marcos, nicknamed “Bongbong” and known as BBM, has held various political offices, most recently a senatorial post. He is also the son and namesake of the famous Philippine strongman who ruled the country for more than 20 years before being toppled by the People Power Revolution in 1986. The senior Marcos’s era has been synonymous with the loss of democratic freedoms, human rights violations, and massive graft and corruption.
Filipino voters who opposed his run were concerned that the younger Marcos would bring back those dark days. Worse, he might erase or rewrite the history of martial law that saw thousands killed or imprisoned without legal due process. Meanwhile, supporters saw in him a return to the order and economic stability of his father’s term.
Well aware of the shadow of controversy looming over his candidacy, Marcos asked voters to judge him “not by my ancestors, but by my actions.”
While there were other presidential candidates—including world-renowned boxer and committed Christian Manny Pacquiao—Marcos’s main opponent was outgoing vice president Leni Robredo. Robredo was seen as an alternative to the traditional corrupt politician (or trapo, which means “dirt rag” in Filipino).
Her supporters hailed her lack of affiliation with any political dynasty, scandal-free government record, and the 16-hour-a-day work ethic with which she served her constituents. Detractors pointed out her lack of government experience as well as a veneer of “elitism” that disconnected her from her financially struggling countrymen, almost a quarter of whom are mired in poverty, barely managing to eke out the $240 a month needed to feed a family of five.
Many who supported Robredo saw her as the clear choice between a good and bad candidate. One Christian teacher who spoke to CT got engaged in a door-to-door campaign for Robredo, something outside her comfort zone. (She asked to remain unnamed out of fear of reprisal since her community rents land from the government.)
She brought materials from the subdivisions to the shanties, discussing the issues with anyone who would listen. She said she wasn’t afraid to share her position with acquaintances who were on the Marcos side as “it was really done in the spirit of genuine love for them and the country.”
Meanwhile, Rem Pinero, an Overseas Filipino Worker based in the Middle East, disengaged from Robredo supporters who he thought would argue with him about his support for Marcos. “Tensions were high during the campaign period,” he looks back. “Some Christians had forgotten what it was to become Christlike.”
Overseas workers like Pinero totaled over 1.5 million registered voters in the presidential election; they were able to cast their ballots in person in embassies and consulates or by mail.
When political messages came up in the Bible study groups at his Filipino church in the United Arab Emirates, he advised participants to respond without anger. “Respect” for the individual and their choice was his perpetual refrain, even to fellow Marcos allies who questioned why his own two grown children were voting for Robredo.
“My kids asked me why I supported Marcos, and I said so without defending, apologizing, or being hostile,” said Pinero, a widower. “We just agreed to respect each other’s opinions and points of view. There were no arguments at home or anything breaking out of anger.”
Describing himself as a Marcos “supporter, but not a fanatic,” Pinero chose his candidate because he felt that he had the right mixture of discipline and positivity: “Unlike others who just kept hyping the negative and criticizing the other candidates, he stayed above it all. … That attitude can bring about the unity that our country needs. When people ask me why I could vote for him given his family history, I cannot judge the son or any child by the sins of the father or the parent.”
Relationships over politics
Now that Marcos has won in a landslide victory, Pinero advises his friends on both sides of the political divide to reach out to each other. He also admonishes his pro-Marcos friends not to gloat.
“When I meet Christians who are Robredo supporters, I still treat them the same way, like nothing has changed, and that we are still friends and brethren,” he said. “Had Robredo won, I would have wanted them to extend the same courtesy to me.”
Sy at Victory Makati advocates relationships over politics. He sees the last elections as both “practice and a challenge for the church to respond in the most biblical way and not burn bridges.”
The unity of the Christian leaders despite their political and theological differences is paramount for Bishop Dan Balais, national chairman of the Intercessors for the Philippines (IFP). Balais often coordinates with leaders at the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) and the Philippines for Jesus Movement (PJM).
He describes the three huge organizations as akin to the pillars of the Philippine Christian church: PCEC’s focus is on the pastoral and teaching ministries; PJM is apostolic; and IFP leans toward the prophetic and intercessory.
Until the COVID-19 lockdowns, the bishops and their pastors had been meeting regularly every year since 2012 for the Palawan Leaders’ Summit. They wear covenant rings “to remind us that no matter our differences, we will not allow [our relationship and the unity] to break,” says Balais. “The elections are over, we had different candidates, but we said that we will not separate from each other.”
According to Balais, many churches based in Mindanao—the third main island in the Philippines—voted for Marcos. His running mate and vice-president-elect, Sara Duterte-Carpio, was the former mayor of the region’s Davao City. Some Christian groups chose Pacquiao apparently because of his Christian faith. IFP, which is connected to 7,000 local churches, openly endorsed Robredo. So did Christ the Living Stone Fellowship (CLSF), a network of 500 churches, led by Balais as senior pastor.
“We don’t have bloc voting,” Balais clarifies, referring to one political exercise usually done by a homegrown religious organization in the Philippines, the Iglesia ni Cristo, where the main shepherd chooses the presidentiable that all members will unanimously vote for. “Our members are still free to choose their candidate.”
IFP’s endorsement of Robredo was more of a “discernment. We have to make a choice and lead the people in making that choice,” continues Balais. “The ones we endorse were impressed to us by the Lord. They will not necessarily win. If they lose, it does not necessarily mean we are wrong. We are standing on the principle.”
IFP’s and CLSF’s backing of Robredo was a long and prayerful process that started with the two organizations developing leadership criteria to guide their voting flock for the 2022 elections. It culminated in their alliance with 1Sambayan, a “broad coalition of democratic forces” that offered a very similar voters’ guide.
Praying for the president
When the other evangelical groups who initially joined 1Sambayan eventually pulled out, IFP stayed because Balais believed that the Lord wanted them to honor their covenant.
“When 1Sambayanan supported Robredo, we had the same criteria: character, competence, and ability to lead,” says Balais. “But remove the covenant, which is our basis, and we will still look at her.”
As far as the traditional position that the church must remain neutral politically, Balais candidly states, “IFP has crossed that line.” Its ministries of intercession and prophecy are actively seeking what God is saying to the nation at a particular point in time, praying for it, and acting accordingly.
Now in the election aftermath, one thing all sides can agree on is praying for the president-elect.
Taking a page out of the hard lessons learned by Rehoboam, Pinero’s prayer for Marcos is very specific: “That he be surrounded by just, honest, and excellent advisers who have a genuine love for the country.”
To date, most of Marcos’s appointments of officials into his cabinet, especially the finance, central bank, public works and highways, and trade have been generally welcomed by the people, economists, the business community, and foreign think tanks. (At a recent IFP service, Balais admits that the appointments have been “good.” Prior to that, he told CT, “What is God about to do? Can he use Marcos? We never know. We all agreed to pray for him.”)
Meanwhile, the Christian teacher who campaigned for Robredo says that she has a “sincere desire and openness to be proven wrong about [Marcos’s] capabilities.” She continues to pray and fast for the new president and his family.
Sy addresses the lingering fear of the return of martial law under Marcos, which he said was a speculative worry. “Christians should know their role,” the pastor said. “Prayer is the primary response to every crisis and situation.”
Nation and kingdom building
The election has also reinvigorated plans for evangelism, church growth, and the discipleship of a whole nation into righteousness in all spheres Christians inhabit, including the marketplace and governance.
Based on prophecy, Balais holds that the Philippines must become a “nation of Davids”—moral people who love righteousness—as a prerequisite for God to raise up an equally righteous, moral, and God-fearing president.
“How do you do that? Through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which is a major part of evangelism,” he said. “People enter the kingdom of God, are born again, are taught the Word of God, and their character is discipled.”
To Sy, transformation can also come about by fulfilling the church’s mission of being a light to the world. As a young pastor in San Juan years ago, he rallied his church to provide relief to victims of flooding while working with city hall.
“The majority of the volunteers were from the church,” recalls Sy. “The mayor and the vice mayor both saw this. That was an open door for us to minister to our local officials. They saw that we had no agenda.”
The experience and others like it have led him to conclude, “Partnering with the local government is something that every church should do. The church cannot be partisan. If I start taking sides, will I have the position to minister the gospel to all, no matter what side they chose? Daniel worked under three administrations because he never went political.”
The Christian teacher recalls a food vendor who told her, “You’re just here with us if there is a campaign. After the campaign, you’re all the same—you’ll just vanish.” That exchange gave her a stronger resolve to work with her Christian community to “pursue activities that will provide concrete relief for our less-fortunate countrymen, whether they voted for Robredo or not.”
The election aftermath just might have broken new ground for planting the seeds of the gospel and bringing social transformation. Christians who might have been disappointed by the presidential outcome are experiencing a wake-up call, particularly among young people, who compose more than 40 percent of the population.
“They went out to the streets to campaign—not so much for Robredo or for Marcos but because of their love for the nation,” said Sy, who’s 40.
Victory Makati has a campus ministry in the public schools to “reach a generation of young people and young leaders mostly living in poverty. Through that, you are affecting change already.” At the same time, Sy concedes that Victory’s effort in transforming the nation, which was started by the main church more than 30 years ago, is “a long game.”
Balais, who helped birth IFP and CLSF also in the 1980s, equally foresees that the raising of a “nation of Davids is for the long-term.” The 69-year-old bishop adds, “Hopefully, we shall still be alive when that happens.”
In the meantime, with a new president taking the helm, Balais advises his brethren, regardless of their electoral choice, “Let us pray for God’s mercy, which triumphs over judgment. Let us preserve the unity of the Spirit. Make ourselves a prisoner of peace. Above all, have fervent love for each other, as love covers a multitude of sins.”