Column: The Christian in politics

Published on December 16, 2008

“Rekindling The Fire,” the forum on the political legacy of Raul Manglapus on the occasion of the great Christian Democrat’s 90th birthday, raised the temperature inside an Ateneo de Manila University conference hall one nippy afternoon the other week. (By the time the three-part conference ended, fog had descended on parts of the Loyola Heights campus.)

Much of the heat came from the warm glow of recollection: 1971 Constitutional Convention delegates Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and Teofisto Guingona recalled details from their first foray into politics and their first encounters with Manglapus; Ramon Magsaysay Jr. recounted the heady days when his father served as president and explained why it was only natural, like a very law of physics, for young men like him orphaned by his father’s death to gravitate toward Manglapus, the country’s youngest-ever foreign secretary; Lito Lorenzana, a former undersecretary, spoke about the moment Manglapus recognized him in a meeting, asked him whether he was from the Ilocos, and then pronounced: “We must be related.” From that time on, Lorenzana said, “I was his forever.”

(Lorenzana’s recollections were truly Manglapus-like in that they reminded all of us in the hall about the romance of politics. For better or for worse, this is still how many politicians and political workers get started. Before it is a calling or, worse, a business, politics is a campaign, even a crusade.)

Former national security adviser Jose Almonte also contributed to the rise in temperature (I am, of course, speaking merely metaphorically) when he proposed “the only way” (I may have heard him say these or similar words) to change the Constitution: to ask the people during the 2010 elections if they want Charter change, and then to convene a constitutional convention soon after.

It was former Cabinet member Louie Lagdameo’s tracing of the genealogy of Manglapus’ Christian Social Movement (CSM), however, which gave me a prickly sensation. Lagdameo drew a relatively straight line from CSM (of which he was a prime mover) to the present-day Lakas-CMD party. I respect Lagdameo; his own place in history is secure. (Jose Luis Alcuaz, during the open forum, addressed him as “junior mentor,” placing him in almost the same category as the honoree himself.) I may also be guilty of simplifying his remarks a little too bluntly. But I found myself underwhelmed. Surely the Lakas-CMD (formerly the National Union of Christian Democrats) cannot be Manglapus’ living legacy?

Indeed, I went to the forum organized by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and hosted by the Ateneo de Manila School of Government curious mainly about contemporary considerations of Manglapus’ Christian faith, and how it served him in politics. Lagdameo’s remarks came closest to that expectation, especially when he summed up the Manglapus view of politics in this wise: to the notion that politics is risky for Christians because it hosts the seven deadly sins, one must counter with the idea that politics, too, is home to the seven cardinal virtues.

But Lakas-CMD as the repository of these virtues? Lagdameo did not press this conclusion, but listening to him the conclusion seemed to me inevitable. And it diminishes Manglapus’ legacy. Together with Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo and Manuel Manahan (like him, devout Catholics elected into the Senate), Manglapus unsettled the Filipino Catholic’s easy assumption that politics was “dirty,” and best left to politicians.

A fuller reckoning of Manglapus’ faith-driven politics awaits a grateful nation.

* * *

We have certainly come a long way from Manglapus’ early days as a Christian engaged in politics. Today, the best argument for Christians to take part in the dirty world of politics is also the most recent. In “Deus Caritas Est,” Pope Benedict XVI discusses the different but complementary roles of Church and State with great clarity.

One key passage reads: “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.”

* * *

The counterpoint in that passage— “A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church”—reappears in “Passport to a New Philippines,” guidelines for “political renewal and stability” published this week by Ang Kapatiran Party [The Brotherhood Party].

It is one key that unlocks the little book—and one reason why both the guidebook and the political party that published it exist in the first place.

The “Passport” explains why it is in the Filipino Catholic’s best interests to get involved in the politics. But the Kapatiran document is not only a catechism; it is also a manual for political work, beginning with the basic unit of the “barangay,” or village.

What I like best about the book, however, is its Obama-esque organizing potential. Interested parties can publish their own editions of the “Passport,” and distribute it themselves, simply by getting in touch with Eric Manalang, Kapatiran president. The next chapter in the Manglapus tradition may be in the writing.

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