Tough-talking Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte must have known he was playing with fire when he called God a “son of a bitch” who is “really stupid” in a country where 80 per cent of the population is Catholic.
His approval rating plummeted to a personal low of 45 per cent after the comments, according to local pollster Social Weather Stations’ “net satisfaction” survey released this week, down from a high of 66 per cent a year ago.
Analysts said last month’s attack against such a venerable institution was an attempt by Duterte to distract Filipinos from unfulfilled promises as he marked two years as leader.
Now the 73-year-old firebrand risks seeing his popularity go down the drain among the country’s 100 million people unless urgent steps are taken to tackle the country’s social problems, they said, as inflation for June soared to 5.2 per cent from a year ago, the highest mark in about five years.
“Duterte seems to be testing to what extent he can get away with his acerbic remarks on powerful institutions in the Philippines. Without restraint and given his gradually declining ratings, the risks are really high,” said Aries Arugay, an associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
“As far as the reaction of the religious groups, they are displaying calm and sobriety. But the church can easily gather itself and rise to challenge the president if provoked – and I think that is what Duterte is doing.”
In the Philippines, it is common practice for politicians to seek the endorsement of the Christian community, especially Iglesia ni Cristo. The sect, which supported Duterte in the 2016 election, is believed to have two million members who vote as a bloc.
The Pilipino Movement for Transformational Leadership group, consisting of Christian faith-based communities, was formed in 2015 and endorsed both of Duterte’s opponents, Grace Poe and Mar Roxas, in the election. But the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, which represents the country’s Catholic leaders, did not endorse any candidates.
Maria Ela Atienza, editor of the Philippine Political Science Journal, said while the president still has a solid support base, his statements against the God could be “a stronger basis for the growing but still disunited opposition”.
“If the Catholic Church and other Christian groups become more articulate publicly in their comments about the abuses and missteps of the administration, this may affect the [midterm] 2019 elections,” she said.
“Satisfaction among people is getting lower because peace and order has not improved significantly, people affected by the Marawi siege are complaining about the slow pace of rehabilitation, the promised jobs are not coming, the economy is not improving and a lot of people, priests and local government are being killed.”
The controversial comments were made when Duterte questioned the Biblical story of creation, challenging why God created Adam and Eve only to expose them to temptation.
“Who is this stupid God? This son of a bitch is then really stupid,” Duterte said in a speech in Davao.
The comments caused a backlash, with Arturo Bastes, a Catholic bishop, calling the president a “psychological freak, a psychopath, an abnormal mind who should not have been elected as president of our civilised and Christian nation”.
But that did not silence Duterte, who continued to challenge religion, saying on July 6 that he would immediately resign if anyone can prove that God exists.
In a surprising twist, as the backlash escalated, Duterte this week met Archbishop Romulo Valles, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, and agreed to a moratorium on statements about the church – only to break it the next day.
Without naming Duterte, the powerful religious body issued a letter on Monday.
“To … those who blaspheme our God as stupid, St Paul’s words are to the point,” the letter said.
It quoted the apostle as saying, “for the stupidity of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strengths” and “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise … so no human being might boast before God”.
The letter continued: “The church respects the political authority, especially of democratically elected officials, as long as they do not contradict the basic spiritual and moral principles we hold dear, such as respect for the sacredness of life, the integrity of creation, and the inherent dignity of the human person.”
Duterte did issue what has been described as a lukewarm apology, saying on Tuesday after meeting religious leaders that he would only apologise to his “all-forgiving” God.
“If it’s the same God, I’m sorry,” he said. “Sorry, God.”
Eleanor R. Dionisio, associate director of the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues, said it was inappropriate for Duterte to attack a religion, and that he was setting a bad example for all Filipinos.
She said upper- and middle-class Catholics in her parish have become increasingly vocal about their “dislike” of the government over the past few months, fuelled in part by the president’s remarks against God.
“Since the collapse of the [Ferdinand] Marcos dictatorship, the Church has grown complacent about its social mission, and we have wasted our energies on less important issues,” she said.
“It would be good to see the Catholic Church, and other Christian churches, actively engage once more in concerns around Christianity’s core social principles, such as human dignity, social justice, and the empowerment of people.”
Congressman Tom Villarin said Duterte attacked God to distract Filipinos on pressing issues the country was facing.
“President Duterte’s lack of governance and economic management skills are factors pulling down the economy.
“He has also not delivered on populist promises like ending contractualisation, increasing salaries of workers, and staving off high prices of basic commodities like rice.” ■