The Diplomatic Brinkmanship Behind Duterte’s God Remarks That Observers Have Glossed Over

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is undoubtedly one of the most sincere world leaders of the contemporary era. In a clear allusion to the religious doctrines about which he and his detractors have discussed over the past week, unlike many, Duterte has resisted the temptations of grandiosity that often accompanying being a head of state and has instead stayed true to his humble roots as a son and former mayor of Davao City. But just because Duterte speaks from the heart while using colourful language, does not mean that he is not a deeply pragmatic leader who is able to eschew ideology in order to accomplish the ordered execution of both foreign and domestic policy.

Duterte once stated, “I do not need personal loyalty but I want you to continue to be loyal in this country“. This is ultimately an expression of pragmatism which could just as easily be interpreted as meaning, ‘Even if you dislike my style, I invite you to support the substance of my policies and my fight against political and social corruption and breakdown’.

Duterte’s foreign policy has been centred on a rejection of ideology and an embrace of pragmatic win-win relationships that are both economically beneficial to the country as well as helpful to many of the urgent security needs of The Philippines. Domestically, Duterte has shown that he is willing to speak with all rivals whether his formal political rivals or armed insurgent groups. However,  if such discussions are not forthcoming or if they do not lead to tangible results, everything from total war against insurgents and martial law aimed at containing terrorists to a wholesale remodelling of the political system of the country will remain firmly on the table.



While not known for his honesty, former US President Richard Nixon was a master of the so-called “madman theory” whereby Nixon would allow self-evidently extreme “private statements” he made threatening total war and destruction of an opponent to be intentionally leaked, thus effectively frightening a rival nation or faction back to the negotiating table. While Nixon is remembered for his gruff exterior and his dishonesty in domestic politics, in terms of his foreign policy record, even many of his opponents look to his detente with the Soviet Union and his so-called “opening” of China as positive outcomes for all involved.

While the Catholic Church in The Philippines is not a foreign state, the Church’s meddling and neo-colonial relationship with the secular political affairs of The Philippines are just as serious as anything a foreign power could do to a country short of an all out military conflict. Because of the Catholic Church’s associations with the former colonial regime of Spain, its negative relationship with anti-colonial Philippine hero Jose Rizal and its attachment to what is legally defined as a sovereign state, The Holy See (The Vatican) – Duterte’s dealings with the Church require the same sort of strategy and skills that one would require when dealing with a traditional foreign power.

While many Filipinos and followers of Philippine society have discussed the wide ranging social implications of Duterte lambasting Catholic dogma and inviting his countrymen to develop a more direct relationship with God, simultaneous to refusing to retract his remarks directed towards the Roman Catholic Church leadership in the country, Duterte also instigated a format for dialogue sessions between his administration and clerics from the Catholic Church in The Philippines.

Thus, one clearly sees both a social and political/legal component to Duterte’s remarks. Duterte has already made his intentions clear in respect of hoping to foster a more introspective and less submissive attitude among his countrymen towards religion by “shaking the tree” of old dogmas in the hope of awakening the nation from “the doldrums”.

Legally, Duterte has frequently warned Church leaders not to meddle in the sovereign affairs of the political state of the nation. Duterte seems keen to enforce the neglected provisions of The Philippine Constitution mandating a separation of institutional church from state. As author Aries Rufo correctly described, where in many nations, revolutions tend to make organised churches or other religious institutions weaker or more peripheral, in The Philippines the many political shifts of the 20th century have only served to make the role of the Roman Catholic Church in politics stronger, broader and more worrying to those who seek to uphold the separation of church and state.



Today, the Roman Catholic Church in The Philippines is akin to The Liberal Party at prayer and thus it represents the dangerous prospect of what should be an apolitical religious body openly associating itself with a vocal yet increasingly unpopular political opposition. Simultaneously, in seeking to wrap themselves in the Cross, Liberals and others opposed to Duterte’s reforms seek to paint themselves as somehow more Godly than Duterte and his supporters – something which is a prima facie threat to the democratic integrity of Philippine politics.

In organising meetings with what could be called ‘the Catholic opposition’ just after issuing his most vocal condemnation of Church leadership to-date, Duterte is essentially using a time tested diplomatic tactic where he seeks to invite clerics to ‘call his bluff’ in the same way that Nixon invited geopolitical rivals to call his bluff through the use of the madman theory.

In other words, the Church now realises that Duterte is wiling and able of using his platform as head of state to expose the corruption, hypocrisy and deficiencies of the institutional church, all the while guiding open minded Filipinos towards a path to God which does not necessarily rely on the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

As The Philippines remains an overwhelmingly religious nation, Duterte has thrown down a major gauntlet to clerics. Either they can face reality and withdraw the church from the secular political life of the nation or risk an incredibly popular democratic leader issuing more statements to his countrymen which will inevitably push some if not many of them away from a religious institution that began losing credibility long before Duterte was elected.



Duterte therefore is giving his people and the wider world spiritual guidance that is shaped by an honest reflection of his personal experiences while also giving the Church’s de-facto political arm a warning: cease your meddling or there will be more powerful and influential anti-clerical rhetoric to come.

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