Thanks to Mideo Cruz, visual artist, whose current work, "Poleteismo" (Polytheism), exhibited until recently at the CCP (Cultural Center of the Philippines), drives home that very point. Having lived in this country for all my life, I must say that the negative reaction (to put it mildly) to Cruz's art isn't exactly unexpected, but remains to be a disappointment.
(Photo above courtesy and credited to Reuters/Romeo Ranoco. For the full Reuters article, please go to http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/08/02/uk-philippines-artist-controversy-idUSLNE77103I20110802.)
Disclosure time: I am NOT a Catholic. This makes me a minority in this country in terms of religious preference. To Catholic conservatives, this gives me the "devil's advocate" voice - how apropos that pun is in this context, seeing as how Cruz has been called a "devil" because of his work.
It also magnifies how one cannot escape the topic of religion in this country, whatever sphere of discourse or discussion is to be had.
Specifically, how Catholicism permeates practically all aspects of our lives on a daily basis. And given that I was never a Catholic to begin with, I have felt this intrusion more acutely, all my life. Which really begs the question of this post's title - are we really a democracy, where it counts - in substance?
Constitutionally, we are established as a democracy. From everything that I have read and understood about democracy, a democratic government cannot impose a state religion, precisely because it would go against the concept of freedom of religion, which is guaranteed under our Constitution. (See Section 5 of Article 3, Bill Of Rights, Philippine Constitution: http://www.chanrobles.com/article3.htm)
At this juncture, I need to emphasize a salient point, one which conveniently escapes most conservatives when they make impassioned pleas on behalf of their religion: RELIGION IS A CHOICE. No one is "born" a Catholic, a Buddhist, a Protestant, etc. This is a choice every person has to make on his/her own volition, notwithstanding the customary fact that babies in this country are "automatically" baptized as Catholic within a certain amount of days from birth. The reason for the emphasis is that most of the criticisms leveled against Cruz has been that he has been "blasphemous" and "disrespectful" of the Catholic faith, and how "insensitive" he is, given that we are "the only Catholic nation in Asia" (as that phrase has been drilled into us in every social studies class that ever existed in this country).
Excuse me, are you saying that no one can criticize or say anything construed as "negative" against the Catholic faith?
I find that idea to be utterly laughable, except that this is exactly what's happening: anybody who hits the slightest of discordant notes about Catholicism in this country is automatically judged as an "enemy of the (Catholic) faith", and must be dealt with. Which is why I'm not laughing at all.
This is how Cruz explains his "Poleteismo": "This speaks about objects that we worship, how we create these gods and idols, and how we in turn are created by our gods and idols." (Quoted from the same Reuters article, link above.) The portion which offended the conservatives - a crucifix with a movable penis - is merely a small part of what the artist intended to convey, but naturally, this is where the "controversy" centered, who on earth cares about the other "pieces". The myopia exhibited is simply staggering in its' audacity to be propped up as the truth.
In return, Cruz has received death threats - from the pious defenders of the "offended" faith. (And quite obviously, from the artist's explanation, it was not his intention to single out any one faith - the title says it quite succinctly, polytheism.) Members of the CCP who were responsible for allowing this exhibit were also given death threats (see Raissa Robles' excellent commentary on this as well, http://raissarobles.com/2011/08/09/meet-our-new-philippine-president-her-excellency-madame-imelda-marcos/).
This issue is another litmus test for the elasticity of democracy - that it should allow different beliefs and views to be expressed freely. Unfortunately, we have failed this test, yet again. You may not agree with the views presented by Cruz, but it doesn't give anyone the right to stifle his views as well. Anyone is free to disagree with his point of view, but to threaten him with death? Is this an example of our purported "democracy"?
I have never subscribed any kind of adoration for Mary as she is seen through the eyes of every Catholic. As it was explained to us both in the school and church of my childhood, she was merely a vessel. It could have easily been Samantha, or Louella. And if you've ever sat through one of our pastor's sermons, you would know that he has a special section devoted to lambasting Catholics: the amount of statues that Catholics pray to was - in his view - a direct violation of the Biblical admonition, "Thou shalt not have any other gods before Me." In fact, while he says he is friends with several Catholics, it saddens him that "they will never get to heaven".
Will Catholics now have the right to stone me to death for not having the same amount of reverence and adoration that they have for "Mama Mary"? Does that give them the right to now kill my (childhood) pastor for having these "blasphemous" thoughts - he practically consigned all Catholics to hell? On the scale of gravity, I would sumrise that what the pastor said about Catholics would be even more diabolical than what Cruz exhibited in "Poleteismo".
If you think I'm being facetious with these questions, think again.
Where else do you have government offices with a Marian statue, complete with flower offerings, candles and a spotlight? I remember going to the BIR (Bureau of Internal Revenue) mid-afternoon, and when the clock hit 3 PM, everything stopped: an announcement came on the speakers that it was time for the 3PM Prayer, most everyone stood up and recited along (while I, along with 2 others who were obviously non-Catholics, just sat and waited for it to end). Even malls have the Catholic rituals before they open their doors: Prayers are being said over the PA system right before the gateway to crass commercialism leads more shoppers deeper into their chosen vice.
At least malls get to pull their "I'm a private entity" card. What's irrational - and unforgivable - is the government more than tacitly supporting the Catholic faith - and as a result, its' viewpoint in its' very own corridors. This is a blatant violation of our Constitution. Before any lawyers gang up on me, I'm saying this as a private citizen who makes his views plain and simple: the State cannot endorse - nor be seen as endorsing, not even in the slightest - any religion under a democracy. That is how I understand that particular consitutional provision. (If any lawyer can say or convince me of another viewpoint, I would love to hear it. Honestly.)
This explains why the Catholic leaders in this country have long felt their entitlement in meddling into our national, political and legal affairs. The government has always made it more than allowable. In the current RH (Reproductive Health) Bill debates, it is rather clear that the Catholic edict that disallows any use of artificial contraception is the driving force behind the opposition to its' passage. This bill - in all its' forms - has been languishing in our Congress for more than a decade (we're nearing a second one as we speak), and it has been in this state precisely because of the power that the Catholic hierarchy has wielded. Threatening excommunication, staging rallies, going on media to air their views as the "correct" and "moral" one - they certainly believe in the end justifying the means.
The end being that only the Catholic view be held as "true" in this country.
So it really isn't surprising that Cruz and others who support his work are facing death threats by conservative people who think they have an exclusive birthright to morality and decency. If it's in service of the end goal, then everything is permissible. Don't get me started on the endorsement of the Philippine Daily Inquirer that those who tried to destroy Cruz's art in a physical sense are doing something "understandable" (see http://opinion.inquirer.net/9593/art-as-terrorism). How a member of an institution that is supposedly a bastion of free expression can condone censorship is beyond me.
"Poleteismo" achieved its' goal in that it certainly provoked closer scrutiny and discussion. The question becomes, if it affected you negatively, why and how did it do so? Could it be that his expression served as a mirror that challenged your preconceived notions and ideas about something as personal about faith? Note that the artist was showcasing his point of view - why does it seem to be so threatening?
Let's call it like it is. We are essentially a Catholic theocracy - where the Catholic viewpoint is viewed as king, nay, as god - but with the Filipino rationalization of "that's not what it says in our Constitution!", which allows those who push the Catholic way of thinking into our laws a disingenious way to avoid owning up to what is really happening.
Anyway, who cares? On paper, we are a democracy. You're free to dissent - as long as the Catholic leadership says it's "permitted".
Basta (as long as) on paper we're a democracy.