Religion and politics: an alliance of money, influence, and power

If there is one event that sent chilling shockwaves to the whole world in 2022, aside from the Russian special military operations in Ukraine and the end of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign as the head of state of the United Kingdom, it would definitely be the assassination of the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan, a country renowned for its public safety and pacifist image with virtually no recent history of gun-related violence, had witnessed its former head of government shot with an improvised firearm in broad daylight during the campaign trail. The perpetrator was previously a member of the Japanese Self Defense Forces, which is essentially to their Armed Forces because the current constitution inhibits Japan to organize its military. His words demonstrated the unholy alliance between religion and politics behind the curtains. This ended up opening new wounds regarding organized religion, remarkable considering that Japan isn’t even a deeply religious country in comparison to other nations.

The assassin’s primary motive for killing the renowned prime minister stems from the fact that the late leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) supported and received political backing from the Unification Church. This South Korean organized movement is labelled as a religious cult by some Japanese academes due to the organization’s use of unscrupulous methods to influence its members. Members of the Unification Church are compelled to purchase various goods at ridiculous prices to boost their “spiritual sales”. This forced some of its members to sell personal properties and even bankrupted numerous families including that of the perpetrator’s. These sales are remitted to Seoul to further expand the religion overseas. With a massive pool of financial resources gained from crippling Japanese families, politicians went close to the Unification Church for political support in the form of votes during the elections. With these politicians providing political recognition, the religious movement enjoyed blanket protection from having to answer to such controversies.

Aside from the Unification Church, Japan also had a horrendous history with another religious cult, the Aum Shinrikyo. This religious movement was the primary culprit for the 1995 terrorist attack in Tokyo’s subway, which had injured thousands and killed fourteen individuals. Sarin, a lethal nerve agent, was used by the perpetrators. The organization was also implicated in the murder of a lawyer and his family in 1989, as his actions as a religious cult buster was perceived as an existential threat for Aum Shinrikyo. In addition, the Matsumoto sarin attack, which served as a precursor to the 1995 sarin bioterrorism, was also linked to the aforementioned group. In the end, the Japanese government has decided to hang the perpetrators, including their founder, Shoko Asahara.

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Religion and politics have a long, intertwined history in various parts of the world. Starting with the predominantly Islamic region of the Middle East, the commercial, scientific, and military successes of the Saracens through the formation of a caliphate eventually led Islam as its primary religion. Fundamental differences between its preachers and believers created a significant rift between its major sects, where Sunni Islam and Shia Islam ended up flexing their muscles in a race to gain influence in the world’s largest powder keg. This can be observed with the Saud family in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia confronting the ayatollahs of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Geopolitics plays a significant role in the Middle Eastern Cold War, but differences in their understanding and interpretation of the Quran adds fuel to the fire.

Despite its seven decade-long history of state atheism, the Middle East’s northern neighbor has also had its own share of religion being intertwined with national politics, which can be observed even today. Russia, formerly the Soviet Union, actively promoted the profession of atheism to its satellite states in the Warsaw Pact. However, unlike Communism, Eastern Orthodoxy stood the test of time, as more Russians are professing their faith to the Orthodox Church. Even though organized religions in Russia are compelled to declare and pay taxes, the administration of President Vladimir Putin provided tax incentives to the Russian Orthodoxy, which in turn supported his political career.

Russia’s immediate European neighbors are no strangers to religion and politics. Western and Central Europe witnessed the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, which unified European territories who share the Catholic faith. European kings and monarchs lead and govern through this idea of the divine right, which legitimizes the political power held by these monarchies. This gave birth to the excesses of the aristocracy and the clergy. Augustinian friar Martin Luther rejected the practices of the Roman Catholic Church through his Ninety-five Theses, most specially these indulgences that have filled the pockets of priests, bishops, and cardinals. The birth of the Protestant faith eventually led to the Thirty Years’ War in the next century, where it resulted to the formation of the Treaty of Westphalia. This Westphalian system forms the backbone of exclusive territorial sovereignty in international relations. Needless to say, the Thirty Years’ War earmarked the emergence of Protestant Netherlands at the expense of Catholic Spain in the European continent, according to Ray Dalio’s “The Changing World Order”.

As a predominantly Catholic country in Asia Pacific, the Philippines also has a lengthy history with organized religion. During the Spanish colonial period, the geographical distance between Madrid and Manila hampered efficient administration of the colony. This left the Governor-General with no choice but to depend on Spanish priests to act and administer the country on behalf of the state. With discontent brewing in the Philippine society, these Spanish priests were eventually confronted with armed revolts. This confrontation unfortunately placed the blame on secular Filipino priests in the late 1870’s, with the public execution of Gomburza.

Despite the inviolable separation of Church and State stipulated in the 1987 Constitution where there will be no state religion, Filipino politicians continue to associate themselves with various religious entities and groups, most specially during elections. After all, these political candidates direly need these votes to propel themselves to power. Numerous politicians are seen cozying up with these religious movements, as their arms are being raised by their respective founders, where these public endorsements serve as guarantees for their victory. Such has been the brand of Philippine democracy.

Freedom of religion has been a core tenet in liberal democracies and is considered as a fundamental human right, where individuals and communities are given the liberty to practice their respective beliefs. Through religion, virtues and values are taught that would aid in having individuals develop a sound moral compass. This is greatly beneficial to the society as a whole because well-guided citizens serve as the foundation for strong yet inclusive societal institutions to emerge. However, religion should never be allowed to transform into a means to feed the greed of the powerful, the influential, and the wealthy. Unfortunately, nobody knows how to hold these organizations, backers, and associates liable and accountable for these deplorable consequences.

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