President Rodrigo Duterte slams his hand lightly on the podium, as if to show exasperation. Speaking in his usual casual tone, he unloads an expletive-laden tirade over what he sees as a bizarre story rife with stupidity. This is the Filipino firebrand’s style — unfiltered, informal speeches littered with sometimes inappropriate jokes, slang and curses that make his audience feel like they’re listening to a friend and not the leader of their country.
But this time, as he spoke in front of a crowd in the city where he was mayor for more than two decades, Duterte was ranting about a story that many Filipinos hold dear. Mumbling at times and weaving between English and Tagalog, Duterte said:
What he did was, Eve eats the apple, then she wakes up Adam.… So Adam eats the apple. Then, malice was born. Who is this stupid God? That [expletive] is really stupid if that’s the case. You created something perfect, and then you think of an event that would tempt and destroy the quality of your work. How can you rationalize.… Do you believe it? … So all of us now, all of us are born with an original sin. The original sin, what is that? Was it the first kiss? What was the sin? Why original? You’re still in the womb and you already have a sin? It’s your mother and father’s doing and you’re not even included, and now you have an original sin? [Expletive]. What kind of religion is that? That’s what I can’t accept.
The backlash was swift, and a few days after the June 22 speech in Davao City, Duterte gave another speech, bristling and on the defensive:
I didn’t say that my God is stupid. I said your God is not my God because your God is stupid. Mine has a lot of common sense. Then now, why do you have to talk about religion? If I choose not to believe in any God, what’s the [expletive] thing about it? It’s a freedom to choose.
Filipinos have looked past the populist president’s attacks on the pope and the Catholic Church, and even his infamous rape joke about a murdered Australian lay minister, to name a few examples. Even the president’s brutal drug war that has killed thousands has substantial support, despite condemnation from the Catholic Church and international human rights groups.
But bellicose rhetoric that not only mocks God, but also questions one of the most fundamental teachings of Catholicism? That may have crossed a line among the deeply religious populace and given the Catholic Church fresh ammunition, said Aries Arugay, a political-science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
“It’s one thing that Duterte attacks the church; it’s another thing that he attacks God himself,” Arugay told The Washington Post. “The church’s power and political influence might have been in decline; however, that doesn’t mean that Filipinos are not religious and spiritual anymore.”
Filipinos’ approval ratings of their president hit their lowest level since Duterte was elected in 2016, according to a recent survey by Social Weather Solutions. The Manila-based pollster surveyed 1,200 adults from across the country a few days after Duterte’s “stupid God” comment. The results: 65 percent — down from 71 percent in December — said they were satisfied with the president. Twenty percent — up from 14 percent in December — said they were dissatisfied, leaving Duterte with a net rating of 45 percent, a record low in his presidency.
Some in the Catholic Church say the dip in Duterte’s popularity was a direct result of his mockery of God. For instance, Filipino Bishop Ruperto Santos told the Manila Bulletin that the drop is a “wake-up call” for the president to reflect on his “abusive and offensive” words. In a thinly veiled condemnation of the president, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines released a lengthy written sermon July 9 calling out people in power who “boast of their own wisdom” and “blaspheme our God as stupid.” Catholic bishops also called for a three-day fast, which ends Thursday, in response to Duterte’s profane comments.
Arugay thinks there could also be other reasons for Duterte’s sinking popularity. Although the country’s economy is growing, the inflation rate is at its highest in five years, resulting in some apprehension over rising costs, Arugay said. That’s especially problematic in a country where more than 20 percent of its 104 million people live below the poverty line.
But if there’s anything that seems to have elicited some response from the Duterte administration, it’s the backlash to his condemnation of God and the story of Adam and Eve. Officials formed a committee that they said would hold dialogues with churches. Duterte’s spokesman defended the president, saying that he, too, should be afforded the same religious freedom that other Filipinos enjoy.
“The Duterte administration knew that there was damage done,” Arugay said, adding that he thought the comments were simply made in the heat of the moment. “But it has repercussions in a society that is deeply religious. You're talking about the biggest Catholic society in Asia.” (More than 80 percent of the population in the Philippines is Roman Catholic.)
This month, Duterte sat down with religious leaders and apologized, not to them but to God — his God, that is.
“My God is good.… What makes you think that your God is my God? … If it’s the same God, then I’m sorry. That’s how it is.… Sorry, God,” Duterte said.
He even promised an archbishop that he would stop attacking the teachings of Christianity — only to break it the following day by questioning the existence of heaven and hell.
“You know my God never created hell because if he created hell, he must be stupid God.… I do not believe in heaven because if I do, only a fraction of you in this crowd will ever enter heaven,” he said in a July 10 speech, according to GMA News.
Hence, the long-standing fight, Duterte vs. the Catholic Church, continues.
Duterte’s relationship with the most powerful religious institution in the Philippines has been tenuous at best. As a high school boy, he said he and several others were molested by a Jesuit priest. The self-professed womanizer who boasts of having two girlfriends and two wives is also far from what the church would consider an epitome of morality, Arugay said.
Still, Duterte remains highly popular.
A survey by another local pollster, Pulse Asia, found that Duterte’s approval rating actually jumped from 80 percent in March to 88 percent in June. That survey, however, was conducted before Duterte insulted God.
But even the less-glowing poll showed that he remains popular among a majority of Filipinos, especially those 18 to 24 and those who live in rural areas.
Although presidents’ popularity ratings are generally high after they’re elected and begin to dip a year or two into their presidencies, to compare Duterte to his predecessors would be disingenuous, Arugay said.
“We’re talking about Duterte, who hasn’t really conducted himself in a way that other presidents have conducted themselves,” he said. “This is a president who will not shy away from issuing remarks against women, or any kind of political sensitivity out there.… He’s a populist who performs for a specific audience.”