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Does Religion Promote Corruption?

1453404_10152613543229237_1112411740_n (140x210)In his commencement speech at Southern New Hampshire University in 2009, Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen cited a conversation he had with a Chinese Marxist economist to show the role that religion plays in promoting and strengthening democracy and capitalism.

He asked the Chinese, who was an academic fellow in Boston at that time, if he had learned anything about democracy and capitalism that was surprising. Christensen quoted the Chinese as saying, “I had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy and capitalism.”

The Chinese continued, “In your past, most Americans attended a church or synagogue every week. These are institutions that people respected. When you were there, from your youngest years, you were taught that you should voluntarily obey the law; that you should respect other people’s property, and not steal it.

You were taught never to lie. Americans followed these rules because they had come to believe that even if the police didn’t catch them when they broke a law, God would catch them. Democracy works because most people most of the time voluntarily obey your laws.

“You can say the same for capitalism, it works because Americans have been taught in their churches that they should keep their promises and not tell lies. An advanced economy cannot function if people cannot expect that when they sign contracts, the other people will voluntarily uphold their obligations. Capitalism works because most people voluntarily keep their promises.”

What the Chinese appeared to be saying, which Christensen developed in his speech, was that religion teaches or predisposes us to follow the law.

I can only surmise that this Chinese has not yet been exposed to some countries like Russia or many of Catholic-dominated Latin American countries where stealing and bribery are prevalent.

Even Vatican, the seat of Catholicism, was recently rocked with scandal involving money laundering on the part of the Vatican Bank.

Let me assume for the sake of argument that Christensen is correct when he asserts that people who believe that God will punish them are predisposed to do the right thing. In other words, the fear that a powerful God is watching is what motivates people to behave ethically.

If this were true, there would not be massive corruption, stealing or violent crimes in the Philippines because Filipinos are generally religious regardless of their religious affiliation.

There is no doubt that religion in the Philippines is very much part of our culture. Signs of Filipino religiosity range from making the sign of the cross before a basketball player makes a free throw to walking on one’s knees toward the altar to ask for favors to joining the Black Nazarene traslacion where devotees jostle for position to touch the statue of Christ.

Politicians and other government leaders go to Sunday Mass regularly and receive Holy Communion. Ordinary folks flagellate themselves during Holy Week and sing the Passion of Christ for hours. Members of other religions have their own ways of expressing their religiosity.

So Filipinos would easily qualify as poster boys for Christensen’s proposition.

But why don’t these religious practices translate to good behavior?

True, people go to confession and do their penance. But it seems that there is no desire to change. It is as if going to confession, venerating a saint, and praying the rosary give them the permission to commit sin again. It is a cycle that keeps repeating itself. We seem to have a wrong interpretation of how religion should be practiced.

Do people practice religion only to show off? Is there something wrong with how Filipinos are being taught Religion?

In her article If I Were to Have a Chat with Pope Francis that appeared in the recent issue of Positively Filipino, Marilen Danguilan wrote down several questions she would like to ask Pope Francis, if she could, when he visits the Philippines next week. One of her questions is to ask the pope to comment on why there are some people who believe that Catholicism is one of the forces that set back people’s development and progress.

I was taken aback by this particular question because the social encyclicals of the Church promote workers’ welfare and address the issue of injustice. Vatican Council II speaks of the Church’s preferential option for the poor. So how can religion like Catholicism hinder progress?

In a study conducted in 70 countries by Hamid Yeganeh and Daniel Sauers from Winona State University in Minnesota, they found that in secular societies like Norway and Sweden where the idea of faith is foreign, reason rather than morality hinders corruption.  Religion is not the decisive factor in good governance but what is perceived as reasonable.

They also found out that one characteristic of religion that promotes corruption is forgiveness.  A friend of mine made the observation that if the allegations of plunder against several of our politicians are true, then condemnation should be the least the people could do to ensure that justice is served. Yet, according to my friend, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), has called on Filipinos not to condemn the alleged pork scammers.

I remember an article I read a few months back where a group of Marcos loyalists unabashedly demanded that Ferdinand Marcos and his family be spared from government prosecution. Their message was loud and clear: Let us forget everything and move forward for the sake of the country. Such a call for reconciliation was misplaced. It does not do justice to the many victims of Marcos’ repressive regime, not to mention the billions of pesos that the Marcos family stole from the nation’s coffers.

The act of forgiveness is a virtue that is taught in all religions. But forgiveness is like a double-edged sword.  When forgiveness is practiced with total disregard for justice, it further exacerbates the commission of an evil act that should be rightfully condemned.

In this context, Yeganeh and Sauers may after all be right when they wrote that “the function of religion with regard to corruption is to provide sedation rather than a solution.”