The Toleration Trap

|

In the lead essay over at Cato Unbound, Mark Lilla argues that Americans tend to exaggerate the transferability of their institutions, largely because they find it hard to relate to a politics that draws its legitimacy from a higher power:

Toleration seems so compelling to us as an idea that we find it hard to take seriously reasons – particularly theological reasons – for rejecting the democratic ideas associated with it…

We speak frequently of the separation of church and state as being fundamental to any modern democratic system of government. But for it to be successful, a prior, and much more difficult, separation needs to be made in a society's habits of mind. Letting God be is not an easy thing to do, and cannot be induced simply by drawing a line between church and state institutions within a constitution, or dictating rules of toleration. For many believers in the biblical religions, today as in the seventeenth century, sundering the connection between political form and divine revelation seems a betrayal of God, whose commandments are comprehensive. Intellectual separation is difficult to accept and requires theological adaptation to be spiritually plausible; God must be conceived of more abstractly, as having imposed upon himself a certain distance from the mechanics of political life. Such a theological transformation is unimaginable in many religious traditions, and difficult in all of them – not just Islam, but Judaism and Christianity as well.

Because all Howley posts must come back to Burma, I'll just go ahead: Lilla's thoughts on the failure to even try to understand the way most people think apply to most of the recent commentary on Burma's protests. It doesn't really make sense to claim that the monks were marching for "human rights"–a phrase that translates awkwardly into Burmese ("the matter of human permissions") and fails to acknowledge the source of Burmese political legitimacy, which is not an abstract concept of rights but Theravada Buddhism itself. Here's Anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman (PDF):

The idea of linking human rights to the status of human beings timelessly as against other forms of life militates against the ideas in a society where life goes through rebirths, and where many other forms of life have been or will eventually evolve into human begins. To talk to the generals about 'human rights' does not elicit a meaningful response. However, to say that local people do not conceive of 'human rights' at all is to miss the point that these rights are attained through the idiom of Buddhism, not culture. When Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the ability of human beings to attain nibbana, and the possibility for human beings to eventually attain Buddhahood, the implications of this statement reverberated right across the country.

NEXT: Mugabe: Zimbabwe is a "laughing stock"

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Some societies are ill equipped, unready, or undesiring of a liberal democracy. People’s faiths, and fear of responsibility, have alot to do with that. After all, if your lives are for God, a mere dress rehearsal or tryout for the afterlife, why worry about individual desires or happiness? Everything will be wonderful after your death, so just listen to the clerics and obey. Karl Marx was wrong about most things, but he was spot on about “the opiate of the masses”.

  2. Fire Away!

  3. There’s a more basic issue on the matter of separation of church and state–the concept of a distinction between church and state. Christianity inherently recognizes such a distinction (“render unto Caesar” etc.), while Islam and traditional Judaism do not. While Christian church leaders have attempted to influence politics over the centuries, their attempts to actual BE the state were rebuffed early on in the religion’s history–mostly because the Bible itself did not call for such a role by church leaders. It is this distinction that I think will make it more difficult for Islam to reform itself.

    As for whichever form of Buddhism that the Burmese practice, I have no idea.

  4. ChrisO,

    While the Gospels do contain language on which to base the idea of such a distinction, let’s not kid ourselves that Christianity was thereby made immune from the problem.

    Once the Christians came to power, we got the Official State Religion of the Roman Empire, the Divine Right of Kings, and the Papal States. Heck, the RCC still celebrates the Feast of Christ the King, a festival created in the early 20th Century to remind people of God’s disapproval of secular democracy and endorsement of theocratic monarchy.

    The Enlightenment-era concept of this separation doesn’t trace its roots back to any such distinction in the early church, but to late-developing concepts like Christian Freedom (the freedom to choose to folllow God, as opposed to being forced to do so).

  5. We speak frequently of the separation of church and state as being fundamental to any modern democratic system of government. But for it to be successful, a prior, and much more difficult, separation needs to be made in a society’s habits of mind.

    < snark> What is this “culture” you speak of?</snark>

  6. Kerry, I don’t get your Burma complaint. You may be on to something, but I don’t quite understand your point. Do you have any recent commentaries that exemplify your point?

    these rights are attained through the idiom of Buddhism, not culture

    Eh? What is Buddhism if not culture?

    Anyway, I think “the matter of human permissions” is a decent thing to march for and isn’t that awkward.

    My impression from reports and commentaries is that monks were marching to end repression, to somehow support democracy, and to do *something* to improve economic conditions. Is that not an accurate impression?

  7. Christianity inherently recognizes such a distinction (“render unto Caesar” etc.), while Islam and traditional Judaism do not.

    Modern western Christianity does, but this is due to the sociopolitical evolution of Europe and the Americas since the 17th century. During the dark and middle ages, all of society was structured around Christianity, from the social roles of the various classes to the day to day lives of the peasants. There’s a reason why Lousiana’s political subdivisions are called “parishes” and Europe was referred to as “Christendom” before a distinction between the old and new worlds was needed.

  8. So there really is Buddhofascism after all.

  9. Sure, that’s an accurate impression. The point is that those “permissions” need to be rooted in something other than a secular idea of human value to hold meaning for most Burmese. It amounts to much the same thing, I imagine, but the framing is important (as in Houtman’s example.)Suu Kyi uses both concepts because she is essentially liaising between cultures. I’m relying on the Houtman here, but that’s how I interpret his work.

  10. The Enlightenment-era concept of this separation doesn’t trace its roots back to any such distinction in the early church, but to late-developing concepts like Christian Freedom (the freedom to choose to folllow God, as opposed to being forced to do so).

    When is Islam scheduled to pick up this concept?

  11. Are we talking about a phenomenon similar to the Mayor of San Francisco realizing the illegality of drugs is what’s causing the problems, and yet being unable to bring himself to call for legalization?

  12. Modern western Christianity does, but this is due to the sociopolitical evolution of Europe and the Americas since the 17th century. During the dark and middle ages, all of society was structured around Christianity, from the social roles of the various classes to the day to day lives of the peasants. There’s a reason why Lousiana’s political subdivisions are called “parishes” and Europe was referred to as “Christendom” before a distinction between the old and new worlds was needed.

    Whatever “divine right” they may have claimed, medieval/early modern European monarchs did not claim to be clerics, and in fact the distinction between the “state” and the “church” goes back to the very beginning of the religion. The Roman Emperor and the Pope were always two different people.

    You are mixing up “distinction” with “separation.” There was not true separation of church and state until after the Enlightenment. But the two were distinct concepts all along. Such is not the case with many other religions.

  13. Are we talking about a phenomenon similar to the Mayor of San Francisco realizing the illegality of drugs is what’s causing the problems, and yet being unable to bring himself to call for legalization?

    what a Profile in Courage!!

  14. Good point, Kerry.

    In a sense, this is the same problem as the attempt to impose democracy on Iraq.

    We didn’t get to where we are by having foreigners set up a system of assigning offices to candidates via elections – it took development of our own culture over the course of centuries for us to be able to do that ourselves.

    We didn’t get to where we are by having a deeply religious populace trained to view government as an expression of God’s will suddenly adopt a secular idea of human value, either.

    But that should be a reason for optimism regarding the monk-led uprising in Burma. Ideals of secular government and individual free will aren’t the beginning of the liberalization process, they’re a later stage.

  15. Lets face it Christians are unable to be accepting because of there closed mindes

  16. JMR,

    “Islam” doesn’t pick up concepts. Nor does Christianity.

    Individuals from those traditions do, and they are.

    I’m pretty sure Keith Ellison, Kemal Attaturk and the governing board of the Kurdistan Patriotic Union – to name three Muslims – get those ideas just fine.

  17. The Roman Emperor and the Pope were always two different people.

    The King of England is the head of the Church of England, and has been since Henry the Eigth.

    The Kaiser was the head of the state church of Prussia.

    The Holy Roman Emporer was the head of a state church.

  18. “I’m pretty sure Keith Ellison, Kemal Attaturk and the governing board of the Kurdistan Patriotic Union – to name three Muslims – get those ideas just fine.”

    Exactly and so do the King of Jordan or the President of Egypt for that matter.

    “We didn’t get to where we are by having a deeply religious populace trained to view government as an expression of God’s will suddenly adopt a secular idea of human value, either.”

    I don’t know what country you are talking about Joe, but it sure as hell isn’t Iraq. Perhaps you could apply that thinking to Saudi Arabia or maybe Iran but not Iraq. Iraq was not a theocracy or a religous based government under Saddam. Yes, there some people in the country who would like to make it one, but there are Americans that you claim want to do the same thing, are Americans unfit for Democracy? Also, Iraq has a democratically drafted Constitution and government. For people who don’t understand Democracy and think government is the will of God, they certainly seem to vote a lot.

  19. “The King of England is the head of the Church of England, and has been since Henry the Eigth.”

    That was more the government running the church not the other way around. The King became the head of the church as much as anything to keep the Protestents and Catholics from killing each other. It is not like they ran the government in service of the church or combined the two entities.

    I think the other examples fit the same description. It was really a case of Kings getting tired of the clergy interfering with their rule and just taking over the church to get it off his back rather than the church and state being one thing.

  20. I’m pretty sure Keith Ellison, Kemal Attaturk and the governing board of the Kurdistan Patriotic Union – to name three Muslims – get those ideas just fine.

    Is it too late to clone Ataturk?

  21. I was talking about America, John. I was describing our own religious and political history.

    We didn’t go from a God-based view of government power to the consent of the governed in one fell swoop. As a matter of fact, the first step for us was for people to claim that their God-based vision of government power was more godly than the status quo.

    BTW, you should have noticed by now, people marching out to vote at a 99% rate for the sectarian party that represents their own ethnic group or religious denomination isn’t the hallmark of a healthy democratic culture.

  22. Joe,

    Tribalism is diffent than church and state. About 80% of the world has a tribal view of things and that makes running a country very difficult, anywhere.

  23. How can a military junta possibly be legitimated by Buddhism? Seriously, I don’t get that at all.

    About 80% of the world has a tribal view of things and that makes running a country very difficult, anywhere.

    Throw in political parties as tribal surrogates, and you can get that number up to 100%, no problem.

    Same result, too.

  24. I understand they’re different, John.

    But tribalism and divine-right-as-the-basis-of-government-power can be compared, in the sense that they both represent archaic thinking that needs to evolve in order for a society to be democratic.

  25. And, in both cases, it took evolution from within our society, based on insiders applying their own culturally-specific ideas, to bring about those intellectual changes.

  26. joe,
    And Christopher Columbus wasn’t THAT bad, “relatively” speaking.

  27. I absolutely agree with the premise that an ideal situation is to allow people to develop their own bases for liberal institutions. My concerns are

    A) Given a sufficient level of top down control, the bases for liberal institutions may never be allowed to form. Modernization isn’t inevitable.

    B) What to do when traditionalism stops being quaint and starts being violent?

  28. the christians came up with this idea of a state distinct from the church because they had been unsuccessful in turning the christian church into the state, not the other way around. “render unto cesear” etc. can just as easily be used to support the other conclusion, on the theory that everything belongs to god.

    people read the stuff they want to believe anyway into their holy texts.

  29. Toleration seems so compelling to us as an idea that we find it hard to take seriously reasons – particularly theological reasons – for rejecting the democratic ideas associated with it…

    …except in our daily legislation that increasingly calls for zero-tolerance.

  30. Separation of Church and State only arose as a concept in the West after several centuries of bloody wars, when it dawned on the parties involved that if they didn’t find a way to stop slaughtering one another, nobody would ever be safe.

    It was more a rationalization of a practical issue than a epiphany of understanding.

  31. There’s a more basic issue on the matter of separation of church and state–the concept of a distinction between church and state. Christianity inherently recognizes such a distinction (“render unto Caesar” etc.), while Islam and traditional Judaism do not.

    Citing the locus classicus re conflicts between religious and civil law, [t]he Talmudic sage Samuel, who lived in third-century Babylonia, coined the phrase “the law of the land is the law” (Nedarim 28a and parallels), which meant that Jews must obey the laws of the countries in which they reside.

    http://www.shalomctr.org/node/1063

    Though maybe you were referring to something different.

  32. I’m not sure I grasp Houtman’s complete argument regarding Human Rights in societies that believe in reincarnation but colour me skeptical on first impressions. Human Rights in the modern sense are accepted without any quibbles in neigbhouring India (quite apart from the practice thereof) where there is an equal belief in reincarnation, karma and all that jazz. One wouldn’t have to cast the argument in terms of Hindu scripture or something like that. Maybe Houtman is refering to something particular to Theravda Buddhism. If so a cursory reading doesn’t make the case.

  33. ChrisO,

    Ahh, for a religion which “inherently recognizes” such a distinction the constant, long-term and still etant clash between secular and religious authority in Christian nations seems rather odd.

    Whatever “divine right” they may have claimed, medieval/early modern European monarchs did not claim to be clerics..

    Actually, they did (indeed, part of the crowning of a French king included making him a cleric as I recall). They also claimed to be able to heal people of diseases and thus work miracles.

    …and in fact the distinction between the “state” and the “church” goes back to the very beginning of the religion. The Roman Emperor and the Pope were always two different people.

    That distinction was basically erased by Constantine. The church became the state religion and Constantine (and other Roman Emporers) was the chief regulator of such until the 5th century when the Pope became the religious and secular power in Rome.

    But the two were distinct concepts all along. Such is not the case with many other religions.

    I’m sorry, but this seems to be a distinction without a difference.

  34. Anyway, I don’t know enough about the history of Islam to say how the secular and the religious interplayed in Islamic history. I suspect however that it more complex than is often perceived.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.