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.