“Political theology”

It was this trust, bred of homogeneity, that allowed the ideal of toleration to be actualized [in the young United States]. People feel comfortable when they are with their own, and it is only in an atmosphere of mutual trust that norms of acceptance and openness can develop. Because the early Americans seemed familiar to each other, at a certain point it no longer seemed far-fetched that a white male who followed one Protestant preacher and cut his hair in one way, could eventually learn to tolerate another white male who followed a different Protestant preacher and cut his hair in another — or, later, that this same principle might be applied to people who were not white, male, or Protestant. Tocqueville begins the first volume of Democracy in America with these geographical and sociological givens, which he saw as the necessary conditions of establishing a successful democracy in a large continent. If toleration is the great achievement in American political and religious life, the road to it was not paved with toleration alone. It was the by-product of many other factors that had to be in place before the deeply rooted human urge to distinguish, discriminate, and fear could be snuffed.

But now the principle of toleration has been rooted in the United States and, at least since the Second World War, is formally recognized in the democracies of Western Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia. This is a great success for democracy and, insofar as we have helped things along, for American foreign policy. But it has also bred fantasies about the easy spread of democratic institutions and the norms necessary to support them in other parts of the world, most urgently in Islamic nations. 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.

Coping with Political Theology,” by Mark Lilla, CATO Unbound, October 8, 2007

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