Revered for self-sacrifice, Buddhist monks in Burma are standing up to the guns of a selfish regime. But these holy men in saffron robes are serving more than a people's desire for freedom. The protests also serve as a reminder of religion's historic role in shaping the kind of moral concern for others that is the root of democracy.
Democracy, after all, is simply the best way to bestow legitimacy on the few to rule the many for the care of all. In Burma (also known as Myanmar), any legitimacy of the military to govern ended long ago. Decades of repression, rather than caring, have left poverty and fear.
Last month, when the junta was forced by its bungling to double fuel prices, the people's economic suffering was intimately observed by the monks, who daily interact with the faithful in acts of humility and kindness. Their natural legitimacy has propelled them to lead nonviolent demonstrations aimed at withdrawing support from the regime and to demand democracy. Worldwide, religious leaders from the Dalai Lama to South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu have offered moral support.
Events in Burma are a model, repeated throughout history, of religious movements helping overthrow colonial powers and dictators. Protestant clergy helped spark the American Revolution, with one British commander complaining that "sedition flows copiously from the pulpits." The Vatican II changes of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s helped followers in many countries stand up to tyranny. Catholic nuns and priests were on the front line of a "people power" revolution in the Philippines that overthrew a dictator in 1986. Pope John Paul II helped his native Poland lead the way to free Eastern Europe of communism. Soviet dissidents were spiritually nurtured by a few Russian Orthodox priests, helping bring about the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. In Indonesia, a 30-million-strong Islamic group called Nahdlatul Ulama gave moral support for the 1998 overthrow of dictator Suharto.
Not all religious movements lead to democracy. The ruthlessness of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the social power of the Wahhabi clergy in Saudi Arabia, and the claim to rule by Iran's clerics reveal a type of Islam that imposes religious values by dictate rather than by the kind of mutual respect that breeds democracy.
Such tendencies of faith leaders to impose their way on others – such as attempts to brand the United States a Christian nation – has led many democracies to reinforce legal walls between the state and religions. Such separation helps ensure the liberties that allow religion to flourish.
In Iraq, Sunni fears of domination by the majority Shiites have stymied efforts to form a united, democratic government. But any democracy relies on the majority caring enough to have laws that protect minority interests. That way, the minority won't simply opt out of democracy. That's a value straight from the golden rule.
Burma's monks probably know they can't rule. Their power lies in being living examples of compassion. Ultimately, as history has shown, these individual expressions of such higher values win the day over tyranny.
How else to explain the spread of democracy?