December 21, 2004

by Joe Sobran

     Dear Dr. Johnson! Samuel Johnson, that is: 
eighteenth-century London's "literary dictator," most 
famous today for conversations he may not have even 
realized James Boswell was recording for a projected 

     Johnson also wrote poetry, of which only one couplet 
remains famous:

        How small, of all that human hearts endure,
        That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!

In this age of total government, these words remind us 
that government once played a far smaller part in men's 
lives than it now does. Under the rule of King 
George III, Americans paid only a few pennies per year in 
taxes. Yet Americans thought he was a tyrant; Johnson 
defended him.

     C.S. Lewis, after reading many private letters 
written during England's civil war, was surprised to 
discover that none of them mentioned the war at all. By 
modern standards, it was a mere skirmish.

     And I think this is one's general impression when 
reading old literature: poetry, novels, letters, diaries. 
We find very little in them about politics, unless the 
writers were themselves politicians. "Public affairs vex 
no man," Johnson could observe without contradiction.

     Until recently, governments had fairly limited 
appetites, if only because they had limited means of 
taxation, propaganda, and surveillance of their subjects. 
The government under George W. Bush is far more ravenous 
than that of George III -- not because Bush is a worse 
man than the old king, but because the nature of 
government has changed, whether it takes the form of 
liberal democracy or dictatorship. Indeed, "spreading 
democracy" may be just one way of spreading modern 

     This is why it always sounds quaint to me when 
liberals warn us obsessively against one particular form 
of government: theocracy. They see the threat of 
theocracy in every Christmas creche, in legal 
restrictions on abortion, in public school prayer, in the 
rise of the Religious Right, in the Pledge of Allegiance, 
in any official reference to the Almighty ("In God we 

     But just what are we being warned against? What =is= 
theocracy, anyway? Its vigilant enemies never bother to 
define it. If the danger signs they cite are any 
indication, Western man has lived under theocracy for 
most of his history -- and in some respects, he still 

     How bad is it? Judging by, say, Chaucer's CANTERBURY 
TALES, not too bad. His pious pilgrims seem quite content 
in a religious society. And judging by, say, the tavern 
scenes in Shakespeare's HENRY IV, even people who were 
none too pious didn't feel oppressed by life under an 
official state religion.

     I wonder if even life under an Islamic theocracy is 
the horror it's supposed to be. Some of the religious 
laws may be severe, but these are apparently far fewer 
than the myriad government restrictions we take for 

     Not to mention taxes. There is nothing in the nature 
of theocracy, however defined, that warrants the 
predatory tax rates that are now standard in the modern 
democracies. And in fact the old governments now 
considered theocratic imposed far lower taxes than modern 
states do -- though they still faced frequent resistance, 
sometimes violent, when they tried to collect them.

     Johnson's couplet reflects the fundamental peace of 
mind most men assumed in an age when they lived under 
Christian governments. Even at its worst, when torturing 
heretics and oppressing minorities, the religious regime 
was generally pretty inactive, and left most human 
activities alone.

     Of course there were lurid exceptions; we hear about 
them all the time -- so often that they warp our 
judgment. This is why it's valuable to read the 
literature of those ages, in which ordinary life is 
recorded, and can be measured, apart from the scattered 
episodes by which the modern mind judges those ages.

     Religious persecution reached its peak not under 
theocracy, but under communism; Lenin and his successors 
outlawed Christianity and murdered millions of Christians 
and Muslims. Atheism was the official state doctrine (as 
it still is in China). But of course this has never 
scandalized liberals, who seem to see no menace in an 
atheistic state -- only in Christmas carols in public 

     Dr. Johnson attached little importance to particular 
forms of government. But he would have seen that liberal 
democracy, as we know it, is a deadlier enemy of human 
liberty and well-being than the "theocracy" of liberal 


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