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 The Fear of “Theocracy” 

December 21, 2004 
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 biography.

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!
Read Joe's columns the day he writes 
them.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 tyranny.

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 trust”).

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 does.

[Breaker quote: A 
liberal fantasy]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 granted.

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 schools.

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 fantasy.

Joseph Sobran

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