Theocracy

Let’s be honest, human rulers often make terrible mistakes. So what if they could be replaced by some higher power? What if they could be replaced by God? It might sound strange to us, living as we do in a world of democracies and - sometimes - autocracies, but there are also those who believe that God should be the source of political power. This form of government is called theocracy - let’s look at it in more depth!  

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Contents
Table of contents

    Theocracy meaning

    The word theocracy comes from the Greek words theos (‘God, deity’) and kratia (rule, governance) and can therefore be understood as meaning ‘rule by God’. In practice, this usually means that the state's political leadership is drawn from the clergy of a particular religious group, who act in the name of God. These political leaders are believed to have some special God-given authority, or particular religious and moral insight, to make them legitimate rulers in the political sphere and qualified to rule in the name of God.

    Theocracy government

    While religion may occupy a prominent position in public life in many countries, this doesn't necessarily make these states theocracies. Even if politicians invoke religious ideas, teachings or texts when discussing political issues, this doesn't make them theocratic rulers. Theocratic government usually involves privileging one particular religious belief system (Christianity, Islam, etc.) or clerical group (mullahs, Shinto priests, the Roman Catholic Church) over others. This privileged position is often enshrined in the constitution, or other foundational documents of the state.

    Theocracy examples

    While we might think of theocracy as something that belongs to a past era, we can still find examples of theocratic government in the world today.

    Historical Examples of theocracy

    The first use of the term theocracy was by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who lived from 37 CE - 100 CE, who used it to describe the governance of the Jewish people in biblical times. According to this record, Moses helped shape a new kind of government for the Jewish people that ascribed ultimate power and authority to God.

    Egypt

    Ancient Egypt operated as a theocratic monarchy. Under this system, deities were still the ultimate authorities, but the king (later called Pharaoh) was viewed as being anointed by the gods to rule. The king acted as the intermediary between the people and gods, so any of the king's rules or edicts were seen as divinely ordained. Egyptians revered the Pharaoh as the offspring of the sun god Ra.

    Theocracy A carving of Pharaoh Ptolemy VIII between two goddesses StudySmarterFig. 1 A carving of Pharaoh Ptolemy VIII between two goddesses

    Japan

    In imperial Japan, the emperor was revered as a descendant of the supreme Shinto deity, the sun goddess Amaterasu. However, unlike some other theocracies, the emperor served as more of a figurehead and his role was more ceremonial than political. Japan's emperors maintained their divine descent until the end of World War II when, seeking to move Japan towards democracy, Emperor Hirohito was forced to explicitly declare that he was not a god.

    Israel

    Ancient Israel also operated as a theocracy. After the twelve tribes of Israel united under one king, they viewed that king as sitting on God's throne. The ultimate authority came from the Jewish God and kings were responsible for carrying out God's will.

    China

    Like imperial Japan, ancient Chinese emperors were believed to be Sons of Heaven and were given god-like status.

    Rome

    Roman emperors, including Augustus Caesar and Julius Caesar, often declared themselves to be descended from the Roman gods. However, some scholars don't consider Rome to be a true theocracy until Emperor Constantine, who ruled from 306AD to 337AD. Constantine converted to Christianity and made his new faith the official religion of the Empire. He believed that God chose him to lead the Roman empire to Christianity and protect the church and that he had a mission to spread Christianity by expanding the Roman empire.

    Theocracy A 9th century depiction of Emperor Constantine burning heretical books StudySmarterFig. 2 A 9th century depiction of Emperor Constantine burning heretical books

    Modern Examples of theocracy

    You might be surprised to know that there are states in the world today that are ruled according to theocratic principles.

    Afghanistan

    Afghanistan operates as a theocracy today, largely under the control of the Taliban. The Taliban is a fundamentalist militant Islamic group that came to power during the Afghan Civil War.

    The Taliban is known for its strict adherence to Sharia Law, which is rooted in Islam and the Quran. Because of this, Afghanistan is an example of religious law becoming the official law of the land. Their fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law include harsh penalties for violations, strict rules for women, and control over citizens' education and movement.

    Iran

    Iran is a good example of a government that combines elements of both a theocracy and a democracy. The head of government is referred to as the "supreme leader, who also serves as a religious leader. Once in office, the Supreme Leader serves for life. By contrast, Iran elects a president for a four-year term. The president has significant influence over policy, but the supreme leader usually has the final say.

    Additionally, Iran has a parliament that passes laws similar to other democracies. However, after passage through parliament, laws are then reviewed by the Guardian Council, which is a group of theologians whom the supreme leader appoints. Thus, while Iran's form of government does have some characteristics of a democracy, it's generally considered a theocracy because of the ultimate ideological control of the supreme leader.

    Theocracy Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader of Iran, is pictured in the centre along with the other political leaders StudySmarterFig. 3 Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader of Iran, is pictured in the centre along with the other political leaders

    Saudi Arabia

    Saudi Arabia is a clear example of a theocracy that is also a monarchy. While the king is the head of state, he is also expected to enforce strict adherence to sharia law. Rather than a formal constitution, Saudi Arabia has a document called the Basic Law, the first article of which states that the Quran and Sunni Sharia law are its constitution. In addition to the king, a body of religious jurists called the 'ulama also help run the country. The 'ulama constitute the highest religious body and are tasked with advising the king.

    North Korea

    Although North Korea is officially a socialist, non-religious state, it also demonstrates some characteristics of a theocracy as well. While not promoting any one particular traditional religion, the cult of personality that surrounds North Korea's ruling Kim dynasty has elevated them almost to the status of deities, creating greater mystique and reverence for them among citizens. For example, former leader Kim Jong Il claimed that his birth was marked as divine through a glowing star and double rainbow. His son Kim Jong Un also encouraged the idea of his divinity and messianic qualities.

    The Holy See

    The Holy See, located within the Vatican City, is another major example of a modern-day theocracy. Unlike the theocracies of Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, which are based in Islam, the theocracy of the Vatican City is based on Catholicism. Like Saudi Arabia, it functions as an absolute monarchy. All government positions are filled by clergy, meaning that church and state are totally interconnected and inseparable.

    Theocracy A map of Vatican City StudySmarterFig. 4 This map shows the tiny country of Vatican City and the smaller state of the Holy See contained within

    Theocracy Characteristics

    Here are some of the key characteristics of theocratic states:

    Government in the name of God

    The main characteristic of theocracy is that the state understands itself as being ultimately governed by God, and as such, the entire political system is designed to reflect the supremacy of God, and divine teaching or revelation, over other sources of political wisdom and knowledge.

    The political leadership of the state, including those that make up the executive (ministers), representative (parliamentary or legislative), and judicial branches (judges, courts, etc.) are drawn from the clergy of a particular religion (priests, imams, rabbis). If they're not clerics, then political leaders will possess some other attributes that are valued within the ruling religious system and which qualify them for political office.

    No Separation Between 'Church' and State

    The separation of religious organisations and government is a key characteristic of many representative democracies. In a theocracy, the opposite is the case. The church, or religious establishment of the dominant faith group in the country, is closely intertwined with the state. Political leaders may be active both as politicians and religious clerics, and political rulers derive their legitimacy from the religious establishment.

    Religious Liberties

    Theocracies often display a lack of tolerance for other religious groups. Theocracies tend to formulate laws which privilege the dominant religious group and create barriers for the development of minority religious groups. For example, the government might outlaw preaching of other religious beliefs in public, and prosecute people who break these laws. Even if they officially tolerate other religious communities, they might have laws which restrict their freedoms in some way, by limiting the size of their religious buildings, for example, or restricting the sale of certain items they use for worship.

    Legislating Morality

    Theocracies also often try to impose personal morality through legislation. Most states will restrict activities or practices that harm its citizens, even if this harm is self-inflicted - like drug or alcohol abuse. Theocracies, on the other hand, tend to create laws that affect almost every aspect of a citizen's personal and private life, including their sexual lives and reproductive practices. Theocracies might also restrict access to films, books or music that is deemed not to comply with religious ideals.

    Theocracy Pros and Cons

    Supporters of theocratic government would likely be able to name several perceived benefits of theocracy, whilst critics will obviously be able to point out flaws. The following list of pros and cons is only supposed to give an idea of the arguments that are commonly made either in favour of - or against - theocracy, and are not an objective measure of the value of theocratic government.

    Pros of theocracy

    Supporters of theocracies often point to the following advantages of this government style.

    Efficiency in Decision-making

    One potential advantage of theocratic government is that it can increase efficiency in decision-making. Since there is less debate and more consensus in society on certain issues, and since politicians are also likely to be of one mind, given their shared religious values, it is easier to reach political decisions which are uncontroversial and easily accepted by societies.

    Unity in theocracy

    Another benefit of theocracy could be a sense of unity of purpose in society. Since most people have the same religious beliefs and values, it's easier for them to feel unified in the face of common challenges.

    Cons of theocracy

    Theocracies are less popular today for the following reasons.

    Lack of Religious Liberty

    Although theocracies might claim to respect minority religious communities, in practice their rules and regulations can be discriminatory. Also, if social attitudes towards a particular minority religion are generally negative, there can be a sense of impunity when it comes to persecuting or otherwise targeting a particular group.

    Strict Rules in theocracy

    Religious rules in a theocracy are often interpreted in a way which conflicts with contemporary concepts of human rights. Religious standards about what constitutes a fair trial, or how much freedom individuals should have in their private lives, often fall short of standards enshrined in widely-accepted human rights legislation.

    Theocracy A painting of the execution of a Moroccan woman named Sol Hachuel StudySmarterFig. 5 A painting of the execution of a Moroccan woman named Sol Hachuel on the grounds that she committed heresy and rejected her Islamic faith

    Theocracy - Key takeaways

    • Theocracy means "rule by God", and in practice usually means that political leadership is exercised by clergy or representatives of a religious group (priests, bishops, mullahs, religious scholars, etc.).
    • Many ancient states were governed as Theocracies, including the Roman Empire, Ancient Egypt, China, and Japan.
    • There are still theocracies in the world today, including Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Vatican City. Arguably, North Korea is a theocracy, because it portrays its ruling dynasty as semi-divine.
    • Some would argue that theocracy has certain advantages, such as ease of decision-making and a sense of unity in society.
    • Critics of theocracy would argue that theocratic government doesn't respect universal human rights, including women's rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and the rights of minorities.


    References

    1. Fig. 1 Edfu Tempel 42 (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Edfu_Tempel_42.jpg) by Olaf Tausch (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Oltau) licensed by CC-BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.de) on de.wikipedia.
    2. Fig. 3 Head officials of the government of Iran (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Head_officials_of_the_government_of_Iran.jpg) by Official website of Ali Khamenei (https://english.khamenei.ir/photo/2996/Shias-and-Sunnis-meeting-with-Leader-on-the-birthday-anniversary) Licensed by CC-BY-4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/deed.en) on Wikimedia Commons.
    3. Fig. 4 Vatican City map (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vatican_City_map_EN.png) by Thoroe (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Thoroe) licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en) on Wikimedia Commons.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Theocracy

    What is theocracy?

    Theocracy means rule by God, but in practice it usually means that political power is exercised by clerics or representatives of a religious group or organization. 

    Which is the best example of a theocracy?

    A good example of a theocracy is one in which the ruler - usually a King or Emperor - is regarded as divine or descended from Gods. This was the case in Ancient Egypt and also Japan until the 20th Century. Other examples of theocracies include Iran after the Isamic Revolution, and Afghanistan under the Taleban, as well as the Vatican City. 

    How do theocracies work?

    Every theocracy is different, but most of them are characterised by politicial leaders either being clerics of a religious establishment, or else being somehow endorsed by a religious establishment. 

    What is the difference between theocracy and totalitarianism?

    A totalitarian government might not be based on any particular principles or values at all, apart from the absolute power of its rulers. Theocracies, whether they're totalitarian or politically more open and consultative, base their system of government on religious values and principles. 

    What is the political concept of theocracy?

    Theocracy is based on the concept that God, being the supreme source of power and authority in the created world, should be the source of a country's system of government. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Are theocracies known for prioritising religious liberty?

    True or False: Theocracies view god or gods as the ultimate authority in their government.

    What does "theo" mean in Greek?

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