What Is Theocracy? Definition and Examples

An overhead view of St. Peter's Square in the Vatican
Vatican City is one of a handful of modern theocratic states.

Peter Unger/Getty Images

A theocracy is a form of government in which the ultimate leader is a supreme deity, who rules either directly as a god in human form or indirectly through mortal servants—typically a religious clergy—who rule on the deity’s behalf. With their laws based on religious codes and decrees, the governments of theocracies serve their divine leader or leaders rather than the citizens. As a result, theocracies are often oppressive in function, with strict rules and harsh punishments for rule-

Key Takeaways: Theocracy

  • A theocracy is a form of government in which priests or religious leaders rule in the name of a deity or deities.
  • Serving their divine leader or leaders rather than the citizens, theocracies are often oppressive in function, with harsh punishment for rule-breakers. 
  • There is no separation of church and state in a true theocracy and the open practice of only the country’s prevailing religion is allowed.
  • There is no room for democracy and all decisions of a theocracy’s leader are unquestionable.

Characteristics of a Theocracy

In a true theocracy, one or more deities are recognized as the supreme ruling authorities, giving divinely inspired guidance to the humans who manage the day-to-day affairs of the government. The head of state is assumed to have a personal connection with the deity or deities of the civilization's religion or spiritual belief. A theocracy is often defined in contrast to an ecclesiocracy, in which religious leaders direct the government but do not claim that they act as earthly instruments of a deity. The papacy in the Papal States occupies a middle ground between theocracy and ecclesiocracy since the pope does not claim to be a prophet who receives direct revelation from God for translation into civil law

In theocracies, the ruler is simultaneously the head of government and religion. There is no separation of church and state and open practice of only the prevailing religion is allowed. The rulers in theocracies hold office by divine grace and conduct their rule based on the prevailing religion. As the source of divine inspiration, sacred religious books and texts govern all state operations and decisions. All power in a theocracy is concentrated in a single institution, with no separation of powers. Since they are assumed to be those that the deity would make, all decisions of a theocracy’s leader are unquestionable.

 There is no room for the processes of democracy in a true theocracy. For the population to abide by and respect the will of the ruler and, by extension, that of the deity, those who disagree with or fail to abide by the laws and the dictates of the religion are often repressed and persecuted. Issues like marriage, reproductive rights, civil rights, and punishment of criminals are also defined based on religious text. Under a theocracy, residents of the country typically do not have religious freedom and are not able to vote on governmental decisions.

Secular or non-religious governments can co-exist within a theocracy, delegating some aspects of civil law to religious communities. In Israel, for example, marriage can be performed only by officiates of the religious community to which the couples belong, and no inter-faith or same-sex marriages performed within the country are legally recognized.

Most theocratic governments function similarly to either monarchies or dictatorships, as those who hold political power serve the god of their religion first and the citizens of the country next. Future leaders gain their positions either through family inheritance or by having been chosen by the previous leaders.

Living in a Theocracy

Most people would find life under theocratic rule too limiting. It does not allow people to live an individualistic “me-first” lifestyle. No single political party or organization can come into power and what the rulers say is the law.

Considering the restrictive nature of their rule, it could be easy to assume that theocratic countries are hotbeds of dissent. This, however, is rarely the case. Theocratic systems rely on leadership from a deity that the people believe to be omnipotent. As a result, the people trust that being empowered by that deity, their leaders will never deceive or mislead them. 

Theocratic governments are typically efficient and streamlined, with all directives rapidly implemented down to the community level. The process of governing will not be slowed by the conflict between opposing political parties. All political and social leaders within a theocratic society will quickly fall in line with the rules established by the upper echelons of their society. Unified by the same beliefs, people and groups within a theocracy will work harmoniously toward the same goals.

Since people who live in a theocracy are quick to adhere to the law, crime rates are comparatively low. Similar to most people who have grown up in democracies, citizens of theocracies have been raised and thus conditioned to believe that their way of life is the best way to exist. Most believe that remaining devout and serving their deity is the only true way for them to exist. This helps to keep them committed to their deity, government, culture, and way of life.

However, there are, of course, drawbacks to living under theocratic rule. Incompetent or corrupt leaders are rarely challenged. To challenge a theocratic ruler or group is often viewed as questioning the deity that they represent—potentially a sin.

Theocratic societies are generally intolerant and do not welcome immigrants or people of different cultures or ethnic groups, especially those who do not share the same religious beliefs as them. Minorities within a theocracy are usually forced to either assimilate to the main culture or be shunned and potentially exiled from the country.

Theocratic societies tend to be static, rarely changing or allowing innovations to impact people. While some members of a theocratic society might enjoy modern luxury goods and items, the vast majority of the population might not have access to them. This means that things such as cable TV, the internet, or even cellphones will be viewed as tools for increasing sin and noncompliance. Many people would be fearful of using these things and being influenced by outsiders who use them.

Feminism, LGBTQ advocacy, and similar gender equality movements are seldom tolerated in a theocratic society. Many theocracies conduct their systems based on their deity’s religious mandates. If those mandates prescribe certain roles and duties to a specific gender, then speaking out against them will not be allowed.

While people can own and operate businesses within a theocracy, those businesses must follow established rules, laws, and norms mandated by the theocratic belief system. These rules may prohibit businesses from innovating and maximizing profits. While some businessmen inside of a theocracy will be able to operate relatively freely, most will not.

Similarly, while the average person can work, they cannot maximize their earning potential. Theocratic society provides few opportunities for wealth, encourages cooperation over competition, and generally negatively views material goods.

Theocracies in History

Throughout recorded history, many nations and tribal groups have existed under a theocratic government, including many early civilizations.

Ancient Egypt

One of the best-known known examples of theocratic governments was that of Ancient Egypt. Though it is divided into different periods, the theocratic rule of Egypt lasted for about 3,000 years, from around 3150 BCE to around 30 BCE, creating and maintaining one of the world's greatest ancient cultures in the process.

The government of ancient Egypt was a theocratic monarchy as the kings, or pharaohs, ruled by a mandate from the gods, initially was seen as an intermediary between human beings and the divine and were supposed to represent the gods' will through the laws passed and policies approved. They were thought of as direct descendants of the Sun God, Ra. While the pharaohs were the top representatives of the gods, they were also guided by advisors and high priests in carrying out the gods’ wishes for constructing new temples, creating laws, and providing for defense.

Biblical Israel

The term theocracy was first used by Jewish priest, historian, and military leader Flavius Josephus in the first century AD to describe the characteristic government of the Jews. Josephus argued that while mankind had developed many forms of rule, most could be subsumed under the following three types: monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. However, according to Josephus, the government of the Jews was unique. Josephus offered the term "theocracy" to describe this form of government in which God was the sovereign and His word was law.

Describing the government of biblical Israel under Moses, Josephus wrote, “Our legislator… ordained our government to be what, by a strained expression, may be termed a theocracy, by ascribing the authority and power to God.” The Hebrews believed that their government was by divine rule, whether under the original tribal form, the kingly form, or the high priesthood after the Exile in 597 BCE until the rule of the Maccabees around 167 BCE. The actual rulers or rulers, however, were held responsible directly to God. As such, their deeds and policies could not be arbitrary. They did, however, occasionally deviate from the divine task as shown by the examples of Kings Saul and David. Witnessing such lapses, the prophets sought to correct them in the name of an angry God.

Ancient China

During its nearly 3,000 years of recorded history, early China was ruled by several dynasties that practiced theocratic forms of government, including the Shang and Zhou Dynasties. During the Shang Dynasty, the priest-king was thought to communicate and interpret the wishes of the gods and their ancestors. In 1046 BCE, the Shang Dynasty was overthrown by the Zhou Dynasty, which used a claimed “Mandate of Heaven” as a way to overthrow the government. This mandate stated that the current ruler was chosen by a divine force.

Josephus' first-century definition of theocracy remained widely accepted until the Enlightenment era, when the term took on more universalistic and negative connotations, especially when German philosopher Friedrich Hegel’s commentary on the relationship between religion and government contrasted sharply with established theocratic doctrines. “[if] if the principle of the state is a complete totality, then church and state cannot possibly be unrelated,” he wrote in 1789. The first recorded English use of theocracy meaning, “a sacerdotal government under divine inspiration” appeared in 1622. “Sacerdotal” doctrine ascribes sacrificial functions and spiritual or supernatural powers to ordained priests. The more commonly recognized definition as a “priestly or religious body wielding political and civil power” was recorded in 1825.

Modern Theocracies 

The Enlightenment marked the end of theocracy in most Western countries. Today, only a handful of theocracies remain. The most recent theocracy to adopt a different form of government is Sudan, whose Islamic theocracy was replaced in 2019 by a struggling democracy. Contemporary examples of theocracies include Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, and Vatican City.

Saudi Arabia

As an Islamic theocratic monarchy, and home to two of Islam’s most holy sites, the cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has one of the most tightly controlled governments in the world. Ruled exclusively by the House of Saud since 1932, the family has absolute power. The Holy Quran and the Sunni School of Islam serve as the country’s constitution. Despite the lack of a traditional constitution, Saudi Arabia does have a Basic Law of Governance that guides justice, which must follow the rulings and teaching of Islamic law. Although the law does not directly forbid other religions to be practiced in the country, the practice of religions other than Islam is abhorred by the Saudis' muslin-majority society. Those who reject the Islamic religious teachings within the country are given strict punishment, which in some cases can include the death penalty.

Afghanistan

Similar to Saudi Arabia, Islam is the official religion of Afghanistan. The major foundations of the country’s political institutions are based on Islamic Sharia Law. Political power lies almost exclusively in the hands of the religious leaders of the regime, currently the Taliban Islamic Movement. The stated ultimate goal of this fundamentalist Islamic regime is to unify the Afghani people under a common religious law.

Iran

Located in what is considered the Middle East, the government of Iran is a mixed theocratic government. The country has a supreme leader, president, and several councils. However, the laws of the constitution and justice in the state are based on Islamic law. In this manner, the government and constitution of Iran mix both theocratic and democratic principles and elements. The constitution denotes that the ruler of the state is the best-qualified mortal to interpret Islam and to ensure that the people of the state strictly adhere to its principles. Before the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country was ruled by Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, who was well-known for his secular and U.S.-friendly attitudes. Following a revolution in 1979, the Shah was overthrown from his position by the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who then became the leader of Iran’s new Islamic State. Best remembered for orchestrating the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979, Khomeini implemented a political system based on traditional Islamic beliefs, a role held today by Khomeini’s ardent student and ally, Ali Khamenei.

Vatican City

Officially considered a city-state, the Vatican City is the only country in the world with an absolute theocratic elective monarchy that is guided by the principles of a Christian religious school of thought. Sometimes called the Holy See, Vatican City’s government follows the laws and teaching of the Catholic religion. The Pope is the supreme power in the country and leads the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the Vatican government. This is also perhaps the only monarchy in the world that is non-hereditary. While the country does have a president, that president’s rule can be overturned by the Pope. 

Sources

  • Boyle, Sarah B. “What Is a Theocracy?” Crabtree Publishing, July 25, 2013, ISBN-10: ‎0778753263.
  • Derrick, Tara. “Theocracy: Religious Government.” Mason Crest Publishers, January 1, 2018, ISBN-10: ‎1422240223.
  • Clarkson, Frederick. “Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy.” Common Courage Press, March 1, 1997, ISBN-10: ‎1567510884.
  • Hirschl, Ran. “Constitutional Theocracy.” Harvard University Press, November 1, 2010, ISBN-10: ‎0674048199.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Theocracy? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Jun. 29, 2022, thoughtco.com/definition-of-theocracy-721626. Longley, Robert. (2022, June 29). What Is Theocracy? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-theocracy-721626 Longley, Robert. "What Is Theocracy? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-theocracy-721626 (accessed December 10, 2022).