The Definition of Theocracy

Religion and Government

Muslim pilgrims pray adjacent to the Hira cave, where Muhammad received the Koran outside of Mecca

Muhannad Fala'ah / Stringer / Getty Images 

A theocracy is a government operated under divine rule or the pretense of divine rule. The origin of the word "theocracy" is from the 17th century from the Greek word theokratia. Theo is Greek for "god," and cracy means "government."

In practice, the term refers to a government operated by religious authorities who claim unlimited power in the name of God or supernatural forces. Many government leaders, including some in the U.S., invoke God, and claim to be inspired by God or to obey the will of God. This does not make a government a theocracy, at least in practice and by itself. A government is a theocracy when its lawmakers believe that leaders are governed by the will of God and laws are written and enforced that are predicated on this belief.

Examples of Modern Theocratic Governments 

Theocratic movements exist in virtually every country on earth, but true contemporary theocracies are primarily found in the Muslim world, particularly in Islamic states governed by Sharia. Iran and Saudi Arabia are often cited as modern examples of theocratic governments.

In practice, North Korea also resembles a theocracy because of the supernatural powers that were attributed to former leader Kim Jong Il and the comparable deference he received from other government officials and the military. Hundreds of thousands of indoctrination centers operate on devotion to Kim's will and legacy and to that of his son, the present leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un.

The Holy See in Vatican City is also technically a theocratic government. A sovereign state, and home to nearly 1,000 citizens, the Holy See is governed by the Catholic Church and represented by the pope and its bishop. All government positions and offices are filled by clergy. 

Characteristics

Although mortal men hold positions of power in theocratic governments, the laws and rules are considered to be set by divinity, and these mortals primarily serve their deity, not the people. As with the Holy See, leaders are typically clergy or that faith’s version of clergy, and they often hold their positions for life. The succession of rulers may occur by inheritance or may be passed from one dictator to another of his choosing, but new leaders are never appointed by popular vote. The ultimate power or ruler is whichever God is the country- or state-recognized deity.

There is no freedom of religion, and defying one’s faith—specifically the theocracy’s faith—often results in death in extreme governments. At the very least, the infidel would be banished or persecuted. Laws and legal systems are faith-based, typically based literally on religious texts. Religious rule dictates social norms such as marriage, law, and punishment. The governmental structure is typically that of a dictatorship or monarchy. This leaves less opportunity for corruption, but it also means that people cannot vote on issues and do not have a voice.