From Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion, ed. Robert Wuthnow. 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1998), 733-735.


Theocracy, derived from two Greek words meaning "rule by the deity," is the name given to political regimes that claim to represent the Divine on earth both directly and immediately. The idea of direct and immediate representation is important for two reasons.

First, most governments throughout history and across cultures have claimed to be following their gods' designs or to be legitimated by a divine mandate. An example is the notion that kings rule by divine right. (This theory, which had been important in European politics in the sixteenth century, lost ground after the "Glorious Revolution" in England in 1688.) But governments in which the ruling and the priestly roles are separate are not considered to be theocracies. Second, the divine mandate must be interpreted by human beings in specific political contexts, such as wars or floods or famines. In theocracies the interpreters--who explain what these events mean--are the rulers. A number of ancient civilizations worshipped their kings as gods on earth, so the problem of interpretation was somewhat different. By definition, the king could not be wrong.

In theory, there is no reason why a theocracy and a democratic form of government are incompatible--vox populi, vox dei ("the voice of the people is the voice of God")--but historically those nations regarded as theocracies have been ruled by a theologically trained elite. This may be a council of clerics, or a charismatic leader may claim a special call from God and gain office by force of arms. The office might later become hereditary. The primary effort of government in a theocracy is to implement and enforce divine laws.

Variations on Theocratic Governments

As archeologists are slowly solving the mysteries of early civilizations it seems certain that the ancient Hebrews, Tibetans, and Egyptians lived in theocracies for some of their history. So did early American civilizations, including the Mayans, Toltecs, Aztecs, Natchez, and a still mysterious community that built the Teotihuacan pyramids north of Mexico City.

Generally, Christian nations have been inclined to keep church and state separate, although there have been frequent efforts by each to dominate the other. Among Christian societies the most notable attempts to create theocracies were the Papal States under various popes, Geneva under John Calvin's control in the sixteenth century, and the New England colonies under the Puritans in the seventeenth century. In the contemporary world only the Vatican might be considered a Christian theocracy--and that only in a technical sense. Vatican City, a one-hundred-acre-territory established in Rome by the Lateran Treaty of 1929, is the successor to the Papal States. It is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church and the home of the pope. Final executive, legislative, and judicial powers are vested in the pope. The Vatican claims state sovereignty and maintains diplomatic relations with many nations. It has a small population and its primary purpose is to manage worldwide Catholicism.

In the latter part of the twentieth century numerous Muslim groups have attempted to establish Islamic theocracies. Some argue that theocracies are the natural form of government for Islam. Certainly, there is historic precedent. The community established by the prophet Muhammad in Medina in 622, and ruled by him until his death in 632, was a theocracy in which he served as both temporal and spiritual leader. The communities established by his father-in-law and successor, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, over the next ten years were organized as theocracies as well. These communities, which covered the territory that now encompasses Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, were regarded as an Islamic ideal for centuries to come.

There is also some theological basis for viewing theocracy as an Islamic ideal type of government. Muhammad established the umma (community of believers) as a holistic political community rooted in a faith that consciously sought to replace blood, geography, ethnicity, and language as the primary social bond. Yet there is no single model for how a contemporary Islamic theocracy should be organized. There is no certainty that people will voluntarily accept a theocratic form of government for long. There is even less agreement on whether theocracy is intrinsic to Islam or simply a historical phase. Some scholars argue that democracy is perfectly compatible with Islam, although this assertion is vigorously contested.

In the contemporary world, Iran and Afghanistan are considered theocracies because ultimate political authority in each is in the hands of religious leaders and a fundamentalist regime whose purpose is to organize society under religious law, the shari'a. There are significant political pressures from fundamentalist Muslims to move toward theocratic forms of government in Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, Turkey, and other Islamic countries. These efforts are resisted by various other groups within these nations, most notably by the armies in Turkey and Algeria, which prefer a more secular state. It is unclear which forces will eventually triumph.

It is also unclear exactly what these political pressures mean--whether they are efforts to establish a true theocratic form of government or, as some scholars claim, to use religious rhetoric, symbolism, and values for nationalistic purposes. Islamic ideals may be used to win popular support for liberation from foreign domination or from an autocratic ruling elite, to encourage economic renewal, and to revitalize Islamic cultural hegemony. There are historical examples to support these claims. Egyptian nationalists appealed to Islam to rally citizens in their struggle to win independence from Great Britain. Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini smuggled religious sermons into Iran to turn Iranians against the corrupt regime of the shah. Saddam Husayn appealed to his people unsuccessfully to take up a jihad, or holy war, during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Taliban imposition of shari'ain Afghanistan is an effort to restore Islamic customs and culture.

In Israel as well there are political pressures to move in the direction of restoring the theocracy of ancient times. Several ultra-Orthodox parties advocate such a return but are not considered likely to succeed in the foreseeable future.

Internal and External Problems

When they do gain power theocracies tend to be short lived for a number of reasons, some internal to the regime and others external to it. Internally, clerics trained in religious dogma and jurisprudence are rarely skilled in economic matters and have difficulty maintaining a complex modern economy. When corruption occurs among government officials, ensuing scandals undermine religion as well as politics if those officials are also clerics. Resentment grows among the nonclerical populace when religious laws seem arbitrary or excessively strict and are enforced through civil power. Religious taxes imposed on top of other taxes, especially in times of economic hardship, cause added resentment. Finally, clerics who presume to speak in the name of the Divinity have difficulty engaging in normal compromises so essential for political effectiveness. Such compromises may even seem to them to be immoral or sinful. Finally, in states controlled by one party, which theocracies tend to be, police are often tempted to resort to brutality and other harsh measures that undermine the legitimacy of the regime.

Externally, rulers in other nations often fear the exportation of religious dogma backed by political power and move to isolate a theocratic regime. And because secular cultures from outside can exert a constant seductive influence on young people through music, arts, clothes, and movies, and infuse them with political ideas of freedom, democracy, and equality, a theocratic regime is inclined to limit contact with the outside world. Such actions increase isolation of the country but often lead to a fascination with the outside and an underground opposition to the regime. Such conditions are not conducive to longevity, and theocracies rarely outlive their founding generation.

See also Calvinism; Separation of church and state; Vatican.

Author: Paul J. Weber


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