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Theocracy is a form of government in which a god or deity is recognized as the state's supreme civil ruler,[1] or in a broader sense, a form of government in which a state is governed by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided.[2] For believers, theocracy is a form of government in which divine power governs an earthly human state, either in a personal incarnation or, more often, via religious institutional representatives (i.e., a church), replacing or dominating civil government.[3] Theocratic governments enact theonomic laws.

Theocracy should be distinguished from other secular forms of government that have a state religion, or are merely influenced by theological or moral concepts, and monarchies held "By the Grace of God".

A theocracy may be monist in form, where the administrative hierarchy of the government is identical with the administrative hierarchy of the religion, or it may have two 'arms,' but with the state administrative hierarchy subordinate to the religious hierarchy.

Theocratic tendencies have been found in several religious traditions including Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism, and among Christianity: Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Mormonism. Historical examples of Christian theocracies are the Byzantine Empire (A.D. 330-1453) and the Carolingian Empire (A.D. 800-888).

History of the concept

The word theocracy originates from the Greek θεοκρατία, meaning "the rule of God". This in turn derives from the Greek words θεός (theos, from an Indo-European root occurring in religious concepts), meaning “god,” and κράτειν (kratein), meaning “to rule.” Thus the meaning of the word in Greek was “rule by god(s)” or human incarnation(s) of god(s).

It was first coined by Josephus Flavius in the first century AD to describe the characteristic government for Jews. Josephus argued that while the Greeks recognized three types of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and anarchy, the Jews were unique in that they had a system of government that did not fit into those categories. Josephus understood theocracy as a fourth form of government in which only God and his law is sovereign. Josephus' definition was widely accepted until the enlightenment era, when the term started to collect more universalistic and undeniably negative connotations, especially in Hegel's mind.

The first recorded English use was in 1622, with the meaning "sacerdotal government under divine inspiration" (as in Biblical Israel before the rise of kings); the meaning "priestly or religious body wielding political and civil power" is recorded from 1825.

The word has been mostly used to label certain politically unpopular societies as somehow less rational or developed. The concept is used in sociology and other social sciences, but the term is often used inaccurately, especially in popular rhetoric.

In the most common usage of the term theocracy, some civil rulers are leaders of the dominant religion (e.g., the Byzantine Emperor as patron of the head of the official Church); the government claims to rule on behalf of God or a higher power, as specified by the local religion, and divine approval of government institutions and laws. These characteristics apply also to a Caesaropapist regime. The Byzantine empire however was not theocratic since the Patriarch answered to the Emperor, not vice versa; similarly in Tudor England the crown forced the church to break away from Rome so the royal (and, especially later, parliamentary) power could assume full control of the now Anglican hierarchy and confiscate most church property and income.

Taken literally or strictly, theocracy means rule by God or gods and refers primarily to an internal "rule of the heart", especially in its biblical application. The common, generic use of the term, as defined above in terms of rule by a church or analogous religious leadership, would be more accurately described as an "ecclesiocracy".[4]

In a pure theocracy, the civil leader is believed to have a direct personal connection with God. For example, a prophet like Moses ruled the Israelites, and the prophet Muhammad ruled the early Muslims. Law proclaimed by the ruler is also considered a divine revelation, and hence the law of God. An ecclesiocracy, on the other hand, is a situation where the religious leaders assume a leading role in the state, but do not claim that they are instruments of divine revelation. For example, the prince-bishops of the European Middle Ages, where the bishop was also the temporal ruler. The papacy in the Papal States occupied a middle ground between theocracy and ecclesiocracy, since the pope did not claim he is a prophet who receives revelation from God, but merely the (in rare cases infallible) interpreter of already-received revelation. Religiously endorsed monarchies fall between these two poles, according to the relative strengths of the religious and political organs.

Secular governments can also coexist with a state religion or delegate some aspects of civil law to religious communities. For example, in Israel civil marriage is governed by Jewish religious institutions for Jews, by Muslim religious institutions for Muslims, and by Christian religious institutions for Christians. India similarly delegates control of marriage and some other civil matters to the religious communities, in large part as a way of accommodating its Muslim minority. Egypt was run in both monarchic and theocracy in which the pharaoh was the head priest.

Current states with theocratic aspects

Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan Government in Exile)

While not an independent state, the Central Tibetan Administration (commonly called the Tibetan Government in Exile) performs oversight of social service programs for the Tibetan exile community in India and abroad, including health, education, religion and cultural programs.[6][7][8] The 14th Dalai Lama is officially the Head of State of the Central Tibetan Administration.[9] The CTA defines itself as a democracy, governed constitutionally by the 1991 Charter of Tibetans in Exile.[9][10]

Critics have alleged that the Dalai Lama exerts theocratic influence over Tibetans in exile in India, citing the actions taken by the CTA in response to the Dalai Lama's position on the worship of Dorje Shugden. In early 1996, the Dalai Lama made statements condemning the worship of Dorje Shugden, and indicating that he no longer wished to give tantric initiations to those who continued the practice.[11] In June 1996, the Assembly of Tibetan People's Deputies passed a resolution forbidding CTA departments and their subsidiaries- including monasteries overseen by the CTA- from performing rituals associated with Dorje Shugden.[11] The CTA also asked that the head of Sera monastery report to them the names of monks who were continuing to engage in the worship of Dorje Shugden.[11] A 2008 Al Jazeera documentary reports that the ban was established and implemented without a vote in parliament. [12] In July of 1996, the CTA announced the formation of a committee to look into allegations of abuse of supporters of Dorje Shugden; in the same statement, they reiterated the ban issues in June, and emphasized that individual Tibetans were free to chose whether or not to worship Dorje Shugden.[11]

Islamic Republic of Iran

Iran's government is described as a "theocratic republic".[13] Iran's head of state, or Supreme Leader, is an Islamic cleric appointed for life by an elected council.[13] The Council of Guardians, considered part of the executive branch of government, is responsible for determining if legislation is in line with Islamic law and customs (the Sharia), and can bar candidates from elections.[13]

Holy See (Vatican City)

Following the unification of Italy, The Holy See (commonly known as the Vatican or Vatican City) became the the last surviving territory of the former Papal States.[15] In 1929, the Holy See was formally recognized as an independent state through treaties with the Italian government.[15] The head of state of the Vatican is the Pope, elected by the College of Cardinals, an assembly of senior Catholic clerics.[15] A Pope is elected for life, and voting is limited to cardinals under 80 years of age.[15] A Secretary of State, directly responsible for international relations, is appointed by the Pope.[15] The Vatican legal system is rooted in Canon Law, and subject to the dictates of the Pope and changes to Canon Law made by conferences of senior clergy.[15]


The Israeli legal system recognizes Jewish, Muslim, and Christian customary law in certain inter-personal matters.[16] Certain religious distinctions are recognized within the legal system; compulsory military service is not required of non-Jewish, non-Druze citizens.[16] The Law of Return grants preferential status to some non-Israeli Jews in immigration matters. In 1948, David Ben-Gurion met with religious Jewish leaders to establish a status quo that provides broad guidance on the role of religious institutions in Israeli life, and concessions made to religiously observant Jewish interests. In particular, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel has authority over certain matters relating to Jewish family life and conversion, even among non-Orthodox and secular Jews.

Historical theocracies

The largest and best known theocracies in history were the Umayyad and early Abassid Caliphate, and the Papal States. And as with any other state or empire, pragmatism was part of the politics of these de jure theocracies.


An example often given from Antiquity is Pharaonic Egypt when the king was a divine or semi-divine figure who ruled largely through priests. Properly speaking this was originally a caesaropapist order, rather than a theocratic one, since the worldly rulers took charge of religion, rather than vice versa, but once the Pharaoh (since Ramses the Great) was recognized as a living (incarnated) god both definitions concurred.[citation needed]

In ancient Greece and Rome denying the gods of the state was a crime. In ancient Rome, the emperors were often deified.[citation needed]

Historical Christian theocracies

Protestant theocracies

Geneva, during the period of John Calvin's greatest influence and the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the "Puritans" had many characteristics of Protestant theocracies.


During the short reign (1494-1498) of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican Priest, the city of Florence could have been considered a theocracy. During his rule, un-Christian books, statues, poetry, and other items were burned (in the Bonfire of the Vanities), sodomy was made a capital offense, and other Christian practices became law.


Another ecclesiocracy was the administration of the short-lived State of Deseret, an independent entity briefly organized in the American West by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its original borders stretched from western Colorado to the southern California coast. When the Mormons arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake in 1847, the Great Basin was still a part of Mexico and had no secular government. As a result, Brigham Young administered the region both spiritually and temporally through the highly organized and centralized Melchizedek Priesthood. This original organization was based upon a concept called theo-democracy, a governmental system combining Biblical theocracy with mid-19th-century American political ideals, including heavy reliance upon the U.S. Constitution. The treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo resulted in the Mexican Cession by which Deseret was incorporated into the United States. In 1849, the Saints organized a secular government in Utah, although many ecclesiatical leaders maintained their positions of secular power. The Mormons also petitioned Congress to have Deseret admitted into the Union as a state. However, under the Compromise of 1850, Utah Territory was created and Brigham Young was appointed governor. In this situation, Young still stood as head of the LDS Church as well as Utah's secular government.

After the abortive Utah War of 1857/58, the replacement of Young by an outside Federal Territorial Governor, the eventual resolution of controversies regarding plural marriage, and accession by Utah to statehood, the apparent temporal aspects of LDS theo-democracy receded markedly. However, — like many Christians, Jewish People, and Muslims — Latter-day Saints regard some form of theocracy with God as the head (king) of a chiliastic world government to be the true political ideal. But, until the Second Coming of Christ, the Mormons teach in their 12th Article of Faith: submission to the powers that be. But true to their beliefs in individual liberty and moral accountability, they exhibit a strong preference for democratic-republican, representative government as embodied in the Constitution of the United States. See also Theo-democracy.


Montenegro offers a singular example of monarchs willingly turning their power to ecclesiastic authority (Serbian Orthodox), as the last of the House of Crnojević (styled Grand Voivode, not sovereign princes) did, in order to preserve national unity before the Ottoman onslaught as a separate millet under an autochthonous Ethnarch. When Montenegro re-established secular dynastic succession by the proclamation of princedom in 1851, it did so in favor of the last Prince-bishop, who changed his style from Vladika i upravitelj Crne Gore i Brde "Vladika [bishop] and Ruler of Montenegro and Brda" to Po Bozjoj milosti knjaz i gospodar Crne Gore i Brde "By the grace of God Prince and Sovereign of Montenegro and Brda," thus rendering his de facto dynasty (the Petrović-Njegoš family since 1696) a hereditary one.

Historical Sikh theocracies

Sikh Confederacy

Sikh Confederacy was a collection of small to medium sized independent sovereign, Sikh states, which were governed by barons or sardars, in the Confederacy. There was not much political movement in the Confederacy but all the barons were very strongly linked with the principles established by Guru Gobind Singh, the founder Chief of the Khalsa Army. The nation lasted for span of a century and a quarter. The first 50 years, the nation was governed by the barons meeting together once a year in an all faith-wide meeting called Sarbat Khalsa in which not just them the respective barons of the states were allowed but anybody was allowed to participate into. Even today, the tradition lives on as once in a while Sarbat Khalsa are called and people in large gatherings come to join them.

Historical Islamic theocracies

In Islam, the period when Medina was ruled by the Islamic prophet Muhammad is, occasionally, classed as a theocracy. By 630, Muhammad established a theocracy in Mecca. Other plausible examples of Islamic theocracy might be Mahdist Sudan and the Taliban state in Afghanistan (1996-2001). Most irregular was the non-permanent rule of the Akhoonds (imams) in the later princely state of Swat, a valley in (first British India's, later Pakistan's) North-West Frontier Province. Theocratic movements arose in the Arab world in the 1970s.

Historical Buddhist theocracies

Unified religious rule in Tibet began in 1642, when the Fifth Dalai Lama allied with the military power of the Mongol Gushri Khan to consolidate the political power and control centered around his office as head of the Gelug school.[17] Prior to 1642, particular monasteries and monks had held considerable power throughout Tibet, but had not achieved anything approaching complete control, though power continued to be held in a diffuse, feudal system after the ascension of the Fifth Dalai Lama. Power in Tibet was held by a number of traditional elites, including members of the nobility, the heads of the major Buddhist sects (including their various tulkus), and various large and influential monastic communities.[11] Tibet during this period existed as a feudal theocracy, with a large class of serfs (consisting largely of non-noble Buddhist laymen) working on estates owned by monastic leaders and members of the secular aristocracy.[18]. Political power was sometimes used by monastic leaders to suppress rival religious schools through the confiscation of property and direct violence.[17][18] Social mobility was somewhat possible through the attainment of a monastic education, or recognition as a reincarnated teacher, but such institutions were dominated by the traditional elites and governed by political intrigue.[11] Non-Buddhists in Tibet were members of an outcast underclass.[11]

Mongolia also had a theocratic Lama before the Soviets installed a satellite communist state, but there since the start in 1639[clarification needed], when the son of the Mongol Khan of Urga was named a Living Buddha (Bogdo gegeen), the dynasty espoused theocracy and secular aristocracy.


Japan was a nominal theocracy until it was defeated in World War II when Emperor Hirohito was forced to deny in the Ningen-sengen (人間宣言 ?) the claim that the Emperor of Japan was divine. Formerly, the Meiji constitution of Japan stated that Emperor was sacred, but a claim of personal divinity was only made by the Showa emperor. The claim that the imperial family are descendants of Amaterasu (天照) (the sun goddess) has not been denied officially. During this period, although the Emperor had some influence, Japan was a constitutional democracy ultimately dominated by the military.

See also


  1. Catholic Encylopedia "A form of civil government in which God himself is recognized as the head."
  2. 1
  4. Stephen Palmquist, Biblical Theocracy: A vision of the biblical foundations for a Christian political philosophy (Hong Kong: Philopsychy Press, 1993), introduced these more precise uses of the terms in arguing that theocracy (in this pure sense) is the only political system defended in the Bible. While Palmquist defends theocracy in this pure form as a viable (though "non-political" political system, he warns that what normally goes by this name is actually ecclesiocracy, the most dangerous of all political systems.
  5. Department of Education
  6. Department of Health
  7. Department of Religion and Culture
  8. Tibet in Exile
  9. Constitution
  10. Lopez, Donald S. (1998), Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 190-196, ISBN 0226493113
  11. Al Jazeera News Documentary People and Power [2]
  12. CIA World Factbook - Iran
  13. CIA World Factbook - Holy See
  14. CIA World Factbook - Israel
  15. Davidson, Ronald M. (2004), "Tibet", in Buswell, Jr., Robert E., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, USA: Macmillan Reference USA, pp. 851-59, ISBN 0028659104
  16. Friendly Fuedalism - The Tibet Myth

Further reading

  • Ankerl, Guy (2000). Global communication without universal civilization. INU societal research, vol. 1: Coexisting contemporary civilizations: Arabo-Muslim, Bharati, Chinese, and Western. Geneva: INU Press. ISBN 2-88155-004-5.

External links