AskDefine | Define theocracy

Dictionary Definition



1 a political unit governed by a deity (or by officials thought to be divinely guided)
2 the belief in government by divine guidance

User Contributed Dictionary



  • /θiˈɑkɹəsi/


theocracy (plural theocracies)
  1. Government under the control of a Church or state-sponsored religion.
  2. Rule by God.


government under the control of a Church
  • Hungarian: papi uralom, teokrácia
rule by God

Extensive Definition

Theocracy is a form of government in which a 'god' or 'deity' is recognized as the supreme civil ruler. 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. 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.
Some democratic political parties and other organizations advocate reconstruction of governments as theocracies. See the article on the Islamic party. Other alleged examples include the Unification Church and Christian Reconstructionism.

History of the concept

The word theocracy originates from the Greek θεοκρατία (death of the life ), meaning "the rule of God". This in turn derives from the Greek words θεος (theos, from an Indo-European root occurring in religious concepts), meaning “god,” and κρατειν (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 1st century 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 hands.
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 (but is commonly used as the generic term). The more specific term 'ecclesiocracy denotes rule by a church or analogous religious leadership.
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.

Current states with theocratic aspects


Most observers would consider Iran a theocracy, since the elected president and legislature are constitutionally subject to the supervision of two offices reserved for Shia clerics: the Supreme Leader of Iran (Rahbar) and the Guardian Council, which even decide who may run for office.
However, Iranian policies themselves consider Iran a theo-democracy or religious democracy. The Supreme Leader is considered as the ultimate head of state and government, whereas the President is granted as the prime executor of policy. However, in the recent years Mohammad Khatami has called Iranian political system as an alternative democratic model so called religious democracy.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is run according to a codified version of Shari'a (Islamic legislation) with the Quran declared to be the constitution and is therefore sometimes classified as theocratic, but it is officially and in political fact a hereditary monarchy, with the King wielding near-absolute power and the organs of official religion subservient to them, which is rather caesaropapism: a state structure in which the government ('Caesar') is also in control of the main religious institutions.

The Vatican

The Vatican City State is theocratic in a very limited sense, since it has temporal rule over a small territory, but that is not its primary function. As per the Lateran Treaty, secular laws and practices in the Vatican follow those of Italy. Responsibility for security, including keeping outside invaders at bay and prosecution of criminals, is shared by the Vatican's own armed force, the Swiss Guard, and the Italian state.
The Papal States -- the predecessor to the Vatican City State -- functioned more theocratically, with penalties that included excommunication.

Athos (The Holy Mountain) Greece

Mount Athos is the only autonomous administrative department in Greece, which is a country run according to Roman Law and is otherwise entirely a unitary state. Mount Athos is theocratic in that it is ruled entirely by the monks under their own council from the capital Karyes, and it controls who can visit. Only Orthodox Christian males are allowed to stay permanently on Athos, which consists of 20 monastic establishments. Its spiritual leadership is the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople based in Istanbul. There is a religious police guard that has the authority to impose order, e.g., ban the playing of musical instruments by visitors. The Greek police also have authority with the monks' permission to enforce the civil law of Greece and decisions of the Patriarchate in accordance with the Canon, e.g., the decision to evict the monks of the renegade Esphigmenou monastery. Athos has upheld derogations from the EU allowing them to continue the prohibition of the entry of females (including female mammals) on the mountain. This isn't because they are male monks, but because the mountain is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and this is an important historical fact of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Religious communities

Theocracy, as a form of ruling the state, should be distinguished from the internal order of a religious community. The Knights Hospitaller is a religious order with an internal rule, but this does not make it a theocracy. Many states incorporate elements of religious law in their civil laws, but if these laws are administered by civil courts according to the logic of the state, this does not constitute a theocratic element in their constitutions.

Current states with vestigial theocratic aspects


Andorra's government is in some aspect nominally theocratic in that the Bishop of Urgell is one of its co-princes, although the role is virtually entirely ceremonial.

The UK

England has a minor theocratic aspect because the monarch is "Supreme Governor" of the Church of England and "defender of the faith", and is prohibited from being a Catholic. This has been the case since the Protestant Reformation in England, under Henry VIII. Henry VIII created the Church of England in part because the Papacy would not annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, but also due to the large amount of political power that the Vatican wielded within England. He wanted to annul the marriage because he could not produce a male heir that wasn't illegitimate. The monarch has virtually no real power, and his/her positions as head of state and church are purely ceremonial. Hence, the ruling government is not subject to any religious interference, and England is a multi-faith society. However the Bishops and archbishops of the Church of England sit in the House of Lords as Spiritual Peers, including the Archbishop of Canterbury and York. This does not apply to Scotland, whose Church of Scotland does not have the same relation to the Country, nor to Wales and Northern Ireland, which have no established church. Queen Elizabeth II, however, is a member of the Church of Scotland and appoints a representative to the General Assembly of the church if she cannot attend personally.


While Norway's population is relatively religious in their day-to-day lives by Scandinavian standards, they are by no means highly orthodox, and the Norwegian State retains a few vestigial religious overtones. As in many constitutional monarchies, the Head of State is also the leader of the state church. The 12th article of the Constitution of Norway requires more than half of the members of the Norwegian Council of State to be members of the state church. The second article guarantees freedom of religion, while also stating that Evangelical Lutheranism is the official state religion.
On July 9, 2006, a prominent member of HEF, Jens Brun-Pedersen, called for the Prime Minister to advocate the separation of church and state. He argues that the 12th article of the constitution is discriminatory, and that Norway can't criticize countries advocating Sharia law when the constitution favors Lutheran members of society.
Norway is unique in the situation, that socially the policy of the state remains quite liberal - relative to other countries in Europe. Most theocratic states are much more socially conservative than Norway


There is a small amount of intertwining of Jewish law (Halakha) and civil law, particularly with regards to the enforcement of Orthodox Jewish weddings for Jewish citizens, rather than allowing freedom to have a civil marriage (although these sorts of laws are being fought and revoked on a constant basis). Another promoted institution is that of the 'yeshiva'- an Orthodox Jewish seminary, often funded to a large extent by the state.

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.

In Antiquity

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

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 theodemocracy, 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 theodemocracy 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 Theodemocracy.


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.

Republic of Ireland

It has frequently been argued that in the early years of the Republic of Ireland (and its predecessor state Éire), the Roman Catholic hierarchy, in particular John Charles McQuaid (Archbishop of Dublin 1940-72), held power comparable to elected officials. For example, Health Minister Noel Browne was forced to resign in 1950, partly because of McQuaid's opposition to the Mother and Child Scheme. Also, many things forbidden by Catholic doctrine - condoms, abortion, divorce - were also illegal in Ireland up to the 1980s and '90s.

Province of Quebec (Canada)

The province of Quebec was considered a main Catholic stronghold of the world from its foundation up to 1960, the quiet revolution.(citation needed). The ecclesiastical regime which ruled Quebec from the 1930s to the early 1960s is mostly associated with the highly controversial premier Maurice Duplessis. During that time, the line separating the civil, political authorities and the Catholic Church was all but obliterated.

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

The period when Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet, especially before certain twentieth century reforms, has also been deemed a Lamaist (Buddhist) theocracy until his government was forced into exile by the People's Republic of China which annexed the country. Mongolia also had a theocratic Lama before the Soviets installed a satellite communist state, but there since the start in 1639, 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 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.

In Popular Culture

  • In the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, the fictional nation known as the Air Nomads was ruled by a theocratic establishment.
  • In the world of Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium follows the system of theocracy by obeying 'The Immortal God-Emperor of Mankind'.



  • Global communication without universal civilization

Sources and external links

theocracy in Arabic: ثيوقراطية
theocracy in Asturian: Teocracia
theocracy in Bulgarian: Теокрация
theocracy in Catalan: Teocràcia
theocracy in Czech: Teokracie
theocracy in Welsh: Theocrataeth
theocracy in Danish: Teokrati
theocracy in German: Theokratie
theocracy in Estonian: Teokraatia
theocracy in Spanish: Teocracia
theocracy in Esperanto: Teokratio
theocracy in Basque: Teokrazia
theocracy in Persian: دین‌سالاری
theocracy in Faroese: Teokrati
theocracy in French: Théocratie
theocracy in Galician: Teocracia
theocracy in Korean: 신정정치
theocracy in Hindi: धर्मतंत्र
theocracy in Croatian: Teokracija
theocracy in Indonesian: Teokrasi
theocracy in Icelandic: Guðveldi
theocracy in Italian: Teocrazia
theocracy in Hebrew: תאוקרטיה
theocracy in Georgian: თეოკრატია
theocracy in Haitian: Teokrasi
theocracy in Hungarian: Teokrácia
theocracy in Macedonian: Теократија
theocracy in Malay (macrolanguage): Teokrasi
theocracy in Dutch: Theocratie
theocracy in Japanese: 神政政治
theocracy in Norwegian: Teokrati
theocracy in Norwegian Nynorsk: Teokrati
theocracy in Polish: Teokracja
theocracy in Portuguese: Teocracia
theocracy in Romanian: Teocraţie
theocracy in Russian: Теократия
theocracy in Sicilian: Teocrazzìa
theocracy in Simple English: Theocracy
theocracy in Slovenian: Teokracija
theocracy in Serbian: Теократија
theocracy in Serbo-Croatian: Teokracija
theocracy in Finnish: Teokratia
theocracy in Swedish: Teokrati
theocracy in Turkish: Teokrasi
theocracy in Ukrainian: Теократія
theocracy in Chinese: 神權政治

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

absolute monarchy, aristocracy, autarchy, autocracy, autonomy, coalition government, colonialism, commonwealth, constitutional government, constitutional monarchy, democracy, dictatorship, dominion rule, duarchy, duumvirate, dyarchy, federal government, federation, feudal system, garrison state, gerontocracy, heteronomy, hierarchy, hierocracy, home rule, limited monarchy, martial law, meritocracy, militarism, military government, mob rule, mobocracy, monarchy, neocolonialism, ochlocracy, oligarchy, pantisocracy, patriarchate, patriarchy, police state, pure democracy, regency, representative democracy, representative government, republic, self-determination, self-government, social democracy, stratocracy, technocracy, thearchy, totalitarian government, totalitarian regime, triarchy, triumvirate, tyranny, welfare state
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