The Definition of Theocracy

Religion and Government

byTom Head Updated March 18, 2019

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 United States, 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 actually 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 

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 Jong-il’s will and legacy and to that of his son and the present leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un.

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.

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. 


Although mortal men hold positions of power in theocratic governments, the laws and rules are considered to be set by God or another deity, and these men first 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 own choosing, but new leaders are never appointed by popular vote. 

Laws and the legal systems are faith-based, typically formed literally on the basis of religious texts. The ultimate power or ruler is God or the country’s or state’s recognized deity. Religious rule dictates social norms such as marriage, law, and punishment. Governmental structure is typically that of a dictatorship or monarchy. This leaves less opportunity for corruption, but it also means that the people cannot vote on issues and do not have a voice. 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.

How do citizens participate in a theocratic government?

In a full theocracy? Indirectly. A theocracy is a government based on religious dogma, and ordinary citizens cannot change that. Some of them can join the clergy and try to affect a change in the interpretation via political and religious means (in a theocracy there can be politics within the clergy itself), but that is a big commitment and many religions have restrictions about who can be in the clergy (obviously no members of other religions, but many religions have no or limited options for women, too).

In a partial theocracy? To a limited degree. For example, Iran is often seen as a theocracy as the clergy have the deciding power, but they do have politics and elections where different fractions compete (that, by the way, is more than the Soviet bloc did). This means that citizens can vote and, if meeting the requirements, be elected. One big problem is that one of the requirements is to be approved by a control authority governed by the clergy, so any reformist must know how to lay low and push limited measures. Of course, being able to do politics from within the clergy is also an option, but again it comes with its own set of restrictions.

Duhaime’s Law Dictionary

Theocracy Definition:

A form of government which defers not to civil development of law, but to an interpretation of the will of a God as set out in religious scripture and authorities.

Related Terms: Islamic LawCanon LawEcclesiastical LawSumma Ratio Est Quae Pro Religione FacitMonarchyNatural LawBlasphemyDemocracy

Sometimes referred to by the more academic term ecclesiocracy, theocracy can either give a religious leader ultimate political power or civil authority – or tolerate a political ruler but with constitutional paramountcy given to religious texts, usually on the condition that the nominal head of state be an ordained minister or priest of the ruling religion.

All law in a theocracy must be as set out within, or entirely consistent with whatever religious text the ruling religion abides by. For example, in an Islamic theocracy such as Iran, that text would be the Koran.

In a theocracy, the courts are usually presided over by religious officials, who are taken as more versant in the applicable legal texts.

Theocracies generally do not tolerate freedom of expression. They believe their dogma is divine; that it comes from divine revelation (directly from God as in Moses on Mount Sinai) and therefore, no dissenting opinion can be accurate or helpful. This often leads to widespread abuse of basic human rights.

Adherents of theocracy are called theocrats. Theocrats do not recognize religious parables for what they are and often attempt to rule as if the parables were intended to be  be taken literally. Because the parables issue from a time long gone, they do not fit as a literal guide, without interpretation, into a modern lifestyle and thus causes a population so governed to be subjected to outdated rules of conduct and, more often than not, double standards of tolerance for disobedience to law; one for the rich and one for the poor.

Theocracy was the first form of government worldwide but many nations and states have abandoned any reference to religious texts as having ultimate authority in law. It is believed that strict adherence to religious texts was necessary for the early forms of human government to impose law and order.

The reality, though, was likely the other way around: strict moral religious texts were developed or promoted by rulers to sustain law, order and their political authority.

However, with education, states have gradually been able to relax the grip of theocracy and replace it with democratic principles. A theocratic state can not be a democratic state – the one the antithesis of the other.

Many states continue to refer to the existence or “grace” of God in their constitutional texts but no longer give theocracy, or its underlying theological dogma, any role in the law of the land, although almost all such states, because of the freedom of expression they espouse, have religious groups that call for a return to strict theocratic ideals in law and government.

American Baptist minister Isaac Backus wrote in 1773:

“The church is armed with light and truth, to pull down the strong holds of iniquity, and to gain souls to Christ, and into his church, to be governed by his rules therein; and again to exclude such from their communion, who will not be so governed; while the state is armed with the sword to guard the peace, and the civil rights of all persons and societies, and to punish those who violate the same.

“And where these two kinds of government, and the weapons which belong to them, are well distinguished and improved according to the true nature and end of their institution, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other.

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