A theocracy is a government run by priests from the dominant religion of a country. Apart from its pros and cons, OpinionFront tells you some interesting facts about theocracy, along with the list of countries with a theocratic government, including both, historical and modern examples.
Did You Know?
There are some right-wing movements seeking to convert USA and Australia into theocracies.
The concept of religion evokes mixed responses from people, though there is a general consensus in modern society that this aspect is best left to an individual’s personal preferences. The world has largely turned its back on the enforcement of religion, considering the enormous bloodshed caused by the crusades and other religious wars throughout history. Taking a leaf from history, most governments across the world now allow their citizens the freedom to follow whichever religion they feel drawn toward.
The fanaticism occurring in several countries of the Middle East in the garb of religion has shocked the collective consciousness of humanity. However, most people are surprised to know that religious freedom of citizens was not something all ancient rulers agreed upon. In fact, they did not even consider state and religious laws separate from each other.
Theocracy Government Facts
● A theocracy is a government in which religious leaders also serve as political and civil leaders, claiming to represent the will of god.
● The laws and policies of such a government are drawn directly from the beliefs of a particular religion, or they are closely inspired by it.
● In most cases, theocracies are formed in countries in which a majority of citizens are theists (believers in god) and followers of one major religion. The religious leaders of this religion only hold political power.
● In such a government, religious laws are applicable in political aspects – involving legislation, elections, foreign policies, and defense, and in social affairs – involving personal conduct and marriages, and even in legal affairs concerning crime and punishment.
● A theocracy may either have priests directly in command of the government, or guiding a nominal head of state who is actually in charge of governing the country.
● In cases of monotheistic societies, which believe in one almighty god, the rulers claim to work under divine guidance, while in polytheistic societies, which believe in several gods, a theocratic ruler may claim to be a god himself, or the manifestation of a god.
● The term ‘theocracy’ is derived from the Greek term ‘theokratia’, in which ‘theos’ means ‘god’ and ‘kratos’ means ‘to rule’.
● The concept of theocracy is attributed to the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, who used the term to describe the Jewish Kingdom of the first century A.D.
● It is different from an ecclesiocracy, in which religious leaders may be directly or indirectly involved in politics, but they do not claim to represent god.
The Egyptian empire that thrived from 3000 BC to 300 BC was ruled by a powerful king called a pharaoh, who was considered to be a god himself. It was believed that on being crowned, the spirit of the Egyptian God Horus merged with the king, to guide him. Upon his death, the pharaoh’s spirit was said to merge with Osiris, another Egyptian deity, to guide the future pharaoh in his duties.
Kingdom of Israel
Ancient Israel was a theocracy, in which it was believed that god himself ruled the kingdom through the religious leadership, which consisted of patriarchs, priests, prophets, kings, and judges. The Prophet Moses was believed to be guided by god, in the form of a burning bush which revealed to him the Ten Commandments.
Massachusetts Bay Colony
The Massachusetts Bay Colony, established by English Puritan refugees in the 17th century, was a theocracy led by Puritan religious leaders. It comprised the modern US towns of Salem and Boston. Though an elected governor was in charge, the electorate was strictly restricted to freemen (Church members). Other Protestant groups like Anglicans, Baptists, and Quakers were persecuted by the leadership.
The ancient Chinese Shang Dynasty was a theocracy, in which the king was believed to be the ‘son of heaven’. Apart from religious roles, the emperor had political and military duties towards his subjects. However, after being overthrown by the Zhou clan, the Shang emperors lost their political clout, but were allowed to perform their religious ceremonies. Chinese theocracy was finally abolished in 1924.
Until the Pre-World War 2 era, Japanese monarchs were believed to be divine beings, having ascended from the Japanese Sun Goddess Amaterasu. However, their position was strictly ceremonial, and power was held by the military aristocracy. This divine status of the emperors was abolished after the country’s defeat in World War 2, but of late there have been some efforts to revive it.
In several African tribes, like the Ashanti, a king is at the helm of affairs, but he has to toe the line set by the religious leaders of the community.
American Indian Tribes
Many Natives were governed by a theocratic leadership in the Pre-Columbian Americas. The Pueblo Indians had a set of rulers who were appointed by their religious leaders. The Incas believed that their chiefs were a living Sun God. The Mayas, on the other hand, considered their chiefs to be a living connection with the divine, who had to be satisfied with blood sacrifices.
In the ancient Roman empire, kings were worshiped as gods, and had a higher status than the priestly class. However, emperor Constantine I finally abolished this practice, after he converted to Christianity around 313 BC.
When Prophet Muhammad reached Medina to escape persecution in Mecca, he and his army of 10,000 converts defeated the local tribes, to establish a theocracy, in which he served as both, the religious as well as political leader. After his death in 632, Abu Bakr, his father-in-law, succeeded him as the leader of the kingdom.
Founded by Prophet Muawiyah I in the year 661 AD, the Islamic Ummayad Caliphate would grow to be one of the top five largest empires ever built, with its capital at Damascus. It was a theocracy, in which the leadership was concerned with both, religious and political affairs, as per laws from the Islamic holy book Koran.
Modern Countries with Theocracy
In the year 1996, a fundamentalist group called the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan. Their reign, which they claimed was based on the Islamic law called Sharia, resulted in the brutal oppression of religious minorities, women, and people who breached Islamic rules of conduct. Their rule finally ended in December 2001 after an invasion by USA.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, established by the constitution of 1979, gives supreme power to a religious leader called the ‘Ayatollah’. He is elected by a board of religious leaders (experts in Sharia law), and, in turn, he elects other government officials. The supreme leader is concerned with the judicial and military affairs of the country.
Though Saudi Arabia is a hereditary monarchy, in which the members of the political family hold almost all political positions, according to the country’s constitution, the king is obliged to follow Islamic Sharia Law and the Koran.
In 2011, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir announced that he would implement Islamic Sharia law all over the country, after the mostly-Christian South Sudan seceded from the country, leaving 98% of its inhabitants Muslims. Earlier, the country followed a democratic form of government, since its population consisted of both Muslims and Christians. Sudan is Africa’s first theocratic government.
The Republic of Yemen, which was formed in 1990, has its constitution modeled on the Koran, and no law is allowed to transgress it. The judicial branch of the government is independent, and its judges are selected from scholars in Islamic law.
Recognized as a sovereign state by Italy in 1929, the Vatican City is ruled by a supreme leader called the Pope, who is also the Bishop of Rome, the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church. He is elected by members of the clergy, who also hold all important government positions, and he retains the title for life. The Pope holds all legislative, judicial, and executive powers of the state.
From the year 1642, the political leadership of Tibet was controlled by a figure called the Dalai Lama, who is considered to be the reincarnation of Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the ancestor of all Tibetans. The religious leadership, was to held by a monk called the Panchen Lama, who is believed to be the reincarnation of the Buddha of Light. However, in 1949, Tibet was annexed by China, and since then the Tibetan leadership has been living in exile.
● Some historians believe that theocratic governments helped maintain law and order in ancient societies.
● In countries having one major religion, theocracies mostly draw support from its citizens.
● Political consensus will be easily reached in such governments, as opposition parties are not allowed.
● Some of history’s largest empires have been theocracies, like Ancient Egypt, the Mayan civilization, and the Umayyad Caliphate.
● There is an increase in political and social unity, as the government shares the religious identity of the citizens, who are united by their common religion.
● In most theocracies, voting rights are curtailed, or entirely absent, which reduces the accountability of the government to its citizens. Even where limited voting rights are present, the religious leaders are often considered answerable only to god.
● Such governments routinely impose the dominant religion on the entire population, sidelining the religious minorities, who often face official and social persecution.
● Citizens do not have the right to criticize their leaders, who are supposed to be the representatives of god, and such criticism is seen as questioning divine will.
● A theocracy may take the literal interpretation of religious laws, which may be outdated in the modern world. This often leads to a regressive society, where personal freedoms, especially that of women, are curtailed.
● Because of the lack of accountability, theocracies are often plagued with corruption, where laws apply differently to the rich and the poor.
● Since all affairs are governed by religious laws, such societies will not keep up with technological innovation in other countries, which are viewed with suspicion.
Looking at the disadvantages mentioned here, it is easy to understand why theocracies have a negative impression in modern human society. This is especially because this system does not suit the common ideals of personal rights and privileges, that we believe all humans across the world deserve.