Understanding Theocracy: A Brief Overview

Ayotollah at dias with photo main

A theocracy is a government in which religion or faith plays the dominant role. It dictates the laws of the land. The first civilizations were theocracies. Theocracies often, but do not always, are led by religious leaders. They sometimes tolerate unofficial religious faiths. This form of government violates religious freedom, which is an important principle in modern times.  

“Theocracy” Is Coined

Josephus is a Jewish historian, who survived his role in a rebellion against the Roman Empire in the mid-60s, and became a major source of our understanding of Ancient Jewish History.  

Our legislator… ordained our government to be what, by a strained expression, may be termed a theocracy, by ascribing the authority and power to God.

Josephus, Jewish Historian

Josephus provides one of the earliest non-Christian sources that talks about Jesus and his followers.  Josephus is often also given the honor of coining the word “theocracy.”  The word literally means “rule by God.”  Josephus applied it to Biblical Israel.  

A theocracy is a government in which religion or faith plays the dominant role.

Theocratic Leadership 

Theocracies are often led by religious leaders, sometimes deemed supernatural beings or at least direct representatives of them.  For instance, Vatican City is led by the pope, who is believed to be chosen by God to lead the Catholic Church, going back to the Apostle Peter.  

A theocracy need not be ruled over by members of the clergy or rulers deemed to be gods or such.  For instance, when the Puritans settled in Massachusetts in the 17th Century, they set forth laws based on religious tenets.  This is a form of theocracy, even if secular leaders ruled.  

Church and State Mixed

A clear mixture of church and state is evident in any theocracy.  This violates American principles as set forth in the First Amendment.  Lest you be confused, however, merely because laws in some fashion are inspired by religious doctrine, the government itself might not be a theocracy.  

Now, I readily admit that the term “theocracy” or “theocrat” might be tossed around loosely.  For instance, a ban on abortion based on religious belief will be said to be a sign of “theocracy.”  But the United States is still not a theocracy as the term is usually applied.  

Theocracy and Toleration 

A theocracy favors a certain religion over others, but sometimes other religions are tolerated.  

For instance, Ancient Rome was a form of theocracy, with someone like Augustus deemed a god.  Nonetheless, Jews were allowed to practice their faith.  There tends to be a limit. Therefore, Christians got in trouble when they refused to swear allegiance to the emperor.  

A theocracy often suppresses opposition to the official faith.  Iran, for instance, is currently governed by the tenets of a form of Islam.  The government believes that these tenets forbid Muslims to convert to other religions.  Such converts are persecuted.  

Again, this is not a mandatory rule for a theocracy.  We might even conceive of a theocracy that is based on religious doctrine that holds that religious freedom is demanded by God.  

I also found one summary of theocracy noting that it means that “there is no room for democracy and all decisions of a theocracy’s leader are unquestionable.”  This is incorrect.  It very well might be a bad idea in many places to challenge the leader of a theocracy.  

Nonetheless, to call back to Josephus, the leaders of Biblical Israel were questioned repeatedly. A place like modern-day Iran also has some form of democracy, including a parliament.  Theocracy is government by religion, which can be put into practice in various ways.  

What Was The First Theocracy? 

A theocracy does not provide a “wall of separation” between church and state.  Politics and religion are mixed.  This was a common approach in the early history of government.

The Neolithic Revolution was a significant moment in our history.  This agricultural revolution, particularly focused in an area of the Middle East, was the beginning of civilization.  Civilization brought government.  And, the governments tended to be theocracies.  

Sumer, found in modern-day Iraq, was first settled as far back as 5000 BCE. The first governments there were led by priest-kings.  Ancient Egypt is famously led by pharaohs, who were treated as gods.  Ancient India also was led by priest-kings in its early years.  

We might wish to go back even further. Before the first settled civilizations, people lived in small groups such as tribes.  Tribes were guided by religious beliefs, including in choosing how to govern themselves.  Might we not say the first people lived in a form of theocracy?  

Theocracy vs. Religious Freedom 

Theocracies continue to exist today.  Sometimes, a government is a theocracy mostly in name only.  For instance, the King of England is the leader of the Church of England.  It is the official church and this matters in a few ways.  However, England is not much of a theocracy, is it? 

Religious freedom is a basic human right.  A conservative theocracy tends to violate religious freedom.  Over time, it has been determined that the separation of church and state is the best way to protect religious liberty.  Theocracy violates that principle.  

Final Thoughts 

Religion is a basic part of human society.  The existence of God is accepted by a majority of the people in this country.  Neither things are a theocracy.

Many people argue religious faith has a role in government. This at times includes a mixture of church and state.  For instance, the House of Representatives starts its session with a prayer.  This might be problematic, especially if done by a governmentally funded minister. 

Theocracy is government by religion.  Each step toward theocracy is not the whole pie.  We can have perspective there without ignoring that certain steps on the way can be a problem too.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.