What Is Theocracy?

Vatican City, also known as the Holy See, is an example of a Catholic theocracy.
Vatican City, also known as the Holy See, is an example of a Catholic theocracy.

What Is A Theocracy?

In a theocracy, all laws and regulations of a country originate from the rules set forth by a particular religion and its god or deity. This type of government is said to operate under the divine rule, in other words, the deity is recognized as the Head of State. The religious holy book is often treated as a message from the deity and used to formulate the rules of the society. A theocracy is often administered by a group of religious figures who claim political authority in the name of these gods or deity. These individuals then interpret the verses of the holy book for political purposes, claiming that they are obeying and enforcing the will of the deity. In other cases, the government officials are believed to be direct descendants of these gods.

History Of Theocracy

The idea behind theocracy dates back to the first century AD when it was first used to describe the type of government practiced by the Jews. At that time, Flavius Josephus suggested that most governments fell under 1 of 3 categories: monarchy, democracy, or oligarchy. The Jewish form of government, however, could not be classified as such. Their law was defined by Moses through God.

This definition of theocracy was common until the Enlightenment Era when the term began to take on a negative meaning. By 1622, the English meaning of the term came to describe a sacerdotal government working under divine command. A sacerdotal government is carried out by a group of priests, who also act as ministers. By 1825, the word theocracy was used to describe a religious body with political and civil power.

Characteristics Of A Theocracy

Most theocratic governments are also structured as either a monarchy or dictatorship. Additionally, theocracies are similar in that the people with political power first serve the god of their religion and then the citizens of the country. As previously mentioned, these individuals are generally part of the clergy of the religion and are not chosen by popular vote. Future leaders gain their positions through family inheritance, or they are chosen by the previous leaders. These individuals retain their government positions without term limits.

In a theocracy, both the laws and regulations and the cultural norms of the country are based on religious texts. Issues like marriage, reproductive rights, and criminal punishments are also defined based on religious text. Under a theocracy, residents of a country typically do not have religious freedom and are not able to vote on governmental decisions.

Which Countries Currently Have A Theocracy?

Today, many countries continue to rule by theocracy. This section of the article takes a look at a few of them.

Vatican City

Vatican City, also known as the Holy See, is an example of a Catholic theocracy. It was founded in 1929, nearly six decades after the Kingdom of Italy captured Rome and the Papal States. Today, the ruler of Vatican City is the Pope. The citizens do not elect the Pope, but rather he is chosen by the College of Cardinals which consists of clerical men. The position of Pope is served for life, only ending after death or resignation. Once elected, the Pope appoints a Secretary for Relations with States to be in charge of maintaining and creating relations with other countries. The only individuals with voting power are Cardinals under the age of 80. The legal system is based on the Catholic Church’s canon law, but the Pope has the last word on which laws are enacted.


Iran is one of the several Islamic states. Others include Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Sudan, and Yemen. The Constitution of Iran has both theocratic and democratic components, although the country is considered to be a theocracy. Every aspect of the government must adhere to Sharia Islam, the basis for all rules and regulations in this country. This includes economic, military, political, financial, administrative, and civil laws. Special religious courts decide if these established rules coincide with Sharia law.

The country’s Head of State is an Islamic law scholar, referred to as Supreme Leader, who holds more power than the President. The Supreme Leader appoints the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the leaders of the military, the national tv and radio stations, the attorney general, and the leaders of religious institutes. This ensures that the government is filled with people who will abide by Sharia law. The Council of Guardians, made up of 12 members appointed by the Supreme Leader, decides whether laws written by Parliament follow Islamic law and can approve or deny them. In addition, the Council must approve who may run for elected office (including Presidential candidates).

Central Tibetan Administration

The Central Tibetan Administration sometimes referred to as the Tibetan Government in Exile, is located in India and works to restore freedom in Tibet. This organization is unique in that it once functioned as a theocracy, but has recently changed its structure. It does not have the intention of taking over political rule in Tibet. Its objective is to see a Tibetan government ruled by Tibetans. Additionally, the organization hopes to promote nationalism among Tibetans all over the globe and broaden the structure of the Dalai Lama.

In fact, the Dalai Lama, a high-ranking religious figure, was the Head of State of the Central Tibetan Administration. This structure represented the previous governmental formation of Tibet, in which monks also held public office. In August of 2011, however, Lobsang Sangay was elected as the Kalon Tripa and the Dalai Lama relinquished his power to Sangay. This position is now entitled Sikyong, which is a secular position.

Advantages Of A Theocracy

Some researchers believe that theocracies come with some advantages. One of the principal advantages is that in a theocracy, the government is more unified and efficient in decision making. New laws, amendments, and bills can be signed and enacted more quickly than in other governmental systems. This is because a theocracy lacks a legislative branch, which means that low-level public officials are not negotiating the terms of new laws which can often take months.

Disadvantages Of A Theocracy

A theocracy also has the disadvantage of giving too much power to one individual. This is because the government lacks various branches and a system of checks and balances (which, consequently, makes it faster and more efficient). Under a theocracy, the leader is able to abuse power by enacting rules in the name of the deity. These rules often work only to benefit the leader.


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