Theocracy is a political system where political decisions are based upon religious dogma. Religious texts are a primary sourse of codified law, membership in the clergy is often a requirement for political power. Non-believers of the chosen religion are often disenfranchised, or subject to some other strictures not applied to 'believers'. The Ottoman Empire represents one example of an early theocracy, as Iran offers a more contemporary example. The more extreme the 'faith' the worse the government. Strict theocracies often stifle theological debate, and may lead to social stagnation. Fortunately, strict theocracies are self-curing for two reasons. First of all, no theocracy can live up to its promises. Second, governing wil inevitably corrupt the religion.  

Theocracies always promise what they cannot deliver. Theonomists who believe in religious government do so for many reasons, but they share the assumption that religious purity will produce social benefits through divine intervention. Imposition of religious law is supposed transform society in ways that are inevitably good, and will bring God's Blessing down upon the citizens of said theocracy. That means that the societal problems they observe will 'wither away' or be completely removed by God. Such extravagant promises hold great appeal, but they are not based on any earthly reality.

This eschatology has many adherents. It was a common thread in Jewish theology during the time Jesus Christ, and is still honored in both Christian and Jewish beliefs. One common belief was that if Israel could produce one perfect man than God would deliver Israel. Many of the prophets, most notably in first Isaiah call for purity and blame israel's fall on the lack of it. In a manner resembling social darwinism material prosperity was seen as a direct product of righteousness. This was an ongoing debate in the Jewish world. In Judeo-Christian philosophy this debate can be seen most clearly in Job, where Job is stripped of all his prosperity as a result of another form of divine intervention. The debate between Job and the jewish wise men who encouraged him to repent some offence he has not committed symbolizes what was an ongoing debate in the Jewish community of the day. Many mainstream Christian theologians, including Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong have argued that the ministry of Jesus himself represents a protest against prevaling heirarchies of purity.

Islam is also vulnerable to being submerged under purity. Islam itself rose in a power vacuum, where there was no central state, quite the opposite of the Jewish and Christian experience. Without a legal structure of their own, Islamic scholars invented one, merging the civil law into the faith. Islamic law makes what are normally civil matters into religious imperatives. This made sense for an expanding state that originated from loose confederation of nomadic tribes. A return to religious rule holds particular appeal today because the muslim world sees itself as weak and powerless. Many muslims look back to the height of Islamic power, which was during the first three caliphates, when the faith and the state were one.  Typically, that period is sugar coated, and many forget that the caliphates were riven with Muslim-on-Muslim bloodshed. 

One problem is that God doesn't interfere directly in our world, he lets people do the work. And there is no evidence whatsoever that God rewards purity of dogma. The Middle Ages represented the height of Christian piety in Europe, yet was obviously the nadir of Western Civilization. We have seen two recent examples of theocracies in the world today, Iran after Ayatollah Khomeini and Afghanistan under the Taleban. In both cases strict theocratic rule stifled economic growth and was accompanied by powerful political oppression. In both cases early optimism was shattered when religious principles failed to successfully solve secular problems. Religious zeal in both countries excused real intolerance and oppression, because anything is possible when done in the name of God. Though fundamentalists in both countries were happy, both states produced governments that were increasingly despised by the people they were supposed to uplift. in fact, if you look closely you see that the secular infidel societies in America, Japan and Europe were the most prosperous, and thus by their definition the most blessed. If purity were rewarded, would that be true?

Second, if religious authority is required for political power, then people will join the church not out of faith, but out of the desire for power. This was best shown in the medieval Catholic Church where corruption became institutionalized along with great piety. In Islam, the struggle between the Shi'ites and Sunnis began as a political struggle early in the history of Islam. Making the Ottoman sultan leader of the Islamic world was politically useful, but did not lead to good leadership, or to good theology.

Theocracies are thus destined to fail. They cannot deliver what they promise. Moreover, if power corrupts, then politics will always corrupt a religion, in essence destroying the very purity they seek to create. Jesus had it right when he said 'render unto Ceasar, that which is Ceasar's. Theocracy is a dead end. That it is a very old dead end has not entered into the thinking of many fundamentalists.

The*oc"ra*cy (?), n. [Gr. ; God + to be strong, to rule, fr. strength: cf. F. th'eocratie. See Theism, and cf. Democracy.]


Government of a state by the immediate direction or administration of God; hence, the exercise of political authority by priests as representing the Deity.


The state thus governed, as the Hebrew commonwealth before it became a kingdom.


© Webster 1913.

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