November 11, 2004
Word of the day
Theocracy is a form of government in which the governmental rulers are identical with the leaders of the dominant religion.

In a theocracy, governmental policies are either identical with or strongly influenced by the principles of the majority religion, and typically, the government claims to rule on behalf of God or a higher power, as specified by the local religion. However, unlike other forms of government a theocracy is unique in that the administrative hierarchy of government is identical with the administrative hierarchy of a religion. This distinguishes a theocracy from forms of governments which have a state religion or from traditional monarchies in which the head of state claims that his or her authority comes from God.


Theocracy, derived from two Greek words meaning "rule by the deity," is the name given to political regimes that claim to represent the Divine on earth both directly and immediately. The idea of direct and immediate representation is important for two reasons.

First, most governments throughout history and across cultures have claimed to be following their gods' designs or to be legitimated by a divine mandate. An example is the notion that kings rule by divine right. (This theory, which had been important in European politics in the sixteenth century, lost ground after the "Glorious Revolution" in England in 1688.) But governments in which the ruling and the priestly roles are separate are not considered to be theocracies. Second, the divine mandate must be interpreted by human beings in specific political contexts, such as wars or floods or famines. In theocracies the interpreters--who explain what these events mean--are the rulers. A number of ancient civilizations worshipped their kings as gods on earth, so the problem of interpretation was somewhat different. By definition, the king could not be wrong.

In theory, there is no reason why a theocracy and a democratic form of government are incompatible--vox populi, vox dei ("the voice of the people is the voice of God")--but historically those nations regarded as theocracies have been ruled by a theologically trained elite. This may be a council of clerics, or a charismatic leader may claim a special call from God and gain office by force of arms. The office might later become hereditary. The primary effort of government in a theocracy is to implement and enforce divine laws.

--Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion

A lot of people have been throwing around the word "theocracy" to describe what President Bush wants to install, or has already installed, so I decided to look up the formal definition of the word. I had always taken it to mean what Wikipedia says -- a government where the religious hierarchy and the civil hierarchy are the same. Since the U.S. has no single religious hierarchy to take over, it's basically impossible here.

However, the EPR brings up an interesting point about the compatibility of theocracy and democracy. I suppose if you take seriously the idea of the "priesthood of all believers", then religious authorities are running the government in the form of the voters. However, I don't think that's what Bush's critics have in mind.

Or maybe they do. Part of what people seem to mean by theocracy is lawmaking that springs from religious principles. The trouble with that as a definition is that it covers nearly every government that ever was, including every past government of the U.S. I suppose the French Revolutionary government and the various Communist governments can claim to be exceptions, but they simply moved in their own dogmas as a basis for lawmaking. Ultimately, making policies without some dogma, at least unconscious dogma, is probably impossible.

This doesn't mean I think everyone has carte blanche to go turning their personal morality into national law. (I wrote about my problems with that here.) But my objections to that stem from how I think that violates the spirit of love of neighbor, not because it's actually a different form of government.

Another reason some people seem to think Bush is a theocrat has to do with the "divine mandate" that EPR mentioned. I can tell you from personal experience that it scares the hell out of non-Christians when Bush (or his supporters) say he was put there by God or that it's all part of some divine "plan."

I think that the Bible supports the idea that rulers are "appointed by God" (Rom. 13). But, of course, that would mean all of them are, even Saddam Hussein, so for someone to say that about Bush doesn't necessarily denote anything special about him. What the Bible doesn't support is the idea that everything rulers do is God's will. The Old Testament is full of stories of kings being appointed by God and then suffering God's wrath when they screw up.

This brings me to the origin of the word "theocracy" itself. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains:

The earliest recorded use of the term "theocracy" is found in Josephus, who apparently coins it in explaining to Gentile readers the organization of the Jewish commonwealth of his time. Contrasting this with other forms of government—monarchies, oligarchies, and republics—he adds: "Our legislator [Moses] had no regard to any of these forms, but he ordained our government to be what by a strained expression, may be termed a theocracy [theokratian], by ascribing the power and authority to God, and by persuading all the people to have a regard to him as the author of all good things" (Against Apion, book II, 16). ...

In a passage of the Book of Judges, Gideon is represented as refusing to accept the kingship offered to him by the people after his victory over the Madianites, in terms implying that the establishment of a permanent monarchy would involve disloyalty to the rule of Yahweh. "I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you, but the Lord shall rule over you" (Judges, viii, 23). More explicit and stronger expression is given to the same view in the First Book of Kings in connection with the appeal of the people to the aged prophet Samuel to constitute a king over them after the manner of the other nations. The request is displeasing to Samuel and to the Lord Himself, who commands the prophet to accede to the wishes of the people that they may be punished for their rejection of His kingship.

It occurred to me after reading this that it's probably unfair to lump ancient Israel with the god-kings of Egypt and Rome together as "theocracies." Josephus' readers knew all about god-kings, but Josephus coined a new word to indicate how Israel was different. Their kings were mere mortals who were subject to the Law like everyone else, which back then was a fairly radical idea.

Despite the fears on the left, I don't think Bush's supporters view him as some sort of god-king. I can't dig up the numbers now, but a poll of Bush voters showed that very few of them actually want him to run things exactly as he's done the last four years. Every president attracts groupies and delusionals, but I don't see any sign of Bush being worshipped any more than any other president (and less than some).

As for the Israel type of theocracy, well, from a Christian point of view all governments are to some extent. God rules the whole world, and judges rulers and subjects alike based on how well they realize that. And that's not going to change, no matter how people vote.

Posted by Camassia at November 11, 2004 04:00 PM | TrackBack
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