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The Political Theory of Theocracy

Andrew J. Waskey
DaltonState College

     What is theocracy? How many of them have there been? How many of them are there now? Could new ones soon arise?
            At a time when Hindu “fundamentalists” supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are seeking to change the world’s most populous democracy into a Hindu theocracy, in what categories should this possible change be discussed?  Have there been other Hindu theocracies or, is this something new in 3500 years of Hinduism?
     At a time when the United States is at war with Islamic extremists who are seeking to turn the Middle East at the least, and the whole world if possible into an Islamic theocracy, what is the character of such regimes? Is democracy possible in Islamic countries or are they irrevocably committed to some theocratic form of government?
     At a time when the United States has a great number of Christians growing in outrage at the drive to secularize the country and to drive them from the public square what is the theocratic impulse that motivates them?1 Do American apocalyptic cults such as those at Jonestown and at Waco pose a serious threat? Are they merely aberrations or do they represent some kind of fundamental human drive?
     Anthony Arthur in his book on the militant theocracy of a group of Anabaptists at Munster in the 1500s raised the question about the Munster Affair2--whether it was part of a norm, or whether it was an aberration from the norm that was so extreme as to be more in the nature of freak events. It would be easy to dismiss all theocracies as systems sought by fanatics and freaks, and therefore not normal. This is easy, but, very wrong headed. The fact is that theocracies are universal and should be given systematic study. Such is the claim of this paper.
Definition of Theocracy
The usual definition for a theocracy is “rule by God or some god(s).” Usually it refers to some form of divine rule through some human agent or lieutenant.
The word theocracy is a compound of theos (god) and kratia (rule).3 Is this compound word from the Greek sufficient to cover all the forms of theocracy, or is it, like many terms that grow in application in different circumstances, originally meant to apply to only one form and now seeks to cover a multitude of forms?  Is it sufficient or is a larger vocabulary needed to cover its many manifestations?
     A simple examination of the subject shows that theocratic governments have existed in numerous forms for about as long as government has existed. They have an astounding variety, but the vocabulary for describing them is wanting.
Among the varieties of theocracy are those of ancient times such as those that existed among the Hebrews, and other ancient kingdoms such as those of the Pharaohs, Assyrians, Babylonians and the Cretans.
     In the Dark Ages, and at other times, bishops ruled for decades or centuries in the absence of any civil government. The cathedral at Metz was the center of a theocracy of Loraine. Other examples can be found.
In the Middle Ages feudal systems were dominated by kings, making claims about divine right. Today there is a monastic theocracy protected by the Greek government on Mount Athos.4 This type of theocracy is a religio-legal phenomenon similar to those of others other places.
     In Asia from ancient times until 1924 the Emperor of China ruled with the mandate of heaven. In Tibet and elsewhere, especially in Southeast Asia there have been and still exist Buddhist kingdoms, or Buddhist theocracies to be more specific. Is Lamaism a special form of theocracy. Would it mean the same if describing the Jesuit theocracies among the Indians in Paraguay?
     There were and are still theocratic tribes in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. How do these relate to theocracy of the Incas, the Japanese, and more? How do these differ from the theocracies of the priests in Quebec, Calvin’s Geneva, William Penn’s colony, various caliphates, and sultanates, Joseph Smith’s Utah, and many more too numerous to name here? It is not too much to say that most governments have been theocratic in some fashion or other. This is a claim that can be made whether including or excluding the quasi-religious Communist governments of the Twentieth Century, especially where cults of personality resemble theocratic cults.
     Why is it then that theocratic governments in their rich variety have been so little studied by political scientists? Where is the vocabulary to describe this rich variety?
Two Questions for Research
     This paper seeks to address two questions: Why have theocracies been so little studied? And, what, at least in outline, are the many forms that theocracies take? The question is important if a sound political vocabulary of theocracy is to be developed which can be used by social scientists.
     The first question will be answered in two ways: by showing the limitations of Aristotle’s famous six forms of government. To this should be added the influence of secularism, which in denying the validity of religion, ignores its importance.
     The second question will be answered by describing briefly a number of theocracies and by then attempting a preliminary development of a political theory of theocracy.
Aristotle and Why Theocracies Are So Little Studied
     For at least three generations, and probably for a lot longer, American political scientists, and probably a lot of others elsewhere, have been teaching beginning college students Aristotle’s typology of the “Six Forms of Government.” The typology is a very familiar matter to political scientists, and usually a delight for beginning students. See Table 1.
     In addition it frequently happens that students, especially if there is some emphasis on empirical methods, are informed that Aristotle’s students gathered together the constitutions of 150 governments in his day—an excellent comparative empirical method to be sure. Aristotle then organized his typology of the forms of government as they are presented today.
     In classes in political theory it is also common to add more to the understanding of the typology by presenting the student’s with a copy of the Constitution of Athens.  This was one of the empirical studies used by Aristotle that was recovered from the sands of Egypt in the late 19th Century. Moreover, reading the relevant sections of the Politics is also a part of undergraduate exposure to what seems to be a complete typology of the forms of government around the world. But, is it complete? Has Aristotle said everything, or has, as John Calvin was fond of saying, “he’s said something, but has he said everything?”
The facts are, as shall soon be demonstrated, that Aristotle has not said everything on this subject. In fact the thesis of this paper is that political scientists have not observed this point and as a consequence have ignored theocracy as a form of government in all of its rich varieties.
     The inadequacy of Aristotle’s typology was demonstrated in ancient times by Joseph ben Matthias whose Roman name was Flavius Josephus.5 Josephus was born in A. D. 37 the same year that Gaius (Caligula) became Emperor.
     Josephus was born into family of priests of the first rank6, and was through his mother related to the royal Hasmonean family. He was very precocious as a child and apparently an excellent student of Jewish studies. In his late teens he decided to test the qualities of the Essenes, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees. He joined the latter and remained a Pharisee for the rest of his life.
     At age twenty-six he visited Rome on a mission to assist some Jews. Along the way the suffered ship wreck, but was eventually befriended by both a Jewish actor (Aliturus) and by Poppaea the Emperor Nero’s wife. His visit to Rome convinced him that resistance to Rome would be a fatal policy.
Upon his return to the Holy Land he advocated a policy of cooperation with Rome because a policy of revolt would be fatal. He was unable to prevent the revolt of the Jews that ended with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Diaspora of the Jews. His book the Wars of the Jews is an important source for the war. He was himself a general in the Jewish army. He was in command when the Romans besieged and took the fortress of Jotapata after six weeks. After his surrender Josephus was spared by the Romans.
     Josephus apparently predicted that Vespasian would become emperor. When this actually happened it gained considerable favor toward him by the Romans. He was granted Roman citizenship, a pension, and other benefits. The remainder of his life was spent in writing. His writings were numerous and are of two major types: his histories7 and his controversial literature8.
     His polemical work Against Apion is where the term “theocracy” was coined.9 Josephus was of necessity loyal to his Roman patrons, but he was also a loyal Jew. His works can be seen as efforts to counter the anti-Semitism of the day.10 Josephus says:

Now there are innumerable differences in the particular customs and laws that are among all mankind, which a man may briefly reduce under the following heads:--Some legislators have permitted their governments to be under monarchies, others put them under oligarchies, and others under a republican form; but our legislator [i.e., 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,” by ascribing the authority and the power to God, and persuading all the people to have a regard to him, as the author of all the good things enjoyed either in common by all mankind, or by each one in particular, and of all that they themselves obtained by praying to him in their greatest difficulties.11

It is clear from this passage that Josephus has found Aristotle’s typology of the six forms of government to be inadequate. This Aristotelian deficiency can be called the external omission. It is external, because although Aristotle considered the constitutions of one hundred and fifty city-states (polis) and probably more, he did not survey even the beginning of the vast number of the kingdoms of this world.
If there is an external omission in Aristotle, is there an internal omission? The answer is yes. The categories that Aristotle uses are numeric, and evaluative. He divides forms of rule numerically: rule by one, a few, and many. But, it is the division of the forms of government into good and bad forms that reveals the theocratic principle that is inherent in Aristotle’s typology.
     What is Aristotle’s standard for judging that the various forms are good and bad?  The common interpretation in modern times relates them to the amount of freedom to be found in each form. Since tyranny, oligarchy, and the Aristotelian view of democracy12 are opposed to freedom then this explains their opposition.
     The modern interpretation is a secular prejudice. It assumes or argues that the evolution of man is marching to the fulfillment of complete human freedom. It is very doubtful that Aristotle had any such notion. In fact, it is well known that Aristotle was not a democrat in any sense. His views supported at the very least an aristocratic form of republican government.
If freedom is not Aristotle’s standard for judging regimes as good or bad, then what is his category? It is the religious rectitude of the sacrifices that must be performed in the Greek state. In a word, regimes are good or bad insofar as they are religiously correct.13
     Is this a theocratic principle? How does one define a theocratic principle?14 Josephus defines it in terms of the actions of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. More accurately Josephus accurately described the biblical definition, that is, the direct rule of God over His people. Examples of this idea can be found at a number of places in the Bible. For example, in Judges 8:23 Gideon is offered heredity kingship. He categorically refuses and declares, “’I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you.’”15
     But what about all the other governments that justify themselves with religious categories that would be viewed from a biblical vantage as idolatrous, but others would call theocratic? How are they to be defined? How should they be compared or categorized? How should this subject be studied?
An historical survey would be interesting; however, the scope of the subject is universal. As a result a survey tends to jump from age to age and continent to continent. This becomes a bit awkward to follow. A more practical way to organize this study is to classify theocracies into two major categories: “personal”16 theocracies and theonomies. “Personal theocracies” are those in which a divine agent directly or indirectly rules through human beings. A theonomy is that form of theocracy in which there is rule by sacred law.
     What will be attempted here is a combination of an historical survey combined with an attempt to categorize theocracies into two major categories. The categories are the personal and the legal.
Monotheistic Personal Theocracies
     In most theocracies human agents claim to get their authority to rule directly from God or the gods.  The government is legitimate as long as it faithfully enforces the divine will.  Historically these divine lieutenants have been either viewed as divine beings, as semi-divine kings, or priests and as other religious functionaries, including a sacred text (cf., Sikhism). However, the latter form of theocracy—rule where a sacred text dominates will be put into the theonomic category.
     Generally speaking any political system (including tribes) which claims to be governed by God or the god(s) can be called theocratic. This means that the divine rules both the invisible private soul, and, the visible political order as well.  In theocratic states it is hard, if not impossible, to distinguish the civil and religious parts of the government.
     The divine lieutenants17 in ancient Israel included patriarchs, priests, judges, kings, and prophets. These religious functionaries were not viewed as individuals who ruled in the general name of the divine, but as human organs through whom God ruled, perhaps in the way a legislature may be described as the organ that expresses the will of the people.
     "Charismatic theocracy" was the first of the three major forms theocracy took in ancient Israel. At Mount Sinai the Hebrews entered into a covenant with their God.  Loyalty to the terms of the covenant was expected from the people who had been chosen to be a "holy nation."  When the Hebrews accepted the covenant they became a theocratic amphictyony united in reverence and service.
The "charismatic theocracy" was decentralized, lacking a permanent political and military organization. In times of trouble the Spirit of the Lord would come upon an individual, who through the divine gift of charisma, was able to perform military feats of deliverance. These charismatic leaders were called "judges."18
     Moses exemplifies the prophetic and charismatic type of leader who functioned as an instrument of divine rule. His successor, Joshua, was not a priest either, but a charismatic military leader. This type of religious functionary was to last until the Prophet Samuel instituted the monarchy at the end of the Period of the Judges. The two hundred year Period of the Judges described in the Books of Joshua and Judges reports leaders who were temporarily endowed with the Spirit of God and given power to lead. The judges were a mixed lot, who were often reluctant to lead (Gideon), never judged any cases (Sampson), included at least one woman (Deborah) and in general had little in common.
     The period of "royal theocracy" saw the monarchy established. The First Book of Samuel records the demands of the people for a king to meet the military threat posed by the Philistines.19 Samuel anointed Saul to be king by divine command despite his opposition to the popular mood. The Deuteronomic Historian saw the monarchy as a rejection of God's kingship rather than Samuel's leadership.
     The kings of ancient Israel, especially in the Southern Kingdom, were considered to be the anointed servants of God, earthly representatives of His theocratic authority. The kings of Israel were viewed as divine agents, royal sons by divine adoption. Even their thrones were viewed as the Throne of the Lord. They held permanent office, but kept the theocratic functions of leadership in war and judgment in peace from the pre-monarchy period. They were to be pious students of the commandments of the Lord (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). To King David was given a sacred promise of an eternal theocracy through his dynasty.
     The Monarchical Period also saw faithless disobedience of divine policies by the kings and the people, so the prophets spoke truth to power20 as religio-ethical agents of the theocratic ideal. Discouraged with kings who failed to live up to the theocratic ideals the prophets began to prophesy of a coming ideal king who would be perfectly obedient to the Covenant. This anointed king (Messiah) would institute the Kingdom of God.
     The Babylonian Exile began after the destruction of both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel. Exile should have ended their existence as a people. Instead aspirations for a return to the land and for a renewal of the theocracy developed under prophetic preaching.
The conquest of the Babylonian Empire by the Persians ended the Exile. Under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra returnees rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple. Hopes arose in the Post-Exilic Period that the theocratic monarchy would be restored. Instead a hierocracy (rule by priests) developed.
     The period of "hierocratic theocracy" saw two major developments. First in the synagogues a spiritual theonomy developed centered on the Torah or divinely revealed scriptures. The religious law was to control all aspects of community life. The period also saw the development of eschatological theocratic hopes.
     "Eschatology theocracy" hopes for a future time when the earth will be ruled directly by God without any mediation whatsoever.  "Eschatological theocracy" has two forms --"messianic" and "apocalyptic." The latter is often spiritual in character, but can have immediate political applications.
     "Apocalyptic theocrats" often see an active role for human efforts to help in bringing in the reign of God. All the apocalyptic literature of the Inter-testament Period and New Testament times, usually filled with violent scenes, was theocratic.
     Where patient waiting for the coming of the kingdom wears thin, chiliastic efforts to bring in the kingdom by human efforts can develop.21  In New Testament times groups, like the Zealots, believed that the way for the apocalyptic theocracy might be prepared by violence.  The Zealot attempt to purge the Holy Land started a fatal war with Rome. It ended the original history of the Israelite/Jewish theocracy and evoked the literary work of Josephus.  The last battle in this attempt to create an apocalyptic theocracy was at Masada.22
     "Messianic theocrats" are spiritual rather than political. They wait for the advent of the Kingdom of God, which will be the rule of God on earth as it is in heaven. This form of eschatological theocracy is common to most Christians, as well as to some other groups.
Judaism of the Post-Exilic period had set out to be a pure theocracy. When the monarchy was not restored, the priests, left to rule alone, eventually stagnated. The corruption of the priests around New Testament times led to separatism by many groups such as the Essenes at Qumran. It also invoked new directions for theocratic hopes.
     In the New Testament itself Jesus preached a spiritual theocracy to begin with the coming of the Kingdom of God. The advent of the New Age when God will rule directly is a core belief of the New Testament.
     Early Christian theocratic impulses were spiritual and not applied to politics. In the early medieval period Christian theocratic societies, shaping every aspect of life, arose in both the Latin West and Byzantine East. These were a new blend of theocratic ideas.  Both societies were viewed as the body of Christ on earth with the temporal power in charge of "earthly" things and the spiritual power in charge of the soul. In the Latin West the Holy Roman Empire was theocratic in nature because it was held that God ruled through both the Holy Roman Emperor and also through the Pope.
     In the Byzantine East theocratic beliefs were similar to those in the Roman West. However, the Byzantine Emperors came to unite both spiritual and temporal powers in a theocratic system called Caesaropapism.   After Constantinople fell to the Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Orthodox Christian rulers of Russia developed the theocratic claim that they were the new Caesars (Czars), ruling from the Third Rome. 
Medieval and Renaissance theocratic examples included the Papal States where religious interests dominated civil authority, the time of Fr. Girolamo Savonarola in Florence, pastor Ulrich Zwingli's Christian congregation of the elect, and early life among in the Moravian Church (Unitas Fratrum)23. The City of Muenster Affair24 involved a radical Anabaptist attempt to repristinate the theocracy of ancient Israel. Their chiliastic25 theocracy was destroyed by military action. 
     The City of Geneva during John Calvin's ministry is generally viewed as a theonomic theocracy.  Calvin held no civil offices, but the influence of his preaching led to the enactment of many laws organizing Geneva into a place where the Gospel ruled all areas of life.26  This was done through the lay officers (elders) of the church who were also the holders of civil offices.
     The first key to understanding Calvin's theonomic theocracy lies in the religio-political revolution that occurred in Geneva about six months prior to his arrival. After expelling the Roman Catholic bishop, the leaders of the Reform movement gathered with all the people, including the city officials, on the banks of the Rhone River. There in a public ceremony they swore to "live according to the Gospel forever."  Calvin's task in Geneva was to enable the Genevans, who often held Erastian27 views (cf., Josephism28 and other similar terms), to keep their promise. Late in life Calvin believed his efforts to reform all of Genevan life in accordance with the Bible were only partially successful.  In contrast, the Scottish Reformer, John Knox, declared that Calvin had indeed made Geneva into a theocracy "...a city of [divine] light set upon a hill."
     The second key to Calvinist theocratic ideas lies in the strong emphasis put upon the whole Bible, including the Old Testament by the Reformed Tradition. All spheres of life should be theonomically ruled is the basic principle.  The terms "nomocracy," or,  "bibliocracy" to describe the rule of the Word of God through the scriptures has been suggested for the theonomy found in Geneva.
The Calvinistic Pilgrims and Puritans in New England also established a theonomic theocracy, a "Holy Commonwealth" of the Bible ruled by the saints. The Puritan clergy did not hold civil offices. Through their preaching they sought to organize every aspect of live according to their understanding of the teachings of the Bible.
     Millennial theocratic impulses, similar to those motivating the Puritans, shaped Quakers. Eventually a "Holy Experiment," a society governed according to God's will, was conducted in Pennsylvania and other places.
In Europe kings developed royal theocratic claims to legitimize their rule. For instance, King James I claimed he was a divine monarch with his authority resting upon divine right. Robert Filmer, author of Patriarchia, justified divine right by arguing that kings ruled by the grace of God. This meant that the kings had been given a grant of divine authority to rule on behalf of God and were answerable only to God.
In the Ancient World royal theocracies based on divine beings existed among the Pharaohs, the Babylonians, Assyrians, the Hellenistic kingdoms, and elsewhere. Stories about goddesses giving birth to kings, or nursing them in infancy, thereby creating a living human-deity were well known. Claiming to be semi-divine enabled royalty to act as intermediaries between men and the gods. Royal theocracies have been found in Africa, American Indian, and Asia.
African Royal Theocracies
     Ashanti royal theocracy is similar to many other African tribal kingship. The king is the ruler, but what he can do is hedged by the limitations imposed by the religious leader(s). Royal theocracies may be the most common form of theocracy.
American Indian Theocracies
     In the Americas hundreds of tribes and a handful of great city civilizations existed during pre-Columbian times. Many of these had theocratic governments.
     The Indian tribes of North America had democratic practices, councils of elders, and theocratic chiefdoms.  Among the Mississippians a loose theocracy of the sun prevailed until about the time of Hernando Desoto’s exploration. This theocratic system of chiefdoms claiming ties to the sun god or goddess covered much of present day Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi. Theocracy held sway over much of present-day Southeastern United States and the areas along the rivers of Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky.
     Theocracy among the Pueblos Indians is guaranteed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Their form of government has the ruling civil leader and other officers elected by the religious leaders.
     Other royal theocracies include the Incas in pre-Columbian Peru, who ruled as living sun god. Among the Maya the rulers were a living link to the gods with their blood sacrifices.
Asian Theocracies
     Across the Pacific the Emperors of Japan, professing to be divine descendants of the sun goddess, Amaterasu, ruled. In 1945 the Japanese Emperor's theocratic claims were suppressed. But, since 1992 the claim is being restored through ritual ceremonies.
In China the establishment of a Republic ended the Divine Mandate of the Emperor. The early period of Chinese history from before 700 B. C. and certainly before 1500 B. C. was a period in which warriors kings were believed to be divine representatives of the divine.
     While in India Brahmanism has exercised theocratic influences, there is a modern tradition in India that claims Hinduism’s broad tolerance has been non-theocratic. The problem with this claim is that Hinduism with its 350 million gods is very tolerant of a rich variety of religious practices as long as the Vedas are accepted as scripture in some way and the caste system is supported.29 This is a case that requires further study.
     Buddhist theocracies have existed in a number of places. The most famous of which is the Lamaism of Tibet. Before the Chinese Communist take over in 1950 Tibet traditionally had a theocratic government. The Buddhism practiced in Tibet is called Lamaism. Monks (lamas) belonging to several sects accounted for twenty percent or more of the population. The Dali (High) Lama was the supreme political and spiritual ruler, while the Pachen Lama was the chief spiritual authority. Each Grand Lama was chosen after the death of his predecessor as a new reincarnation of Buddha and viewed as a divine ruler living on earth. Other Buddhist kingdoms have also been theocratic. The Kingdoms of Nepal follows an ancient form of Hinduism in its theocracy, while neighboring Bhutan is a Buddhism theocracy.
Theonomic Theocracies
     Theonomic theocracies are systems in which divine law is “seen as” the expression of divine will. A theonomy has a legal system that to one degree or another seeks to institute the law of God or some “divine” being or principle as the basis of law. The biblical vision of the Puritans and of large number of Christians in America today is of this kind of theocracy. It is not a matter of that false dichotomy of separation of church and state. Probably most Christians would not care to have clerics serving in government posts other than those of chaplain. However, they do seek to frame laws on a biblical basis. Claims that religion is the source of all terrible wars, and savage conflict are spurious. The notion that these kinds of wars are worse than those motivated by world impulses such as greed, power, revenge, land, racial hate and ideological opposition will have to be proven and not merely asserted as is usually done. Such a proof is very unlikely to succeed.
Theonomy in Islam
     Theocracy also occurs in Islam in a verdant form. It is believed by Muslims that the will of Allah as revealed in the Qur’an (Koran) is the seat of authority. From its beginning Islam was a religious community with no distinction between faith and civil power. "Islam din wa dawla" ("Islam is religion and state,") is still a basic belief. However, the fact that this saying points to both state and religion led to the development of two different traditions--one definitely theocratic and another which would develop a secular tradition of separation of mosque and state.
     Theonomic theocracy in Islam lies in Islamic law-- Shari'ah.   The legal order created by the Shari'ah developed from the Koran, and the traditions associated with Mohammed. Therefore, the rule of Shari'ah is rule by a legal code that implements a divine revelation. The practical implication is that Shari'ah in Moslem countries directs every aspect of life and makes them theonomic theocracies.   In Saudi Arabia the Koran is the constitution, and the Shari'ah is the only legal code ultimately matters.
     There is a major difference between the egalitarian theocratic practice in Sunni Moslem countries and the hierarchical theocratic practice in Shi'ite Moslem countries. In Sunni countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the religious teachers are not a formal clergy, and all the faithful have a right to question and interpret the Koran as members of the theocratic community.
     In the Islamic Republic of Iran the Shi'ite clergy have great influence. They are more hierarchical with mullahs, ayatollahs, and an Imam, who is accepted as the infallible authoritative interpreter of the Koran. The Shi'ite clergy serve in the Iranian government and have a virtual veto over it.  Many modern Islamic fundamentalist (also called Islamist revivalist) movements seek to recreate the theocratic society of Islam as it was in the days of Mohammed.
     There is a rich history of Christian eschatological movements in the West. Those pursuing the Millennium30 have included Seekers, Quakers, Fifth Monarchists, and others. All were seeking a millennial age when Christ will rule on earth. Some theocracies, like the early Mormons31 in Salt Lake City, Utah, have been successful and some, like the People's Temple of Jonestown, Guyana (1977), have not.
The spread of powerful theocratic ideas have inspired theocratic movements to develop in many areas of the world.   Among non-Western theocratic movements have been the Taiping Rebellion (1858)32 Another theocratic movement was led by the Mahdi in Khartoum, who killed Charles "Chinese" Gordon (1885),33 and most recently, Islamic fundamentalism.34
     Israel, the original home of monotheistic theocracy, began in 1947 as a secular state, but there are forces pressing for a restoration of the Temple in Israel and a return to the theocratic ideal.  Jerusalem without theocratic pressures is difficult to imagine.
Theocracy in Modern Times
     From the beginning of recorded history until the Enlightenment theocratic ideas shaped most governments. Theocracies declined in number in the Twentieth Century, but the secularist Cold War struggle renewed theocratic impulses.  The threat of nuclear destruction combined with other forces to inspire movements seeking new forms of theocratic government.
     Hopes for a political system that will be truly just are universal. Sometimes these hopes are expressed in utopian literature depicting perfect societies created by human efforts that are free from all evils. A few (e.g., Thomas More, Utopia) have been religious utopias.  Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid's Tale described an anti-utopian future in America.   It depicts a theocratic dystopia run by religious extremists. However, it is likely that there are many secularists who envision a coming secular government that will establish the rational humanist version of the millennial kingdom. Hitler used many apocalyptic images in advancing National Socialism. The Soviet Communists also secularized many apocalyptic images and theocratic ideas.
     There are also cults such as Scientology, Heaven’s Gate, and the Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth) sect in Japan. The Aum Shinrikyo sect engaged in chemical terrorism (March 1995) and the Heaven’s Gate sect committed mass suicide in 1997. While apocalyptic these groups were not necessarily theocratic, but may have developed theocratic doctrines if they had survived long enough.
     Early in the Twentieth Century royal theocracies and hierocracies seem to be about to disappear. Decades later theocracies especially the theonomic type, seem to be making a revival. With a long and rich history theocracies are likely to continue to inspire supporters.
In addition it is certainly possible that even theocracies of the personal type could make a comeback. For example, Chinese rule in Tibet has a checkered history. If Chinese Communism changes to a democratic society, it is possible that the Dalai Lama will return to Tibet and restore it to a traditional theocracy.
An Attempt At Creating Categories
     The chart below is an attempt to categorize the theocracies discussed above. See Table 2.
     So why are theocracies a neglected area of study? First, Aristotle’s presentation of the forms of government masks the issue. In addition secular prejudices, which are really another form of Hellenistic thinking, add to the blindness. Finally, failure to organize study of these various theocratic forms into an organized theory has kept political scientists from understanding in a clear way the scope and character of theocracies.
     It can easily be seen from just the few theocratic examples presented that there is a rich variety of theocratic forms that have existed throughout history. In a age in which theocracy is in a struggle with secular humanism, an age in which wars are occurring over the theocratic system, it is warranted that political scientists engage in developing a systematic description of all the world’s theocracies in order to make sense of these systems and their contemporary politics. So this paper can be viewed as a call to rethink the subject of theocracies in order to develop a systematic theory of the subject. This is not a problem unique to Political Science. Other social scientists have struggled with the same problem. For example, David L. Webster in an article on theocracy concluded that the discipline of Anthropology needs to either improve it understanding of theocratic organizations or abandon the concept altogether.35 The same could be said for Political Science.

Table 1


Six Forms of Government














Table 2
Personal Theocracies                                                    Nomocratic Theocracies           

 Direct Divine Theocracy of Israel
The direct command of the God of ancient Israel to various persons such as
  or other charismatic figures

Theonomy in ancient Israel
    Rule by priest administering divine law
Theonomy Islam
        Saudi Arabia (Wahabbi)
         Taliban in Afghanistan
      Iran, the Assassins, Ismailis (Aga Khan)

Humans who claim to be divine
   Some Roman Emperors
   American Indians High Civilizations
   American Indian Tribes
    Mound Builders of Mississippian culture
    Southeastern Indian tribes--chiefdoms
         related to the sun god
  Buddhist Theocracies
    Dukpa theocracy of Bhutan

Biblical Nomocracies
   Calvin’s Geneva
   Puritan Massachusetts

Humans who claim to rule by means of a sacred mandate as divine lieutenants
  Charismatic theocracies
    Israel—Moses, Judges
    President of the Mormons
   Royal Theocracies
     Monarchial theocracy of Israel
     Ashanti kingship
     Chinese emperors
     Divine right theory of kingship
   Priestly Theocracies
      Hierocracy in Israel’s Post-Exilic era
      Mount Athos36
      Papal States
      Vatican City State
       Jesuits in Paraguay37

Apocalyptic theocrats
  David Koresh at Waco, Texas
  Jim Jones at Jonestown, Guyana
  Chiliastic or Millennial theocratic govts
    Zealots at Masada
    Cargo Cults
Other Theonomies
   Sikh theocracy (Khalistan) where the
   Adi Granth (also spelled Garanth) or sacred
  scriptures of the Sikhs is the “law”.

 Nepal--a theocracy that practices a primitive form of Hinduism
  rashtra (theocracy)

Spiritual Nomocracy
Priestly Theocracies
      Hierocracy in Israel’s Post-Exilic era
      Jesuits in Paraguay


apocalyptic theocrats: movements that act to prepare the way for the revealing of a messiah, often with violent behavior when the prophecies of a coming messiah fail. The fail is interpreted as a sign for violent action to purify the world of the wicked.
Bible-ocracy: a term used occasionally to describe the theonomy instituted by John Calvin in Geneva. It could also be used to describe other similar theocracies where the Bible is the moral foundation for civil law.
Caesaropapism38: a union of the Byzantine Emperor and the Church with the Emperor ruling as the deputy of the Supreme Being.
Clericalism:  A political policy of supporting the right of the clergy to exercise power and influence in secular and political matters. This policy seems to create a system of government that is similar to royal theocracies where it is the responsibility of the civil rulers to make people virtuous by enforcing the values of the prevailing religion. Cf., anti-clericalism.
charismatic theocracy:  rule by spiritually dynamic leaders who mediate or represent the will of God (or gods)
chiliastic: movement that seek to institute a millennial kingdom of peace, often by violent means.
divine lieutenants: a term used to describe agents of the divine who are human, but mandated by the divine to perform some task or role.
divine right: the theocratic claim that a king rules by the grace of God which has been bestowed as an absolute right
eschatological theocracy: spiritual form of theocracy which hopes for the future establishment of God's direct rule over all humans
godly theocracies: a major category of all theocratic forms of rule in which God, or a god(ess) directly rules.
hierocracy: rule by priests as intermediaries for God or the gods
Messiah: Literally the anointed one. It was translated into Greek as kristos or lord.
messianic theocrats: theocratic movements following a messianic claimant or movements acting in the belief that a messiah will appear to reward their actions. The reward is expected to be a state with perfect justice and peace.
nomocracy: a term rule by law, especially by a sacred law.
royal theocracy:  monarchies in which a king or queen is accepted as a sacred person, or one who rules as a representative of divine will
theocratic amphictyony:  a tribal alliance theocratically ruled.
theocracy:rule by God, or a god(ess) directly. Coined from the Greek words theos (god) and kratia (rule)
theonomy:  a system of government in which divine revelation or a sacred text is adopted into law


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  1. In contrast Paul Kurtz in an electronic version of New Humanist magazine, “The New American Theocracy,” says, “Today the USA has become a virtual theocracy (de facto if not de jure). Every gathering in the public square invokes God and country; the Congress convenes a prayer session in the Rotunda of the Capitol and sings “God Bless America” on its steps;” Clearly Kurtz is expressing a fear, that this writer views as greatly exaggerated, of theocracy in America.
  2. Arthur, Anthony. (1999). The Tailor-King: The Rise and Fall of the AnabaptistKingdom of Munster. NY: Thomas Dunn Books, p. 2.
  3. The claim of the Bible and Josephus is that there is a God and that He directly commanded people to do various things. This is the common belief of Christians today. Usually, the command comes indirectly, but it is easy to find people who will claim that God spoke to them directly. On the other hand there have also always been people who claimed that God spoke to them or that they are acting on behalf of God. It is not uncommon for the cynical and skeptical to dismiss all claims of divine authority as delusional, or false, or as in the case of Waco, “Bible babble.” To do so is an assumption that there is no divine action in the world in a theocratic matter. On the other hand the Bible itself would also dismiss as idolatrous those false claimants those who declare that they rule in the name of some divine agency.
  4. The biographical information on Josephus comes mostly from his autobiographical Life of Josephus. His life can be conveniently divided into two parts of about 33 years each: Joseph ben Matthias (Jewish Pharisee) until age 33 and the Flavius Josephus, Roman citizen and author, until his death after A. D. 100.
  5. Josephus notes that that the Aaronic priests and the Levites together made 24 classes. These served in turn during certain times of the year performing defined tasks.
  6. Histories: Life, Wars of the Jews; Antiquities of the Jews.
  7. Polemical writings: Flavius Josephus Against Apion; Dissertation.
  8. Flavius Josephus Against Apion. Book II. Para. 17. Flavius Josephus,(1984). Josephus: Complete Works--Against Apion. Book II. Translated by William Whiston. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, p. 630.
  9. Josephus was clearly an imperial historian with an eye to maintaining his imperial favoritism. Consequently, he was, and until this day, has been viewed as suspect among some Jewish parties. On the other hand his writings can be viewed as works that seek to put the Jews into a favorable light.
  10. Flavius Josephus, (1984). Josephus: Complete Works--Against Apion. Book II. Translated by William Whiston. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications..
  11. Aristotle’s view of democracy could be described by the hybrid term, “mobocracy.” His experience of a degenerate Athenian democracy manipulated by demagogues, a democracy that had allowed the judicial murder of Socrates, was not an experience likely to influence him positively.
  12. Aristotle, Politics. Part II.
  13. Martin Buber. (1967). Kingship of God. 3rd ed. rev. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press International. Buber’s book is an examination of theocracy in the Book of Judges. He sees it as a very libertarian government where people do what ever the Lord directs and little else politically.
  14. Emphasis added.
  15. There may well be a better term, but for the present this one is the best the author can coin.
  16. In the discussion that follows a number of terms have been coined to describe theocratic forms. These may not be the best descriptions or names for these many types of theocracy. They are the best I could do. Others are welcome to improve on them.
  17. The Hebrew for Judges is Sopetim. But, the term is odd. They are numerous and do many things. At least one Deborah was a woman and she indeed acts a judge hearing cases. Samson killed lots of Philistines but does not ever seem to have ever functioned as a judge. Others were military deliverers, but again do not seem to have exercised any kind of rule. Some are both military leaders and judges.
  18. I Samuel chapter 8.
  19. It is interesting that the prophetic critiques of the Israelite theocracy where “truth was spoken to power” is the theme of this Convention.
  20. There have been many such attempts besides the Zealot attempt. Cf., Arthur, Anthony. (1999). The Tailor-King: The Rise and Fall of the AnabaptistKingdom of Munster. NY: Thomas Dunn Books.
  21. Masada was King Herod's royal citadel and later the last outpost of Zealots during the Jewish Revolt.Cf., and
  22. The Moravians in Herrnhut organized themselves for communal sharing. Some of these practices were imported to their communities at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Salem, North Carolina.
  23. Cf., Arthur, Anthony. (1999). The Tailor-King: The Rise and Fall of the AnabaptistKingdom of Munster. NY: Thomas Dunn Books.
  24. Chiliastic is Greek for a thousand years, while the Latin is millennium or millenarian. Cf. Cohn, Norman. (1970). The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. (Rev. and expanded ed.) NY: Oxford University Press.
  25. Similar laws, such as Sunday closing laws, when enacted by the Puritans would be called “blue laws.” This is one of those interesting cases where the cases in the 1950s and early 1960s outlawing them where declared by secularists to be decisions that gave people the liberty to work or not work on Sunday. This pusedo-liberty is now the liberty to come in to work on Sunday or lose one’s job. The point to be made here is the abolition of theonomic legislation had not created a better or even freer society, but is developing into a secular tyranny. The impulse of theonomic legislation is moral. Can there be liberty without virtue. Is freedom enough, or does tyranny arise because of the failure to use the laws to also create virtuous people?
  26. Erastianism is the view that the state should dominate the church. Named for Thomas Erastus (Thomas Leiber) (1534-1583). Erastus was a Swiss-German theologian who opposed Calvinism and argued against the Calvinism idea that one mark of the true church was its exercise of spiritual discipline. The effect of this exercise was to exclude the unrepentant from the Lord’s Supper and other benefits of Christ given to believers.
  27. Josephism is a French version of Erastianism. It is connected with ultramontane view that local clergy should control the local church, especially in France, rather that the papacy. Other terms associated with seeking limits to the theocratic claims or the Roman Catholic Church include Gallicism, regalists, Febronianism, Leopoldism, and caesaro-papism. However, regardless of the attempt to impose limits on papal rule or on other forms of ecclesiastical rule, these political doctrines do not seek to eliminate theocracy. Rather they seek to control it.
  28. While officially outlawed the caste system still exists in practice and belief in it is a mark of Hinduism.
  29. Cf., Cohn, Normal. (1970). The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. Rev. and expanded ed. NY: Oxford University Press.
  30. The Mormons in their early days in Utah called their new home, Deseret. In the seclusion of the deserts and mountains they were able to envision a theocratic state that would control their communities.
  31. Cf., Spence, Jonathan D. (1996). God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. N. Y.: W. W. Norton.
  32. Hake, A. Egmont. (1987) Gordon in China and the Soudan. London: Darf Publishers. (Original work published in 1896).
  33. Churchill, Winston S. (2000). The River War: An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan. NY: Carol & Graf Publishers. (Original work published in 1899). Lord Kitchener was in command. Cf., Pollock, John. (1998). Kitchener: Architect of Victory, Artisan of Peace. NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers, , and Magnus, Philip. (1968). Kitchener: Portrait of an Imperialist. New York: E. P. Dutton.
  34. Webster, David L. “On Theocracies.” (1976). American Anthropologist. 78(4): 812-827.
  35. Graham Speake. “Athos, Mount.” (2000) in Encyclopedia of Greece and Hellenic Tradition. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 197-201. Cf., Graham Speake, (2002). Graham. Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.
  36. The priestly hierocracies have been put in twice because in some cases it is the sacred character of the priests that matters, and in other cases it is simply their role as interpreters of the sacred text that matters. In the latter case the text is dominant.
  37. Byzantinism is a synonym, but is closer to Erastianism
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