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I’ve been trying to work out which countries existing today count as theocracies. From what I could find, the definition of a theocracy is “a system of government in which priests rule in the name of God or a god”.

However, when I looked for a list of theocracies, I found that many countries seem to be described as a theocracy that don’t match this definition. For example, Saudi Arabia, while undeniably an Islamic country, with being Muslim a condition of citizenship, is often described as a theocracy. But from what I can tell, a more accurate description would be an absolute monarchy or even a dictatorship.

So is my definition of a theocracy wrong? What theocracies exist today? Vatican City seems like the obvious example - what others are there?

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    I'm inclined to agree with you about Saudia Arabia. But we could look at the constitutions (or equivalent) countries as well as how their governments operate in practice. Perhaps a country can be constitutionally a theocracy but in practice something else. – Lag Nov 23 '19 at 15:15
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    How about drawing the line between having a state religion vs. having religious institutions exercise political power. On which basis I can only think of Iran and the Vatican though there might be more. Obviously there are quite a few with a strongly enforced state religion. – Duke Bouvier Nov 23 '19 at 16:43
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    I would say your definition is wrong, in that the actual rulers need not be priests. – jamesqf Nov 23 '19 at 17:31
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The confusion might stem from the fact that monarchy, theocracy and dictatorship are all sub-categories of a much broader government category: autocracy. An autocratic form of government is any government where all power is held by one person. The different flavors of autocracy mostly differ by how the power of the autocrat is legitimized.

  • Monarchs are legitimized by heredity
  • Theocrats are legitimized by religion
  • Dictators are legitimized by de-facto control of the executive branch.

Note that the last one is kind of circular reasoning. "The dictator is the guy in charge because he is the guy in charge". That's why there are very few examples of dictators who actually self-describe as dictators. They instead try to find some other form of legitimation. Some seek democratic legitimation. They hold unfair elections and/or miscount the results and then call themselves "president". Or they only vote among their card-carrying loyalists and call themselves "chairman". Others seek religious legitimation and claim to rule in the name of God.

And then we have those weird cases of "hereditary dictatorships". For example, North Korea is often cited as the prime example of a dictatorship. But the current dictator Kim Jong Un inherited the role from his father Kim Jong Il who in turn inherited it from his father Kim Il Sung. Doesn't that technically make Kim Jong Un a monarch?

That's the problem with ideological categorizations in politics. Ideological categories are useful models to understand politics in theory, but in practice they often fall apart because there are very few real-world political systems which cleanly and squarely fall in one category or another.

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    Making note on the second paragraph: The status of North Korea is more than technically a monarchy; it is a monarchy in all but name. – EvilSnack Nov 24 '19 at 3:00
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    I would argue that North Korea is much closer to a theocracy, since the Kims have elevated themselves to a semi-divine status. – jamesqf Nov 24 '19 at 3:06
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    @EvilSnack: What difference do you perceive between “technically a monarchy” and “a monarchy in all but name”? – chirlu Nov 25 '19 at 12:37
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    "Technically X" = "Is X according to a specific definition, but lacking many of the qualities of X that many people consider definitive of X". "X in all but name" = "has all of the essential characteristics of X, but is not called X for reasons nobody can explain." I admit that the difference will not be important to some. – EvilSnack Nov 25 '19 at 13:16
  • Well, two issues there regarding North Korea, while I totally agree in practice North Korea is essentially a state where the rulers have elevated themselves to almost God-like status, in theory it's not a monarchy. For two reasons: *First, the state's official name is the 'People's Democratic >Republic< of Korea'. *Second, in line with quite a lot of Stalinist dictatorships, the person who holds all the power in North Korea isn't de jure head of state: neither Kim Jong-Il nor Kim Il-Sung has ever been formally Head of State of North Korea (although Kim Il-Sung certainly was.) – Generalissimo May 27 at 13:51
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Much like other forms of historical governments today, existing theocracies are much watered compared to their historical variants (similar to modern monarchies - these are not countries where the monarch rules).

  • Vatican City, where the head of the Catholic church is ex officio the head of state with (de iure) quite absolutist powers and the country is run by clergy
  • Mount Athos, inhabited and run completely by monks. The country has quite an extensive autonomy, but is not sovereign/independent
  • Andorra, where a bishop of Urgel is ex officio one of two heads of state. However, his powers are quite limited
  • UK is just the opposite - the current monarch of the country is ex officio the head of the state church (as intended by the founder Henry VIII)
  • Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta is a Catholic order (and subservient to the Catholic church). However, it is not quite a country, having lost their territory.
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    The UK is not a theocracy by any sensible definition (e.g. ruled by priests or religion or in the name of god). Andorra is dubious, given that neither head of State (France being the other) has much power in practice. The other three are good examples (+1). Your list is probably missing Iran, which should qualify by a larger degree than Andorra, and the Tibetan government in exile, which is headed by the Dalai Lama. – Denis de Bernardy Nov 23 '19 at 16:28
  • @DenisdeBernardy It does fit the technical definition, though. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supreme_Governor_of_the_Church_of_England – ceejayoz Mar 10 at 16:52
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Imperial Japan (from the Meiji Restoration until Surrender in 1945 to American Forces) would be a Theocracy as the Emperor was considered a living deity (prior to Meiji Restoration, the Emperor had very little political power compared to the Shogun. After the Military Occupation by the United States it is the Prime Minister of the Diet (some Japanese will often refer to the Military Governor General MacAurthor as "the last shogun" as he his role was basically that of the Shogun). Part of the terms of surrender were the Emperor's renunciation as a living diety (though the royal family still claims divine ancestry).

Saudi Arabia is a Theocracy as they officially view the Quoran as the Constitution of the Nation and use Shia Law, which uses Islamic Law derived from the Quoran and Hadiths as source of law. Other Middle East states may be Theocratic in general as well (Israel is definitely not as there is a difference between one who is ethnically Jewish and one who is Religiously Jewish. Israel is an ethnic Jewish State, but it's laws are grounded in Secular Common Law derived from English Law).

Vatican City, by virtue of the fact that it's head of state and government is the Pope. It's important to note that the distinction between the Head of State and Head of Government is important (they need not be invested in the same position, though some states do have a single person with both roles, the U.S. being the best known one).

Typically Theocracies are those in which a cleric or other official holds the role of Head of Government (and typically Head of State), hence why Britain and Japan in the present day aren't theocracies despite both having Monarchs as spiritual leaders for their nation's faithful (because much of government authority is vested in secular officials and both are not Heads of Government) while Saudi Arabia is a Theocracy (The King rules by divine right and is both the Head of Government and Head of State).

One could argue North Korea as technically Kim Il Sung is the Head of State and Government despite his present inability to make important national leader decisions on account of having a chronic case of being dead (no really... I had to hold back from saying "He's dead, Jung" because that was too goofy) His "successors" (His son Kim Jong Il and grandson Kim Jong Un) are place holders for him until presumably the Zombie Apocalypse happens, and it functions more as a regent than actual ruler... or like that time where Dick Cheney was Acting President for a couple of hours because George Bush was getting routine surgery and was out like a light... only Sung's been out like a light for a lot longer. I'm not well versed on the spiritual nature of the North Korean people, so I can't comment much on why the NK government holds this position, but if I had a dime for every time I saw the NK government make a claim that operates on a logic that does not exist anywhere remotely close to this planet, I'd be a very rich man.

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Your definition is very narrow, and would exclude pretty much every country except Vatican City.

Perhaps for the purpose of you question it would be better to include nations who are governed (including large degree of influence) or were formed partly or wholly on the basis of religion.

Going with the broader definition, some theocratic countries would be

  • The Holy See (Vatican City)
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Iran
  • Afghanistan
  • Israel
  • Pakistan
  • Yemen
  • Sudan
  • Mauritania

EDIT: These are the ones I could think of, please feel free to add more.

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    -1 That seems like an overly broad definition; "nations who are governed or were formed partly or wholly on the basis of religion" includes a lot of nations. And is a nation that was (partly) formed on the basis of religion, but has since changed, really a theocracy? It's also odd that your list includes eg Israel as the Jewish state or Afghanistan as an Islamic state, but not the US or any of the Christian states (except the Vatican, which actually is a theocracy). – tim Nov 23 '19 at 11:04
  • @tim Could you suggest a less broader definition? – JERRY_XLII Nov 23 '19 at 11:07
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    @tim: The problem with Israel is one of language, since "Jewish" describes both a religion and an ethnicity. There are quite a few ethnic Jews who are agnostic or atheist, and at least a few who have converted to the religion (usually due to marriage) despite not being ethnic Jews. – jamesqf Nov 23 '19 at 17:34
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    -1 Putting Israel (a clear republic) and Iran ("Iran's syncretic political system combines elements of an Islamic theocracy with vetted democracy") into the same category is just wrong. – Martin Schröder Nov 23 '19 at 23:39
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    Not to mention the recent nation-state law and other laws that position Israel as explicitly Jewish. Someone like Netanyahu may understand such laws in an ethnic sense, but it would seem that to a lot of people in Israel, and even a number of Jews outside Israel, its status as the Jewish state is a religious matter. – Obie 2.0 Nov 24 '19 at 18:59
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let's put it in simple terms, if you use religion as an excuse for your hold on power you are classified as a theocracy

For example the royal family of Saudi Arabia justify their existence by the support of religious clergy of certain sect of Islam (Wahhabism) they spread this sect teaching around the country and the world. and those clergy return the favor by legitimizing the royal family.

In Iran, Khumini came with a new Theory in Shia sect of Islam that justifies for the Shia clergy to hold to power (the clergy themselves as opposite of supporting a royal dynasty or a ruler ), and after the Iranian revolution which had different ideologies and dogma cooperating in taking the Shah down, they managed to tightens their grip on power due to Gulf-states and US mistake in Supporting Iraq to invade Iran, which give the clergy absolute control allowing them to take down all their opponents by the excuses (we are under attack and in War) . so what legitimize the current rulers or Iran ? a theocratic (i.e. religious excuse) reason, which makes them a theocracy

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What about the UK as being a theocracy?

You have a ruling elite - the Royal family - who must all have one religion, Anglican Christianity, and cannot be allowed to marry a Catholic. You have a figurehead, The Queen, who in theory rubber stamps all laws passed by Parliament. She is also for all practical purposes above the law and impossible to prosecute for any crime that she may break. Even her lesser Royal family members such as Prince Andrew are near to impossible to prosecute as well. All this is combined with the world's most vicious PR spin doctor machine that could even pressure ABC America into dropping embarrassing stories for three years.

That's a theocracy for me.

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    "and cannot be allowed to marry a Catholic" - The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 ended the historical disqualification of a person who married a Roman Catholic from the line of succession (among other things). – Lag Nov 23 '19 at 15:07
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    A theocracy is rule by priests or religion or in the name of god. The UK is none of those things. – Lag Nov 23 '19 at 15:13
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    While the UK tries its best to pretend that the monarch still has political relevance, in practice it is a parliamentary democracy with a purely ceremonial monarch. – Philipp Nov 23 '19 at 18:23

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