A theocracy is a political system in which religious values determine political decisions. The current arguments against same sex marriage in the United States are largely based on the idea that civil law needs to be based on religious law (i.e. laws from the Abrahamic religions). In other words, there are many in the United States who feel that the United States is, or at least it should be, a theocratic republic. In order to understand the nature of theocracy, I would like to explore the origins of this form of government.
Over the past 200,000 years human beings have devised numerous ways of governing themselves. About 10,000 years ago, humans were domesticating plants and animals. At this time they begin settling into larger, permanent villages. With these permanent villages and larger populations, they began to develop much more formal governmental structures.
Formal governmental structures created a need for full-time leadership. Previously, leadership had been a part-time responsibility, but with more people the demands of leadership grew to take up more and more time. The demands of leadership meant that leaders now had to devote most of their time to leadership duties rather than to raising food.
Agriculture also resulted in social stratification: the division of the society into two or more groups with unequal access to resources. Viewed simply, we can say that these two groups were the haves and the have nots, the rich and the poor. Since the rich wanted to maintain their wealth and social superiority, they needed to control the government. Thus leadership was usually selected from the ranks of the wealthy elites.
Religion also changed at this time. Reflecting the social stratification of these societies, religion now included gods. Therefore it seemed logical that the gods had somehow determined that certain groups of people should rule and other groups should be ruled. In other words, religion reinforced both social stratification and the power of wealthy elites to govern.
Information is a form of power. In the early agricultural villages, one of the most important types of information was when to plant. If the crops were planted at the wrong time, the people would starve. Thus, one of the roles of leadership was to announce when to plant. This announcement, usually based on the science of the time, was often cloaked in religious ceremony. The village leader thus was both a secular leader and a religious leader.
The First Theocracy?
One of the first well-documented theocracies in the world was created during the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenophis IV, also known as Akhenaten, who assumed the thrones of Upper and Lower Egypt in 1352 BCE. With the support of his mother Queen Tiye and his wife Nefertitit, he created a new religious cult which focused on Aten. He viewed Aten as the divine and sole creator of the universe and therefore formally suppressed all of the old religions. Atenism was monotheistic, perhaps the first monotheistic religion in the world. There is an exclusive focus on worship and emphasis was placed on Akhenaten as the conduit for the delivery of the divine power of the Aten to the Egyptian people. Atenism was in effect wholly identified with Akhenaten and his family; the impression gained is that the new creed was tailor-made for them. The religion placed a great deal of emphasis on Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and their six daughters.
In a polytheistic system, a variety of gods are recognized even though one particular god may be more closely associated with those in power. In a monotheistic system, however, there is only a single god and no others are viewed as valid. In fact, other gods are seen as a threat to monotheism. Therefore, under the monotheistic theocracy of Akhenaten other gods, with their priests and followers, were suppressed. Royal scouts scoured the countryside and destroyed the visible inscriptions of the old gods.
Around the world attempts at suppressing certain religious traditions has generally not been successful. The suppressed religions simply go underground and the religions themselves continue. This is what happened more than 3,000 years ago in Egypt. With the death of Akhenaten after a reign of 16 years, the country became divided and the unity of Upper and Lower Egypt was shattered. The old religions, their gods and their priests, re-emerged.
Today’s modern states sometimes wrestle with the role of religion in government. There are some states which are openly theocratic, such as Iran, while others attempt to blend the secular and the religious, and still others, such as France and China, try to be totally secular.
The former Soviet Union attempted to ban religion totally. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church has re-emerged as a political power in Russia. While still a predominantly secular state, Russia may begin to incorporate some elements of theocracy into its government. Russian religious freedom in danger is the headline of a recent report.President Dmitry Medvedev's inititiative to permanently assign Orthodox priests to army units and introduce religious education classes at state schools could prove detrimental to the idea of Russia as a secular state,