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Theocracy: a framework for analysis

Open Panel

Abstract

The traditional understanding of theocracy in social sciences as a rule of, or controlled by, clergy fails to capture its most significant component: the perception of power by the ruled as divinely sanctioned. Instead, I propose to treat theocracy as power based on supernatural (religious) justification. In the paper, theocracy is put within the context of a typology of political systems derived from three criteria: the procedural setting of power – democracy vs. authoritarianism; the source of its legitimacy – democratic, traditional, religious (theocracy), or none (tyranny); and the governments relations to individual’s liberty – the continuum from absolute freedom (anarchy) to complete control (totalitarianism). The conceptual distinction between the questions of “who governs?”, “why is the power perceived as legitimate?” and “to what extent does the government limit freedom?” allows one to meaningfully analyze the seemingly paradoxical cases such as democratic theocracy or to demonstrate that theocracy needs not be totalitarian. By switching focus from institutional arrangement to legitimation formula, it becomes possible to spot similarities between the political systems of, say, Catholic monastic order, Protestant millenarian sect, a Buddhist historical state and contemporary Muslim states, without denying the obvious morphological differences between their political regimes.