The Theocracy

"If we must have a tyrant a robber barron is far better than an inquisitor. The baronís cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations."

Simply put, a Theocracy is any society in which The Church is the government. Often the laws of a theocracy are based off religious law, or claims that God (or Gods) is the supreme ruler of their state. The temporal ruler is probably the Priest King or High Priest. This is especially prevalent in pre-modern settings.

It's common to have an official state religion, but this doesn't necessarily equate to a theocracy or even an especially religious country. For example, in England the head of state (the monarch) is also the head of the Church, bringing an overtly religious aspect into the governmental system, but England and the UK in terms of population are much less religious than nearby, officially secular Ireland and France.

Note that true theocracies, where secular government is virtually non-existent, are fairly rare. Most often the Church will simply have a lot of secular power and sometimes a parallel government: authority over religious/moral laws, its own bureaucracy, its own army, etc.

Compare Church Militant, where the clergy is badass, but not necessarily the rulers of a country. A Corrupt Church is often the head of a Theocracy, but not always. See also God-Emperor, where the rulers go one step further to proclaim themselves living gods with a personal religion.

Not to be confused with the Christian Rock band Theocracy.

Examples of this trope in media:

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    Anime and Manga 

     Comic Books 
  • In the DC Comics miniseries World of Krypton it's shown how the government of Krypton came to be science based. There were three competing factions: one for science, one for democracy, and one for a Theocracy. They decided to let the Kryptonian gods decide. One representative from each faction went out into a thunderstorm with a rod; whichever one didn't get hit by a bolt would be the chosen. Science won after theocracy and democracy's reps each got hit. In The Stinger of the story the scientist admitted to a time-travelling Kal-El that he had used a non-ferrous metal in making his rod. He didn't consider it cheating since the gods told him to do so - or so he claimed.

     Eastern Animation 
  • Subverted in Kapitan Bomba. The Kujwdubie galaxy is ruled by the Alien Pope and his congregation of cardinals, but despite their titles and clerical clothing they wear, religious matters are never discussed.

  • In Cube Zero, the omniscient dictatorship controlling the Cube is strongly implied to be a theocracy. "Crimes against country and God" is a notable transgression and anyone who survives the Cube is asked whether they believe in God — if they answer "No" they are incinerated. No one has ever anwered "Yes".
  • In Escape from L.A., the President Evil turns the United States into a virtual theocracy. He makes Christianity mandatory country-wide and religious heterodoxy punishable by death, while enforcing a set of new moral laws for the 'new America'.
  • Martin Scorsese's Kundun shows Tibet to be this and portrays the 14th Dalai Lama as an Internal Reformist who seeks to transform and devolve his government.
  • In Perfect Creature, the government is handled by the Brotherhood, an all-male vampire clergy that is revered as more perfect version of humans and therefore closer to God. Among their edicts is outlawing genetic research to prevent humans from gaining independence from their power.

  • The Lands of Holy Order the Arkanar Kingdom in the ending in Hard to Be a God.
  • In Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite, the overclans are all priest clans, ruling by religious right. Basically, the whole world is a theocracy, although given the harsh conditions of survival on Geta, a fairly pragmatic and not-very-hierarchical one.
  • David Eddings has two examples in The Elenium. The first is the city of Chyrellos which is more or less an expy of the real life Vatican example below, an independent city state ruled by the head of the church and run by church officials of a much larger religion. And despite not having a distinct homeland and only a single city to call their own, the Styrics probably also count since their highest body, capable of making decisions for all Styrics regardless of where they reside, is composed of the High Priests and Priestesses of the Younger Gods of Styricum.
  • The Temple Lands in David Weber's Safehold series is one disguised by a very flimsy legal fiction. Technically they are ruled by the Knights of the Temple Lands but every single member of that groups happens to be a member of the church hierarchy and church groups are used to enforce their rule, so it is a de facto if not de jure Theocracy.
  • The Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale.
  • Arden in Dragon Queen apparently is one of these, as the priesthood had the legal authority to execute Sajag.
  • Brandon Sanderson likes these:
    • In Elantris, the Fjordell Empire is a theocracy controlled by Shu-Dereth and its leader Wyrn Wulfden IV is both High Priest and Emperor, considered the only living human who has a direct connection to Jaddeth.
    • Mistborn: The Original Trilogy brings the Final Empire, a post-apocalyptic dystopia ruled by the Lord Ruler, an immortal who presents himself as a living god. His priests, the Obligators, actually handle the administration side of things.
    • Warbreaker has a less antagonist version. Hallandren is ruled by the Court of Gods and their priests; though there's certainly corruption to go around and the gods themselves can be rather out of touch with the world, they're not really any better or worse than most governments. The God King himself is actually quite a decent guy, if a powerless figurehead, and his High Priest, though he initially appears to be the Big Bad is actually a Well-Intentioned Extremist opposed to the real villains.
    • Inverted in The Stormlight Archive. Vorinism is the dominant religion of the nations the protagonists come from, but its priests (called ardents) have next to no political power and are kept staunchly under the thumb of the aristocracy and are even denied personal property to make sure they don't try to extend their influence beyond spiritual matters. This is because the Vorin nations were a theocracy (called the Hierocracy) centuries ago, and it was supposedly extremely corrupt- when the nobles seized power back, they wanted to make sure the Hierocracy would never return.
  • In Parable of the Talents, the U.S. is on its way to becoming a theocracy. The Glorious Leader, Jarrett, is a member of the Christian America sect which blames all non-Christian "heathens" (and sometimes Christians of other denominations) for America's problems. They have significant power over the country, with their own army and POW camps.
  • The Yuuzhan Vong from the New Jedi Order are essentially this, with religion being the driving force of their society and their leader revered as something between Priest King and God-Emperor. Though the priests are only one of the four higher castes, Nom Anor (who knows a thing or two about how governments work, since his job is to subvert them) explicitly notes that their influence is the only thing keeping the other three (warriors, shapers, and intendents) from turning on each other.
    • Before the Yuuzhan Vong (and after, in the case of Legacy), the various incarnations of the Sith Empire were also arguably so. Everyone and everything in The Empire is under the complete domination of the Sith who can do anything they please to non-Sith (rape, kill, enslave, torture), with the military backing up their power. On paper, they are the absolute authority. In practice, the Sith don't care about much outside their own power plays against each other, the military and government officials are too busy kissing up to the Sith or trying to backstab each other to climb the heirarchy in line with Sith ideals of "strength" and "power," and the Intelligence Services are left to be glorified janitors. It's no wonder that the Sith Empires tend to implode as soon as they gain any power in the wider galaxy.
  • Masada in the Honor Harrington novels.
  • The Millennial Kingdom government in the Left Behind books, which consists of God as ultimate ruler, Jesus as the ruler of the world, King David as the ruler of Israel, and the apostles as the rulers of the twelve tribes of Israel. It's portrayed as the most benevolent theocracy that ever existed, with God and Jesus Christ permitting freedom of speech and freedom of religion, allowing those who would not become believers in Christ to live either as unbelievers or as members of the Other Light for only 100 years before they die and are sent to Hell.
  • The premise of Christian Nation is that President Sarah Palin and her successor Steve Jordan imposes a dystopian theocracy on the United States.
  • According to The Bible, the country of Israel was originally a nation ruled solely by God, with judges as His representatives. It was only when the nation of Israel wanted an actual king that Saul was crowned one.
  • In the Archangel Protocol, access to the LINK (the virtual reality implanted internet) is reserved for members of a religion. And since the LINK is required for operating in society... Every government in the world (except for Russia) has a state religion, and citizenship is conditional on being religious. Essentially, the atheists got the blame for World War III, and this is the result.
  • In the aftermath of World War Z, Russia has become an expansionist theocracy called the Holy Russian Empire, with the Russian Orthodox Church reigning supreme and a Tsar implied to be Vladimir Putin as head of state. As of the time of writing, it has reconquered most of the former Soviet Republics and is pushing its way into Ukraine.
  • The Cult of Issus in John Carter of Mars rules over Barsoom and its many self-sufficient feudal nations, with the Therns (White Martians) and the First-Born (Black Martians) being directly controlled by her divine edicts.
  • The title of Frank Herbert's God-Emperor of Dune gives something of a hint about where it falls under this trope.
  • The country of Omnia on the Discworld, seen mostly in Small Gods, is ruled by the Church of Om, with the Cenobiarch or Supreme Iam as head of state. While at the time of Small Gods it was a Church Militant empire that covered a large chunk of the continent, by The Compleat Discworld Atlas it mostly consists of the Citadel of Kom (i.e. Discworld Vatican) and some surrounding farmland.
  • The Star Fist series has a Story Arc set on the human colony world Kingdom (officially "The Kingdom of Yahweh and his Saints and their Apostles"), which was apparently established by religious immigrants from other parts of the Confederation, who set up a government run by their religious hierarchies. While officially multi-religious, the planet's ruling body is dominated by the various Christian and Muslim factions, leading to unofficial persecution of other religious groups. Not to mention, there's an Inquisitional force that will arrest, torture, and execute anyone accused of heresy. In the chaotic aftermath of the repelled Skink invasion, the head of said inquisition seizes control of the planet, ditching the theocracy in favor good old fashioned fascism.
  • We Are Legion (We Are Bob): America elected a hyper-religious president in 2036. In addition to his blatant religious agenda, he had no political skill whatsoever, breaking laws left and right to appoint his hyper-religious idiot friends to key positions, claiming God would sort it out. This, predictably, resulted in a horrific recession, and the next president elected was an atheist. That drove the religious right into a frenzy, and they launched a successful coup, replacing the United States with the Free American Independent Theocratic Hegemony. By the time Bob is awoken, FAITH has dozens if not hundreds of factions fighting each other over dogma, and do far more damage to each other than their enemies. Bob manages to keep them satisfied long enough to escape in the probe.
  • Bulikov and its Continental neighbouring cities in The Divine Cities all were theocracies during their Golden Age. Their individual gods were highly involved in the lives of their followers and provided leadership, guidance and infrastructure, with Bulikov being neutral ground ruled by all six Divinities equally. The Continent's been a bit of a mess ever since all the Divities died as it turned out that not only did they provide societal laws, but the Continent's entire infrastructure relied on their existence.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: Norvos is ruled by its Bearded Priests, who strictly control every part of its citizens lives. Bell tolls tell them when they must pray, eat, work and even have sex (this last is said to be infrequently, as the Bearded Priests believe in it only for reproduction-not that everyone obeys).
    • Qohor is likewise ruled by the priesthood of the Black Goat.
    • Lorath used to be a theocracy as well, ruled by the priests of Boash the Blind God. But after they grew hopelessly corrupt, the people eventually overthrew them.

    Live Action TV 
  • The Handmaid's Tale: The fundamentalist regime rules the Republic of Gilead according to its own Biblical view, which is very harsh.
  • Game of Thrones: King's Landing turns into one when the Faith Militant is armed by Cersei Lannister to impose the order from the gods in the streets and get rid of her political rivals, only for their leader the High Sparrow to completely back-stab her, throw her in a dungeon and then convert her weak-willed son, King Tommen, into his puppet. During this time, he effectively ruled the city and by extension, Westeros (or whatever remained loyal to the Iron Throne) until his reign comes to a fiery end when Cersei blows up the Sept of Baelor with the High Sparrow and all his followers inside.
  • The Orville: The bio-ship in "If the Stars Should Appear" is being ruled by a theocratic dictatorship who have misinterpreted the word of their former Captain Doral as divine scripture over the years.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • The ginormous Imperium of Man is very much a theocracy, given that they have a Physical God as its former leader. However, ever since a prominent Ecclesiarchy member went mad and tried to form his own Imperium within the Imperium, the Ecclesiarchy is no longer allowed to keep "men under arms". Hence the Sisters of Battle. Also, their priests accompany the Imperial Guard into battle wielding inspiring speeches and eight-foot-long chainswords.
    • Similarly, on the Chaos side the leaders tend to be those who the gods most favor. However, they aren't really priests, as the Chaos gods would much rather their followers kill loyalists and aliens instead of holding masses.
  • The Lizardmen of Warhammer are led by their Skink priests, who interpret the wills of their gods.
    • Similarly, the Skaven in charge have a sort of multi-papacy in which they follow the tenants of The Horned Rat and (due to the fallout from crippling civil wars) must make contact with an unholy nuclear relic without dying. And by 'follow', I mean 'desperately cower in the shadow of their Omnicidal Maniac god'. While violently bickering with Mad Science.
  • Dungeons & Dragons:
    • The Theocracy of the Pale in the Greyhawk setting. In the Living Greyhawk campaign, the real-world region assigned to it was Utah.
    • Thrane of Eberron, ruled by the Church of the Silver Flame. Nominally it is still a monarchy, but after a series of events during the Last War the monarchy's actual power ended up limited to more or less just ruling their own household.
    • Until the Time of Troubles, Mulhorand and Unther in the Forgotten Realms setting were ruled directly by avatars of the Mulhorandi and Untheric pantheons (by Word of God, the actual Egyptian and Babylonian gods), and the countries functioned as theocracies with the priesthood also forming the bureaucracy. Mulhorand continued to be one after the avatars were allowed to return to their home plane, but Unther collapsed after all its gods were killed, had already left (the avatars could leave before being allowed to, but due to the circumstances of why they were there it would cut them off from Toril and their worshippers there) or had ended up dropping out of the Untheric pantheon into the Faerûnic pantheon.
  • Jarzon in Blue Rose.
  • In TORG there is the Cyberpapacy, which evolved when a 'classic' pseudo-medieval inquisition-pope got infected by a cyberpunk artifact.
  • In Rocket Age the secret Martian city state of Hasvarval has no royal caste, instead being controlled entirely by the priest caste.
  • Star Drive has two theocracies amongst its major Stellar Nations, the Hatire Community and the Orlamu Theocracy. The Hatires are a semi-Space Amish society where there is no meaningful difference between church and state and conversion by the sword has become an accepted option (if not actually one that is practically possible or desirable in the current galactic situation). The Orlamists hold intellectual and religious freedoms as well scientific research in the highest regard, in particular drivespace research, and consequently the only actual rights not granted to citizens not of the Orlamu faith is holding the highest positions in government (because the highest positions in government is also the highest positions in the Orlamu church).
  • Anima: Beyond Fantasy has Albidion, that is pretty much the game's setting equivalent of Real Life Vatican (see further) having apart the clerics of the Church of Abel little more than a small nobility.

    Video Games 
  • The Elder Scrolls
  • The Covenant in the Halo worship the Forerunners and want to activate the Halos because they think it will allow them to Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence. Their ruling species are even referred to as "Prophets".
  • The Paranid Empire in the X-Universe are ruled by one Priest-Emperor Xaar, and each Paranid settlement or station by a priest-duke. Their (rather bizarre) religion permeates every aspect of Paranid life, making Holier Than Thou the species' hat.
  • For most of the humans in Spira, the world of Final Fantasy X, the only government is also the only (apparent) religious institution, the Church of Yevon.
  • The Holy See of Ishgard in Final Fantasy XIV is a theocratic city-state ruled by the Archbishop of the Ishgardian Orthodox Church, Thordan VII.
  • Fire Emblem:
  • In Guild Wars: Prophecies the Charr invasion of Kryta led to the complete collapse and disappearance of the previous monarchy. The White Mantle took their place in stopping the invasion and then ruling Kryta once peace was restored. They were eventually deposed when a legitimate heir was found to challenge the increasingly corrupt and exploitative actions of the Mantle.
  • By Tears to Tiara 2, The Empire is de facto Theocracy. What the Corrupt Church says counts.
    • Also discussed. Monomachus suggests drumming up religious fervor to turn the entire thing into a war of religion to solve their manpower shortage, with the people of Hispania warshipping Asharte and the Ba'al gods fighting against The Empire who worship Watos. Despite frequently voicing her desire for followers, Tart says she will not go along with the plan, as people so forced and/or brainwashed are not true believers. Hamil agrees, and decides to form The Alliance to solve their manpower shortage.
  • In BioShock Infinite, Columbia is run by a theocracy with its state religion's prophet Zachary Comstock as the head of state. In an alternate timeline that Booker DeWitt travels through, Elizabeth takes over as the head of state, tortured into playing the role of the prophesied "Lamb" and eventually leading Columbia into an aerial assault of New York City circa 1984.
  • In the backstory of Kult: Heretic Kingdoms, Taryn Arkor, despite being a descendant of the hero who killed God, established himself as the head of a theocracy before being rebelled against (and then backstabbed by his Chancellor). This made religion more enemies than ever, and the Inquisition, a militantly atheist faction which bans religion (and which the protagonist belongs to), has its origins in the resistance to the Theocrat.

    Web Original 
  • In The Gamer's Alliance, the Godslayer takes over the kingdom of Aison after the Cataclysm and gathers a group of followers, the Grey Cult, which begin ruling the country in the Godslayer's name with the High Prophet as the Godslayer's spokesman.
  • The United States under The Christian Values Party in the sequel series to Fear, Loathing and Gumbo on the Campaign Trail '72 has become this. Under the command of Douglas Coe, the Ten Commandments added to the constitution, several landmarks in D.C. have been demolished for being idolatrous or to make room for statues devoted to their idea of Jesus, the resisting congress has been destroyed (literally), everyone who opposes their rule has been declared a Satanist, and, worst of all, they have no qualms about using WMDs to crush resistance or outside forces. Several states have already broken away and a second civil war has begun.
  • The Alternate Historydot Com timeline MalÍ Rising has a few theocracies bubbling up across the world as various religious come into contact with liberation theologies and ideas of freedom from oppression, such as the the Kingdom of Samuel the Lamanite (Mormon) in eastern Congo as well as the Fraternal Republic of Honduras (Catholic). It is worth noting that both states arose from poor and/or conflict-ridden regions.
  • A More Personal Union has the Most Christian Republic of Naples, formed after that city-state breaks free of Spanish rule.

    Real Life 
  • The closest thing we have to a true theocracy in real life is Vatican City, which is ruled by The Roman Catholic Pope and has a government staffed by clerics.
  • Until the total unification of Italy in the 1870s, its predecessor The Papal States (at least in theory) served this role. How this exactly played out as well as its reputation depended on the time period, given how it's fostered both saintly figures and the likes of the Borgias.
  • The ceremonial co-head of state of Andorra is the Bishop of Urgell, although he doesn't play any part in making policy.
  • The Islamic Republic of Iran is nominally a Shiite Muslim theocracy under the guidance of the Ayatollahs. In reality, it's a subject that's tad more complex; the Iranian government on paper looks like this after you simplify things, and even the more complicated theoretical structure doesn't fully take in all of the weird shapes the system has taken in practice. The subject is also very delicate, so let's leave it there.
  • Saudi Arabia double subverts this. The kingdom's laws are based on the Sunni Wahhabi Sharia, but the kingdom is ruled by a king, with Wahhabi clerics forming the bulk of the judiciary. In simple terms, it's a theocratic absolute monarchy.
  • A better example might be Afghanistan when it was under the control of the Taliban. They're such an infamous example that the word "Taliban" has entered the English lexicon as a negatively connotated term for anyone who seems to be in favor of a theocracy, especially an extremist one.
  • Christian Reconstructionism is a movement within some strains of Fundamentalism that believes in Theonomy, the doctrine that civil law should be derived from biblical law. Its critics say there is no real distinction between this belief and Theocracy. This is another touchy one, of course.
  • The Eastern Roman Empire is an odd example of sorts, in that the line between Church and State was very thin, with the Emperor having religious authority and influence rivaling the Patriarch of Constantinople.
  • Israel in both its modern and classical incarnations has always had Judaism as a central aspect, both in the country's identity and its international policies. Having the idea of theocracy kicking around is inevitable when you bill yourself as "the Kingdom of God", but while classical Israel (and Judah) played this trope dead straight the modern one subverts, double subverts, or plays with it. It's always claimed to be the Jewish State or "Hebrew State", Judaism defines itself as both a nation and a religion, and during the classical period it was ruled as a monarchical theocracy based on an alliance between religious judges and the royal family. Today there are several religious political parties and various other snippets, like personal law (marriage, inheritance, divorce) is handled by religious courts relating to a person's background (Jewish, Muslim or Christian). However, most modern Zionists were nationalists and emphasized the ethnic aspect, the government is run as a democratic republic that has supremacy over religious law and can freely elect non-Jewish members. Including those from Muslim, Arab, and Christian parties, as well as normal parties whose platforms are decidedly not Old Testament.
  • The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded on Puritan ideals, allowing no other denomination and permitting "visible saints" (righteous Puritans with sufficient property) only to vote or hold office.
  • Speaking of the Puritans, the Commonwealth of England that existed from 1649-1660note  is also considered to be a Theocracy by some Historians. During this period, Parliament passed a great number of religious laws meant to promote "godliness" by strictly enforcing the sabbath, censoring works of art, and suppressing Quakers and Levellers. The Parliament of 1653, formed by the aptly named Praise-God Barebone, was even modeled after the biblical counsel of judges.
    • This, however, is complicated by the fact that they also revoked the English Edict of Expulsion, allowing the Jews to return to England after being forced to either leave, convert, or die several hundred years earlier. Cromwell had been convinced that the only way for Jesus to return is for the Jews to be found in all nations, and that England was the only one that didn't have any Jews, so it was done for entirely theological reasons.
  • When the Mormons first settled in the Salt Lake area, they established the short-lived State of Deseret, a theocratic state headed by Brigham Young. Following the Mexican-American War, the area became part of the United States and the Utah Territory was founded in the region. The Utah Territory then spent some time being a de facto Mormon theocracy, with Young being the governor of the territory and the president of the LDS Church. In 1857, the U.S. government decided this wouldn't do and sent in federal troops to force the establishment of a secular, or at least non-Mormon, government. The last traces of official theocracy were eliminated when Utah became a state is 1896.
    • Modern Mormons and modern Utah are pretty secular, besides the compulsary missionary work, but there are isolated towns scattered around the southwestern US where the vast majority of the population, civic authorites and police are members of the FLDS Church, and are essentially mini-theocracies ruled by fundamentalist Mormon law and where polygamy, child marriage and other practices which the mainstream LDS discarded long ago are still practiced.
  • It's been argued that North Korea is basically a theocracy at this point, with the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family having mutated into a state religion. If you think this is an exaggeration, consider that people are encouraged to, and do, pray to Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-il. Also, North Korean children are taught that Kim il-Sung performed miracles, such as turning sand into rice, turning fruits into bombs, and, yes, walking on water. He's also still the "Eternal President" despite being dead since 1994. It can almost be likened to a divine dynasty, down to Kim Jong-Nam, or a crude caricature of the Trinity.
  • This was the default state in monarchies for quite a while, even and perhaps especially in Europe (with a dubious long-running alternative being in the Germanies, due to the complicated political organization of the Holy Roman Empire). Of course, in practice it was more "the Church is subordinate to the government", making it a sort of practical inversion (the Church became less of a parallel power structure that could work against the secular government) while formally playing it straighter.
  • The nation of Tibet was this from its de facto independence in 1912 to the Chinese invasion in the '50s. The country was ruled by the Dalai Lama, and Buddhist clerics held the role of being feudal overlords over the peasantry. After the exile the current Dalai Lama stayed on in charge of the Central Tibetian Administration but then relinquished political power to the democratically elected leaders of the CTA in 2011.
  • The self-styled "Islamic State" (aka ISIS, aka ISIL, aka Daesh) is a Sunni extremist group attempting to impose a theocracy in the Middle East, beginning with Syria and Iraq. Their human rights abuses are so extreme that even Al-Qaeda, of all groups, criticizes them.
  • The city of Zion, Illinois in the early 20th century. It was founded by an evangelical Protestant group that enforced the belief, among many others, that the Earth is flat.

Alternative Title(s): One Nation Under God