Ask a lot of Americans (and other Westerners in general) what the scariest form of government is, and you’ll probably get the same answer from most of them: Islamic fundamentalist. We’re constantly bombarded (no pun intended) with all kinds of news about ISIS, Iran, the Taliban, sharia law, and the like. Some of it is exaggerated, but not all. For many people, a legal system constructed around strict Islamic principles is indeed a frightening prospect. (Funnily enough, some of those same people wouldn’t mind a strict Christian code of laws, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Islamic government and law form a subset of the general notion of a theocracy: government by religion. Although we strongly associate it with the Middle East today, it has always been around, in many different guises through the ages. The Vatican is essentially a theocracy, for example. Many medieval European nations, where kings were considered to rule by divine will and church law was sacrosanct, could be said to have theocratic underpinnings. The Puritans who came to America did so because they wanted a utopia where everyone followed their interpretation of the Bible. And that’s just in the West.
Theocracy is also one of those forms of government that appears often in fiction. Especially fantasy, where there’s the very real possibility of gods walking the earth; here, the literal translation of the term, “rule by god”, can be entirely accurate. But theocracy can pop up in historical fiction, too, and even sci-fi. Religion is a fact of life, as long as we live in modernish human societies, and there’s always the possibility that someone decides to invert the American ideal of separation of church and state.
Now, by our standards, theocracy is quite obviously a bad thing. We see ISIS lopping off heads, we hear tales of women being stoned to death because they were raped, we listen to talking heads speaking of the evils of sharia law, and it’s not hard to draw the conclusion that, hey, this isn’t a good idea.
On the other side of the aisle, we then see members of a different faith arguing that the Ten Commandments should be posted in courthouses, that Muslims should be banned from entering our country just on account of their beliefs, and that it’s okay for children to be forced to recite an oath calling the US “one nation under God“. Those are theocratic trappings, as well, and they’re no more wholesome than requiring a woman to wear a burqa in public.
Of gods and men
But enough politics. Let’s talk about theocracy as an institution, and how you can use it in your fictional worlds.
The basic idea, obviously, is that the government is constructed in such a way as to give primacy to religion. That can come in many forms, however, ranging from token to suffocating.
First, a “lighter” theocracy exists in places like Elizabethan England or the modern United States. Orthodoxy is paramount. Heresy and apostasy are denounced, possibly outlawed, but only outright persecuted when they reach a critical mass. Laws show deference to religion, and government quite clearly favors the majority or plurality, but there is also a significant secular code that must be followed. These theocracies can almost be considered benign, especially if you’re one of those who follows the “favored” faith.
Second are the medieval-style theocracies. Here, it’s not that church officials run the country, or that scripture is considered the first and last word in justice. No, this “medium” theocracy has religion as subtle yet pervasive. One sect is explicitly established as primary, and its teachings are used as a basis for law, but it is open to interpretation, and there stand some (such as kings) above the law by divine fiat. Following a different religion will mark you as an outcast in this style of theocracy, but it’s not an automatic death sentence. There may even be enclaves for non-believers, much as Jews often had their ghettoes in medieval times (and much later).
Higher on the scale are the “hard” theocracies like Saudi Arabia, and these, when they appear in fiction, are almost always of the “evil empire” sort. This is where beliefs have the power of law…but only if they don’t simply replace it. Not only is scriptural text the basis for the law code, it is the law. Violating holy precepts is considered a crime, ranging from a petty misdemeanor all the way up to high treason. Worse, it’s usually the faction in charge who gets to decide how the holy books are interpreted. Heresy is effectively rebellion, etc.
Last is the “literal” theocracy I mentioned above. This one can’t possibly exist in our natural world, but it’s doable in fantasy fiction. Here, a divine (or presumed divine, or just divinely inspired) being actually rules a nation. His word is both law and holy writ, and there’s no way that can be good. Usually, this type is more a foil for the protagonists, as in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, Ian C. Esselmont’s Stonewielder, or Brian McClellan’s An Autumn Republic. Another option is that it’s a kind of utopian facade, where it looks like the godhead is benevolent and peaceful, but there are deeper strains; this one is especially good for polytheistic theocracies, and you could make an argument that that’s the case in Tolkien’s Silmarillion.
In the shadow of the gods
Depending on how heavy the theocratic leanings of a government, living can be essentially normal or worse than Communist Russia. It’s not that theocracy implies a police state or tyrannical overlord; that’s just the natural tendencies of mankind. There’s nothing stopping a theocracy from being something great, except that old maxim: absolute power corrupts absolutely. And what more absolute power is there than godhood? We see something similar with autocratic nations like North Korea, where the leader isn’t necessarily deified, but he’s the next best thing. Making government infallible (as a strong theocracy does) also makes it unimpeachable.
But a lot of it depends on the religion. Not merely what the holy texts say, but how they’re read. Moderate Muslims despise ISIS for cherry-picking verses, using them and only them to justify their ways. It’s no different from would-be Christian theocrats in America, quoting Leviticus as an argument to make homosexuality illegal while ignoring all the other awful stuff that book (and the rest of the Bible) contains. And it’s not limited to the Abrahamic faiths. Buddhist governments have done some pretty awful things. The Romans tolerated other religions until their followers got too uppity. Look through history, and you’ll see the same thing repeated everywhere.
That’s the bad, but is there good? Can there be good in theocracy? As a writer, I say yes. Maybe not in the way actual humans would do it, but I can construct a plausible chain of events that would lead to a relatively benign faith-based government. It would almost have to be a polytheistic faith, I think, one involving multiple “parties” of gods who often face off against one another. One probably without a lot of written scripture, maybe, or where that’s mostly limited to mythological tales. Something where “good” qualities are similar to our own. Imagine, for instance, a theocracy based on the Greek pantheon.
Getting to that point
But it’s those in-between events that I find more fascinating. How does a theocracy arise? How does it end?
Charisma, I believe, plays a factor in developing a theocracy. It doesn’t have to be individual, though that’s certainly an option, but charismatic religious leaders could convince the populace that theocratic rule is a good choice. Another possibility is a converted king, because converts are always the most zealous adherents of a faith. And then there’s the force option, as theocracy is proclaimed as a result of a revolution, but that again takes a certain amount of diplomacy to get the general population on board.
Ending a theocracy is a bit harder, particularly if it’s one of the harder varieties. Of course, a literal gods-among-us fantasy theocracy has an easy solution: kill the god. When you’re dealing with his subordinates, however, that doesn’t quite work; there’s always more to take their place. So, you need something stronger.
Outside influence can work, and that can take any form ranging from propaganda to direct interference to invasion. (“It’s not invasion, but liberation,” the outsiders would say in that case.) Popular revolt is another method that has been shown to work in the real world, but that implies two things. One, there really is support for overthrowing the priesthood—not always a given, especially on the eve of rebellion. Second, there’s a plan for replacing the theocracy itself, not just those at its head. It’s one thing to talk about turning, say, Iran into a democracy. Doing it (and not making the people there hate you for it) is another matter entirely.
The future of theocracy
Last, let’s talk about the idea of theocracy in science fiction. Now, that’s something that may not seem like it makes much sense. The future is supposed to be humanist, agnostic, or irreligious. Maybe all the people aren’t, but the setting itself typically considers religion to be, at best, a character quirk.
It doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re dealing with a spacefaring humanity, then there’s the potential for having colonies (planets in other solar systems, local asteroids, O’Neill habitats, etc.) that are designed for one specific culture. For example, a generation ship designed and built for the Mormons figures in James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes (and the TV series The Expanse). One could just as easily imagine an orbital ring inhabited entirely by displaced Palestinians, or a literal Plymouth Rock in the asteroid belt, where next-century Puritans could build their new Eden. And once aliens get involved, then you have their religions to think about; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine shows one way that could go.
These futuristic theocracies will have much in common with their modern or older ancestors. How much, of course, depends on many factors. First, how did they arise? “ISIS in Space” is going to be an entirely different sort of theocracy than some billionaire resurrecting the Levellers on a kilometer-long spin station as a social experiment. Second, how deep are the theocratic roots? Are we talking about a serious attempt at “a Biblical way of life”, or just “I want to live in a place where everybody goes to church on Sundays”? These factors, among others, will determine the character of a theocratic culture. That, in turn, will give you a good idea of where it stands on the utopia to tyranny axis.
In the real world, theocracies are justifiably frightening. For people who are tolerant or even nonbelievers, they show the worst that religious thought can offer. But in fictional settings, they can be a valuable asset. Whether ideal or idol, the mixing of church and state can bring about interesting social dynamics, conflicts, and character growth.