Can theocracy and democracy co-exist? Is it possible to have such a thing as a democratic theocracy? Or is this combination of adjective and noun not a mere oxymoron but a real contradiction in terms?
The terms theocracy and democracy have similar endings. Both words’ roots are Greek. In Greek the word “kratia” means power or rule. Thus both theo and demo refer to a type or source of power or rule. In Greek the word “theos” refers to god or the divine and the word “demos” refers to people or the people.
Theocracy then refers to divine rule or power and democracy to rule or power residing in the people. In a theocracy, a divinity of some type is not only the one source of governmental authority but also provides the fundamental law which all are to follow. In a democracy, the people are the source of authority and also the creators of the laws to which members of that state subject themselves.
Simply put, in a theocracy, something is right or wrong (should or should not done) because god says so. In a democracy, something is right or wrong (should or should not done) because the people say so. These two terms describe mutually exclusive notions of governmental authority: one divine and the other human.
Both Jesus of Nazareth and Abraham Lincoln, at much different times and places, noted that houses divided against themselves “cannot stand.” Either governmental authority resides in the people or with god but it cannot be both.
In a democracy, people who believe in a god and seek to live in conformance with what they believe that god requires of them are free to express their opinion and to vote and engage in other forms of public discourse and decision making but they must do so with the understanding that the government in which they are participating is, as Lincoln said, “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
This understanding is a bedrock principle of democracy itself–not of secular democracy, representative democracy or any other adjective used to qualify the noun democracy. Democracies do not seek to do the will of god. They seek to do the will of the people. Individual believers may seek to do the will of a deity but the structure of government in a democracy recognizes only the authority of the people qua people.
Therefore, seeking to place the authority of a god above that of the people is by definition anti-democratic. In taking this position, I do not want to suggest that a divinity may not function as an authority for a believer. Nor do I want to suggest that believers should not be faithful to the gods in whom they believe.
All I want to argue is that when it comes to government, democracy and theocracy are mutually exclusive terms and that when we muddy the distinction between the two, we do so at our peril and at the risk of liberty.
In America today, there are Christian groups who argue that America is a Christian nation and should not only recognize this fact but also subordinate the authority of the people to the authority of God in matters of government. We are after all, they argue, “one nation under God.” The same can be said for some Islamic groups in other parts of the world. Elements of Zionism also share this theocratic vision.
If these groups were to hold sway in nations that are currently democracies, the net effect would be to change those countries from pluralistic democracies to theocracies. A Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu or Buddhist can be a good citizen in a democracy but it is quite another thing for a member of a religious group to try to subordinate the will of the people to that of any particular divinity or religious teacher. Voting is a viable means of determining the will of the people but largely irrelevant in determining the will of god. Calvin’s Geneva, Vatican City, and Riyadh are one thing and the United States or any other democracy quite another.