Sometimes referred to by the more academic term ecclesiocracy, theocracy can either give a religious leader ultimate political power or civil authority - or tolerate a political ruler but with constitutional paramountcy given to religious texts, usually on the condition that the nominal head of state be an ordained minister or priest of the ruling religion.
All law in a theocracy must be as set out within, or entirely consistent with whatever religious text the ruling religion abides by. For example, in an Islamic theocracy such as Iran, that text would be the Koran.
In a theocracy, the courts are usually presided over by religious officials, who are taken as more versant in the applicable legal texts.
Theocracies generally do not tolerate freedom of expression. They believe their dogma is divine; that it comes from divine revelation (directly from God as in Moses on Mount Sinai) and therefore, no dissenting opinion can be accurate or helpful. This often leads to widespread abuse of basic human rights.
Adherents of theocracy are called theocrats. Theocrats do not recognize religious parables for what they are and often attempt to rule as if the parables were intended to be be taken literally. Because the parables issue from a time long gone, they do not fit as a literal guide, without interpretation, into a modern lifestyle and thus causes a population so governed to be subjected to outdated rules of conduct and, more often than not, double standards of tolerance for disobedience to law; one for the rich and one for the poor.
Theocracy was the first form of government worldwide but many nations and states have abandoned any reference to religious texts as having ultimate authority in law. It is believed that strict adherence to religious texts was necessary for the early forms of human government to impose law and order.
The reality, though, was likely the other way around: strict moral religious texts were developed or promoted by rulers to sustain law, order and their political authority.
However, with education, states have gradually been able to relax the grip of theocracy and replace it with democratic principles. A theocratic state can not be a democratic state - the one the antithesis of the other.
Many states continue to refer to the existence or "grace" of God in their constitutional texts but no longer give theocracy, or its underlying theological dogma, any role in the law of the land, although almost all such states, because of the freedom of expression they espouse, have religious groups that call for a return to strict theocratic ideals in law and government.
American Baptist minister Isaac Backus wrote in 1773:
"The church is armed with light and truth, to pull down the strong holds of iniquity, and to gain souls to Christ, and into his church, to be governed by his rules therein; and again to exclude such from their communion, who will not be so governed; while the state is armed with the sword to guard the peace, and the civil rights of all persons and societies, and to punish those who violate the same.
"And where these two kinds of government, and the weapons which belong to them, are well distinguished and improved according to the true nature and end of their institution, the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other.
"But where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued."
- Backus, Isaac, An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppressions of the Present Day (1773)
- Duhaime, Lloyd, Legal Definition of Sharia Law