In the wake of the anti-government protests in Iran which kicked off 2018, social media was awash in the claim that “theocracy never works.” But that depends on what your definition of “theocracy” is. If it’s “government by immediate divine guidance,” then the empirical data is, admittedly, rather thin. But if it’s “government in which the deity’s (or deities’) laws are recognized as guidance,” then historical examples can be adduced going back millennia: Hammurabi’s Babylonian Empire and the pre-Constantine Roman one were officially polytheistic; the Kushan Empire of the Indian subcontinent was, at least under certain rulers, Buddhist–as was China under the Mongol Yuan dynasty; Sassanian Persia was Zoroastrian; the Roman Empire, both West and East, was Christian by the late 4th century AD (and the latter survived for another millennium as such); ancient Israel was of course a theocracy (as were other Jewish states, such as the later Himyarite kingdom of Yemen); and by definition any Islamic caliphate or imamate across the centuries has been a religious state.
In fact, states that established and adhered to a religion of some kind were the norm in human history until the European Enlightenment ideas of a secular governmental system (or at least a religiously-neutral one) were put into effect in Philadelphia in 1787. So it’s really quite silly and ahistorical to maintain that theocracies are untenable. For millennia, they worked quite well.
But what about in the modern world? As a 2017 Pew study shows, 43 countries (of the world’s 199) have an official, state religion: 27, Islam; 13, Christianity; 2, Buddhism; 1, Judaism. Pew also has a category for “preferred/favored religion,” but such does not qualify as theocracy, atheist protestations notwithstanding. Most countries (109), even those with Christian majorities such as the United States, are officially secular. And of course some countries–all in Asia, except for Cuba–are actively hostile to religion.
The “Christian” states include the likes of Costa Rica, Liechtenstein, Malta, Iceland, Zambia, Norway and Denmark, as well as officially-Anglican England (not the U.K.) and formally Catholic Italy. But it’s safe to say that the leaders of these countries make little, if any, recourse to the New Testament in the actual running of their governments–much less that the Great Commission is a part of their foreign policies. The world’s three largest Christian-population countries–the US, Brazil and Mexico–operate the same way; none enforces Southern Baptist or canon law, domestically or abroad. Only Russia, the fourth-largest Christian and major Orthodox power, can be said to promote Christianity on the global stage, even as its system is more “Caesaropapist” (the church serves the state) than theocratic.
Majority-Muslim states, on the other hand, mostly burn with Islamic zeal–even if none can claim the legitimate caliphate any more. Saudi Arabia and Iran not only impose strict Sunnism and Twelver Shi`ism, respectively, on their populations, but each spends massive amounts of money yearly attempting to export its brands of Islam to other parts of the planet. Most of the countries with Muslim majorities (as well as parts of others, such as northern Nigeria) enforce shari`ah law in whole or in part–which means the Qur’an and Hadiths (sayings of Muhammad) are instrumental in private and, usually, public life. (That may not be theocracy per se–but a difference which makes no difference is no difference.) In addition, those 57 Muslim states have been organized into a transcontinental geopolitical bloc since 1969, which is now known as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. No other religious grouping on Earth is organized politically on such a scale; in fact, as Bernard Lewis points out, “the very idea of such a grouping…in the modern world may seem anachronistic and even absurd. It is neither…in relation to Islam” (The Crisis of Islam, pp. 13, 14). This is because “most Muslim countries are still profoundly Muslim, in a a way and in a sense that most Christian countries are no longer Christian” (Ibid., p. 16). The OIC gives Muslims a global political voice, far louder than that of any other religious bloc–even Christianity, the world’s largest religion. (Not only does the organization have a special status at the UN, but the US even has an official envoy to the OIC–a practice which began under President George W. Bush.)
Flag of the OIC (from Wikipedia, public domain). Yes, it says “Allahu Akbar.”
In fact the world’s largest religion’s adherents are also the most persecuted–and most often by members of the second-largest: Islam. The Islamic theocracies, individually and collectively, thus seem to work quite well in three realms: proselytizing for their faith; advancing their faith in the global court of public opinion; and squeezing the lifeblood out of Christianity wherever possible. Islam as a religion is supported politically both by individual states, some with a great deal of wealth, and by a massive and influential alliance of Muslim polities. No other religion has any such temporal advocacy. Is it any wonder, then, that Christians have come to see, not without reason, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump as their champions? Few of us want to fight fire with fire–to create our own theocracies to battle the extant ones of Muhammad’s (although an analogous international organization is not a bad idea). At the very least, however, Putin and Trump may actually need to work together to defend Christian civilization, if not Christian faith, against its malcontents–most of whom are, unfortunately, Muslim. That’s the kind of collusion I could really get behind.