Democracy, Theocracy and Pluralism

by George Hatjoullis

Democracy draws its authority from ‘the people'(  from demos, the Greek word for ‘the people’). Theocracy draws its authority from one or more deities (from Theos, the Greek word for God). Pluralism has no single meaning (depends on the context) but in this blog it will stand for many points of power within an overarching political structure. Democracy and Theocracy are fundamentally incompatible. A political system cannot draw authority from two sources simultaneously. This does not mean that democracies can have no religion or that theocracies cannot incorporate the mechanics of democracy. This is why pluralism is of interest. It does, however, make explicit the fundamental difference between the two systems and why they may struggle to co-exist.

Democracy is not automatically meritocratic and inclusive. The definition of ‘the people’ can be quite restrictive. In  modern terms it had come to mean all citizens living within a jurisdiction defined by a ‘state’. A democracy usually takes the form of a constitution (written or implicit) that sets out the philosophical basis of the democracy in question and includes varying degrees of detail. A legislature elected by ‘the people’ makes laws consistent with the constitution. The judiciary interprets the laws in courts and ensures that such laws are consistent with the constitution. There is a great deal of interpretation involved and interpretation can vary over time as the society evolves. The constitution anchors the democracy but does not fix it in time and place. Interpretation allows variation over time and ultimately, because the democracy reflects the will of the people, it can be changed if enough people agree to change it.

Theocracy draws authority from God (assuming only one). The word of God is revealed in a book which serves the same purpose as a constitution in a democracy. The book is subject to interpretation by religious scholars and these interpretations form the basis of law in the theocracy. The legislature and judiciary become indistinguishable from the religious scholars. Theocracy can be more inclusive than democracy. Religions may accept all those that adhere to the faith even when a democracy discriminates against some humans that it does not consider citizens. However, it is easy to see that theocracy more easily lends itself to authoritarian forms of government (such as monarchy). No one can change the constitution because it is the revealed word of God. Interpretation is by religious scholars that are people of faith. Some form of election process may exist within the body of scholars but it is unlikely to involve ‘the people’ and, even if it does, the will of the people is severely limited.

Democracy and theocracy can seem to coincide when the revealed word of God is used as the basis for the constitution of a democracy. However, the fundamental incompatibility eventually becomes clear when the people assert their will and wish to change the constitution or question its interpretation in law. This clash of wills is going on today and has been going on for some time. The question of gender, and indeed the definition of gender, is a current example but the issue of abortion falls into the same disputed territory. The clash is creating severe tensions between states and religions, and within pluralistic democracies. The latter try to be as accommodative and as inclusive as possible. The principle is to allow people within a state to live by their own values until doing so clashes with someone else’s freedom to do so or breaches the law. At this juncture the state intervenes and adjudicates the conflict. Of course, people pursuing different values tend to cluster and form power groupings within the society and try to assert their values to the point of bringing changes to the law and ultimately the constitution, if necessary. At any point the society incorporates a dominant set of values (in part enshrined in law) and these take precedence when the state acts as judge.

Pluralist democracies tend to be vibrant but conflicted and constantly interrupted by protest. Pluralist democracies, however, tend to be accommodative and allow a great deal of protest and dissent. The society acts more earnestly when the fundamental nature of the democracy is threatened. If a religious group within the society seeks to convert the pluralist democracy into a theocracy then the response might be severe and even violent. Equally, if a group wishes to eliminate or severely curtail the pluralist nature of society, the response may be severe. Pluralist democracies are under pressure from both these tendencies at the moment and the response is evident across the globe. The issue often appears as one of theocracy or extremist ideology, against democracy, but the real challenge is for pluralism. A new pluralist democracy has emerged which is under the greatest of all challenges; the European Union.

The EU experiment has brought together a collection of pluralist democracies into a larger pluralist democracy. There is a constant tension between national or sovereign members and the overarching entity. This has been complicated by a majority of members entering an economic and monetary  union characterised by a common currency. There is constant reference to a ‘democratic deficit’ and each member state has its elements that seek exit or at least change because the EU is ‘undemocratic’. The EU is not undemocratic. Indeed it embodies all the essential characteristics of a pluralist democracy. The charge of undemocratic is used by the many power groups to further their ends, which in some cases is to exit from the Union.

The EU organising structure is somewhat opaque for the man-in-the-street , and ever more so than national parliaments. The disengaged voter is being further alienated by the ‘distance’ from the centre of EU power. The main problem for pluralist democracies is that the majority of power groups seem to feel the democracy does not enfranchise their particular group. No one seems to be entirely happy. This is a dangerous situation because pluralist democracies can only function if the members accept that the basic structure allows them all to prosper and grow. If most do not feel this to be the case then pluralism is rejected and exclusive democracy is sought. Coming at a time when democracy is also facing a challenge from theocracy, this popular frustration with pluralist democratic structures is a threat to stability throughout the world. The earlier blogs on innovations in democracy offer some practical suggestions on how alienation might be tackled.Social and political instability is waxing and not waning. The fundamental problems are often conflated leading to confusion and collective emotional reactions. It is leading to a politics of hate and fear. It may help in disentangling the knotted threads of specific social conflicts to think in terms of democracy, theocracy and pluralism as the basic dimensions. It may help diminish the threat to social stability that accompanies the politics of hate and fear.