Ran Hirschl


On his book Constitutional Theocracy

Cover Interview of December 19, 2010

The wide angle

As of 2010, perhaps more than half of the world’s population lives in polities where religion not only has remained public but also has been playing a key role in political and constitutional life.  Of these people, approximately one billion live in national or sub-national polities that feature key elements of what I have termed “constitutional theocracy.”

Populist academic and media accounts tend to portray the spread of religious fundamentalism in the developing world as a near-monolithic, ever-accelerating, and all-encompassing phenomenon.  The reality in most pertinent settings is notably more complex and nuanced.  Various secularist, modernist, or otherwise anti-religious stakeholders vie to advance their worldviews and policy preferences against the backdrop of religion-infused politics and morality.

Regimes throughout the new world of constitutional theocracies—as well as in countries where religion-centered morality has been dominating law and politics for generations: think India or Catholic Europe and Latin America—have been struggling with questions of a profoundly foundational nature.  They are forced to navigate between cosmopolitanism and parochialism, modern and traditional meta-narratives, constitutional principles and religious injunctions, contemporary governance and ancient texts, and judicial and pious interpretation.

Constitutional courts find themselves at the forefront of this struggle as they attempt to address constitutional theocracy and translate its uneasy bundle of seemingly contradictory aims and commitments into practical guidelines for public life.

The constitutional incorporation of religious directives is not done for the pure love of religion.  It is a response to fundamentalist threats—and at times even a preemptive move: appropriation of religion to counter to fundamentalist threats.

As support for theocratic governance continues to grow, the constitutional establishment of religion becomes an increasingly attractive—the lesser evil—solution for secularists, statists, modernists, and other religion-taming interests that strive to protect or advance their agendas in a non-secularist world.