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Abstract:
Article on the philosophical foundations and core values of Baha’i elections, with particular attention to its relation to democratic theory.
Notes:
The original PDF file of the published article, and the HTML file from which this version is copied (by permission), can be accessed at http://profs-polisci.mcgill.ca/abizadeh/Bahai-elections.htm

Democratic Elections without Campaigns? Normative Foundations of National Baha'i Elections

by Arash Abizadeh

published in World Order, 37:1, pages 7-49
2005

 

 

Article Abstract: National Bahá'í elections, conducted world-wide without nominations, competitive campaigns, or parties, challenge the emerging consensus that the only truly democratic elections are multiparty elections in which each party's candidates compete freely for votes. National Bahá'í electoral institutions are based on three core values: respect for the inherent dignity of each person, the unity and solidarity of persons collectively, and the justice and fairness of institutions. While liberal political philosophy interprets respect for dignity exclusively in terms of equality and freedom, the Bahá'í model interprets dignity to require respect for the equality, freedom, and nobility of each person. The perfectionist focus on nobility helps explain the distinct features of national Bahá'í elections and, in particular, the ban on campaigning. In light of ongoing concerns about the character of the electoral process in actually existing democracies, further research into Bahá'í elections and their philosophical foundations provides a promising basis for rethinking widely held liberal assumptions about how democratic elections must be conducted.

 

 

We live not only in an age of democracy but in an age of democratic elections. Even today’s most authoritarian and repressive regimes feel compelled to treat their populations—and the world—to the spectacle of elections. We also live in an age in which the twentieth century’s deep disagreements between liberal democrats and communists about the very meaning of democratic elections seem to have been laid to rest. Today it is widely assumed that elections, to count as properly democratic, must be multiparty elections in which each party’s candidates compete freely for votes. Liberal democrats, it seems, have won the last word on what counts as a properly democratic election.

            This is not to say, however, that equating democratic elections with multiparty competition is beyond criticism. Many critics bemoan the apparent shortcomings of multiparty democratic electoral politics. That such elections yield corrupt and morally bankrupt leaders; that they are meaningless without certain social or economic rights and conditions; that they fail to provide the electorate with any real political say or choice; that they are captured by powerful interest groups; or that modern electoral campaigns are too easily bought by money—these are all common worries. What is less common are viable alternatives to the competitive multiparty model of democratic elections. [page 8]

            The Bahá’í community claims to practice such an alternative.[1] Because there are no clergy in the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’í communities are governed by regularly elected representative institutions at local, regional (in some areas), national, and international levels.[2] For most students of democratic politics, the most surprising feature of Bahá’í elections is that they are conducted without nominations, competitive campaigns, voting coalitions, or parties. Indeed, Bahá’í elections are governed by formal institutional rules and informal norms that specifically prohibit such familiar features of the political landscape. The question is why Bahá’í elections are governed by these rules and norms. The answer lies in the distinctive values that are the foundation for the rules and norms. This study seeks to explain the distinct ethical, spiritual, and pragmatic values according to which national Bahá’í electoral rules and norms are justified—to lay bare, in other words, the philosophical foundations of national Bahá’í elections.

            My thesis is twofold. First, the three core values on which Bahá’í institutions are based are respect for the inherent dignity of each person, the unity and solidarity of persons collectively, and the inherent justice and fairness of the institutions. These three distinct values operate at individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels, but they are conceptually connected to one another. Second, the instrumental value of Bahá’í electoral institutions lies in how well they perform the following four functions: selecting the most desirable representatives; legitimating Bahá’í administrative institutions; fostering virtues among individual participants; and fostering unity and solidarity in the community as a whole. These may be called the selection, legitimation, education, and integration functions of elections.

            A study of the philosophical basis of national Bahá’í elections will be of interest to at least two audiences: students of democratic elections and students of the Bahá’í community and Bahá’í thought. Of particular interest to students of democratic elections is the conception of human dignity on which Bahá’í elections are based. [page 9] This conception refers not only to the freedom and equality of the person—which is rather standard fare in liberal democratic political philosophy—but also the nobility of the person. Emphasis on the nobility of the person focuses the Bahá’í model of democratic elections on a spiritual dimension largely absent from prevailing models. This emphasis, in turn, explains many of the distinct rules and norms of Bahá’í elections and potentially offers students of democratic elections fresh insights for democratic political theory more generally. Students of the Bahá’í community and thought will be interested in the study because it offers a systematic analysis of the values on which Bahá’í elections are based. To say, as Bahá’ís often do, that Bahá’í elections are fundamentally spiritual in nature is not to say that they constitute a magical process that cannot—or should not—be analyzed rationally. It is, rather, to say that these elections embody a set of fundamental spiritual and ethical values that provide the core that is supposed to animate the Bahá’í model and be embodied in its rules and norms.[3] The values are also what lend Bahá’í elections their distinctive character.

            The core values on which Bahá’í elections are based find their ultimate textual source in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, and `Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s successor and leader of the Bahá’í community after Bahá’u’lláh’s passing. Their writings provide the primary and most abstract expression of the core values animating Bahá’í elections. But what those values mean in the context of elections requires much interpretive work. The writings of Shoghi Effendi provide the most detailed interpretation and application of these values in the electoral [page 10] process. Shoghi Effendi served as the Guardian and leader of the Bahá’í world community (1921–57) during the period of Bahá’í history in which many national Bahá’í administrative institutions were developed, before the establishment and election in 1963 of the first Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í community. Though Shoghi Effendi’s writings have no formal legislative authority, they do have authoritative status in the Bahá’í community as interpretations of the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l-Bahá.[4] Thus a secondary feature of this study of the normative foundations of national Bahá’í elections is that it concretely illustrates the relationship, in Bahá’í thought, between the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l-Bahá and those of Shoghi Effendi: Whereas the former tend to provide an abstract statement of core values, the latter interpret and apply these values to particular contexts.[5]

 

1. The Legal Basis of Bahá’í Institutions

            The Bahá’í community is governed by four levels of elected institutions: Local Spiritual Assemblies, Regional Councils (in some countries), National Spiritual Assemblies (hereafter NSA), and the Universal House of Justice. All are elected annually, except the Universal House of Justice, which is elected every five years. [page 11]

            The legal bases for the constitutional organization of the Bahá’í community are the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, the writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, and the legislative enactments of the elected institutions of the Bahá’í community, the Universal House of Justice in particular.[6] While Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l-Bahá together provided the legal basis for elected local, national, and international governing bodies,[7] most of the constitutional details of Bahá’í structures of governance were left open—particularly in the case of electoral processes—and have had to be worked out subsequently by the Bahá’í community itself. As Shoghi Effendi wrote to the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada in 1927,

in view of the fact that definite and detailed regulations defining the manner and character of Bahá’í elections have neither been expressly revealed by Bahá’u’lláh nor laid down in the Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá, it devolves upon the members of the Universal House of Justice to formulate and apply such system of laws as would be in conformity with the essentials and requisites expressly provided by the Author and Interpreter of the conduct of Bahá’í administration.[8]

            Hence, while the writings of Shoghi Effendi have tremendous normative purchase on Bahá’í practice, they carry no legislative authority. As a result, the legal status of any constitutional arrangement or institutional rule that he helped institute, and that was not specifically provided for by Bahá’u’lláh or `Abdu’l-Bahá, remained provisional and dependent on future legislative enactment by the elected institutions of the Bahá’í community.[9] [page 12]

            Most of the institutional rules and informal norms that currently govern NSA elections were worked out during the 1920s and 1930s, before the establishment of the Universal House of Justice, under the leadership of Shoghi Effendi in conjunction with the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada.[10] These rules for the election of each country’s NSA are now formalized in the By-Laws of each NSA within the context of the Constitution of the Universal House of Justice.[11]

 

2. The Institutional Rules and Informal Norms of National Bahá’í Elections

            Annual elections of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada are typical of NSA elections worldwide.[12] They involve a two-step process. First, all adults (currently defined as twenty-one years and older[13]) who are members in good standing of the Canadian Bahá’í community elect 171 delegates to the annual National Convention convened to elect the members of the NSA (Canadian NSA By-Laws art. 13). Delegates are elected by plurality vote (Canadian NSA By-Laws art. 13, §10.)[14] in predominantly single-member electoral units drawn in proportion to the number of adult resident Bahá’ís who make up that unit’s set of voters.[15] The [page 13] set of persons eligible to be elected as a delegate comprises all the voters in the electoral unit.

            Second, the members of the NSA are then elected by the plurality vote of the 171 delegates during the annual National Convention (Canadian NSA By-Laws art. 13, §10).[16] (According to plurality-rule voting, those who receive the greatest number of votes, no matter how small the number, are elected—that is, a majority is not required.) The number of seats on the NSA is nine; the number of votes each delegate may cast is equal to the number of seats (nine); and each delegate must split his or her vote between nine different candidates. The set of candidates includes all adult members in good standing of the Canadian Bahá’í community.[17] Those nine candidates who receive the greatest number of (unspoiled) votes are elected to the NSA. In the case of ties, additional votes are taken on the persons tied until nine persons have been elected (Canadian NSA By-Laws art. 13, §10).[18] However, the Universal House of Justice has also dictated that “where it is obvious that one of the persons involved [in a tie] represents a minority,” such as an ethnic or cultural minority [page 14], “that person should be accorded the priority without question. Where there is doubt further balloting” should be undertaken.[19]

            Bahá’í elections are also characterized by an informal norm that no reference be made to personalities before election. This norm corresponds to the formal institutional rules that require voting to be done by secret ballot and that ban electioneering, party-formation, and nominations.[20] A second norm relevant for elections is the NSA’s year-round duty of institutional transparency. A third is each individual’s year-round duty to take part actively in the election process and in day-to-day community affairs (for further discussion of the second and third norms, see section 4.1 on pages 34–43).

            The question is how the Bahá’í rules and norms are to be justified and evaluated. The answer depends on which values these rules and norms are meant to serve. Plato tells us in his Republic that there are some goods that we value because of their consequences or outcomes, while there are some goods that we value for their own sake, independent of their consequences. And, of course, some goods we value both for the sake of their consequences and for their own sake.[21] Consider the value of a car. A car is, obviously, a means or instrument for realizing some outcome or goal—getting from Montreal to Ottawa, for example. If a car is a good means or instrument for achieving some valuable outcome, the car is instrumentally valuable. But consider a person who values his car not only as a means of transport but also for inherent features of the car itself. The shiny red color of the car may serve no useful transportation purpose, but the car’s owner may value the shiny red car for its own sake, [page 15] not as an instrument, but as noninstrumentally valuable. Indeed, for the collector who simply keeps his cars locked up in a garage year-round without using them, the noninstrumental value may be the car’s only value.

            Similarly, outcomes are not the only measure of electoral institutions’ value. Inherent features of the electoral process are also important for their own sake, independent of the kind of outcomes to which the process leads. Even if the best representatives could be elected by a totally unfair process that required lying and humiliating participants, there would be something inherently wrong with the process itself. Thus one way to justify and evaluate electoral rules and norms is according to features of the electoral process that are valuable for their own sake. But elections are also, of course, instruments for realizing certain outcomes—such as choosing qualified persons as one’s representatives. Hence the second way to justify and evaluate electoral rules and norms is according to the kind of outcomes to which they typically lead. Consider, for example, a rule that voting be carried out by open (rather than secret) ballot. If such a rule typically leads to criminals being elected (because they can effectively threaten or bribe everyone for votes), the open-ballot rule would be a poor instrument for securing good outcomes. Such a rule would fail to have instrumental value.

            Therefore, the formal institutional rules and informal norms of Bahá’í elections can be justified and evaluated in two ways: according to their noninstrumental value and according to their instrumental value. The noninstrumental value of Bahá’í elections is determined by features of the electoral process that are valuable for their own sake. Their instrumental value is determined by the goodness or badness of the outcomes to which they typically lead.[22] [page 16]

 

3. The Noninstrumental Value of Bahá’í Electoral Rules and Norms

            Bahá’í institutions are based on a conception of each person as free, equal, and noble, qualities that in combination we might call the inherent dignity of each human being.[23] `Abdu’l-Bahá relates the inherent freedom of each person directly to the dignity of each person’s conscience, which is “sacred” and the freedom of which commands respect.[24] The dignity of each human being, in turn, corresponds to the fundamental spiritual and moral equality of each person as a source of normative value.[25]

            The emphasis on a conception of the person as fundamentally free and equal has become rather standard fare in liberal egalitarian political philosophy.[26] What is important and distinctive about the conception of the person on which Bahá’í institutions are based, however, is the third element of the human being’s inherent dignity: the nobility of each person.[27] Bahá’u’lláh describes this nobility in terms [page 17] of the inherent capacity of each person for spiritual perfection.[28] This conception of the person as fundamentally and inherently noble rejects the view of human beings as inherently sinful, but by tying human beings’ inherent nobility to their potentiality, Bahá’u’lláh advances a conception of nobility compatible with the possibility of failure to realize that potential (and, hence, of great wrongdoing). “Noble I made thee,” the Hidden Words declare, but immediately ask, “wherewith dost thou abase thyself?”[29] The same point is made when Bahá’u’lláh describes human beings’ noble station in terms of the “gems” that lie within them:

Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess. . . . The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.[30]

            Nobility, in other words, is a perfectionist value. It assumes a conception of the person as having certain ends the realization of which constitutes human perfection.[31] Even so, nobility is not simply valuable as a means for realizing such ends. The potentiality to which nobility refers is a spiritual status commanding respect as such, independent of whether the potential is (fully) realized.

            One of the ends of nobility is the recognition, in both one’s attitudes and deeds, of the fundamental moral and spiritual unity of all human beings. This unity is the second core value that Bahá’í electoral institutions seek to express or embody. It is a value premised on relations of solidarity among persons—relations in which human beings are disposed to respect the inherent dignity of each person and to “give each others’ interests some noninstrumental weight in their practical reasoning.”[32] [page 18]

            Because the inherent dignity comprising the freedom, equality, and nobility of the person is a spiritual or moral status, it commands the respect of others: In other words, it imposes moral responsibilities that specify how human beings ought to treat each other. Thus the inherent dignity of each person also goes hand in hand with the third fundamental value to which Bahá’í electoral institutions aspire: justice and fairness (or justice and equity).[33] If solidarity identifies a disposition of character on the part of individuals to recognize the inherent dignity of others, the third value of justice and fairness imposes the moral responsibility to do so. [page 19]

            In sum: Bahá’í institutions are noninstrumentally valuable insofar as they (1) respect the inherent dignity (freedom, equality, and nobility) of each human being; (2) express or embody the unity and solidarity of human beings collectively; and (3) are just and fair. These three values operate at the most abstract level of normative justification. The question is how to interpret and apply them to the particular case of electoral institutions and norms.

 

3.1 EXPRESSING THE INHERENT DIGNITY OF THE PERSON: FREEDOM

            The core value of freedom finds expression in at least three ways in Shoghi Effendi’s discussion of elections. The first is that the electoral process ought to be characterized by the widespread participation of the members of the community in the selection of their representatives.[34] This corresponds to the formal institutional rule giving [page 20] community members in good standing the right to vote for their representatives, whether directly or indirectly.[35]

            The second expression of the core value of freedom is that the voting process ought to respect voters’ freedom to vote according to the dictates of their own conscience (just as the consultation process ought to respect the freedom to speak one’s conscience).[36] This value of respecting the freedom of the voter’s conscience is precisely how Shoghi Effendi justifies three formal institutional rules designed to eliminate any restriction on whom a voter may vote for: the rule that all adult community members in good standing are candidates for national office; the corresponding ban on nominations; and the corresponding rejection of term limits for elected representatives.[37]

            The value of respecting the freedom of the voter’s conscience is also a consideration Shoghi Effendi cites in favor of plurality-rule over sequential majority-rule voting at National Convention. (“Sequential” refers to the fact that, in case the nine persons receiving the most votes have not each received votes at least equal to the majority of delegates, subsequent rounds or run-offs are held until nine persons have done so.) Until 1928 elections for the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada were conducted by sequential majority- rather than plurality-rule voting. Loni Bramson-Lerche, a lecturer in religious studies, notes that this made for a rather cumbersome electoral process. Since only a portion of delegates attended National Convention during this period, and since often four or five rounds of balloting were required to secure a majority of delegates’ votes for each of nine persons, the NSA was obliged to telegraph absent delegates repeatedly for their votes until a new NSA was elected.[38] The NSA had repeatedly queried Shoghi Effendi about which procedure [page 21] to adopt, but, as Bramson-Lerche observes, “as always, Shoghi Effendi wished the National Assembly to work out a solution itself.”[39] Furthermore, during this early period, elections for the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada were preceded by nominations. Each delegate could nominate as many persons as he or she wished, following which delegates would vote for nine persons from among the nominees. Absent delegates, however, could not make nominations, which some felt was unfair, since, in effect, the procedure meant that the slate of nominees was determined by only a portion of the delegates.[40] In a May 27, 1927, letter to the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, Shoghi Effendi, still refraining from deciding the matter for the NSA, responded to its requests for guidance by recommending the consideration of the following reasons in favor of provisionally adopting plurality-rule voting:

The general practice prevailing throughout the East is the one based upon the principle of plurality rather than absolute majority, whereby those candidates that have obtained the highest number of votes, irrespective of the fact whether they command an absolute majority of the votes cast or not, are automatically and definitely elected. It has been felt, with no little justification, that this method, admittedly disadvantageous in its disregard of the principle that requires that each [page 22] elected member must secure a majority of the votes cast, does away on the other hand with the more serious disadvantage of restricting the freedom of the elector who, unhampered and unconstrained by electoral necessities, is called upon to vote for none but those whom prayer and reflection have inspired him to uphold. Moreover, the practice of nomination, so detrimental to the atmosphere of a silent and prayerful election, is viewed with mistrust inasmuch as it gives the right to the majority of a body that, in itself under the present circumstances, often constitutes a minority of all the elected delegates, to deny that God-given right of every elector to vote only in favor of those who he is conscientiously convinced are the most worthy candidates. Should this simple system be provisionally adopted, it would safeguard the spiritual principle of the unfettered freedom of the voter, who will thus preserve intact the sanctity of the choice he first made. It would avoid the inconvenience of securing advance nominations from absent delegates, and the impracticality of associating them with the assembled electors in the subsequent ballots that are often required to meet the exigencies of majority vote.[41]

            Thus one kind of argument cited by Shoghi Effendi for banning nominations and favoring plurality-rule rather than sequential majority-rule voting is based on respect for the freedom of conscience of the voter (a noninstrumental value). The problem with nominations is that the freedom of absent delegates would be formally constrained, since they could vote only for those nominated by the delegates present at National Convention.[42] The problem with majority-rule voting arises from the [page 23] successive rounds of voting that were typically required. If each delegate continued in successive rounds to vote as he or she had done before, no candidates would ever receive a majority of votes. The resulting deadlock would mean that voters would feel pressured (though not formally constrained) to vote differently from how they voted when solely considering persons’ qualifications in the first round. It is clear that Shoghi Effendi’s objection is not to majority-rule voting per se; indeed, in principle he seems to consider it superior to plurality rule. His objection is, rather, to the likely possibility of sequential rounds that would pressure voters to change their vote simply to avoid a deadlock.

            Another point to note about the long passage quoted from Shoghi Effendi’s May 27, 1927, letter is that his recommendations for institutional rules are grounded in, and derive from, the values to which he appeals. In each case, his recommendation is made on the basis of weighing reasons for and against different sets of rules—reasons deriving from both noninstrumental values (for example, respect for freedom) and instrumental values that hinge on the particular circumstances of the day (for example, efficiency or pragmatic feasibility). It is important to see that respect for the voter’s freedom to express his or her conscience in voting is only one reason among others that Shoghi Effendi considers when recommending plurality rule or the ban on nominations.

            Shoghi Effendi’s attention to the context and weight of various reasons, which may pull in different directions, is important because few of the reasons that he cites are of a kind that simply trump all countervailing reasons. Consider, for example, the case of tie votes. In 1927, after there was a tie for ninth place at the British National Convention, the British Bahá’ís decided that the membership of their NSA would consist of that year’s top ten vote-receivers. In response, Shoghi Effendi wrote that “next year, the number of members should be strictly confined to nine, and a second ballot is quite proper and justified” to break the tie.[43] Consequently, under the current institutional rules adopted by NSAs worldwide, when there is a tie, further rounds of voting are held where delegates are only allowed to vote for the persons tied in the previous round (Canadian NSA By-Laws art. 13, §10).[44] This means that even plurality-rule voting potentially has sequential rounds and that the freedom of a voter to vote for whomever he or she wishes is formally restricted in subsequent rounds. It is even possible that none of the tied persons was among the persons for whom the delegate had voted in the first round. The point is that, while, according to Shoghi Effendi, respect for the voter’s freedom of conscience provides a reason against sequential voting of the kind that pressures voters to change their votes, this respect does not provide a trumping reason. Otherwise, Shoghi Effendi [page 24] might have recommended breaking ties by holding a second round in which one could once again vote for anyone, rather than only for the persons who were tied in the previous round. What this respect actually requires may vary according to circumstances, and the reasons it provides for one kind of institutional arrangement may be overridden by countervailing reasons. In the case of ties, the reasons against sequential voting and against restricting for whom one can vote are presumably overridden by pragmatic reasons and by further consideration of what respect for freedom means.

            The third and final implication of the core value of freedom for national Bahá’í elections is the requirement that the election process actually be sensitive to the judgment of voters. This third consideration implicitly follows from the first two (the emphasis on widespread participation and respect for the voter’s conscience). To value participation and respect for each participant’s conscience is implicitly to assume that each person’s participation and conscience should matter for electoral outcomes. In other words, it is to assume that ensuring that electoral outcomes are sensitive to the judgment of participants is valuable. (Otherwise, one could select representatives by lot or decree.)

            Note that there are two distinct kinds of reason why it might be thought that the judgment of voters should make a difference to electoral outcomes. First, one might defend sensitivity on instrumental grounds: One might think that sensitivity to the views of voters actually helps produce the best outcomes—for example, it [page 25] helps select the most qualified representatives. Such instrumental reasons are indeed important for Bahá’í elections, as we shall see, but they are not the reason under consideration here. Respect for the freedom of the person demands a selection mechanism that is sensitive to the views of voters for noninstrumental reasons—that is, independent of whether taking voters’ judgments into account leads to better outcomes or not. Ensuring widespread participation, respecting the freedom of conscience of each voter, and ensuring that the voting mechanism is sensitive to each person’s judgment is a matter of respecting the dignity and freedom of each person represented, regardless of whether doing so leads to better outcomes.

 

3.2 EXPRESSING THE INHERENT DIGNITY OF THE PERSON: EQUALITY

            The core value of equality finds expression in several ways in national Bahá’í electoral rules. The equality of all human beings grounds the formal institutional rule that all adult members of the community in good standing, irrespective of their class, ethnicity, race,[45] or gender,[46] are eligible to participate in the election of delegates, to be elected as delegates, and to be elected as members of the NSA. While respect for the freedom of each voter to vote according to his or her conscience gives rise to the formal institutional rule that all adults in good standing are candidates for election, respect for equality is the basis for the informal norm according to which all forms of discrimination must be eliminated in the voting process.[47] This norm places a crucial spiritual and moral responsibility on all persons to examine critically [page 26] their own attitudes in the voting process, to ensure that they are not voting on the basis of prejudice.[48]

            If respect for freedom requires a voting process that is sensitive to the judgment of participants in general, respect for the equality of persons requires a voting process that is sensitive to each voter’s judgment in a roughly equal way. Respect for the freedom and equality of persons thus also requires a voting process that meets basic standards of justice and fairness (see section 3.5 on pages 32–33).

 

3.3 EXPRESSING THE INHERENT DIGNITY OF THE PERSON: NOBILITY

            Respect for the nobility of the person and the corresponding institutional rules and informal norms constitute what are perhaps the most distinctive features of Bahá’í elections.[49] The core value of nobility finds expression in at least two ways in Shoghi Effendi’s writings on Bahá’í elections: in the informal norm of individual participant responsibility and in the institutional rules and informal norms designed to safeguard the spiritual dignity of the electoral process.

            To begin with, if nobility is premised on the spiritual potential of human beings to realize perfections or virtues of character, respecting this potential is, in part, to place responsibilities upon individuals, responsibilities that are part and parcel of realizing their highest potential. The realization of human potential demands not only education for the individual but also imposes ethical responsibilities on the individual. Hence, while respect for freedom demands the formal institutional right to participate in the selection of one’s own representatives, respect for nobility involves holding the individual ethically responsible for such participation. This is reflected in the informal norm, in Bahá’í elections, according to which such participation is a “sacred duty” and “responsibility.”[50] [page 27]

            The second requirement of respect for nobility concerns the institutional context and nature of that participation. Respect for nobility demands electoral institutions and norms that themselves express or embody the dignity they attribute to the persons partaking in elections. Shoghi Effendi has thus interpreted the value of dignity to require a “silent and prayerful” electoral process, in which each individual has the opportunity to vote “after meditation and reflection” in a “rarefied atmosphere of selflessness and detachment” for “none but those whom prayer and reflection have inspired him to uphold.”[51] The spiritual character of the election process gives rise to an injunction against seeking to influence others’ votes by discussing personalities before elections. This injunction against discussing particular candidates, in turn, is the basis for four formal institutional rules: that voting be conducted according to secret ballot; that there be no campaigning, canvassing, or election propaganda; that there be no coalition-, faction-, or party-formation; and that there be no nominations.[52]

            The ban on discussion of personalities raises the question, of course, of why discourse or deliberation should be considered as undermining the spiritual character of elections. After all, in other contexts, the Bahá’í writings emphasize the necessity and, indeed, the spiritual character of the process of discourse or consultation.[53] Thus the question is why things should be different here. Why is discussion of how one intends to vote or how others ought to vote contrary to the spiritual character of elections? In fact, Shoghi Effendi does not quite claim that it is. What he says is that discussion should in no way refer to specific persons:

I feel that reference to personalities before the election would give rise to misunderstanding and differences. What the friends should do is to get thoroughly acquainted with one another, to exchange views, to mix freely and discuss among [page28] themselves the requirements and qualifications for such a membership without reference or application, however indirect, to particular individuals. We should refrain from influencing the opinion of others, of canvassing for any particular individual.[54]

            Hence this is not an injunction against discussion of the electoral process or of desirable electoral outcomes as such but, rather, an injunction against certain kinds of discussion. The first kind is discussion of particular individuals. The second kind is discourse for the purpose of coalition-, faction-, or party-formation (presumably even if such discourse did not make reference to particular persons).[55] With this clarification in mind, we can now pose the relevant question more precisely. Why would discussion of these kinds compromise respect for the nobility of persons and undermine the spiritual character of elections?

            The reasons are several. The first is that allowing discourse about personalities in the context of elections would provide strong institutional incentives for individuals to violate one of the most central Bahá’í moral norms: the prohibition against backbiting, which Bahá’u’lláh directly links to the spiritual potential of human beings. Bahá’u’lláh declares that a human being should “regard backbiting as grievous error, and keep himself aloof from its dominion, inasmuch as backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul.”[56] To backbite is to undermine the realization of one’s own spiritual potentialities; it is an affront to one’s own nobility. In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, without attaching any legal sanctions, Bahá’u’lláh goes so far as to morally outlaw backbiting—and this in the same breath as murder.[57]

            The appeal to the prohibition against backbiting, however, is open to at least two objections. The first concedes that negative campaigning consists of backbiting, that it is a morally impermissible affront to the dignity of persons, and that it undermines the spiritual character of elections. But the question here is why not simply ban negative discussion of personalities? Why not allow discourse confined to positive statements about particular persons? How, it might be asked, would praise for particular persons undermine the spiritual character of electoral processes? Surely positive speech is not backbiting. (Nominating candidates for election can plausibly be seen as a kind of laudatory speech or “praise” of a person.)

            The second objection goes further. It concedes that negative speech about persons constitutes, in many contexts, morally impermissible backbiting, but it rightly points [page 29] out that there are many contexts in which even negative or critical speech about a person’s qualities is morally permissible and even perhaps required. Obvious examples include speech by educators or caregivers in educational, family, or medical contexts; speech by employers or administrators who must evaluate candidates for jobs or posts in professional contexts; speech by participants in judicial proceedings; reporting crimes; or speaking out against atrocities. Perhaps whether something even counts as backbiting depends on what the speaker’s intentions are. While clearly not all “negative” speech about others qualifies as morally forbidden backbiting, what actually constitutes backbiting, for the purposes of this Bahá’í moral norm, has not yet been the subject of systematic philosophical analysis in Bahá’í studies. What is clear, however, is that there are morally significant distinctions to be made between “negative” speech about others depending on the context and the content (and perhaps even intentions).

            The second objection thus urges that elections for representatives are precisely one context in which even negative or critical speech about individuals should be permissible. Even negative speech should be permissible in elections, according to this objection, because the central and publicly justifiable purpose of elections is to select representatives with certain qualities, and only through discourse (whether positive or negative) about particular persons could voters come to know which persons possess these qualities. The fact that we are dealing with the election of national representatives makes the objection even stronger because ensuring the qualifications of persons who fill positions of power and authority is particularly urgent. Indeed, one might point to the original Arabic term that “backbiting” translates (al-ghaybah), which connotes the absence of the person spoken of, to argue that backbiting refers only to the private sphere and not to public contexts such as elections. The ban on negative speech in public contexts, it might thus be argued, is premised on the dangerously utopian fantasy of a world without conflict over interests and values.

            To assume away conflicts over interests or values when they are inevitable in any society would, indeed, be a dangerous chimera. It would consist in using a façade of harmony to “resolve” conflicts ideologically through the sheer imposition of power by a dominant group. But, in fact, the ban on negative campaigning and, indeed, all reference to personalities in the electoral context is not premised on the false assumption that there are no conflicts of interest or value. The ban is premised, rather, on a particular assumption about how such conflicts are best addressed. This points to the second reason for prohibiting reference to personalities in Bahá’í elections. Bahá’í elections are premised on a complete separation of two functions that in traditional electoral campaigns are fused together: resolving conflicts over interests and values (that is, determining policy) and selecting representatives (that is, determining personnel). This separation assumes that conflicts of interest and value are best addressed by processes of decision making (such as processes [page 30] of consultation or voting) that are directly about the interests or values in question, rather than about personalities. And the primary (instrumental) purpose of NSA elections is to select particular individuals to office, not to resolve policy questions. NSA elections are about determining personnel, not policy. Conflating these two functions procedurally provides incentives for turning conflicts over interests or values into personality conflicts rather than for addressing conflicts through reasoned consultation about the issues themselves.

            Ironically, far from devaluing the role of discourse, or presuming a conflict-free fantasy world, the ban on certain kinds of discourse in elections is designed to facilitate the central role of deliberation in conflict resolution. Bahá’í institutions assume that conflict resolution must be conducted by consultation (or, as the case may be, by voting) about the issues; but the election of representatives consists in voting for persons. This separation is well reflected in the very institution of the National Convention itself, which has two fully distinct and separate functions: to advise the new NSA by deliberating about issues of policy and to elect the members of the NSA.[58] The ban on private and public discussion of personalities—whether negative or positive—for the purpose of influencing others’ voting is premised on the institutional separation of these two distinct functions.

            The prohibition against discussing personalities in Bahá’í elections is grounded in the noninstrumental value of respect for the dignity of persons. Hence it is important to see that the two objections appeal to the instrumental value of such discussion—as a means for facilitating desirable outcomes. The primary outcome in question, of course, is the election of persons to the NSA who meet the requisite qualifications (by providing voters with the information they need to make informed voting choices about candidates). The problem is that this outcome (and hence some means for securing it) is a value held dearly by Bahá’í electoral institutions as well (for example, to ensure that ethically corrupt or incompetent individuals are not selected as representatives is good.) Thus, if the proposed means for securing the desired end is ruled out on noninstrumental grounds, some other means for securing the outcome must be found. These means, on which Bahá’í institutional rules and informal norms rely, are discussed in section 4.1 on the selection function of Bahá’í elections (pages 34–43). (They center on norms of institutional transparency and universal participation, which are divorced from the election process itself and are centered, instead, on the day-to-day affairs of the community.)

            The first reason, then, for the ban on discussing personalities during Bahá’í elections is that permitting such discussion would provide institutional incentives for backbiting and, more generally, negative campaigning against particular persons. The second reason is that this ban facilitates the separation of policy and personality issues. The third reason, not yet considered, is more directly relevant to the issue of “positive” campaigning. The problem with combining elections and even positive discourse about persons is that it provides institutional incentives for individual ego- [page 31] and self-promotion. Such incentives would undermine the virtues of character that the Bahá’í writings portray as helping to constitute the spiritual perfection and nobility of human beings. Invoking the same “dust” that metaphorically grounds the fundamental moral equality of persons, the Hidden Words warn:

O Son of Dust! Verily I say unto thee: Of all men the most negligent is he that disputeth idly and seeketh to advance himself over his brother. Say: O brethren! Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.[59]

            The point is that institutions that respect the nobility of persons ought to be consistent with, rather than provide incentives for undermining, the nobility they attribute to persons. (Another distinct reason that cuts against allowing for self-promotion is instrumental: There may be reason to think that individuals who covet positions of authority are precisely not most qualified to fill those positions. Plato expressed this concern long ago in The Republic.)

            Of course, it may now be objected that one could disallow positive campaigning for oneself but allow positive campaigning on behalf of others without raising the problem of self-promotion. This may to some extent be correct, but the reasons for banning positive discourse about personalities are distinct. The problem is that positive campaigning on behalf of others is an instrument for coalition- or faction-formation. (There is, as far as I can see, nothing about praising others before elections [page 32] that inherently disrespects the nobility of either the person speaking or the person spoken of. The problem is an instrumental one.) This final consideration assumes that faction-formation undermines the spiritual character of elections. The question is why. The answer depends on remembering what these factions would be about: They would be centered on particular persons—that is, they would be voting coalitions in favor of distinct individuals. Organized campaigning and voting coalitions are contrary to the spirit of Bahá’í elections because they provide institutional incentives for ego-promotion by proxy, deception, and, above all, reifying the cleavages and conflicts in the community and centering these reifications on personality clashes.[60]

            In sum: To respect the nobility of the person is to appeal to human beings’ highest spiritual potential, a potential that is portrayed by Bahá’u’lláh’s writings as the very basis for our nobility. This spiritual potential is characterized by human beings’ capacity to act morally and selflessly in their relations with each other. Respect for nobility demands that electoral institutions be consistent with the realization of that potential.

 

3.4 EXPRESSING THE UNITY AND SOLIDARITY OF PERSONS

            The spiritual character of elections, which expresses the inherent dignity of each person, also expresses the fundamental bond of humanity that unites all persons. Indeed, many of the institutional rules and informal norms that express respect for the nobility of the person individually also express the unity and solidarity of persons collectively. One example is the informal norm that places responsibility on each person to participate in the selection of national representatives: Joint participation also expresses solidarity. A second example is the ban on negative campaigning: Refraining from backbiting implicitly expresses a bond of solidarity with the human being whom one thus protects. A third example is the ban on faction- or coalition-formation in the voting process, which would pit one personality-based group against another.

 

3.5 THE INHERENT JUSTICE AND FAIRNESS OF THE ELECTION PROCESS

            The value of justice and fairness implies that individual voters ought to be represented in the electoral process, and their judgments aggregated, in a nonarbitrary way—that is to say, in an equal, fair, and rational manner. This requirement gives rise to at least two institutional rules in Bahá’í elections. First, in elections for delegates and for NSA members, the number of votes each voter can cast must be equal in number to those that each other voter can cast. Second, since NSA elections are conducted indirectly via delegates, each delegate must represent roughly an equal number of voters. Shoghi Effendi has explicitly interpreted the value of justice and [page 33] fairness to require such a principle of proportional representation. In a 1925 letter to the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, in which he discusses various ways to organize the two-step process of electing the NSA, Shoghi Effendi rejects, on precisely these grounds, the idea of having the delegates to the National Convention consist of the nine members of each Local Spiritual Assembly:

were the local Spiritual Assemblies, the number of whose members is strictly confined to nine, to elect directly the members of the National Spiritual Assembly . . . all Bahá’í localities, which must necessarily differ in numerical strength, would then have to share equally in the election of the National Spiritual Assembly—a practice which would be contrary to fairness and justice.[61]

            This notion of the justice and fairness of institutions is obviously conceptually related to respect for the equality of persons.[62]

 

4. The Instrumental Value of Bahá’í Electoral Institutions and Norms

            While a number of noninstrumental values place important constraints on national Bahá’í electoral institutions and norms, it is clear that, to a large extent, the point of having elections is to yield certain outcomes.[63] The most obvious outcome is, of course, the selection of good representatives. But national Bahá’í elections aspire to serve as an instrument for, and can be justified and evaluated in terms of, at least three other purposes as well: legitimating Bahá’í administrative institutions, fostering virtues of character among individual participants, and fostering unity and solidarity within the community as a whole. Thus there is significant overlap between the values that national Bahá’í elections seek to express and embody—in their own processes, as it were—and the values that they seek to promote instrumentally as outcomes. For example, Bahá’í elections seek not only to respect the nobility of the [page 34] person but also to help participants realize the virtues whose potential is the basis of human nobility; they not only seek inherently to express the unity and solidarity of persons but also actually to lead to greater unity and solidarity in the Bahá’í community. Despite such overlap, it is important to keep in mind the distinction between the noninstrumental and the instrumental value of Bahá’í elections because each consideration actually provides distinct criteria for justifying and evaluating specific institutional rules and informal norms.

 

4.1 THE SELECTION FUNCTION: ELECTING REPRESENTATIVES

            National Bahá’í electoral rules and norms are instrumentally valuable to the extent that they facilitate selecting the most desirable national representatives. But what counts as the most desirable national representatives? There are, I suggest, five criteria for judging which national representatives are most desirable.

            (1) Bahá’í voters are most familiar with the following criteria given by Shoghi Effendi, according to which those elected as representatives ought to possess the “qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience” and be “faithful, sincere, experienced, capable and competent.”[64] This first set of criteria specifies the qualities that the individuals who hold office ought to possess. Bahá’í electoral processes are instrumentally valuable, then, to the extent that they help cause individuals who meet these criteria be selected as representatives.

            (2) But the purpose of national Bahá’í elections is not simply to elect individuals to office; it is to elect a collective body. The quality of an Assembly will depend not merely on the separate qualifications of each individual representative but also on the way that these individuals combine to complement one another as a whole. For example, the nine individuals who make up an Assembly may all be loyal, selfless, intellectually well-trained, and so on. But, if all nine members have exactly the same life experiences and come from exactly the same background, the lack of diversity may diminish the quality of the Assembly even though all the individuals who make [page 35] up the Assembly are, considered individually, fully qualified. The second type of criteria, then, specifies the qualities that the collective Assembly ought to have as a whole, independent of the qualifications of the individuals considered separately.[65] Shoghi Effendi specifically mentions four such criteria: diversity, representativeness, minority presence, and youth presence in the collective membership of the Assembly.

            (2a)The criterion of diversity arises from a core Bahá’í value expressed by `Abdu’l-Bahá. He extols diversity as contributing “to the beauty, efficiency and perfection of the whole” and states that, “when divers shades of thought, temperament and character, are brought together under the power and influence of one central agency, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made manifest.”[66] [page 36] Shoghi Effendi, referring to this passage, concludes that the “watchword” of the Bahá’í legal system is “unity in diversity.”[67] A 1934 letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the NSA of India, Burma, and Pakistan specifically suggests that the concept of unity in diversity means that a diverse NSA membership is desirable.[68]

            (2b)That outcomes of Bahá’í elections are to be evaluated collectively is also clear from Shoghi Effendi’s comment that “The Assembly should be representative of the choicest and most varied and capable elements in every Bahá’í community.”[69] This comment not only reiterates the criterion of diversity but also provides a second criterion for evaluating the collective nature of Assembly membership: An Assembly ought to be representative of (the diversity present in) the community itself. Shoghi Effendi reiterates this when he says that Bahá’í elections must serve to “reinforce the representative character of Bahá’í institutions.”[70]

            (2c)The third criterion that Shoghi Effendi provides (which is a corollary of the first two) requires the presence of minority groups in the collective membership of the Assembly. Shoghi Effendi refers to

the duty of every Bahá’í community so to arrange its affairs that in cases where individuals belonging to the divers minority elements within it are already qualified and fulfill the necessary requirements, Bahá’í representative institutions, be they Assemblies, conventions, conferences, or committees, may have represented on them as many of these divers elements, racial or otherwise, as possible.[71]

            The qualifying clause “in cases where” indicates that this collective criterion, which recommends the presence of minorities on an Assembly, only comes into play once the qualifications of the individuals, considered separately as individuals, can also [page 37] be secured. (In other words, the criterion of minority presence is subordinate to ensuring that the individuals are loyal, selfless, intellectually well-trained, and so on.)

            Shoghi Effendi appeals to diversity, representativeness, and minority presence to provide one justification for the formal institutional rule that in the case of ties priority be given to the member of a minority group.[72]

            (2d)A fourth criterion (which is another corollary of the criterion of diversity) is mentioned in a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi: that some of the membership of the NSA be young.[73]

            All four of these criteria—diversity, representativeness, minority presence, and youth presence—demonstrate why it is crucial to distinguish the qualifications of individuals considered separately from the qualifications that apply to the Assembly’s membership taken as a collective whole. Being a member of a minority group or being young is obviously not a criterion for determining whether any particular individual is qualified to be a representative. The second type of criteria refers to values that can only be specified in relation to the collective nature of an Assembly as a whole, not the individual members’ qualifications.

            3) The first two types of criteria we have just considered (the qualifications of individual NSA members and the nature of the collective body) tell us what would be a desirable electoral outcome in any particular single election. But a set of electoral rules and norms may also affect how electoral outcomes change over time, over a series of elections. The third set of criteria thus tell us what kind of changes would be desirable over time. A letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi provides two such criteria. Bahá’í electoral rules and norms should facilitate the replacement of individual representatives who perform badly or unethically in office and the improvement, between elections, of the quality of the individuals serving on the Assembly:

The elections, especially when annual, give the community a good opportunity to remedy any defect or imperfection from which the Assembly may suffer as a result of the actions of its members. Thus a safe method has been established [page 38] whereby the quality of membership in Bahá’í Assemblies can be continually raised and improved.[74]

            (4) But the quality of an Assembly, as we have seen, is dependent not just on the qualifications of the individuals who comprise it; it is also dependent on how those individuals complement one another collectively. Electoral rules and norms can also affect how this collective nature of an Assembly changes over time. Shoghi Effendi provides two criteria under this category: that there be improvement in the collective quality of the Assembly and that there be turnover, for the sake of change itself, in the membership of the NSA from year to year.

            The criterion of improvement comes from the passage cited in the third criterion just above: To say that “the quality of membership in Bahá’í Assemblies” ought to be “continually raised and improved” is also to say that the collective nature of the Assembly (and not just the qualifications of individuals considered separately) ought to be improved over time.

            The criterion of turnover is explicitly mentioned in a letter written on Shoghi Effendi’s behalf: “He was very happy to see that changes had been made in the membership of the National Spiritual Assembly this year, not from any reasons of personality, but because change itself is good and brings a fresh outlook into the discussions [page 39] of any Assembly.”[75] The italicized part of the statement makes it quite clear that it is not the qualifications of particular individuals that are at stake; rather, it is the collective nature of the Assembly as a whole over time. Two other letters written on Shoghi Effendi’s behalf, however, point to two restrictions on this criterion of turnover. One letter indicates that turnover should not be achieved by sacrificing the quality of the membership of the NSA. (In other words, the criterion of turnover is subordinate to the first and second types of criteria.)[76] Another letter written on his behalf reiterates that turnover should not be achieved by institutional rules (such as the imposition of term limits) that force turnover by restricting the freedom of voters or by ignoring how delegates have actually voted:

Shoghi Effendi has never said that the members of the National Assembly have to be renewed partially every year. The important thing is that they should be properly elected. It would be nice if there should be new members elected, for new blood always adds to the energy of the group and will keep up their spirit. But this depends entirely upon the will of the delegates as represented in the result of their voting.[77]

            As we have seen, the justification for avoiding mechanisms such as term-limits, which force change over repeated elections, is the noninstrumental value of respect for the freedom of persons to vote for whomever their conscience moves them.

            (5) The first four types of criteria we have considered (qualifications of individual NSA members, the nature of the collective body, changes in individual membership that would be desirable over time, and changes in the collective make-up of the Assembly over time) tell us what makes electoral outcomes desirable, according to Bahá’í values, independent of any reference to the judgment or views of voters themselves. But the fact that elections are held at all indicates that another set of criteria is also relevant for judging electoral outcomes: Electoral outcomes must be sensitive to the views of voters. The views of voters themselves matter. The reference to the “will of the delegates” in the passage above already makes this clear. And we have already seen that making sure that voting outcomes are sensitive to voters’ views is noninstrumentally valuable: Sensitivity expresses respect for the freedom (and conscience) of the person. But sensitivity can also be valuable on purely instrumental [page 40] grounds: Making sure that outcomes reflect the views of voters can be an efficient means for making sure that the best representatives are selected to office. For example, elections may be a better method than, say, lotteries or unilateral decrees for ensuring that loyal or selfless persons be selected as representatives. (Or the sensitivity of outcomes may help legitimate representative institutions in the eyes of the general community.) The point is that the sensitivity of voting outcomes to voters’ views is valuable not only for noninstrumental reasons, but for instrumental ones as well.

            Voters may, of course, have views (a) about which individuals are most qualified to serve on an NSA, (b) about what the collective nature of the NSA should be, (c) about how the individual membership of the NSA should change over time, and (d) about how the collective nature of the NSA should change over time. Outcomes can thus be sensitive to voters’ judgments in four ways that parallel the first four types of criteria we already considered.

            (a) For example, assume that Canadian voters believe that their national representatives should each have a deep acquaintance of the multicultural and bilingual makeup of their country. In that case, electoral rules and norms are valuable to the extent that electoral outcomes help voters elect individual representatives with such knowledge.

            (b) Normally voters will also have specific views about what the collective composition of their NSA should look like. For example, they may prefer that one candidate who is quirky and creative be elected to office only if some other candidate who is down-to-earth and meticulous is also elected. This judgment may be based on voters’ knowledge that the qualities of these two individuals would only be strengths for the NSA if combined with and balanced by each other. Elections should be sensitive to such views about the combination of individuals too. [page 41]

            (c) Recall that, according to the third type of criteria, replacing an NSA member who is guilty of unethical conduct is valuable even if voters did not actually wish his or her replacement (they may not be aware of his or her misconduct, for example). But the criterion of sensitivity requires that electoral rules and norms also facilitate the replacement of a particular representative when voters believe that such change is desirable. A voter may believe, for example, that a particular NSA member ought to be replaced because of some misconduct. Or perhaps the voter simply believes that times and circumstances have changed and that the specific qualities the individual would bring to the NSA are no longer the assets that they once were.

            (d) Again, a voter may also have views, not about the replacement of a particular individual but about how the collective membership as a whole ought to change over time. Thus the electoral rules and norms of Bahá’í elections ought to be sensitive to voters’ judgments about the need for turnover as well. This desire for turnover would reflect a judgment about desirable changes in the collective composition of the NSA and not necessarily reflect a judgment that any particular individual member ought to be replaced.

            The selection function of Bahá’í elections, to which these five types of criteria apply, returns us once again to the question of the means by which the desired outcomes may be achieved. For example, how do Bahá’í elections ensure that individual representatives are loyal, that NSAs are diverse, that individuals can be replaced, that turnover occurs, and that outcomes are sensitive to voters’ views? Recall that the selection function of Bahá’í elections provides instrumental reasons in favor of allowing campaigning and reference to personalities before elections: Talking about specific candidates would provide information that would help voters elect representatives who are, for example, loyal, devoted, intellectually well-trained, experienced, and so on and would replace unqualified representatives or improve the quality of membership. Since this method of providing information, however, violates the spiritual dignity of the electoral process and, therefore, is ruled out for noninstrumental reasons, some other means of providing the information is required to secure the desired outcomes.

            Shoghi Effendi suggests two such instruments for providing information to voters: The first is a norm of institutional transparency incumbent on institutions. The second is a norm of universal participation incumbent on individuals. Unlike campaigning, each of these instruments for providing information is divorced from the electoral process itself. They center, instead, on the day-to-day affairs of the community throughout the year. Shoghi Effendi refers to the norm of institutional transparency as the NSA’s “duty to purge once for all their deliberations and the general conduct of their affairs from that air of self-contained aloofness, from the suspicion of secrecy, [and] the stifling atmosphere of dictatorial assertiveness.” The NSA has the duty “not to dictate, but to consult, and consult not only among themselves, but as much as possible with the friends whom they represent” and must, [page 42]

at all times, avoid the spirit of exclusiveness, the atmosphere of secrecy, free themselves from a domineering attitude, and banish all forms of prejudice and passion from their deliberations. They should, within the limits of wise discretion, take the friends into their confidence, acquaint them with their plans, share with them their problems and anxieties, and seek their advice and counsel.[78]

            The norm of universal participation, and the duties it places on each individual, is the second means for obtaining information about candidates. According to this [page 43] norm, the individual has the duty to be actively involved in community affairs throughout the year in order to “develop a true social consciousness” and “become an intelligent, well-informed and responsible elector.”[79]

 

4.2 THE LEGITIMATION FUNCTION

            National Bahá’í electoral institutions and norms are also instrumentally valuable insofar as they promote another goal: legitimating national Bahá’í governing bodies in the eyes of the community at large. Indeed, enhancing the authority of the NSA is one of the major preoccupations of Shoghi Effendi’s communications concerning administrative matters with the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada in the 1920s and 1930s.[80] Referring to this goal, Shoghi Effendi, in two letters, says that “among the most outstanding and sacred duties” of elected representatives “are those that require them to win by every means in their power the confidence and affection of those whom it is their privilege to serve,” indeed, “not only the confidence and the genuine support and respect of those whom they serve, but also their esteem and real affection.”[81] It is true that in these letters Shoghi Effendi emphasizes a nonauthoritarian, transparent, and consultative or deliberative mode of governance—rather than democratic election procedures—as the means for winning the confidence of the community. But in a 1937 cablegram to the National Convention of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, he makes clear that the process of electing national representatives, and widespread participation in that process, is also designed to shore up the legitimacy and authority of the NSA.[82]

            The most obvious way that democratic electoral institutions serve to legitimate governing bodies in the eyes of the community is by providing the members of the community the opportunity to choose, in some sense, their own representatives. [page 44] Thus the very fact of elections helps to fulfill the legitimation function. Yet to be truly effective, these elections must be seen as consistent with fundamental Bahá’í values. Institutional rules and informal norms that respect the dignity of the person (and, concomitantly, make electoral outcomes sensitive to the judgments of voters and ensure the spiritual character of elections); that express unity and solidarity; and that are just and fair (and so help aggregate votes in an equal, fair, and rational way) are all primarily justified for noninstrumental reasons. But the community’s perception that their electoral institutions respect dignity, express unity, and are just and fair will be valuable on instrumental grounds: to help legitimate the bodies elected and so enhance their authority in the eyes of the community. Insofar as actually respecting dignity, expressing unity, and being just and fair help create the perception that institutional rules and informal norms do respect these values, these rules and norms are not solely valuable noninstrumentally but also instrumentally.[83]

 

4.3 THE EDUCATIVE FUNCTION

            A third kind of outcome according to which Bahá’í electoral rules and norms can be instrumentally justified and evaluated is the cultivation of virtues among individual participants. The idea that participation in public affairs could play an educative function, particularly by fostering public-spirited virtues among the members of society, has a long pedigree in democratic political thought.[84] In the Bahá’í context, the educative function hinges on the spiritual character of the election process. This spiritual character is thus designed not only to respect the inherent dignity of each person but also to help foster virtues in each participant. This is implicit in the way that the responsibility to participate can only be discharged by voting in the spirit of “selflessness and detachment” and “without the least trace of passion and prejudice, and irrespective of any material consideration.”[85] A letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to a member of the NSA of Germany and [page 45] Austria adds to the reasons for banning nominations the instrumental consideration that such a ban would help foster the “self-development” of participants. This further reason for banning nominations is made explicitly in terms of the educative function of Bahá’í elections: “Bahá’í electoral procedures and methods have, indeed, for one of their essential purposes the development in every believer of the spirit of responsibility.”[86]

 

4.4 THE INTEGRATION FUNCTION

            Bahá’í electoral rules and norms can also be instrumentally justified and evaluated according to their contribution to a fourth outcome: the unity and solidarity of the members of the community as a whole.[87] Shoghi Effendi advocates at least one institutional rule in light of Bahá’í elections’ integrative function of fostering solidarity within the community as a whole: a rule that ties be broken in favor of minority groups. (Recall that he also justifies the rule as a means for securing the representativeness of the NSA).

If any discrimination is at all to be tolerated, it should be a discrimination not against, but rather in favor of the minority, be it racial or otherwise. Unlike the nations and peoples of the earth, be they of the East or of the West, democratic or authoritarian, communist or capitalist, whether belonging to the Old World or the New, who either ignore, trample upon, or extirpate, the racial, religious, or political minorities within the sphere of their jurisdiction, every organized community enlisted under the banner of Bahá’u’lláh should feel it to be its first and inescapable obligation to nurture, encourage, and safeguard every minority belonging to any faith, race, class, or nation within it. So great and vital is this principle that in such circumstances, as when an equal number of ballots have been cast in an election, or where the qualifications for any office are balanced [page 46] as between the various races, faiths or nationalities within the community, priority should unhesitatingly be accorded the party representing the minority, and this for no other reason except to stimulate and encourage it, and afford it an opportunity to further the interests of the community.[88]

 

5. Conclusion

            Distinguishing between the distinct criteria provided by the Bahá’í writings for justifying and evaluating the formal institutional rules and informal norms of Bahá’í elections (see table 1 on pages 48–49) has at least two important benefits. The first is that it becomes clear that any particular rule or norm may have numerous reasons both for and against its adoption. Nominations, for example, may have some instrumental reasons working in their favor (since nominations may help fulfill the selection function of Bahá’í elections), but they also have many reasons against them. Indeed, Shoghi Effendi justifies the ban on nominations for at least three reasons: nominations violate respect for the freedom of each voter to vote his or her conscience; they undermine the spiritual character of elections and hence violate respect for the nobility of the person; and they undermine efforts to cultivate a spirit of responsibility in each voter.

            The second benefit is that the philosophical evaluation of the normative foundations of Bahá’í elections sets the stage for a systematic research program for the study of models of Bahá’í governance. Economist John Huddleston has argued that Bahá’í models of governance aspire to provide the society at large with “an alternative model to conventional methods.”[89] This can only be done if there are rigorous studies of this “alternative model” that engage with the latest research in philosophy and the social sciences. This study attempts to lay the foundations for three areas of research into Bahá’í models of governance in general, and Bahá’í electoral models in particular.

            (1) First, normative philosophical research: By helping to specify what is distinctive about the values that underlie Bahá’í electoral models, this essay sets the stage for normative research engaging Bahá’í philosophical thought in dialogue with, and making a distinct contribution to, moral and political philosophy more generally. It focuses our attention, in particular, on the distinct noninstrumental values that inform Bahá’í electoral practices. Future researchers may ask, for example: What contribution does the distinct Bahá’í focus on the “nobility of the person” (and the rules designed to serve it, such as the ban on nominations and campaigning) make to our understandings of traditional liberal democratic or social democratic political philosophy? How easily can the insights from Bahá’í models of governance, with their emphasis on the spiritual component of the process, be applied to secular political contexts—if at all?

            (2) Second, empirical research: Once we understand the justificatory reasons for a particular institutional rule or norm in the Bahá’í model, it becomes possible to [page 47] investigate how well, given current historical circumstances, the formal institutional rules and informal norms currently used in Bahá’í communities actually fulfill, in empirical practice, the values by which they are philosophically justified. This is because justificatory reasons also provide evaluative criteria.

First, we can ask how well current rules and norms serve the noninstrumental values underlying Bahá’í elections. For example, how well do current rules and norms maintain the spiritual and dignified character of the electoral process? In various cultural contexts? In comparison with other democratic electoral systems? Or, second, we can ask about instrumental values. For example, how well do current rules and norms help bring about the election of individuals who are, among other things, loyal, devoted, intellectually well-trained, experienced? How well do they help select a diverse or representative NSA membership? In comparison with other electoral systems? How well do they facilitate the replacement of inadequate representatives? How well do they help cause regular turnover in the membership of the NSA over time? How well do they help foster individual virtues or unity and solidarity among participants?

            Investigating such questions and others through empirical study will highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the current rules and norms used in Bahá’í elections and, in so doing, would make an important practical contribution to the continuing evolution of Bahá’í electoral practice and, more generally, to political theory and practice beyond the Bahá’í community.[90] These empirical findings, in turn, would lay the foundations for a third program of research.

            (3) Third, research into institutional design: In light of the values identified in this article and the empirical findings of future research, researchers may investigate whether any alternative rules or norms are both (a) compatible with Bahá’í values and (b) able to improve on the fulfillment of these values given current circumstances. This is precisely the kind of question that the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada was asking in the 1920s. This research could draw on the enormous progress that social scientists have made in institutional theory over the past fifty years. Further investigating these questions in light of the current experience of the Bahá’í community would be of immense value not only in practical terms for the continuing evolution of the Bahá’í community itself but also, in more general terms, for the contribution that Bahá’í thought might make to political theory and practice more generally beyond the Bahá’í community. [page 48]

 

 

 

Table 1. Values for Justifying and Evaluating the Formal Institutional Rules and Informal Norms of National Bahá’í Elections*

 

I. Noninstrumental Values

A. Respect for the Inherent Dignity of the Person

1. Respect for the Freedom of the Person

a) Right to participate

b) Freedom to vote one’s conscience

(1) Can vote for any adult Bahá’í in good standing

 (2) Nominations banned

(3) Term limits rejected

(4) Reason in favor of plurality-rule voting over sequential (run-off) majority-rule voting

c) Sensitivity of outcomes to voters’ judgment [see item II.A.5 below]

2. Respect for the Equality of Persons

a) All adult Bahá’ís eligible to vote for delegates and to be voted for as delegates and NSA members

b) Elimination of discrimination

c) Justice and fairness

3. Respect for the Nobility of the Person

a) Individual participant responsibility

(1) Sacred duty to participate/vote

b) Spiritual dignity of electoral process

(1) Secret ballot

(2) Campaigning, canvassing, election propaganda banned

(3) Coalition-, faction-, or party-formation banned

(4) Nominations banned

B. Expressing the Unity and Solidarity of Persons

1. Individual Participant Responsibility

a) Sacred duty to participate/vote

2. Negative Campaigning and Propaganda Banned

3. Coalition-, Faction-, or Party-Formation Banned

C. Justice and Fairness

1. Nonarbitrary Representation of Voters: Equal, Fair, Rational

a) Equal number of votes per voter

b) Proportional representation

2. Nonarbitrary Aggregation of Votes: Equal, Fair, Rational

a) Nondictatorship

b) Monotonicity

c) Pareto-optimality

d) Condorcet criterion

e) Sen’s α and β+

f) Independence from irrelevant alternatives [page 49]

 

II. Instrumental Values

A. Selecting the Best Representatives (Selection Function)

1. Qualifications of Individuals

a) Loyalty, devotion, intellectual training, mature experience, sincerity, ability, and competence

(1) Norm of institutional transparency

(2) Norm of universal participation

2. Collective Nature of NSA as a Whole

a) Diversity of membership

b) Representativeness of membership

c) Presence of minority groups [subject to II.A.1.a)]

(1) Ties to be broken in favor of minority

d) Presence of younger members

3. Replacement of Individuals over Time

a) Replacement of unqualified representatives (e.g., those who have performed badly or unethically)

(1) Norm of institutional transparency

(2) Norm of universal participation

b) Improvement of quality of individual membership

(1) Norm of institutional transparency

(2) Norm of universal participation

4. Change in Collective Nature of NSA as a Whole

a) Improvement of quality of collective membership

(1) Norm of institutional transparency

(2) Norm of universal participation

b) Turn-over [subject to criteria II.A.1, II.A.2, and II.A.5]

5. Sensitivity of Outcomes to Voters’ Judgment

a) Sensitivity to views about individual candidates

b) Sensitivity to views about the collective composition of the NSA

c) Sensitivity to views about individuals who should be replaced between elections

d) Sensitivity to views about the need for turnover

B. Legitimating Bahá’í Administrative Institutions (Legitimation Function)

1. Perception that elections are consistent with Bahá’í values

C. Fostering Virtues of Character (Education Function)

1. Nominations banned

D. Fostering Unity and Solidarity (Integration Function)

1. Ties to be broken in favor of minority

 

 

*Specific rules and norms are in italics; National Spiritual Assembly is abbreviated to NSA.


 

Copyright © 2006 by Arash Abizadeh. I am grateful to Betty J. Fisher, Pablo Gilabert, Nika Khanjani, Andrenea King, Stuart Soroka, an anonymous referee, and the members of the World Order Editorial Board for their valuable comments on an earlier draft.

Endnotes

[1] For the suggestion that what is distinct about the Bahá’í system of governance is its electoral system, see a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly (hereafter NSA) of the Bahá’ís of Germany and Austria, February 4, 1935, in Shoghi Effendi, The Light of Divine Guidance: The Messages from the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith to the Bahá’ís of Germany and Austria, vol. 1 (Hofheim-Langenhain: Bahá'í-Verlag, [1982]) 67–70. See also “Bahá’ís Hold Unique Form of Democratic Elections,” Bahá’í World News Service May 18, 2005, http://news.bahai.org/story.cfm?storyid=372; “Perspective: Some Thoughts on Elections,” One Country 12.4 (Jan.-Mar.) 2001, http://www.onecountry.org/e124/e12402as_Perspective_thoughts_on_elections.htm; and John Huddleston, “A Just System of Government: The Third Dimension to World Peace,” in The Bahá’í Faith and Marxism, ed. Association for Bahá’í Studies (Ottawa: Bahá’í Studies Publications, 1987), 35–41.

[2] The Universal House of Justice (letter to NSAs, May 30, 1997) legislated the formation of Regional Councils only with its “permission and only in countries where conditions make this step necessary.”

[3] Shoghi Effendi refers to the “spirit” of which the Bahá’í community’s administrative institutions are “the channel, the instrument, the embodiment” (Shoghi Effendi, letter to the Bahá’ís throughout the West, March 21, 1930, in The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh: Selected Letters, new ed. [Wilmette, IL, USA: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1991] 18). See also a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the NSA of the Bahá’ís of Germany and Austria, February 4, 1935, in Light of Divine Guidance vol. 1, 67, which refers to “the spirit which should animate and direct all elections held by the Bahá’ís.”

[4] See Shoghi Effendi, letter to the Bahá’ís throughout the West, February 8, 1934, in World Order of Bahá'u'lláh 147–52.

[5] Thus I assume that Bahá’í moral and political philosophy, as articulated in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, `Abdu’l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi, forms a rationally coherent whole. Hence, when one draws out the implications of the core values found in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l-Bahá in order to understand better their implications for the Bahá’í electoral process, one ought to do so in light of Shoghi Effendi’s interpretation and application of those values to the electoral context. This is similar to the principle of legal interpretation that legal theorist Ronald Dworkin calls the assumption of “integrity” (Law's Empire [Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1986]).

[6] On the sources of Bahá’í law, see Udo Schaefer, “Introduction to Bahá’í Law: Doctrinal Foundations, Principles and Structures,” Journal of Law and Religion 18.2 (2002–2003): 307–73.

[7] Shoghi Effendi (letter to the NSA of the United States and Canada, February 27, 1929, in World Order of Bahá'u'lláh 3–5) specifically points to Bahá’u’lláh’s Kitáb-i-Aqdas and `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament as the primary legal basis for the existence of these Bahá’í institutions. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Bahá’u’lláh’s “Most Holy Book,” specifies ”the basic laws and ordinances” for governing Bahá’í society (Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, new ed. [Wilmette, IL, USA: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974, 1999 printing] 139, 213). Shoghi Effendi says that `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament “confirms, supplements, and correlates” the provisions of Bahá’u’lláh’s Kitáb-i-Aqdas and is the “Charter for a future world civilization” that called into being, outlined the future of, and set in motion the processes of the Bahá’í administrative order (Shoghi Effendi, letter to the Bahá’ís in the West, March 21, 1930, in World Order of Bahá’u’lláh 19, and Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By 328).

[8] Shoghi Effendi, letter to the NSA of the Bahá’ís the United States and Canada, May 27, 1927, in Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922–1932, 1974 ed. (Wilmette, IL, USA: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1974, 1988 printing) 135–36.

[9] This is why Shoghi Effendi would always recommend constitutional arrangements but ultimately leave it to the elected institutions, such as the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, to enact any such arrangements. On the provisional nature of the constitutional arrangements made by the Bahá’í community before the establishment of the Universal House of Justice in 1963, see Shoghi Effendi, letter to the Bahá’ís of America, Great Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Japan, and Australasia, March 12, 1923, in Bahá’í Administration 41: “when this Supreme Body [the Universal House of Justice] will have been properly established, it will have to consider afresh the whole situation, and lay down the principle which shall direct, so long as it deems advisable, the affairs of the Cause.” See also Shoghi Effendi’s letter to the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada (May 27, 1927, in Bahá’í Administration 136), which recommends that plurality rule and the ban on nominations be “provisionally adopted”—provisionally, that is, until the issue is legislated upon by the Universal House of Justice (the letter is reprinted on pages 58–60).

[10] Loni Bramson-Lerche has explored this formative history in “Some Aspects of the Development of the Bahá’í Administrative Order in America, 1922–1936,” in Studies in Bábí and Bahá’í History: Volume One, ed. Moojan Momen (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1982) 255–300. Until 1948 the United States and Canada shared a single NSA. For the history of the development of Bahá’í administrative institutions worldwide, see Peter Smith, The Babi and Baha’i Religions: From Messianic Shi`ism to a World Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987).

[11] For the Declaration of Trust and By-Laws of the National Spiritual Assembly adopted by the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada in 1927, see The Bahá’í World, vol. 2: 1926–28 (New York; Bahá’í Publishing Committee, 1928) 90–97. For a model Declaration of Trust and NSA By-Laws now being used, see “A Model Declaration of Trust and By-Laws for a National Spiritual Assembly,” in The Bahá’í World: An International Record, vol. 15: 1968–73, comp. The Universal House of Justice (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1976) 653–60; and The Universal House of Justice, The Constitution of the Universal House of Justice (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1972).

[12]  I focus on Canadian elections solely for ease of exposition. The By-Laws of the Canadian NSA are contained in Bahá’í Assemblies: Incorporation and By-Laws (Canada) (Canada: National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada, 1978)—hereafter Canadian By-Laws. All references to the By-Laws are by article and section rather than page numbers. The numbers of the articles in the By-Laws of the NSA of Canada differ from those in “Model Declaration of Trust and By-Laws for a National Spiritual Assembly,” in Bahá’í World, vol. 15: 655–60.

[13] See Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian, comp. Gertrude Garrida (New Delhi: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1973) no. 222; and The Universal House of Justice, Constitution of the Universal House of Justice 8, By-Laws art. 1, §1.

[14] Art. 8 in “Model Declaration,” in Bahá’í World, vol. 15: 95–97.

[15] A single-member unit is one in which the entire unit elects only one delegate. However, some units can be multimember. For further details on this stage of the process, see Universal House of Justice, letter to all NSAs, July 21, 1985, and letter to the NSA of France, June 3, 1986, in Lights of Guidance: A Bahá’í Reference File, comp. Helen Hornby, 6th ed. (New Delhi: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1999) nos. 53, 54.

[16] Art. 8, §10, in “Model Declaration,” in Bahá’í World, vol. 15: 659. Cf. The Universal House of Justice, Constitution of the Universal House of Justice 14, By-Laws art. 6, §1.

[17] Except members of the Continental Board of Counselors, who are members of a nonelected, advisory branch of Bahá’í administration.

[18] Art. 8, §10 in “Model Declaration,” in Bahá’í World, vol. 15: 659. Cf. The Universal House of Justice, Constitution of the Universal House of Justice 14, By-Laws art. 6, §3.

[19] The Universal House of Justice, letter to the NSA of the United States, January 25, 1967, in Lights of Guidance no. 83. Although the Universal House of Justice cites Shoghi Effendi’s recommendation as the basis for its ruling that ties be broken in favor of minorities, it would seem that its ruling constitutes an act of legislation. (If so, it would need to be added to the brief list of legislative acts by the House of Justice compiled by Udo Schaefer in “Infallible Institutions?” Reason & Revelation: New Directions in Bahá’í Thought, ed. Seena Fazel and John Danesh, Studies in Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, volume 13 [Los Angeles, CA: Kalimát P, 2002] 15). This is because, as noted in section 1 of this article, Shoghi Effendi did not have the authority to legislate, and determining rules for elections are a legislative-constitutional matter (which, according to `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament and Shoghi Effendi himself, falls under the jurisdiction of the Universal House of Justice). The interpretation that this ruling constitutes an act of legislation, however, raises the problem that it would seem to be abrogated by the Constitution of the Universal House of Justice, which was adopted subsequently in 1972, and which, on page 14 of its By-Laws (art. 6, §3) makes no reference to this minority tie-breaking rule. But it is clear from post-1972 communications that the House of Justice does not consider the minority tie-breaking rule abrogated by its Constitution and that the rule is still in force in Bahá’í elections. A March 5, 1986, letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to the NSA of the United Kingdom, for example, reiterates the rule and clarifies that “the definition of a minority in any locality is in the discretion of the National Spiritual Assembly” (in Lights of Guidance no. 84).

[20] See The Universal House of Justice, Constitution of the Universal House of Justice 14, By-Laws art. 6.

[21] Plato, Republic 357b

[22] For contemporary discussions of the distinction between instrumental and noninstrumental value, see Christine M. Korsgaard, Creating the Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), chapter 9, and Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1986) 177–78, 200–1.

[23] We find poetic expression of this inherent dignity in Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words, a collection of ethical and mystical aphorisms written in the voice of God, in which the human being is portrayed as having been created in God’s image: “O Son of Man! Veiled in My immemorial being and in the ancient eternity of My essence, I knew My love for thee; therefore I created thee, have engraved on thee Mine image and revealed to thee My beauty” (Bahá'u'lláh, The Hidden Words, trans. Shoghi Effendi [Wilmette, IL, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 2003, 2006 printing] Arabic 3). And again: “Thou art my Lamp and My light is in thee” (Arabic 11). And yet again: “within thee have I placed the essence of My light” (Arabic 12).

[24] “[W]hen they [the British in Europe] removed these differences, persecution, and bigotries out of their midst, and proclaimed the equal rights of all subjects and the liberty of men’s consciences, the lights of glory and power arose. . . . the conscience of man is sacred and to be respected” (‘Abdu'l-Bahá, A Traveler's Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb, trans. Edward G. Browne, new and corrected ed. [Wilmette, IL, USA: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1980] 91 [emphasis added]). On the importance of freedom in Bahá’í thought, see, for example, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912, comp. Howard MacNutt, 2d ed. (Wilmette, IL, USA: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982, 1995 printing) 36, 52, 104, 197, 390.

[25] In a Hidden Word (Arabic 68) Bahá’u’lláh, once again, states the matter in poetic terms: “Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created.” On the fundamental spiritual and moral equality of all human beings, see also Women: Extracts from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, `Abdu’l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice, comp. Research Department of the Universal House of Justice (Thornhill, ON: Bahá’í Canada Publications, 1986). These extracts also shed light on the link between spiritual or moral equality and how each person ought to be treated by other persons and political institutions. Note also `Abdu’l-Bahá’s reference to the “equal rights of all” in the passage quoted in footnote 24. See also ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (from notes of Edna McKinney from a talk ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave on June 9, 1912, at a Baptist Temple in Philadelphia), Promulgation of Universal Peace 182: “Bahá’u’lláh taught that an equal standard of human rights must be recognized and adopted. In the estimation of God all men are equal; there is no distinction or preferment for any soul in the dominion of His justice and equity.” Shoghi Effendi quotes the final sentence of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s statement in The Advent of Divine Justice, lst pocket-size ed. (Wilmette, IL, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1990, 2003 printing) 37.

[26] See, in particular, John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, ed. Erin Kelly (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001).

[27] “Noble [Arabic, `azíz] I made thee. . . . Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting” (Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words Arabic 13).

[28] In each human being, Bahá’u’lláh proclaims, “are potentially revealed all the attributes and names of God” (Kitáb-i-Íqán: The Book of Certitude, trans. Shoghi Effendi, new pocket-size ed. [Wilmette, IL, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 2003, 2005 printing] ¶107).

[29] Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words Arabic 13.

[30] Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh revealed after the Kitáb-Aqdas, comp. Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, trans. Habib Taherzadeh et. al, 1st pocket-size ed. (Wilmette, IL, USA: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1988, 2005 printing) 161–62.

[31] On the concept of perfectionism in moral and political philosophy, see Raz, Morality of Freedom.

[32] Andrew Mason, Community, Solidarity and Belonging (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000) 27. The value of unity (and the solidarity it implies) is expressed throughout Bahá’u’lláh’s works. Indeed, it is arguably the most central value running through the entirety of the Bahá’í writings. Bahá’u’lláh (in Tablets of Baha’u’llah 129, 168, 164, 90) explicitly proclaims: “The purpose of religion as revealed from the heaven of God’s holy Will is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife.” And again: “The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men. Suffer it not to become a source of dissension and discord, of hate and enmity.” With a metaphor Bahá’u’lláh expresses the same value: “O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.” He goes so far as to make solidarity with other human beings, implied by the value of unity, into an ethical duty: “It behoveth man to adhere tenaciously unto that which will promote fellowship, kindliness and unity.” Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words (Arabic 30) make the same point metaphorically: “O Son of Man! Deny not My servant should he ask anything from thee, for his face is My face; be then abashed before Me.”

[33] On the centrality of justice, see the passages from Bahá’u’lláh compiled by Shoghi Effendi in Advent of Divine Justice 27–28. Shoghi Effendi concludes (p. 27) that justice is “a principle that must be regarded as the crowning distinction of all Local and National Assemblies.” While the central role of justice in Bahá’í moral and political philosophy is clear, there has been little systematic philosophical investigation of the concept in Bahá’í thought. Such study is complicated by the fact that the English word justice, in Shoghi Effendi’s English translations, actually corresponds to two distinct terms (`adl and insáf) in the Arabic sources.

[34] See Shoghi Effendi, letter to the Bahá’ís in the East, February 27, 1923, in The Compilation of Compilations: Prepared by The Universal House of Justice 1963–1990, vol. 1 (Maryborough, Victoria, Australia: Bahá’í Publications Australia, 1991) no. 706.

[35] Shoghi Effendi refers to “the vital importance and necessity of the right of voting” (This Decisive Hour: Messages from Shoghi Effendi to the North American Bahá'ís 1932–1946 [Wilmette, IL, USA: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 2002] no. 15.1).

[36]  In the context of speech or consultation, Shoghi Effendi writes that “at the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views” (letter to the Bahá’ís in America, February 23, 1924, in Bahá’í Administration 63).

[37] According to Will C. van den Hoonaard, “One prominent member of the Montreal Bahá’í community also believed that local Assemblies should be undergoing constant change in Assembly membership, with at least three new members elected each year, and three rotating off. At the instructions of Shoghi Effendi, this practice was also dropped since it was felt that it vitiated the process of democratically electing Spiritual Assemblies from the membership at large” (The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada, 1898–1948 [Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier UP, 1996] 158). Van den Hoonaard cites as his source a letter from Horace Holley, Secretary of the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, to Anne Savage, secretary of the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Montreal, September 5, 1934.

[38] Bramson-Lerche, “Some Aspects of the Development of the Bahá’í Administrative Order in America, 1922–1936” 280. See also the letters of the NSA of the United States and Canada to Shoghi Effendi, May 6, May 9, and June 21, 1927 (printed on pages 54–58, 61). The May 6, 1927, letter indicates that in 1927, for example, only thirty-three of ninety-one elected delegates (out of a possible ninety-five) were present at National Convention (ninety-five being the number of delegates Shoghi Effendi had, at that time, designated for America, including the Pacific Islands (see Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Administration 40).

[39] Bramson-Lerche, “Some Aspects of the Development of the Bahá’í Administrative Order in America, 1922–1936” 280. As I suggest in section 1 (page 11), Shoghi Effendi’s attitude was based at least in part on the fact that he did not possess legislative authority. To have any formal legal authority, his recommendations for constitutional arrangements consequently had to be legislated by the representative governing bodies of the Bahá’í community.

[40] See NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, letter to Shoghi Effendi, May 9, 1927 (pages 56–58). Cf. Bramson-Lerche, “Some Aspects of the Development of the Bahá’í Administrative Order in America, 1922–1936” 281.

[41] Shoghi Effendi, letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, May 27, 1927, in Bahá’í Administration 136 (emphasis added).

[42] The same points are made in a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to Dr. Adelbert Mühlschlegel, a member of the NSA of Germany and Austria (February 4, 1935, in Light of Divine Guidance vol. 1, 68, 67, 68–69), which says that the practice of nominations would “seriously” endanger the “freedom of the Bahá’í elector in choosing the members of any Bahá’í assembly.” It then goes on to say that “the Guardian wishes to draw your Assembly’s attention to the necessity of adopting the system of plurality voting rather than that of absolute majority voting. For the latter, by making the repetition of elections a necessity, causes, though indirectly, much pressure to bear upon the person of the elector. The Bahá’í elector, as already emphasized, should be given full freedom in his choice. Anything, therefore, which can in the least interfere with such a freedom should be considered as disastrous and hence should be completely wiped out. In all elections, it is always difficult, that more than a few individuals of high position should obtain a majority of the votes of the electorate. Most of those elected have a plurality of votes. To enforce the principle of majority voting, therefore, it requires that the election be repeated again and again and until all the members to be elected have obtained more than half of the votes cast—a thing which becomes the more difficult when it is a matter of electing an Assembly of nine persons. So, repetition in elections becomes inevitable. And such a repetition is in itself a restriction imposed upon the freedom of the electorate.”

[43] Shoghi Effendi, postscript in his own handwriting to a letter written on his behalf to Mr. [George] Simpson, May 13, 1927, in Shoghi Effendi, The Unfolding Destiny: The Messages of the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith to the Bahá’ís of the British Isles (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1981) 70–71.

[44] Art. 13, §10, in Bahá’í Assemblies is art. 8, §10, in “Model Declaration,” in Bahá’í World, vol. 15: 659.

[45] In a letter to an individual, August 11, 1933, in Compilation of Compilations vo1. 1, no. 712, Shoghi Effendi writes: “I do not feel it to be in keeping with the spirit of the Cause to impose any limitation upon the freedom of the believers to choose those of any race, nationality or temperament who best combine the essential qualifications for membership of administrative institutions” (emphasis in the original). In a June 3, 1925, letter to the delegates and visitors to the Bahá’í Convention, Green Acre, Maine, USA, in Bahá’í Administration 88, Shoghi Effendi says that “it is incumbent upon the chosen delegates to consider” for whom to vote “without the least trace of passion and prejudice, and irrespective of any material considerations.”

[46] `Abdu’l-Bahá states that, “At the time of elections the right to vote is the inalienable right of women, and the entrance of women into all human departments is an irrefutable and incontrovertible question” (Paris Talks: Addresses Given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1911, 12th ed. [London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1995] no. 59.1). The commitment to this core value of equality is precisely the reason why the exclusion of women from membership in the Universal House of Justice at the international level is always presented as an exception. The reason why this exception has proven so troubling for many Bahá’ís is that it appears completely ad hoc.

[47] “To discriminate against any race, on the ground of its being socially backward, politically immature, and numerically in a minority, is a flagrant violation of the spirit that animates the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh. The consciousness of any division or cleavage in its ranks is alien to its very purpose, principles, and ideals. Once its members have fully recognized the claim of its Author, and, by identifying themselves with its Administrative Order, accepted unreservedly the principles and laws embodied in its teachings, every differentiation of class, creed, or color must automatically be obliterated, and never be allowed, under any pretext, and however great the pressure of events or of public opinion, to reassert itself” (Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice 35).

[48] These rules and norms are grounded in respect for equality of the person found in the Bahá’í sacred writings, not in an equal right to hold office, for respect for equality does not imply that each individual has an equal right to hold office. See the memorandum by Universal House of Justice, published in The Sanctity and Nature of Bahá’í Elections, comp. Research Department of the Universal House of Justice (London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1990) no. 18: “Election to an Assembly, from a Bahá'í point of view, is not a right that people are entitled to, or an honour to which they should aspire; it is a duty and responsibility to which they may be called.”

[49] A February 4, 1935, letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the NSA of Germany and Austria (in Light of Divine Guidance vol. 1, 67) states that the absence of nominations “constitutes the distinguishing feature and marked superiority of the Bahá’í electoral methods over those commonly associated with polititcal [sic] parties and factions.”

[50] Shoghi Effendi refers to each person’s “sacred duty to take part, conscientiously and diligently, in the election, the consolidation, and the efficient working of his own local Assembly” (letter to the Bahá’ís in America, Great Britain, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Japan, and Australasia, March 12, 1923, in Bahá’í Administration 39). Shoghi Effendi also refers to “the vital importance and necessity of the right of voting—a sacred responsibility” (This Decisive Hour no. 15.1). The full text in This Decisive Hour (no. 15.1) indicates, however, that this ethical responsibility should not be translated into a sanctioned institutional or legal obligation: “I feel I must reaffirm the vital importance and necessity of the right of voting,” which he calls “a sacred responsibility of which no adult recognized believer should be deprived. . . . This distinguishing right which the believer possesses, however, does not carry with it nor does it imply an obligation to cast his vote, if he feels that the circumstances under which he lives do not justify or allow him to exercise that right intelligently and with understanding. This is a matter which should be left to the individual to decide himself according to his own conscience and discretion.” This freedom from institutional sanction is presumably designed to respect the freedom of conscience of the person.

[51] Shoghi Effendi, letter to the NSA of the United States and Canada, May 27, 1927, in Bahá’í Administration 136; Shoghi Effendi, letter to the NSA of Iran, July 1, 1943, in Compilation of Compilations vol. 1, no. 716; Shoghi Effendi, letter to the Bahá’ís in America, February 23, 1925, in Bahá’í Administration 65; and Shoghi Effendi, letter to the NSA of the United States and Canada, May 27, 1927, in Bahá’í Administration 136.

[52] “Let them exercise the utmost vigilance so that the elections are carried out freely, universally and by secret ballot. Any form of intrigue, deception, collusion and compulsion must be stopped and is forbidden” (Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to a Local Spiritual Assembly, March 18, 1932, in Compilation of Compilations vol. 1, no. 714). See also the letters written by or on behalf of Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice in Sanctity and Nature of Bahá’í Elections nos. 19–27. Cf. Lights of Guidance nos. 31–39.

[53] Bahá’u’lláh writes that “The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion. Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding” (Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh 168).

[54] Shoghi Effendi, letter to a Local Spiritual Assembly, May 14, 1927, in Compilation of Compilations vol. 1, no. 709 (emphasis added).

[55] See the passage from Compilation of Compilations vol. 1, no. 714, quoted in footnote 52.

[56] Bahá’u’lláh, Kitáb-i-Iqán ¶214.

[57] “Ye have been forbidden to commit murder or adultery, or to engage in backbiting or calumny; shun ye, then, what hath been prohibited in the holy Books and Tablets” (Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas: The Most Holy Book [Wilmette, IL, USA: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1993, 2005 printing] ¶19). The Hidden Words (Arabic 27) command: “O Son of Man! Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner. Shouldst thou transgress this command, accursed wouldst thou be, and to this I bear witness.”

[58] See Shoghi Effendi, letter to the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, January 29, 1925, in Bahá’í Administration 78–79.

[59] Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words Persian 8.

[60] This is the concern raised by the NSA of the United States and Canada in paragraph 3 of its May 9, 1927, letter to Shoghi Effendi: that practices such as nomination might “bring the Baha’i elections down to the level of human personality.” See pages 56–58 for the text of the letter.

[61] Shoghi Effendi, letter to the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, May 12, 1925, in Bahá’í Administration 85. In God Passes By 332, Shoghi Effendi refers to “the principle of proportional representation” according to which “these [National] Assemblies are elected . . . by delegates representative of Bahá’í local communities assembled at Convention.” See also Bramson-Lerche, “Some Aspects of the Development of the Bahá’í Administrative Order in America, 1922–1936” 277; and Bahá’í Assemblies art. 13 (art. 8 in “Model Declaration,” in Bahá’í World, vol. 15: 658–59).

[62] The commitment to justice and fairness also suggests, beyond a principle of proportional representation, a host of criteria for ideally ensuring that votes are aggregated in an equal, fair, and rational way, which social choice theorists have formalized primarily in the twentieth century. Such criteria might include nondictatorship, monotonicity, Pareto-optimality, independence from irrelevant alternatives, the Condorcet criterion, and Sen’s   and  + criteria. (See Kenneth J. Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values, 2d ed. (New Haven, CT, USA: Yale UP, 1963); William Riker, Liberalism Against Populism (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1980); and Amartya Sen, “Social Choice Theory: A Re-examination,” Econometrica 45.1 (1977): 53–89.) Current Bahá’í voting rules do not actually fulfill all of these criteria; social choice theorists have shown that, under certain conditions, no social choice function could in principle simultaneously meet all the mentioned criteria. The point is that these criteria plausibly elaborate on what electoral institutions that seek to aggregate votes in an equal, fair, and rational way, aspire to express in principle. No voting rule can actually realize them: Since there is no such thing as a perfect voting rule, in practice one must strike some compromise between the various criteria.

[63] A letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to two Bahá’ís, October 14, 1941, in The Compilation of Compilations: Prepared by The Universal House of Justice 1963–1990, vol. 2 (Maryborough, Victoria, Australia: Bahá’í Publications Australia, 1991) no. 1405, puts it this way: “The friends must never mistake the Bahá’í administration for an end in itself. It is merely the instrument of the spirit of the Faith.” See also Shoghi Effendi, letter to the NSA of the United States and Canada, January 10, 1926, in Bahá’í Administration 103: “all these administrative activities, however harmoniously and efficiently conducted, are but means to an end.” This does not mean, of course, that the instrumental values informing Bahá’í elections trump the noninstrumental ones: The point of elections may be to serve as an instrument for yielding certain outcomes, but ethical considerations may place noninstrumental constraints on the means that may be used to obtain those outcomes.

[64] Shoghi Effendi, letter to the delegates and visitors to the Bahá’í Convention, Green Acre, Maine, USA, June 3, 1925, in Bahá’í Administration 87–88; Shoghi Effendi, letter to the NSA of Iran, July 1, l943, in Compilation of Compilations vol. 1, no. 716.

[65] Compare a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to a Bahá’í, July 7, 1949, in Compilation of Compilations vol. 2, no. 1450: one needs “to fully grasp the fact that it is not the individuals on an Assembly which is important, but the Assembly as an institution.”

[66] `Abdu'l-Bahá (Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá, comp. Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, trans. Committee at the Bahá’í World Centre and Marzieh Gail, lst pocket-size ed. [Wilmette, IL, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1996, 2004 printing]) no. 225.24–25). `Abdu'l-Bahá states that “differences are of two kinds. One is the cause of annihilation and is like the antipathy existing among warring nations and conflicting tribes who seek each other’s destruction, uprooting one another’s families, depriving one another of rest and comfort and unleashing carnage. The other kind which is a token of diversity is the essence of perfection and the cause of the appearance of the bestowals of the Most Glorious Lord. . . .

“. . . when that unifying force, the penetrating influence of the Word of God, taketh effect, the difference of customs, manners, habits, ideas, opinions and dispositions embellisheth the world of humanity. This diversity, this difference is like the naturally created dissimilarity and variety of the limbs and organs of the human body, for each one contributeth to the beauty, efficiency and perfection of the whole. . . .

“. . . when divers shades of thought, temperament and character, are brought together under the power and influence of one central agency, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made manifest” (Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá 225.23–25).

[67] Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Baha’u’llah 42.

[68] “The differences of language and of social and intellectual background do, undoubtedly, render the work somewhat difficult to carry out and may temporarily check the efficient and smooth working of the national administrative machinery of the Faith. They, nevertheless, impart to the deliberations of the National Assembly a universality which they would be otherwise lacking, and give to its members a breadth of view which is their duty to cultivate and foster. It is not uniformity which we should seek in the formation of any national or local assembly. For the bedrock of the Baha’i administrative order is the principle of unity in diversity, which has been so strongly and so repeatedly emphasized in the writings of the Cause” (Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the NSA of India, Burma, and Pakistan, January 2, 1934, in Dawn of a New Day [New Delhi: Bahá’í Publishing Trust of India, 1970] 47–48 [emphasis added]).

[69] Shoghi Effendi, letter to an individual, August 11, 1933, in Compilation of Compilations vol. 1, no. 712 (emphasis added).

[70] Shoghi Effendi, letter to the NSA of India, Burma, and Pakistan, May 8, 1947, in Dawn of a New Day 125.

[71] Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice 36.

[72] In his May 8, 1947, letter to the NSA of India, Burma, and Pakistan, in Dawn of a New Day 125, Shoghi Effendi says that “the Hindu, the Moslem, the Burmese and Zoroastrian believers must jointly, unitedly, and effectively participate. The minority elements in these ever-expanding communities must be continually stimulated, encouraged, trained and in some cases, as when an equal number of ballots have been cast in an election, given priority, in order to reinforce the representative character of Bahá’í institutions.” See also Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice 35.

[73] “He was also pleased to see that these changes [to the membership of the NSA] involved more younger people being on the National Spiritual Assembly” (Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual, May 21, 1946, in Compilation of Compilations vol. 2, no. 1449).

[74] Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to two individuals, November 15, 1935, in Compilation of Compilations vol. 2, no. 1364 (emphasis added).

[75] Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual, May 21, 1946, in Compilation of Compilations vol. 2, no. 1449 (emphasis added).

[76] “There is no objection in principle to an Assembly being re-elected, whether in toto or in part, provided the members are considered to be well qualified for that post. It is individual merit that counts. Novelty or the mere act of renewal of elections are purely secondary considerations. Changes in Assembly membership should be welcome so far as they do not prejudice the quality of such membership” (Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual, in Sanctity and Nature of Bahá’í Elections no. 16 (emphasis added).

[77] Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual, April, 27, 1932, in Lights of Guidance no. 63 (emphasis added). I have not been able to consult the letter to which it is a response, but I suspect that it is responding to proposals such as the one discussed by van den Hoonaard, Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada 158 (quoted in footnote 37 on page 20). 

[78] Shoghi Effendi, letter to the NSA of the Bahá’ís in America, October 18, 1927, in Bahá’í Administration 143; Shoghi Effendi, letter to the Bahá’ís in America, February 23, 1924, in Bahá’í Administration 64. The norm of institutional transparency is repeatedly emphasized by Shoghi Effendi. See, for example, Shoghi Effendi, letter to the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, January 29, 1925, in Bahá’í Administration 79: “Banishing every vestige of secrecy, of undue reticence, of dictatorial aloofness, from their midst, they should radiantly and abundantly unfold to the eyes of the delegates, by whom they are elected, their plans, their hopes, and their cares.” However, this norm of institutional transparency is to be enforced, and its appropriate scope determined, by the NSA itself; transparency is a duty of the NSA, but this duty is not correlative to any right that any particular individual has to the NSA’s transparency. In other words, its satisfaction is not owed by legal right to any individual. See a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to a member of the NSA of Australia and New Zealand, June 19, 1935, in Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand: 1923–1957 (Sydney, National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Australia, 1970, reprinted 1971) 9. This would not, it seems to me, prevent the NSA itself from setting up institutional mechanisms to facilitate its own transparency; it simply means that the NSA would always reserve ultimate jurisdiction, at the national level, over such mechanisms.

[79] Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to [Adelbert] Mühlschlegel, [a member of the NSA of the Bahá’ís of Germany and Austria], February 4, 1935, in Light of Divine Guidance vol. 1, 68. The letter states that it is incumbent upon each person “to become an active and well-informed member of the Bahá’í community in which he lives. To be able to make a wise choice at the election time, it is necessary for him to be in close and continued contact with all local activities . . . and to fully and whole-heartedly participate in the affairs of the local as well as national committees and assemblies in his country. It is only in this way that a believer can develop a true social consciousness and acquire a true sense of responsibility in matters affecting the interests of the Cause. Bahá’í community life thus makes it a duty for every loyal and faithful believer to become an intelligent, well-informed and responsible elector, and also gives him the opportunity of raising himself to such a station.” See also Shoghi Effendi, letter to a Local Spiritual Assembly, May 14, 1927, in Compilation of Compilations vol. 1, no. 709.

[80] See Bramson-Lerche, “Some Aspects of the Development of the Bahá’í Administrative Order in America, 1922–1936” 255–300.

[81] Shoghi Effendi, letter to the NSA of the United States and Canada, October 18, 1927, in Bahá’í Administration 143; and Shoghi Effendi, letter to the Bahá’ís in America, February 23, 1924, in Bahá’í Administration 64.

[82] Shoghi Effendi, cablegram, November 19, 1937, in This Decisive Hour no. 33.1: “election of hundred seventy-one delegates for this year’s and future conventions absolutely essential . . . appeal delegates unable attend in person exercise conscientiously ballot right by mail. increased participation by believers in convention proceedings reinforces authority and broadens basis body national representatives and knits them closer to entire body electorate.”

[83] The concern with perceptions about Bahá’í institutions is apparent in Shoghi Effendi’s recommendation that the NSA not just avoid secrecy but the “suspicion of secrecy” (Shoghi Effendi, letter to the NSA of the United States and Canada, October 18, 1927, in Bahá’í Administration 143) [emphasis added]. A letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to a member of the NSA of Australia and New Zealand, June 19, 1935, expresses the same concern; it recommends that the NSA “avoid giving the impression that the assembly is working in an atmosphere of complete secrecy, and that it is motivated by dictatorial motives” (Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand 9 [emphasis added].

[84] See, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence, ed. J. P. Mayer (New York: Harper, 1966), and John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, ed. Currin V. Shields (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1958), especially 54, 214. For a survey, see Jane Mansbridge, “On the Idea that Participation Makes Better Citizens,” in Stephen L. Elkin and Karol Edward Soltan, eds., Citizen Competence and Democratic Institutions (University Park, PA, USA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1999).

[85] Shoghi Effendi, letter to the Bahá’ís throughout America, February 23, 1924, in Bahá’í Administration 65; Shoghi Effendi, letter to the delegates and visitors to the Bahá’í Convention, Green Acre, Maine, USA, in Bahá’í Administration 88. Cf. Shoghi Effendi, in Sanctity and Nature of Bahá’í Elections no. 1: “On the election day, the friends must whole-heartedly participate in the elections, in unity and amity, turning their hearts to God, detached from all things but Him. . . .”

[86] Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to Dr. [Adelbert] Mühlschlegel, [a member of the NSA of the Bahá’ís of Germany and Austria], February 4, 1935, in Light of Divine Guidance vol. 1, 68. The paragraph in which the “self-development” and “spirit of responsibility” appear reads in full: “In addition to these serious dangers, the practice of nomination has the great disadvantage of killing in the believer the spirit of initiative, and of self-development. Bahá’í electoral procedures and methods have, indeed, for one of their essential purposes the development in every believer of the spirit of responsibility. By emphasizing the necessity of maintaining his fully [sic] freedom in the elections, they make it incumbent upon him to become an active and well-informed member of the Bahá’í community in which he lives. To be able to make a wise choice at the election time, it is necessary for him to be in close and continued contact with all local activities, be they teaching, administrative or otherwise, and to fully and whole-heartedly participate in the affairs of the local as well as national committees and assemblies in his country. It is only in this way that a believer can develop a true social consciousness and acquire a true sense of responsibility in matters affecting the interests of the Cause. Bahá’í community life thus makes it a duty for every loyal and faithful believer to become an intelligent, well-informed and responsible elector, and also gives him the opportunity of raising himself to such a station. And since the practice of nomination hinders the development of such qualities in the believer, and in addition leads to corruption and partisanship, it has to be entirely discarded in all Bahá’í elections.”

[87] This value is mentioned by Shoghi Effendi, for example, when referring to “the unique functions it [National Convention] fulfills in promoting harmony and good-will” (Shoghi Effendi, letter to the NSA of the United States and Canada, October 24, 1925, in Bahá’í Administration 91).

[88] Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice 35.

[89] Huddleston, “A Just System of Government,” in Bahá’í Faith and Marxism 36.

[90] We must distinguish between what we might call “cultural” factors and “institutional” factors. Whether or not certain values are well served may either be the result of how well the individuals who participate in elections adhere to the values underlying Bahá’í electoral processes, or the result of the institutional rules themselves, or, as is most likely, both in combination. Rigorous research must help us distinguish between these distinct factors.

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