Much of the current discussion on Bahá'í involvement with politics seems to focus on certain statements in Shoghi Effendi’s correspondence of the 1930s but without looking at this correspondence in the wider context of developments within the Bahá'í Faith in North America at that time. During the 1920s, there had been a considerable dilution in the clarity with which the Bahá'í Faith was perceived by Bahá'ís and others as an independent source of personal identity, this deriving from certain trends present in the North American Bahá'í community from the turn of the century. This dilution had become so extreme that some sincerely felt that whether an individual accepted Bahá'u'lláh as a manifestation of God was not a relevant criterion for determining whether or not he or she was a Bahá'í. The touchstone had become adherence to a set of social principles, not belief in a revelation.
As part of this desacralization of Bahá'í identity, in some areas Bahá'ís actually joined churches to find a source of spiritual upliftment as they had ceased to expect to find this in the activities of their Bahá'í communities. Conversely, the sense of a lack of religious exclusivity in Bahá'í identity was reinforced by the use of Christian clerics (who by earlier or later standards could only be called non-Bahá'ís) in important advocacy roles for Bahá'í social teachings and deference to them on how Bahá'í positions should be articulated both to the public and to the community itself. The articulation of these social teachings was, broadly speaking, in political terms. The lack of much congruence at the theological level between the main presenters being used by the administration of the Faith and the Faith itself leaving room for little more than a dab of “spiritual” frosting on a naively social programmatic cake.
If the Bahá'í Faith (“Cause,” “Movement”) consisted largely of social principles, then to use the political mechanisms provided within society to help further these principles was only natural, and a number of Bahá'ís were actively involved with political parties. This involvement with both churches and political parties was not a feature only of the activities of “new” or “fringe” Bahá'ís, but included well-established Bahá'ís and members of the National Spiritual Assembly. Thus, although it was not the only conceptualization of Bahá'í identity current in the community of the 1920s, this diffused and nonexclusive model tended to be institutionally dominate.
During the 1930s, Shoghi Effendi was engaged in calling Bahá'ís to a vision of adherence to the Bahá'í Faith as the core of their spiritual and social identity. The Faith was not an extra to be added to other ideological adherences in order to provide some cohesion between them but an exclusive basis for individual development and social regeneration. The first step was to ask Bahá'ís to disassociate themselves from formal membership in other religious organizations. This was accepted with relatively little complaint, but the original impetus toward affiliation with other religious bodies, the feeling of a lack of spiritual satisfaction within Bahá'í community life, was not, and still has not been, adequately addressed.
The next stage was to ask Bahá'ís to withdraw from formal membership in and work for political parties, this being linked to the earlier withdrawal from the churches and explained as being necessary on the same grounds. This was less well received and generated much more controversy than the earlier withdrawal. It was seen by some as an attack on fundamental American democratic freedoms and potentially subversive of the American system of government. Thus the abstention of Bahá'ís from party politics, when first presented, was quite correctly seen as a thoroughgoing political act.
Both of these aspects of Shoghi Effendi’s attempt to refocus the Bahá'í community on its prime role as agent of the revelation were attacked on the basis of statements of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. However, the attack in the case of politics tended to be on the “new” policy generally, while in the case of denominational adherence it tended to be by individuals seeking personal exemption.
It was fairly well known that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had instructed certain individuals to maintain church membership, but this was mostly in cases in which the individual had a relatively shallow acquaintance with the Faith or where there was no Bahá'í community for them to leave their church for. Less well known was that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had also instructed some more deepened Bahá'ís to concentrate on Bahá'í activities, as this was the way of the future; the sincere work of Bahá'í church members was but preparatory and provisional, both in their own lives and in the broader social context.
It was even more widely known that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had given instructions for North American Bahá'ís to participate in the politics and elections of their countries. However, it must be remembered that just as some Bahá'ís were instructed to remain in their churches as there was no Bahá'í structural alternative as yet, so when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asked the North American Bahá'ís to participate in politics there was no developed Bahá'í structural alternative in the fields of administration, organization, and social development. Part of Shoghi Effendi’s refocusing was precisely the encouragement of such a Bahá'í socio-structural alternative.
It seems to me, then, that in the case of both ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi there is a congruence between their attitudes toward Bahá'í involvement with political organizations. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s instructions to individuals take account of levels of personal adhesion to the Faith and the current accessibility of Bahá'í communities and institutions; the distinction between affiliation and association had personal and structural parameters. Shoghi Effendi brought the same attitudes to bear on an evolved situation in which there was the developing structural basis to sustain greater consistence; the distinction between affiliation and association became general. But in both cases there was a distinction made, with association being seen as the preferable position.
The discussion of Bahá'í involvement with politics points up a general problem with many Bahá'í discussions: arguing on the basis of brief quotations. Such proof-texting, while useful for polemical purposes, is rarely of advantage for arriving at a position of understanding. Not only does it tend to ignore such context as is briefly outlined above for the issue now under discussion, it also tends to ignore the subtleties of the text itself. Every word that occurs in the corpus of Bahá'í writings is not of equal status with every other word: there are definite distinctions of authority between statements, and there are core principles that have an overarching primacy except in specific and temporary circumstance. The history of the development of beliefs held by Bahá'ís contains many examples of sincerely held opinions, cogently argued from a series of quotes, that are entirely unacceptable on a more open investigation of the writings. (For example, remember the position argued by the opposition to racial integration in the Bahá'í community of the United States in the first two decades of this century.)
As with many other issues, Bahá'í involvement in politics needs to be studied and discussed at a much more sophisticated level of approach to the writings than has usually been the case. It is worth noting here, in reference to the use of the Guardian’s writings, that there does not seem to be a generally perceived problem with the current prohibition of things that Shoghi Effendi permitted to parallel the obviously perceived problem with permitting things that Shoghi Effendi is thought to have forbidden. In other words, there is an openness to restrictive evolution within the Faith that is not paralleled by a similar openness to permissive evolution.
Politics is one of the few subjects specifically mentioned by Shoghi Effendi as of value for Bahá'ís to study at university and, indeed, this is not surprising as the Faith is the most cogently political movement on earth. Even at the current stage of knowledge of the writings, the implications of its principles are revolutionary. But the essential difference between the Faith and self-proclaimedly political movements is that it has such a profound belief in the inevitability of its goals being realized as part of the historic processes of creation that it eschews violent action to bring about its ends. Most other socio-political ideologies, be they of the right, left, or center, regard the violent imposition or maintenance of their social ideal as legitimate. The Bahá'í Faith regards the attainment of its ideals as being so inevitable that it is not necessary to justify evil means by a desirable end.
This in no way means that the Faith preaches isolationism. Although reaching the goal is seen as inevitable, the time scale in which it is achieved is adjustable. The working out of God’s plan can be delayed or accelerated though not prevented. And it is the responsibility of Bahá'ís to encourage those steps that speed the process and discourage those that retard it.
We must retain a sense of humility in this endeavour, however, as our understanding of the Faith is far from complete. We must be open to acknowledging that our previous views of the Faith may be incomplete, or plain wrong, and to adjusting our relationship with the world accordingly. But we must not use this inevitable and permanent relative incompleteness of understanding as an excuse for inaction.
An equally essential part of this process is to keep our Bahá'í identity at the core of our being and activities and not to be so carried away with some cause that it overpowers or replaces that identity; we must not let a means become the end. All acceptable means that, in our best judgment and based on our current understanding of the Faith, seem to lead toward our desired end are worth investigating. None is worth substituting for that end itself. We must avoid the danger of redefining the end in terms of the means. The anti-nuclear (whether weapons or power) movement and its like may be good means, they are not adequate ends to replace the Bahá'í Faith in redeeming humanity.
Just as our selection of causes to support must be made with open eyes, so we must avoid blindly riding on hero-worship bandwagons. From even before the time many North American Bahá'ís naively adopted President Wilson as the knight on a white horse who was God’s tool to inaugurate the Bahá'í millennium, Bahá'ís have tended to look outside the Faith for leaders to follow in social causes (not, of course, that this is surprising if the institutions of the Faith do not provide such leadership). This is reflected in a recent issue of Brilliant Star in which the Bahá'ís children were offered as models Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Of Gandhi himself, Shoghi Effendi said that Bahá'ís should be careful as to how they identified themselves with him as, however we might feel about some of his goals, we could not approve all his means, and such a comment obviously applies also to those who follow Gandhi’s methods. While the stature of Gandhi gave a certain legitimacy to the hunger strike, this is really the political equivalent of the child in the grocery store threatening to hold his breath until he turns blue in the face unless he gets what he wants, and it has achieved singularly little success, and often even less dignity, when essayed by others. The current popularity of “fasts” for peace and the like may have some symbolic validity, but whether it does or not and what they symbolize needs to be carefully considered. Obviously, some of the methods of mass action advocated by Gandhi and his followers, such as civil disobedience, are simply unavailable to Bahá'ís as they constitute illegal acts. Other aspects of his movement, such as the homespun crusade, may indeed have useful lessons for Bahá'ís. Thus, although Gandhi may be superficially seen as a good model of social action for Bahá'ís and their children, at even a cursory glance beyond the twinkling spectacles we find that he is no more completely acceptable than someone like Karl Marx—to pull out of the hat a name that seems a likely theoretical opposite in respect of Bahá'í regard. The philosophies of both of these social thinkers have positive and negative aspects from a Bahá'í point of view, and Bahá'ís should avoid easily swallowing the larger society’s views on such figures.
It is interesting that the one political act that seems to be agreed upon as allowable for Bahá'ís is to vote in elections. Yet it is clear from Shoghi Effendi’s correspondence that in his opinion it was not possible for a Bahá'í to conscientiously vote in an election conducted on party lines. He did not insist on this view being applied, however, and the policy of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States and Canada (as it was until 1948), that Bahá'ís could vote in party elections but not register as voters committed to a particular party, was implemented. Thus, Bahá'í political action in the United States became limited in the view of many to casting a vote without attempting to influence the platforms of those standing or their actions after election; which is merely to support the status quo at best, to be part of inertia, not progress. Whereas Shoghi Effendi felt that Bahá'ís should not vote where that vote was compromised, but should exercise to the full their constitutional right to comment on issues related to their beliefs and to exert such influence as that right to comment gave.
In the Bahá'í view the current political process is inadequate for the needs of the world. We should be challenging that process to reconstitute itself by offering sympathetic movements, goals and methods they have not dreamed of before. We should be harvesting the revelation for the seeds of the future and planting and tending those seeds whenever we find fertile ground. We have a responsibility not only to teach people the Faith in order that they may become Bahá'ís, but also to teach the Faith in order that society may have the necessary tools to rebuild itself. We do not have to wait until large numbers of people are Bahá'ís to offer specific remedies to specific ills from the vast pharmacopoeia of the Divine Physician.
Some Bahá'ís, however sincere their adherence to Bahá'u'lláh, do not currently believe in, or even know of, many of the direct teachings of the Faith and their implications. Thus, the Bahá'í community also faces the challenge of educating itself and of forming an actual model of alternate ways of living. Shoghi Effendi frequently paired with avoiding political involvement the developing of the Bahá'í community in a systematic way. The presentation to the world of a working model, a society within society, that demonstrated the feasibility of its ideals would be an eminently practical political act.
In some cases Bahá'ís have constituted the dynamic force of socially concerned movements, especially in the case of local chapters of such organizations as the United Nations Association. Is this perhaps a way to avoid the problem of making our own community dynamic? Perhaps protesting apartheid in South Africa, for example, is easier than tackling racism and sexism in the Bahá'í community itself; and perhaps it is felt to be less likely to cause problems with fellow Bahá'ís, whatever they may say about “political” action.
There is no more radical (in the literal sense of getting to the root of things) movement than the Bahá'í Faith. The open investigation of the Faith’s own position on issues and the attempt to communicate that position to society by direct and indirect means with the view of steering society toward it is a consummately political act. The ultimate goal of the Bahá'í Faith is to reconstitute all societies, including their political structures, not to simply morally reconstitute individuals who will continue indefinitely to operate within current political structures. The Bahá'í Faith does not draw the line at individual redemption and say that there it achieves success. It focuses on humanity not simply as a body but as polity, a body organized under a system of government.
We should approach our involvement with movements that seem to us to be in accord with the aims of the Bahá'í Faith with audacity. The time for caution is while we are making our initial determination as to accord. Once that is made, our aim should be to increase the accord and to help the movement to use the power that is available to those who are working toward the goals of the new order. We should remain open to truth from whatever lamp it shines, and especially to the brightening of our perception of the Bahá'í lamp. We should remember the distinction between the acts of an individual and those of an institution of the Faith. Whether individuals or institutions should be to the forward on a particular issue, or in association with a particular movement or outside institution, will depend on the circumstances of time and place. We should remember that we are Bahá'ís first and last. Anything we do should be part of our being a Bahá'í, not an extra, not an instead of, but an inherent part of our Bahá'í identity and belief.
But beyond whether we do or do not work for “causes,” we must realize that our aim is change, not random change, but directed change. There is no country in the world whose government operates now as it did at the beginning of this century, and there is no country whose government will operate at the end of this century as it does now. If we believe we have the key to the successful future of humanity, is it not cruel arrogance to refuse to share that key now, and to insist that others must search for it in the dark for however long it takes? Even if the key may be rejected, do we still not have a responsibility to offer it? Shoghi Effendi did not feel that Bahá'ís could conscientiously vote in a party system election, that does not mean that Bahá'ís cannot work to change the political system to one in which they can conscientiously vote. The issue of Bahá'í involvement in politics goes deeper than whether or not to participate in a demonstration, it goes to the heart of the question of the social responsibility of a citizen. Whether to admit liability for the collectivity in which one lives, such liability to be discharged by attempting to repair the ills and reinforce the good of that society, or whether to step outside the “world” and claim sanctified status apart from it and its woes.
The Bahá'í concept of patriotism and loyalty to government is entirely different from the concept of nationalism. Nationalism posits “my country right or wrong.” The sane and intelligent patriotism recognizes the responsibility of citizens to work to see their country “right,” to give of their country’s best for the good of humanity and thereby their own ultimate good, and to seek to correct their country’s “wrong.” One always has a responsibility toward the various facets of one’s heritage, toward preserving their good as a resource in the common stock of humanity, toward recognizing their darker aspects that should be cast off; a responsibility that can in no way conflict with loyalty to any government under which they may live.
Patriotism and loyalty are served by active responsibility, not by blind obedience or apathetic indifference. Bahá'ís have a double responsibility as citizens: to build a model of the future in their own community, and to make known that model in the wider community and assist in its realization there. In both areas of responsibility it is possible to take large and small steps; what is not acceptable is to stand still.
R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram is an independent author and researcher living in South Bend, Indiana.