The exchange of views that occurred in The American Bahá'í
on “non-involvement in politics” points to the need for conceptual and semantic specificity if we are to overcome the handicaps imposed on us by the deep ambiguity of this term. We must also look at this issue from the perspective of positive human rights and cross-cultural communication if we are to devise a better message than “non-involvement” as the basis of Bahá'í relations with the world around us.
To begin, we have to realize that the public lives in cultures which are not aware of the alternative, Bahá'í procedures of electing officials, making community decisions, or of God’s guidance to the Universal House of Justice or the Bahá'í model of self-government. Those around us are not aware that Christ has returned in the glory of the Father and that, through this divinely guided global federal pattern, the promise that “the government shall be upon His shoulders” is now being fulfilled. On the contrary, at least speaking of protestant cultures, they see only one alternative to human, fallible methods: the need for religiously neutral constitutionalism and “checks and balances” to prevent fallibility from expanding beyond control.
The public’s cultural view of the term “politics,” then, equates this term in its primary sense with the whole general notion of human (and thus fallible) public decision-making—fallible, but nevertheless capable of rising on occasion to great heights, and capable of eliciting dedication and service to good causes.
Consequently, and the experience of every Bahá'í teacher bears this out, public messages stating that Bahá'ís “are not involved in politics” can generate seriously inaccurate perceptions and negative reactions.
First, the message conveys to the public precisely the wrong impression about the level of care, concern, and involvement that Bahá'ís feel and exhibit, or should exhibit, towards the problems the world is experiencing and the policies that the public and its leaders should adopt toward solving them. In short, the message conveys that Bahá'ís have little or no concern about such problems or little or no interest in public policy and decision-making. Such lack of concern is contrary to the express Bahá'í teachings, and to generate this perception in the public mind misrepresents and hurts the Faith.
Second, the message also implies that Bahá'ís throw the baby out with the bathwater, i.e., that they lump good procedures and policies together with bad ones and unjustly condemn them all just because some of them are not perfect. “What procedures are in fact not flawed?” the public quite rightly asks. “Isn’t the perfection of procedures a matter of degree? Do you condemn the child because it is not yet an adult? If we had to wait for perfect procedures, nothing would ever get done!”
Third and similarly, it suggests that Bahá'ís are, on this topic, uncharacteristically insensitive not only to the relative goodness or badness of procedures, but also to the reality of the need to make trade-offs in the real world. It signals that Bahá'ís put procedure over substance and do not appreciate the seriousness of the world’s problems or the seriousness and purity of many people’s commitments to transforming the world despite the imperfections of whatever procedures these people are working with. In other words, the message does not give people credit for what they think they are doing right.
Fourth, although the idea of not being involved in politics may have a legal meaning to the Internal Revenue Service, it has very little meaning to professional members of the public in the social, political, or jurisprudential sciences, who see everything in the human system as affecting everything else no matter what it calls itself. For this important segment of society, claims of “non-involvement” are an intellectual fiction. Scientifically, these people are right. Bahá'ís do participate in society and affect it; the questions are how much, how overtly, by which methods, towards what aims, and so on. Bahá'ís are not “not involved.”
Fifth, to talk about politics as something negative or to condemn something as “political” does not specify what is really being objected to or why Bahá'ís object to it or what an acceptable alternative might be. Such talk sends out a negative signal which cuts off or hinders rational communication and can confuse, antagonize, and alienate the people being addressed.
Sixth, when people begin to learn about Bahá'í principles, they see immediately that these principles are profoundly relevant to issues being discussed in political forums. To be told, then, that “Bahá'ís are not involved in politics” sends a severely confusing message which in their minds amounts, really, to a logical contradiction that short-circuits their ability to follow up on their interest in the Faith. There is not one Bahá'í teacher who has not painfully encountered situations where intelligent people reject further interest in the Faith because the “non-involvement” message simply did not fit into their patterns of logic and could not be made to do so by intelligent discussion.
Seventh, in a similar vein, when people learn of the station of the Bahá'í Central Figures and of the messianic character of God’s revelation, it is inconceivable to them that there are not “political implications” involved. The message of “non-involvement” is profoundly incompatible with intuitions of the great changes that must come in the way the world governs itself and which are quite clearly spelled out by all the Bahá'í Central Figures.
For all these reasons, the message of “non-involvement” cuts off the public’s sympathy and empathy towards Bahá'ís and helps keep the Faith and its positive qualities in obscurity. “Non-involvement in politics” is not a positive program. It is not God’s positive solution to human problems. It is not a phrase which, by itself, can adequately serve, particularly in the United States, as the basis of successful cross-cultural communication and public relations.
All of the above is from the point of view of the non-Bahá'í: the person we are trying to reach with the Bahá'í message. But the same inner confusions and reactions often occur among Bahá'ís themselves, and for the same reasons because they come from these same cultures.
As a result, it is historically undeniable that the ambiguity of the “non-involvement” message, coupled with the administrative sanctions for violating it, have disempowered Bahá'ís from committing themselves to, or even thinking about, problems of public concern or from making contact with leaders of thought and action. Out of self-protection, Bahá'ís often simply slide from “non-involvement in politics” into non-contact with people making policy decisions, non-study of social problems, non-concern with rational efforts to shape the future, and non-use of the principle of the harmony of science and religion—a pattern that has created a desperate lack of expertise in the Faith on very important issues. Even the doctrine of non-involvement itself, an extremely important doctrine relating the Faith to the world around it, has received little systematic attention.
Similarly, the same causes have arguably had a severely inhibiting influence on the development and maturation of the Bahá'í administrative order in its role as a pattern and model of the world’s eventual system of self-government and on its ability to handle actual government tasks and functions.
The ultimate negative fruit may well be the otherwise inexplicably slow growth of the Faith in the United States, and in fact throughout the world. How else but psychologically can one rationally account for the frankly incredibly slow increase, and even occasional retrogression, in Bahá'í membership figures that has occurred in the last twenty years in the United States, for example? There must be a better explanation than vague generalities about “materialism.” A part of the explanation is, I believe, connected with all the double signals and wrong messages sent to Bahá'ís and the public by the “non-involvement” message in its unanalyzed and over general form and the resulting inability of Bahá'ís to relate to society, or vice versa, on an effective basis.
The task ahead for the Bahá'í community, after seeing what is misleading with the “non-involvement” message, is to discern from the Bahá'í writings specific truths and to try to find ways to communicate the right parts of the message without dragging in the wrong ones as well. How can we communicate the message in ways that are intellectually honest and that generate in people a positive response?
To see what is right about the message, we have to see what the message actually is, and we have to learn how to phrase the message in ways based on positive human rights, peace, unity, procedural justice, participation in consultation, and so on. If we can say that involvement in activity X violates one’s own or others’ human rights, it presents the message from a position of specificity, rationality, and positive concern, whereas simply to say: “That’s political, and Bahá'ís don’t get involved in politics” comes across as self-righteous, disengaged, and negative. Those things antagonize people and block further communication.
As a universal truth, “non-involvement in politics” means most fundamentally the avoidance of promoting disunity, the avoidance of promoting human egoism in the public decision-making process. It is the negative way of saying that Bahá'ís promote the oneness of humanity. It is the Bahá'í duty to heal the world and make it whole. This cannot happen if we promote disunity or it the taint of egoism enters into the core of our public decision-making procedures. This is why we have our own Bahá'í institutions and patterns for self-government and why we believe these patterns will eventually become the way humanity governs itself.
Nevertheless, Bahá'ís must promote the policies of the Cause of God, including world federation, a world auxiliary language, racial unity, economic justice, and so on. Doing so will inevitably bring them into actual or potential conflict with others who have not yet awakened to God’s revelation or who oppose such things. In this situation, Bahá'ís have a duty to ameliorate rather than aggravate the conflict and to promote the policies of the Cause of God as intelligently as possible so as not to arouse needless opposition. This is not the same as “non-involvement.”
Bahá'ís are nothing if they are not physicians to the spirit and soul of humanity. Our task is to bring a higher influence to bear on the political, social, and religious institutions that dominate life at the present time, and which are just now beginning to be transformed into a globally minded world order that is aware of its ability to receive guidance “from above.”
To bring this higher influence to bear, Bahá'ís must have contact with the patient, on the one hand, but avoid catching the patient’s illness on the other. A second universal meaning of “non-involvement in politics,” then, is not catching the patient’s illness. This is far different, however, from not visiting the patient and not acting as the doctors Bahá'u'lláh intends us to be.
To be a doctor, one must be learned and technically competent as well as wise in the ways of the Bahá'í revelation. How else can the patient gain the confidence to listen to and heed the advice that will heal the patient’s illness? This is where the lack of Bahá'í scholarly involvement in the issues and problems that politicians get divided over has most severely retarded the Faith and kept it in obscurity.
It is for reasons of not catching the patient’s illness that we avoid actual membership in current non-Bahá'í political parties—their differences with Bahá'í policies on various issues are simply too great to make this the most intelligent use of our time and energy. In addition, we have the task of building up our own party, which nobody else can do. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the Faith cannot have an input and interaction must be on terms acceptable to the Faith. Non-involvement in politics in the Bahá'í context therefore means the following specific and precise prohibitions in addition to the basic reference to avoidance of disunity and egoism in general:
- Not siding with or denouncing political figures. (See Lights of Guidance [hereafter LOG] sec. 879.) This does not mean having no opinions on an issue of public importance or neglecting to study such issues in the best way we know how in order to arrive at opinions which may or may not coincide with those held by others. In the Bahá'í context, however, such opinions are always held in a scientific way, namely, provisionally and based on the evidence at hand, with Scripture and its interpretation being one kind of evidence. By corollary, when we have a position, we present it in the most intelligent and least divisive way we know how. We do the best we can and if somebody points out a way to improve, we do so.
- Not serving in government jobs that are political, i.e., jobs involving the creation of egoism, false information, or which aggravate disunity. (See LOG sec. 860.) This does not mean a Bahá'í cannot hold a position in a government, or have no input to a government, or have no contact with its officials. Which jobs are acceptable and which are not is best treated as a matter for consultation and individual case-by-case analysis.
- A Bahá'í’s vote for a candidate or acceptance of a post in a government cannot be interpreted to mean acceptance of the parts of the programs of political parties that are in conflict with Bahá'í laws or teachings. (See LOG sec. 861.)
- Voting for individuals in an election because of known merit rather than purely on the basis of party affiliation. (See LOG sec. 862.) Let us be honest, however, and admit that while voting on personal knowledge is best, it may not always be practical. Presumably, parties have a unity of position on certain issues, and one can vote for people who have pledged to support those issues even if that is the only piece of knowledge one has about those candidates.
- There are other prohibitions which can be found in the Writings or which can be deduced by implication.
In conclusion, the fundamental message of God to humanity is to participate in any and all constructive, positive activities to create “an ever advancing civilization.” But some activities by their form or by their content are so fundamentally tainted with human egoism that Shoghi Effendi or ‘Abdu'l-Bahá or Bahá'u'lláh have forbidden them, just as they have forbidden harmful drugs, racism, murder, and other violations of human rights and human dignity.
When we begin to perceive divisive activities as violations of positive human rights to peace, unity, active participation in the process of self-government at the local, national, and international levels, we shall be in a conceptual position to explain God’s prohibitions in a rational way and to offer alternative procedures that would be acceptable.
In general, then, behind the message of “non-involvement” is the radiant, Bahá'í message of pursuing universal human rights to positive realities. If we have to use the phrase “non-involvement in politics,” at least we can fall back on this positive explanation to try to repair the damage it often causes.
John Dale is a Bahá'í immigration attorney, a founding member of the Board of the Bahá'í Justice Society, and the Secretary of the Political Education Committee of the Campaign for United Nations Reform, an organization that works for a larger, better-funded, more effective United Nations.