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Abstract:
Overview of the contemporary Baha'i community, its activities, and its concerns.

The American Bahá'í Community in the Nineties

by Robert Stockman

published in America's Alternative Religions, Timothy Miller, ed.
Albany: SUNY Press, 1995
INTRODUCTION

The Bahá'í Faith arrived in the United States in 1894 and is now a century old. Its American membership, which in 1899 consisted of about 2000 persons, mostly of white Protestant background, has grown to almost 120,000 [1]. Initially located in a few score towns and cities, today Bahá'ís can be found in about 7000 localities in the United States. Worldwide, 1992 membership stands at about five million, with Bahá'ís located in every country on the planet.

Diversification is an ever-present theme in American Bahá'í history. From two black members in 1899, the African-American membership rose to five percent of the community by 1936.[2] Efforts to teach the religion to rural populations in the early 1970s, especially in South Carolina, increased the African- American population to perhaps thirty percent of the American Bahá'í community. Native Americans have been attracted to the Bahá'í religion in increasing numbers since the 1940s; currently there are several thousand Indian and Eskimo Bahá'ís, especially in rural Alaska and on the Navajo and Sioux reservations. Hispanics have also joined and constitute a thousand or two members.[3]

Immigration has profoundly shaped the American Bahá'í community's ethnic composition. During the war in Vietnam the Bahá'í Faith in Southeast Asia particularly attracted ethnic Chinese and Hmong hill people; they have been especially numerous among the groups fleeing Vietnam. Bahá'í teaching efforts in refugee camps attracted thousands of Cambodians and Laotians to the Bahá'í Faith as well, and many of them came to the United States. As a result the American Bahá'í community has several thousand Bahá'ís of Southeast Asian background; no one knows exactly how many there are. In some cities--such as Portland, Oregon, and Lowell, Massachusetts--Southeast Asian Bahá'ís are a majority or substantial minority of the Bahá'í community. The Islamic Revolution in Iran also forced tens of thousands of Bahá'ís to flee that country and about ten thousand have settled in the United States, especially in greater Los Angeles.

What attracted this remarkably diverse community to a single religion? The Bahá'í teachings consist of the ideas enunciated by Bahá'u'lláh (1817-92), whom Bahá'ís regard as the bearer of a new revelation from God and the fulfillment of the prophecies of the previous religions. His teachings have been interpreted, clarified, and expanded by a line of successors: `Abdu'l-Bahá (1844-1921), Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957) and the Universal House of Justice (a nine-member body elected every five years, starting in 1963). The writings of all three are considered authoritative and binding on all Bahá'ís worldwide.

Central to the Bahá'í religion's appeal have been two teachings: the oneness of religion and the oneness of humanity. The tenet of oneness of religion asserts that each of the major religions of the world was founded by a *Manifestation of God* whose teaching constituted a divine revelation. Thus Bahá'u'lláh is viewed as only the latest Manifestation in a list that includes Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Zoroaster, Krishna, and Buddha. The oneness of religion also involves a corollary principle that all the religions of the world have promised a Messiah figure who would come and usher in a golden age; those promises, Bahá'u'lláh asserted, were fulfilled by him and his religion. Bahá'u'lláh specifically claimed to be the return of Christ and to fulfill biblical prophecy. This claim was the principal reason two thousand Americans became Bahá'ís between the years 1894 and 1900; it remains a popular aspect of Bahá'í teaching in the rural south today. The Bahá'í claim to fulfill Islamic, Zoroastrian, and Jewish prophecies attracted thousands to the Faith in nineteenth-century Iran; the more general Bahá'í claim that all religions ultimately can be traced to a divine revelation and that they all promise the coming of Bahá'u'lláh were factors in attracting Southeast Asians and native Americans to the fold.

The Bahá'í principle of the oneness of humanity has been another consistent source of appeal. The American Bahá'ís early recognized that the oneness of humanity meant that they had to teach their religion to all types of people, and that they could not form racially or ethnically segregated Bahá'í communities. The Washington, D.C. Bahá'ís took the lead in teaching African Americans the Bahá'í Faith in 1903; by 1909 about a dozen blacks had become Bahá'ís (in a community with about seventy Bahá'ís altogether) and in spite of resistance by some white Bahá'ís, who maintained the time for integration had not come, the African Americans were integrated into the white community. In 1911 the Washington Bahá'ís elected Louis G. Gregory, the leading black Bahá'í, to the local Bahá'í governing body; in 1912 Gregory was elected to the national Bahá'í coordinating body as well by delegates representing all the Bahá'í communities in North America. In 1912 Gregory married a white Bahá'í. The union was the first racially integrated marriage in the American Bahá'í community; `Abdu'l-Bahá, who was visiting the United States at the time and who had actively encouraged their courtship, praised interracial marriage as a demonstration of the love that is possible between the races.[4] `Abdu'l-Bahá also spoke extensively about the dangers facing the United States if it did not overcome its racial divide; he set the tone for future Bahá'í concern about the issue.

While integration of races and ethnic groups in the American Bahá'í community has never been perfect or without controversy, it has consistently been a priority of the American Bahá'ís, and explains why persons of varied ethnic backgrounds have been able to coexist in local Bahá'í communities. Intermarriage among these groups is a sign of their acceptance of each other. The American experience has helped set the tone for Bahá'í communities worldwide.

While the American Bahá'í community has influenced many Bahá'í communities around the globe through its traveling Bahá'í teachers, its *pioneers* (unpaid voluntary missionaries) and its publications, other communities have strongly influenced the Americans as well. This is especially true of Iran; Persian Bahá'ís have settled in the United States since 1901 and have been active as leaders in the American Bahá'í community. But undoubtedly the strongest source of influence from outside the United States has been the head of the Faith (`Abdu'l-Bahá from 1892 to 1921, Shoghi Effendi from 1921 to 1957, and the Universal House of Justice since 1963), located in Haifa, Israel. Because the head of the Faith has binding authority to interpret the Bahá'í scriptures, set major policies, and overrule decisions of local and national Bahá'í governing bodies, the development of the Bahá'í Faith worldwide is coordinated. If the understanding of the Bahá'í Faith in one country develops in a direction that the head of the Faith does not desire, the head will take steps to correct the situation. Consequently any study of the American Bahá'í community cannot treat it in a vacuum, but must consider the role of the Bahá'í World Center.

CONTEMPORARY ISSUES IN THE AMERICAN BAHA'I COMMUNITY

Any discussion of the American Bahá'í community in the 1990s must include a discussion of what issues are "hot" in the Bahá'í community and which are not. But such a discussion must begin with the recognition that the Bahá'ís, within their own community, do not think in terms of "issues." Their primary concern is with community priorities, which are largely set by their institutions, not by the Bahá'ís individually. Furthermore, the American Bahá'í community has been heavily, but by no means completely, insulated from the intellectual trends in American society by the consistent focus of the Bahá'ís on their scriptures and their obedience to their elected Bahá'í institutions. Finally, the Bahá'í religion has elaborate rules of discourse that strongly direct and sharply limit the nature of discourse among Bahá'ís.

For over sixty years, the highest priority of the National Spiritual Assembly--the nine-member elected governing body of the Bahá'í Faith in the United States--has been teaching the Bahá'í Faith to others. Each American Bahá'í is encouraged to set a goal of bringing one new person into the Bahá'í Faith each year; to host an informal meeting in his or her home for teaching others (called a fireside) at least once every Bahá'í month; and by word and deed to proclaim the Bahá'í Faith in an appropriate fashion to everyone he or she can. American Bahá'ís fall far short of the teaching ideals set for them: growth currently averages about three percent a year, not one hundred percent, and the majority of the nation's population still knows little or nothing about the Bahá'í religion. While the high expectations generate some discouragement, American Bahá'ís are generally optimistic that in the future the Bahá'í Faith will grow rapidly in the United States and eventually--in centuries--it will become the predominant religion of the country. Monthly Bahá'í community meetings are usually dominated by reports of teaching successes or by consultation on new efforts to take the message of Bahá'u'lláh to the public. A new technique that has stimulated successes has been "teaching institutes": any group of Bahá'ís can come together to form these informal teams to study the Bahá'í scriptures together and teach the Faith to others, and each institute sets its own goals and makes its own plans. Such team efforts have strengthened individual initiative by providing it with a peer support network.

The second priority of the National Spiritual Assembly-- especially over the last decade--has been fostering racial unity and equality in the American Bahá'í community itself. Shoghi Effendi identified racism as "the most challenging issue" facing the American Bahá'ís, and his phrase has become a watchword. Many local Bahá'í communities hold one or more meetings every year where the Bahá'í standard of racial equality is discussed.

In the last decade Bahá'í efforts to combat racism in American society have also greatly increased. Bahá'ís have long been involved in the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Civil Rights movement; in the first two they have provided local leadership. In the last decade increasing numbers of Bahá'ís have been asked to serve on city Human Relations Commissions; more and more local Bahá'í communities are collaborating with religious and human rights groups to sponsor projects to educate the public about racism. In 1991 the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States issued *The Vision of Race Unity,* a public statement of the Bahá'í understanding of the racial challenges facing America; a campaign was initiated to give copies of it to government officials and leaders of thought. A second, more ambitious statement is in the planning stage. One result of the Bahá'í Faith's growing visibility in the area of race relations was the appointment, in 1992, of a representative of the National Spiritual Assembly to the rank of Commissioner on the Martin Luther King Federal Holiday Commission.

There are other "official" issues in the American Bahá'í community of lesser importance, such as the role of women in the Bahá'í Faith and educating Bahá'í children in the religion, but space does not allow a discussion of them. Unofficial issues also exist but describing them systematically is impossible because no polls of Bahá'í attitudes have ever been taken, and no relevant statistics have been collected.[5] Furthermore, the Bahá'í rules of discourse emphasize that discourse must occur in such a way as to maximize unity and minimize disunity. The Bahá'í scriptures make it clear that unity is incompatible with the creation of special interest groups within the Bahá'í community or the division of the Bahá'ís into competing factions. Unity is currently understood by the Bahá'í community to mean that Bahá'í institutions can be publicly criticized only in ways that are respectful of their authority; that individuals are almost never publicly criticized; that all discussion of issues must avoid polarization; and that all arguments made in a Bahá'í context must be built on principles articulated in the Bahá'í scriptures. Under such circumstances many issues current in American society--such as which politicians to vote for in elections, or eliminating sexist language in publications, or the Bahá'í position on abortion, or the role of homosexuals in civil society--are discussed little or not at all in a "public" Bahá'í context.

BAHA'I IMPACT ON AMERICAN CULTURE

It is always difficult to assess the impact of a particular movement on American society or American culture as a whole. Ideas may be borrowed from the movement by society, but sometimes the borrowing goes from society to the movement instead, and sometimes an idea arises almost simultaneously in both.

Though it has steadily grown over the last century, the American Bahá'í community remains small, perhaps one twentieth of one percent of the total American population. There are many examples of small movements' having a noticeable impact on American culture or American religion; Unitarianism, Theosophy, and Vedantism are good examples. But for a small movement to produce a large impact on the American scene, three conditions usually must be fulfilled. First, the movement must advocate ideas--usually a few simple ones--that resonate strongly with existing trends in the culture. Second, the movement must be able to advocate those ideas in a language that is appropriate and effective in the society outside it. Third, the movement must have articulate spokespersons who are also leading intellectual or literary figures in the culture. Usually the presence of the first two virtually assures the third.

Historically, the Bahá'í community has rarely been able to fulfill these three requirements for influence. The basic Bahá'í teachings are usually expressed in a Bahá'í terminology that is difficult to translate into mainstream language. Further, the ideas usually are part of a much larger complex of Bahá'í teachings and cannot be separated from them. For example, the application of the principle of interracial and interethnic unity to society is difficult because Bahá'í scripture prohibits Bahá'ís from partisan political activity and breaking the law.[6] Consequently few prominent blacks and few Civil Rights leaders have been attracted to the Bahá'í Faith.

The Bahá'í vision of a united, peaceful world, similarly, has been of limited appeal outside the Bahá'í community because it cannot be established through partisan political efforts. Furthermore, the Bahá'í conception of world unity and of interreligious relations are dominated by the belief that the new world order envisioned by the Bahá'í scriptures can occur only if the world accepts Bahá'u'lláh as its Lord.

In spite of these caveats, the Bahá'í Faith has had some impact on American culture in the areas of racial integration and the peace movement. The fact that the American Bahá'í community has been racially integrated since its establishment has been an encouraging example to others. Bahá'ís generally bring an optimistic idealism to efforts to foster interracial unity or world peace, which is usually appreciated and welcomed. In both areas the Bahá'í Faith has attracted a few converts from among prominent thinkers and has influenced the thinking of non-Bahá'ís somewhat.

CURRENT PRIORITIES AND CONCERNS

Currently the American Bahá'í community is enjoying better public recognition than ever before. Newspaper articles mentioning the Bahá'í Faith have increased in number considerably in the last few years, and now the majority of articles do not focus on the persecution of Iranian Bahá'ís, but on the American Bahá'í community itself.[7] Anti-Bahá'í materials (usually produced by Fundamentalists) are still relatively rare. The United States Congress has passed five resolutions condemning the persecution of Iran's Bahá'í community and has even held three Congressional hearings on the treatment of Iran's Bahá'ís, which concretely demonstrate that the American Bahá'í community has been able to muster some political influence on Capitol Hill. The Bahá'ís have also collaborated with other human rights organizations such as Amnesty International in their efforts to secure Congressional ratification of the United Nations Convention on Genocide, and are currently working on the ratification of four other treaties.

April 1992 to April 1993 is a Holy Year for Bahá'ís because it marks the centenary of the passing of Bahá'u'lláh. Only one other Bahá'í Holy Year has ever been proclaimed before: 1953, the centenary of the beginning of Bahá'u'lláh's mission. During 1992-93 Bahá'ís are to reflect on Bahá'u'lláh's mission; the National Spiritual Assembly has also called on the American Bahá'ís to rededicate themselves to the establishment of racial unity. The Holy Year began with the election of twelve new National Spiritual Assemblies, primarily in countries of the former Soviet bloc where the Bahá'í Faith was severely proscribed until a few years ago. On 29 May 1992 several thousand Bahá'ís gathered in Haifa, Israel to commemorate Bahá'u'lláh's passing at his mausoleum.

In late November 1992 the second Bahá'í World Congress was convened in New York; 27,000 Bahá'ís from around the world attended the four-day event.[8] The themes of the Congress were a celebration of Bahá'u'lláh's mission, of his establishment of a Covenant to maintain the unity of the Bahá'í Faith, and of the growing strength and diversity of the Bahá'í world community.

In February 1993 the first official translation of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Bahá'u'lláh's book of laws, was released to the world; the book is expected to have a deep impact on the Bahá'ís, and will probably shift their emphasis from an enunciation of Bahá'í social principles toward a proclamation of the significance of Bahá'u'lláh and his teachings to humanity. The Holy Year also saw the application for the first time of an important law of the Kitab-i-Aqdas to Bahá'ís outside the Middle East: the law of huququ'llah, which calls for the payment of a nineteen-percent tithe on one's surplus income to the Bahá'í World Center.[9] So far the American Bahá'í community has greeted the law quite positively, and contributions to the other Bahá'í Funds have not declined significantly.

THE FUTURE

History has shown that great increases in the numbers of American Bahá'ís occur when social turmoil is high; the Bahá'ís experienced large increases in the late 1960s, the 1930s, and the 1890s. If American society enters another period of turmoil, a substantial increase in Bahá'í numbers may occur. If, on the other hand, society remains more or less as it is now, Bahá'í growth is likely to remain in the range of three to five percent per year for the foreseeable future. Even at that rate the American Bahá'í community is likely to reach a quarter million members in about fifteen years, and a half million members in about thirty years.

Growing size and influence will also spark a much more thorough investigation of the American Bahá'í community by outsiders. One result of that investigation will be the asking of tough questions about the many ways the Bahá'í religion's teachings deviate from cultural norms. The Bahá'í rules of discourse, discussed in cursory fashion above, are only one example of an aspect of the Bahá'í Faith that differs markedly from accepted practice in the United States. If the Bahá'í religion is ever to have substantial influence in the United States, the Bahá'í distinctives--both positive ones from a cultural point of view, such as racial integration, and negative ones, such as restrictions on discourse--will also have to be explored and sharply debated.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Hatcher, William S., and J. Douglas Martin. The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984.
  2. Smith, Peter. The Babi and Bahá'í Religions: From Messianic Shi'ism to a World Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987.
  3. Stockman, Robert H. The Bahá'í Faith in America, Volume One: Origins, 1892-1900. Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1986.

ENDNOTES

1. The Bahá'í population of the contiguous forty-eight states was about 110,000 in 1992, but Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico together have about six thousand more. Reconstructing the membership figures for the American Bahá'ís decade by decade is complicated by changing definitions of membership and poor data collection, but the following numbers have been determined: From 1899 to 1921 the number of Bahá'ís ranged between 1500 and 2500, depending on how many of the Bahá'í sympathizers one includes. In 1936 the membership had risen to 2584; in 1944, to 4800; in 1956, to 7000; in 1963, to 10,000; in 1969, 13,000; in 1971, 31,000; in 1974, 60,000; in 1979, 75,000; in 1987, 100,000.

2. Gayle Morrison, *To Move the World: Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Unity in America* (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982) 204.

3. No comprehensive ethnic survey of the American Bahá'í community has ever been undertaken. The numbers of minorities given in this paper are estimates made by various offices at the Bahá'í national headquarters in Wilmette, Ill.

4. The life of Louis Gregory is throughly documented in Morrison, *To Move the World.*

5. I refer to such issues in American society as abortion, euthanasia, party politics, and homosexuality; without surveys of Bahá'í attitudes it is impossible to discuss in a scholarly way the role of these issues in the Bahá'í community. There is also the question of "schismatic" Bahá'í groups; four small ones (with a total membership of about a thousand) exist in the United States. But Bahá'ís have almost no contact with these groups and the issues that brought them into existence thirty or more years ago are of no contemporary interest to Bahá'ís.

6. The reason partisan political activity and violation of the law are prohibited is because of the Bahá'í emphasis on the concept of unity. Partisanship divides political elites into competing factions, whose chief loyalty is to maintenance of their own power, not to what is right or what is best for society. The rule of law is essential for the maintenance of social order, and therefore for maintaining unity. Consequently the exalted standard of unity which Bahá'ís proclaim precludes Bahá'ís from join political parties, taking positions in partisan issues, and breaking the law in order to change social practices.

7. The Office of Public Information at the Bahá'í National Center supplied the following statistics: from May 1989 through April 1990, 4340 newspaper and magazine articles appeared in the United States; from May 1990 through April 1991, 3628; from May 1991 through April 1992, 3855; from May 1992 through November 1992, 5202. The increase in 1992 reflects publicity generated by the Bahá'í Holy Year.

8. An excellent summary of the World Congress's purpose and its events may be found in *One Country* 4:3 (July-Sept. 1992). A thorough description of the events, with numerous photographs, may be found in *The American Bahá'í* 23:19 (December 31, 1992).

9. The huququ'llah is paid on nonessential property and assets; it is not paid on one's food, lodging, clothing, transportation, and other essentials. Many Bahá'ís never are able to pay any huququ'llah at all. It functions more like a religious "luxury tax" than a tithe.

Addenda:

1. Transliteration has been dropped. Italics converted to *asterisks* and bold face into ALL CAPITALS. Footnotes marked by [square brackets].

2. This was the final draft and predates Talisman by about a year. Hence it reflects my pre-Talisman views, which may have changed over the last two years.

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