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Abstract:
Response to Cole's article in the same issue, which analyzes the dissolution of the Bahá'í local assembly of Los Angeles in 1986-88 by the US NSA.
Notes:
Juan Cole's article, to which this piece responds, is available online at www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai/2000/dialala2.htm

"Race, Immorality and Money in the American Bahá'í Community: Impeaching the Los Angeles Spiritual Assembly," by Juan Cole:
Commmentary

by Robert Stockman

published in Religion, 30:2, pages 133-39
2000-04
"Race, Immorality, and Money in the American Bahá'í Community: Impeaching the Los Angeles Spiritual Assembly"
Author: Juan Cole
Publisher: Religion, May 2000, 30(2), pages 109-125
Review by: Robert Stockman
[1]

    An article about racial and ethnic diversity in a new religious movement, about that community's capacity to attract converts from various backgrounds, and its ability to deal with internal crises resulting from its diversity, holds the potential to illuminate our collective understanding of topics in the sociology of religion that have become increasingly significant in the last decade. When the article deals with race, immorality, money, and impeachment as well it even promises to be an entertaining read. But a careful examination of Juan R. I. Cole's "Race, Immorality, and Money in the American Bahá'í Community: Impeaching the Los Angeles Spiritual Assembly" raises important questions about its methodology, structure, and content.

      The article is based on "unpublished interviews and drafts done by anonymous reporters for the short-lived Bahá'í magazine, dialogue, which was forbidden to publish these materials by the NSA, as well as upon follow-up interviewing with members of the Los Angeles Bahá'í community" (p. 3). What sort of drafts and interviews were they? Was the work scholarly, journalistic, or amateurish? Did the authors have any training, and was the work analytical? Is all the research ten years old, or has any been conducted since dialogue closed its doors in 1989? Is it possible that the magazine was "forbidden" to publish the material because of its uneven or poor quality? A lack of description of the materials and how they have been used leaves the reader wondering about the reliability of the information on which the article is built. The fact that many paragraphs have no footnotes at all is methodologically suspect. While the author refers to "one of my interviewees" (p. 28) there are no footnoted interviews by him.

      Furthermore, when one considers that the minutes of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States and of the Los Angeles Spiritual Assembly are unavailable because they are, by law, confidential (because Assemblies exercise a pastoral function and thus their minutes contain information about the conduct of individuals that it would not be ethical to disclose), one realizes that two significant sources of information are unavailable and inevitably the article must be incomplete. This requires caution when drawing conclusions about the motivations of Bahá'í institutions and their officers; even if solid evidence can be provided, inferences of motive remain inferences.

      When one examines the reasons the article gives for disbanding the Los Angeles Spiritual Assembly, one sees the difficulties that are caused by the available sources.[2] Official reasons for the disbanding are imperfectly represented in the materials and information about institutional reasoning is completely absent, while the possible ambiguities in and confusions about the official pronouncements are amply documented. Perhaps the reasons for the Assembly's disbanding were clear to the majority of the Los Angeles Bahá'í community and the materials oversampled the concerns and complaints of a minority; but without surveys it is impossible to know at this late date. It is surprising that only a few phrases and portions of sentences are quoted from the National Spiritual Assembly's lengthy July 21, 1986 letter to the Los Angeles Bahá'ís stating the official reasons for the disbanding, a letter that was subsequently published in the August 1986 issue of The American Bahá'í, the national Bahá'í newspaper.[3]1: But if any confusion remains at this late date, an effort could have been made to interview or e-mail members of the National Spiritual Assembly for clarifying comments.

      Complicating the difficulties caused by the sources is a structural problem: the article presents short summaries of official statements about the reason the Los Angeles Assembly was disbanded with so many caveats and questions from the archival materials that one is left wondering exactly what was going on. Obviously, for reasons of space, one cannot publish the full transcripts of the various Bahá'í business meetings that occurred, and the reader must rely on the author to be selective in summarizing those meetings, but one is left with a concern that possibly more effort could have been made to reconstruct the official reasons for disbanding the Los Angeles Assembly.

      The article makes no distinction between scholarly discourse--where in hindsight points must be argued completely and backed with evidence--and the sort of give and take conversation--which is informal and often requires discretion--that occurs in Bahá'í community business meetings where difficult decisions are discussed and debated. It would not be reasonable to expect members of the National Spiritual Assembly to present an academic case for their decisions in the latter environment, nor would it be reasonable to expect that they would present all the possible reasons for their decisions while some matters were still being resolved. Thus, for example, the article notes that Dr. Robert Henderson, in a talk on March 14, 1987, stressed as a reason the Los Angeles Assembly was disbanded the problem caused by the financial losses of the Los Angeles Bahá'í bookstore, but comments that he did not mention the problems that led to a lawsuit against the Assembly by a renter of its facilities, or the allegations that the Assembly may have made a loan to one of its members (p. 15).[4] But it would not be unusual to remain silent about lawsuits while they are proceeding in order not to jeopardize their results, and there is no way to know whether the issue of the loan had been resolved at that point, and if so, how it was resolved.

      Elsewhere the article notes that Henderson stated that "we don't know about the process of building a Bahá'í community in a metropolitan environment" and concludes that this is a reference by Henderson to "a general Bahá'í bias against cities" (p. 25). In the 1950s, an urgent need to disseminate the Bahá'í Faith widely led to a call that large urban Bahá'í communities reduce their size through voluntary outmigration to places lacking Bahá'í communities, and while calls for dispersion of urban Bahá'ís have been made since 1963, they have not held a prominent place in plans to spread the Bahá'í Faith. It seems more likely that the comment refers to the fact that because of international guidelines for setting the jurisdictional boundaries of local Bahá'í communities, most Bahá'í communities in North America have 9-15 adult members; few have more than 100 adult members, and therefore the Bahá'í Faith has not yet acquired experience in managing larger communities.[5]

      In spite of the difficulties of sources and structure, if one reads between the lines one can construct a picture of what happened. For several years before the Los Angeles Assembly was disbanded in July 1986, it had serious problems of financing and constructing a new Bahá'í Center and had ceased to devise plans to integrate its various minority groups (p. 17); the National Spiritual Assembly appointed an executive committee to work with the Assembly to resolve its problems as early as 1983 (p. 9); over a three-year period the Assembly was unable to resolve its financial difficulties or diminish ethnic tensions that are natural in any racially and ethnically integrated group and may have been unusually great in Los Angeles; the Los Angeles community would have gone bankrupt if drastic action had not been taken (p. 10); at least two members resigned from the Assembly, one out of frustration (p. 7) and one feeling the Assembly should have been dissolved a year before it was (p. 6); the Assembly "appeared to have been unequal to the challenge" of financing and staffing the center (p. 13-14); the Assembly had ceased to act when Bahá'í laws were violated by Bahá'ís (p. 21); the Assembly ceased to keep minutes, indicating a serious level of administrative breakdown (p. 9); and the Bahá'ís in one region of the city became so concerned they proposed a plan to resolve the problems (p. 31).[6] This lengthy list appears to flesh out quite well the National Spiritual Assembly's official and "major reason" (p. 6) for dissolving the Assembly, namely, "the inability of the Spiritual Assembly to cope with the demands of the administration of the community's spiritual and operational affairs" (p. 6).[7] What additional reasons would the National Spiritual Assembly need to disband the Los Angeles Assembly when it already had so many? The article, surprisingly, only hints at the possible problem of cost overruns in converting a former bowling alley into the new Los Angeles Bahá'í Center, a potentially significant reason for the National Spiritual Assembly to act.[8] The article even notes that the National Spiritual Assembly as a body met with the Los Angeles Assembly to discuss disbanding it before making the move public (p. 6), an act showing respect for that institution.[9]

      The article's problems of sources and structure continue in discussion of the twenty-one months before the Los Angeles Spiritual Assembly was re-established in April 1988. The National Spiritual Assembly appointed a six-member administrative council consisting of Bahá'ís living outside the city to run the community and a "Council of Nineteen" consisting of Los Angeles Bahá'ís to oversee teaching, consolidation, and publicity efforts. The article says it rotated the membership of the Council of Nineteen "to create a wider base of administrative experience" (p. 7-8). All of this, presumably, was done to give the Los Angeles Bahá'ís the maximum freedom to elect a new Spiritual Assembly. Had the National Spiritual Assembly wished to signal which nine people it wanted the Los Angeles Bahá'ís to elect to the new Spiritual Assembly in 1988, the best way to do so would have been to appoint a single administrative committee consisting of nine Los Angelenos, rather than giving the significant responsibility to six people living outside the city limits (and therefore ineligible for election to the Assembly) and creating an advisory body of at least nineteen Bahá'ís from within the city (thereby diluting the power of incumbency).

      A month after the Council of Nineteen was appointed--and twenty months before the eventual election of a new Spiritual Assembly--a photograph of the new body was published on the cover of the Los Angeles Bahá'í Journal. One is puzzled why the article construes the event as the "spread" of a "tactic" of "subtle campaigning" that had "long been mastered by several members of the NSA" (p. 8). Is it not natural that the Los Angeles Bahá'ís would want to see a picture of the advisory body helping to run their community? Would not such a photograph help confer both legitimacy and humanity to the body? Is there evidence that the decision to publish the picture was made by the National Spiritual Assembly rather than independently by the editor of the Journal or by the six-member administrative committee? Is there evidence the picture was published in order to "subtly campaign"? Surely the picture would have been more effective as a campaign poster if it had appeared twenty months closer to the election.[10]

      One also wishes the article explained how the disbanding was a "failure" and how it can assert that the "NSA had become convinced of the failure of their highly interventionist experiment" (p. 23).[11] In the twenty-one months between the disbanding of the old Assembly and the election of the new one, the article asserts, the community's debts were paid off (p. 24) and the teaching work had picked up, resulting in 50 declarations in 1986 (p. 24), an increase over the 39 declarations in 1985 (p. 39).[12] The article is silent about additional problems faced by Persians and blacks, hence one can infer the issue of integration was being managed acceptably. Elections for Bahá'í Spiritual Assemblies are normally held on April 21 each year; April 21, 1987, was only nine months after the old Assembly was disbanded and possibly was too soon to elect a new Assembly; April 21, 1989, would have been thirty-three months after the disbanding, a long time for a community to wait without electing an Assembly; the National Spiritual Assembly could not have abolished the Los Angeles Spiritual Assembly permanently because it is not the business of a national body to administer a local community permanently; why not re-elect the Assembly in 1988?

      One also wonders why the election of "three or four former members" to the new assembly was seen "as a vindication of the body that had been dissolved" (p. 28).[13] According to the conventions of mathematics, this means five or six of the original nine members were not re-elected; the turnover was far greater than would normally happen in an election (p. 31) and produced a substantially different body. It would be especially valuable to know how many of the new members had served on the Council of Nineteen and what the racial and ethnic makeup of the new spiritual assembly was.

      Based on the preceding reconstruction of the disbanding and reelection of the Los Angeles Assembly, it is difficult to know what to make of the last four pages of the article, which offer as a thesis statement "I believe these considerations [disbanding the Assembly because of issues of immorality and race] were subsidiary to power and money" (p. 28). Surprisingly, the thesis is argued without footnoting a single fact or allegation that is made. Citations would have been particularly useful in the paragraph stating that Robert Henderson, the secretary-general of the American Bahá'í community, "in the hardline Bahá'í political culture of top administrators," had to "demonstrate an ability to impose his will on the national community" (p. 29). The article gives as evidence the fact that he dissolved "a number of local assemblies early in his administration" and made "threats to others" in order to "assert and consolidate national control" (p. 29). It even describes the disbanding of local assemblies as "routine" (p. 1). But the article fails to mention a single assembly that was disbanded by the National Spiritual Assembly other than Los Angeles.[14] When I spoke to six or seven persons knowledgeable about national Bahá'í affairs only three disbandings of spiritual assemblies in the last twenty years could be recalled; one in 1982 or 1983, before Henderson was Secretary-General; the disbanding of the Los Angeles Assembly in 1986; and one in 1997.[15] Furthermore, none of the assemblies were disbanded "because their members have flagrantly violated Bahá'í law" or were deemed "morally corrupt" or even "insufficiently loyal" (pp. 1, 4), reasons the article cites why Assemblies "usually" are disbanded (p. 1). The fact that the Los Angeles Assembly's disbanding was indeed almost "unprecedented" (p. 1) explains why some Los Angelenos were so startled or dismayed by it.[16]

      The arguments about monetary motivations of the National Spiritual Assembly also require examination. The article notes that at one point only 125 of the 1200 adult Bahá'ís in Los Angeles were giving to the local Bahá'í fund and this "reduced the NSA's receipts from the Los Angeles community to almost nothing" (p. 30). But the article does not consider the fact that Bahá'ís are encouraged to contribute directly to all Bahá'í funds (local, national, continental, and international). Many of the wealthiest Bahá'ís have an understandable concern that their contributions are spent well--most of them have money because they know how to manage it--and some of them will shift part of their charitable giving to the national Bahá'í fund if the local Bahá'í fund appears to be mismanaged. Without access to information from the national Bahá'í treasurer's office about the volume of direct contributions from Los Angeles Bahá'ís, the assumption that the Los Angeles community had ceased to be a "profit center" (p. 11, 30; a particularly invidious term) is questionable. To add undocumented speculation that the members of the National Spiritual Assembly acted out of fear that their compensation was in danger--which amounts to only a small fraction of the total national Bahá'í budget--seems unwarranted.[17]

      Finally, one must return to the promising hints about an examination of the problems of a multiethnic, multiracial, globalized new religious movement with which the article began. Beside the problems of sources and structure that haunt the examination of the integration of Persian Bahá'ís into the American Bahá'í community--almost all the information comes from a manuscript "The Persian Bahá'ís of Los Angeles" of unknown authorship, length, approach, and quality--one never gains a sense of what the Los Angeles Bahá'ís sought to achieve, what they accomplished, how this compared to other Bahá'í communities in the United States, and what it might tell us about globalized new religious movements.[18] A study of the integration challenges faced by a diverse new religious movement requires a long timeframe, not just three or four years of impressionistic information mostly focusing on a particular institutional crisis. A solid piece of sociological research on the subject could have been of great use to the academic community. Instead, we have an article that asserts that the Bahá'ís have a history of forgetting what they sought to do and why they sought to do it.

Bibliography
National Spiritual Assembly.
National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States to the Bahá'ís of Los Angeles, July 21, 1986, quoted in The American Bahá'í, vol. 17, no. 8 [August 1986], p. 28.

National Spiritual Assembly.
Annual Report of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States, 1986-87, p. 12).

Stockman, Robert H.
"United States Bahá'í Membership and Enrollment Statistics, 1894-1993," unpublished paper.

Notes
    [1] For the sake of professional ethics, the author wishes to disclose that in addition to his position as an instructor in the Religious Studies Department at DePaul University, he is also director of the Research Office of the Bahá'í National Center, Wilmette, Illinois; that he is employed by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States; and that he has neither sought nor used confidential information available through his position in composing the article. Furthermore, he feels it should be stated that he was recommended to the journal to reply to "Race, Immorality, and Money," by the author of that article.

    [2] One wonders why the disbanding is referred to as an impeachment in the article's title. "Impeachment" popularly means "to accuse of treason or other high crime or misdemeanor." It can also mean "to prosecute," "to bring a charge or accusation against; to accuse of, charge with" (Oxford English Dictionary). Since it is not clear what "charges" were leveled against the Los Angeles Assembly, and the article describes no formal procedure against the Assembly, the word seems misleading.

    [3] The letter is described as written to the Los Angeles Bahá'ís by Robert C. Henderson, but it is in fact from the entire National Spiritual Assembly and constitutes an official communication about the disbanding.

    [4] Robert C. Henderson is the current secretary-general of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States, and therefore is chief executive officer of the American Bahá'í community. The article states he was "mysteriously elected to the NSA (in a way filling a slot vacated by his mother, Wilma Ellis)" (p. 14), but Henderson was elected to the Assembly in December 1982 (just a year and a half after his mother had been elected in May 1981), and she continued to serve on the Assembly until November 1985. Henderson served as a member and chairperson of the National Teaching Committee from 1973 to 1980, a position of considerable importance that probably made him well known to the delegates who elect the National Spiritual Assembly.

    [5] It is not clear to what "a general Bahá'í bias against cities" refers. Most likely it refers to the same idea as the statement "many traditionalist Bahá'ís believe cities are in imminent danger of evaporation" (p. 19). There are indeed a few Bahá'ís who believe this, but no one has conducted a survey to determine the percentage (which, in my opinion, is quite small; perhaps a few percent). To assert it is a "general bias" against cities requires documentation; to assert, further, that it is a value held by "many traditionalist Bahá'ís" requires some definition of what the term "traditionalist" means, how it differs from "conservative," and what values it encompasses. Further, one would like to know what a "conservative Bahá'í" is (the term is not defined) and would like to understand some statements about them, such as why they are said to have "despised" the youth culture of the 1960s (p. 13) and how it is known to be the case.

    [6] This action of a Bahá'í neighborhood Feast district calls into question various statements in the paper that Bahá'ís must have "unswerving obedience" to their Assembly (p. 31) and that they are "forbidden to utter any public criticism of their religious bodies' policies or decisions" (p. 2). On the contrary, Bahá'ís are encouraged to offer their ideas and opinions to Assemblies frankly and freely. What is forbidden, however, is to allow the discourse to break down into wrangling and dissension; before that happens Bahá'ís should take their concerns to a higher administrative institution, such as the national spiritual assembly in the case of problems with the local spiritual assembly.

    [7] The full text reads "the inability of the Spiritual Assembly to cope with the demands of the administration of the community's spiritual and operational affairs and the resulting deterioration of conditions in the community" (National Spiritual Assembly 1986, p. 28).

    [8] I have no documentation that there were cost overruns and mismanagement of the effort to reconstruct the Bahá'í Center, but when I met members of the Los Angeles Bahá'í Community in the mid 1980s this was the major reason they mentioned to me for the disbanding of the Los Angeles Assembly. The article asserts that because of the costs of building the new Center, it was "disliked by some NSA members" (p. 13), but no evidence for such an attitude is presented.

    [9] The fact that the National Spiritual Assembly as a body met with the Los Angeles Spiritual Assembly also clearly indicates that, contrary to inferences in the article that Secretary-General Henderson was acting unilaterally, the disbanding of the Los Angeles Assembly was a collective decision of the National Assembly.

    [10] The issue of electioneering was also raised on page 20, where the article states that the "NSA appears to have been worried that the large influx of Iranian Bahá'ís would create a new voting bloc" and they would get voted out of office, consequently "in response" they "acted behind the scenes to close down regular scripture study sessions hosted by popular Iranian immigrant lay preachers." No names are given, of course, to protect reputations. My discussions with six or seven knowledgeable people have revealed only one possible case of an "Iranian immigrant lay preacher," not a group of them and certainly not a pattern of repression, as the article claims; furthermore the claim that "regular scripture study sessions" were shut down as a way of preventing subtle campaigning is an inference that may ignore contrary evidence. Rather than assert that a "campaign" has successfully prevented election of recent Iranian immigrants to the American National Spiritual Assembly (p. 20-21), it might be useful to probe the sociology of the community and the dynamics of elections to locate possible cultural causes.

    [11] I should add that in the various conversations I have had about the disbanding of the Los Angeles Assembly, no one has ever raised the question of whether the disbanding was successful; they all assumed that the Assembly was disbanded because of various administrative problems, and since the administrative problems did not recur with the election of a new Assembly, the effort was in some sense successful.

    [12] The article compares the 50 enrollments in 1987 with much larger numbers in the 1970s, but fails to note that the Bahá'í Faith grew throughout the United States--indeed, in Canada, Australia, and western Europe as well--at a much more rapid rate in the 1970s than it has ever since. If Los Angeles had 1,200 Bahá'ís in 1987 (p. 1), then 50 new Bahá'ís per year represent an annual growth rate of 4.2%, which was almost double the growth rate of the entire American Bahá'í community that year (2,630 declarations in 1987 for an overall membership of 107,088; see Stockman)

    [13] One wonders why research was not done to determine exactly how many former members were re-elected, since assembly membership is a matter of public record and the information should be readily available.

    [14] It should be noted that while the article states the secretary-general disbanded assemblies, in fact the secretary-general has no authority to do so. Only the full National Spiritual Assembly has the authority to decide whether local assemblies should be disbanded.

    [15] The article also alludes to the threat to disband assemblies and gives San Francisco as an example (p. 14). Discussion with various prominent Bahá'ís led me to discover only one possible example of a local spiritual assembly that came close to being disbanded, and it was not San Francisco. Charlene Maghzi (personal communication, October 7, 1999), a member of the San Francisco Assembly from 1975, had no recollection of any event that could be construed as a threat to disband the San Francisco Assembly, and noted that the National Spiritual Assembly trusted the San Francisco so much it gave that body principal responsibility for organizing the International Bahá'í Peace Conference in August 1986, an event attended by 8,000-9,000 people. A Bahá'í researcher who wishes to remain anonymous (personal communication, September 29, 1999) informed me that in the mid 1980s he investigated a rumor that the San Francisco Assembly was threatened with dissolution and found it to be untrue.

          More seriously, the article gives the disbanding of numerous unnamed assemblies and threats to disband numerous other unnamed assemblies as the only evidence that "authoritarian older members of the national assembly" were concerned to "assert the authority of the NSA over local bodies" (p. 14).

    [16] Several times the article hints that the Los Angeles Bahá'ís regarded the administrative committee and the council of nineteen as "illegitimate" (p. 23) but in reality the bylaws of the National Spiritual Assembly give it clear authority to act as it did and most Bahá'ís, presumably, were aware of this.

    [17] The national Bahá'í budget in fiscal 1986-87 was $7,645,000 (National Spiritual Assembly 1987, p. 12). The article notes that there is a "lack of reporting requirements on the precise use of funds in the budget" (p. 31), but local assemblies are required to maintain a budget and make reports to the local community about it, and are also required to carry out an annual audit of their treasury. The National Spiritual Assembly provides a lengthy financial statement in its published annual report and provides delegates to the annual national convention access to extensive financial printouts. It also hires a professional accounting firm to audit its books annually.

    [18] The article notes that "the question of whether assimilation was even a good goal seems not to have arisen in official Bahá'í discourse" (p. 17) but this assumes that a total assimilation was intended. The National Spiritual Assembly's continued support for study of the Persian language and for a society to promote Persian arts and culture, and its creation of a four-person department in the national headquarters to handle Persian-American affairs suggests a long-term commitment to Persian Americans as a distinct group within the American Bahá'í community. Because of the Bahá'í Faith's stress on unity, ethnically based Bahá'í communities have never been created; rather, local Bahá'í communities are supposed to be ethnically and racially integrated, and thus must deal with the resulting challenges diversity brings. It is difficult to imagine how a situation would arise whereby an ethnically-based subgroup of Bahá'ís would organize their own community and be "shunned" as a result (p. 18).
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