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Baha'i Faith in America, by William Garlington:
Review

by Peter Terry

2017
Review of: The Baha’i Faith in America
Written by: William Garlington
Publisher: Westport: Praeger, 2005, dist. by Kalimat Press as vol. 21 of Studies in the Babi and Bahá'í Religions
Review by: Peter Terry

The Baha’i Faith in America, by William Garlington, published by Praeger in 2005 and reprinted by Rowman & Littlefield in 2008, is the only book of its kind. And as such it tells the story well, until its author’s cut-off date, 2000. In fact, not much new has happened since then. The hope, on the part of most Baha’is, that the Ruhi curriculum and its correlated core activities which were adopted by the Baha’i institutions worldwide around twenty years ago, would yield fruit in stronger communities and a much larger membership have not been realized. The hope, on the part of some Baha’is, that this standard approach would give way to individual, local and national community initiatives akin to those that have flourished in the past has also not come to pass. So, in many regards, the Baha’i community remains in the same place it was when Dr. Garlington wrote this book.

This is a book that is hard to evaluate. It is not a thoroughly academic survey of its subject, for such a treatment would necessitate more systematic and critical reference to the copious scholarly literature on various aspects of the Baha’i Faith and its American version. Nor is it a book for the general reader who may be presumed to know nothing of this religion. The author uses much terminology in such a way as to presume that his readership is either Baha’i or well acquainted already with the subject. Nor does it offer a consistently emic perspective, for, as has been pointed out by other reviewers already, it does not represent the conventional internal Baha’i self-understanding, as represented by registered members of the religion who publications are carefully vetted by Baha’i institutional authorities and with the aim of protecting the Baha’i brand and standardizing the Baha’i message. It is not even a marginal emic perspective, for while the author was an adherent of the religion for a period of time, he had long since abandoned that association by the time he authored the book. Hence, the book sets out to do something imprecise but perhaps original -- to depict the Baha’i Faith in America from an etic perspective but with influences from the academic literature, from the author’s personal experience, and with an eye towards appealing to Baha’i readers and to readers from the general public.

It was inevitable that Baha’i readers and academic readers would find fault with this book, and that former Baha’is would find much to appreciate in it. But what of the general public? There are a few indications that at least some general readers have found the author’s approach to be balanced, non-partisan, and well-informed. So perhaps Dr. Garlington has accomplished what he set out to do.

To review the specific contents of the book, it begins with a general introduction to the Baha’i Faith, adhering in this section very closely to the themes and sequence that have been adopted by a number of Baha’i authors. There is very little in this section that would surprise a Baha’i reader. The author cites a selection of the Baha’i doctrines -- the transcendence of God, the concept of Manifestation, the principles of progressive revelation and religious unity, the nature and purpose of man, the unity of religion and science, the oneness of mankind, the equality of men and women, world government and universal education, and the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty. Conspicuously missing from his survey is any mention of peace. This is quite surprising, considering the emphasis given to this theme in the writings of Baha’u’llah and the writings and discourses of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. It is also surprising because it has been the cause of some tension in the Baha’i community every time a major military conflict has arisen. Indeed, the roots of the disillusionment of many young Baha’is with their religious leadership can be traced to some degree to the public stance taken by the Baha’i institutions towards the Vietnam War, and the subsequent taboo nature of virtually any reference to war in Baha’i discourse since the 1970s.

Garlington’s summary of Baha’i history and Baha’i administration are conventional and closely adhere to the emic perspective. However, in doing so, they represent a missed opportunity. The unfolding of American Baha’i history is very closely aligned with conflicts that arose in the course of Baha’i history, conflicts over who was in charge and who should be in charge, conflicts over who represented the true inheritance of Baha’u’llah, who was a true Baha’i. I suggest that the reader read Part II of the book before reading Part I. In that way, the reader’s understanding of the general features of the Baha’i Faith will be nuanced, informed by the actual experience of the American Baha’is.

All introductions to American Baha’i history written by Baha’is have started with Ibrahim George Khayrullah (1849-1929), and have made little reference to the other people who played seminal roles in the development of the religious community in its earliest years, including Anton Haddad, Hájí `Abdu’l-Karím-i-Tihrání, Mirza Hasan-i-Khurasani, Mirza Abu’l-Fadl Gulpaygani and Mirza Assadullah. It is a peculiar and self-defeating preoccupation, considering that the outcome of the influence of Khayrullah was decidedly negative after a few years. Garlington is to be commended for having provided some information about the other Persian Baha’i teachers, although he does seem to indicate that their influence was largely inadequate to the task of retaining and strengthening, let alone expanding the community after the defection of Khayrullah. Nor does he refer to the early contributions of Ali Kuli Khan or Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, both of whom were active as translators and teachers in the American Baha’i community well before ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s long visit of 1912.

In depicting the principal establishment and consolidation of Baha’i institutions as an achievement accomplished during the period of Shoghi Effendi’s governance of the global Baha’i community, Garlington again adheres closely to the narrative espoused by Baha’i writers about the topic. However, he refers often enough in the previous chapter, to local and national institutions established by Baha’is, from the 1890s, and their development under the guidance of ‘Abdu’l-Baha that this narrative is somewhat qualified. This is an important issue, because a contingent of Baha’is claimed that the Baha’i community could not be organized, that its message could not be trademarked, in other words that the individual was supreme ... and they did so from the time of Khayrullah’s defection. That struggle with institutional authority continued, in many different cases, throughout the period of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s leadership, and continued under the global Baha’i governance of Shoghi Effendi.

When Garlington looks at the period of 1958 to 2000, he passes over the leadership vacuum left by the Guardian in one paragraph, and immediately addresses the civil rights movement. While race relations had been a theme of Baha’i discourse and action since Louis Gregory’s pilgrimage to ‘Akka in 1910 (see: http://239days.com/2012/04/23/this-shining-colored-man/), when ‘Abdu’l-Baha began to write about the subject in some detail. By the time of his visit to North America in 1912, there is lots of evidence that the Baha’i community had taken this message to heart, and that they were prepared to put it into practice. Many manifestations of that were found during his visit, including in the election of Gregory to a national Baha’i institution, his marriage to a white woman, his honored seat assignment by ‘Abdu’l-Baha at a formal high-society dinner in the nation’s capital. While the work in race amity gatherings and organizations by Baha’is took place a decade later, this was not because the Baha’is were lacking commitment to racial amity, or that Louis Gregory was inactive. It was because Americans were receptive to a more organized approach at this later date. The full scope and scale of Gregory’s work prior to 1921 has not been properly appreciated. Again, to his credit, Garlington depicted this early work of the Baha’i community in favor of improved race relations. However, his placement of this discussion in the context of a different epoch of the historical development of the community, that is, the period in which Shoghi Effendi was the Guardian may be somewhat confusing for the reader.

What this reader found quite disconcerting is that Garlington did not point out with more emphasis the tensions attendant upon the transitions of Baha’i leadership. While he says that Shoghi Effendi “was forced to take extended leaves of absence in Europe” he does not explain why he absented himself. Nor does he even refer to the conflict among the sons of Baha’u’llah after his death in 1892, which were to play out in the course of the establishment of the Baha’i Faith in America. Of even greater consequence historically for the young religious community, was the expectation of all Baha’is that Shoghi Effendi would appoint a successor as Guardian of their Faith, and his failure to do so. His death, in 1957, without appointing a successor and without having established the Universal House of Justice had devastating impact upon the Baha’is, and this was particularly to be the case with the American Baha’is. In one paragraph, Garlington discusses the assumption of leadership by the Hands of the Cause, and the failed attempt by one of the Hands, Charles Mason Remey, to be recognized as the successor to Shoghi Effendi. But this leadership conflict was to be the source of much of what was to come next in the development of the community. While the election and governance of the Universal House of Justice is dealt with in matter of fact manner, the fraught context of this institutional transition is not examined.

Garlington sought to close his book with an examination of “contemporary issues. In his expanded effort to do so, he refers to “the Baha’is and 9/11,”and to “current priorities.” We might have expected a discussion of global warming, of the first Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, of Islamic jihad, of the rise of China, of LGBTQ issues. But there is no mention of these issues, that were current in 2000 and prior to the book’s first publication, in 2005. Instead Garlington refers to the membership of women on the Universal House of Justice; individual rights and institutional infallibility; fundamentalism, liberalism and Baha’i scholarship; abortion, capital punishment and homosexuality.

While the question of membership of women in leadership roles in religious organizations has become increasingly important to many people of faith, this is not a big issue either for Baha’is or for the world at large. Some religious communities are welcoming women to join their highest levels of governance, while many are not. This has not resulted in millions of people changing their religious affiliation. On the contrary. The religious communities that are experiencing the fastest growth are, without exception, directed by institutions made up exclusively of men. This is an issue that is important to a contingent of liberal, mostly American Baha’i academics.

The tension between individual rights and institutional infallibility has received some attention in the academy and among liberal religionists, but the Roman Catholic Church has emerged from this discussion fully intact in the authority of its hierarchy, and the Baha’i Faith seems to have done so as well. Perhaps this is because the Papacy is currently occupied by an advocate of liberation theology and an avowed leftist, and the Baha’i leadership is following along similar lines. In any case, the manifestation of this tension which has occupied international attention since 2000 is the Islamic jihad movement, which accords the individual who is doing what he considers to be the will of God complete authority to impose his will upon others. It is not the institutions which are infallible for those involved in this movement, it is the individual. The institutions which get in the way of Islamic jihad must all be destroyed, and the ultimate responsibility for making this happen is the individual. There is certainly a dream of a caliphate, but it is the individual jihadis who are doing the damage. This certainly contextualizes the tension feltby liberal Baha’is between their American and academic rights to freedom of speech (and the press) and the insistence by Baha’i institutions that they retain undisputed authority to censor all Baha’i discourse.

This issue of who is ultimately in charge of what is called Baha’i is also embodied in the issue described by Garlington as “fundamentalism, liberalism and Baha’i scholarship”. It hinges upon some assurances by ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi that Baha’i discourse would be temporarily subject to institutional review and governance, and the claims of the liberal American Baha’i academics that the time has come for this stricture to be abandoned, at least with regard to their scholarly discourse. They are humiliated that they are subject to vetting, and by persons who are less well-informed than themselves -- not only is this humiliating because it presumes that they are ignorant, but also because such vetting, which required of scholarly publications by fellow academics, is anathema to the academy when carried out by religious institutions, or by governments. They are humiliated, and many are simply not willing to undergo this humiliation, and so they resign from membership in the religion. Their presumption is that the Baha’i community is meant to be democratic in its operations, and not dictatorial. While it may have included elements of monarchy and aristocracy in the past, those elements have no business being kept on now that all non-democratic governments have been either destroyed or been discredited. Furthermore, they believe, there is no excuse for Baha’i governance to retain even a shred of the authoritarian, considering that its decision-making institutions are elected and its appointed institutions are consultative. Liberal Baha’is are a significant faction in the United States, and have been throughout its history. They believe in a vision of the Baha’i Faith which may well be a projection of their own wishes, rather than grounded in the Baha’i teachings or in the historical necessities of the religion.

Finally, “abortion, capital punishment and homosexuality” are issues that have been taken up by the left in America and many other countries, and in many nations abortion is freely available to all women, capital punishment is abolished, and homosexuality is decriminalized and same-sex marriage legal. Since Baha’is are enjoined to uphold their governments and obey the law, whatever views they may have about these three issues they are obligated to behave like the other citizens of the lands they inhabit. Those Baha’is who believe that abortion is always wrong, that capital punishment is justifiable, that homosexuality is unnatural and sinful are at liberty to change their residence to countries which uphold these values. But Baha’is are in no different position than Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and a host of other Christian denominations, as well as Orthodox Jews, shariah observing Muslims, and no doubt many other traditional religious communities in having teachings related to these issues that are not implemented in North America, Europe and many other countries. The same could be said for pre-marital and extra-marital sex, for public nudity, for drinking alcoholic beverages, for smoking marijuana, for gambling, for swearing ... indeed a host of behaviors are currently allowed by law in many of the countries where Baha’is live. But there are nonetheless millions of religionists living in those countries who do not believe that such behaviors are appropriate, and probably quite a few who actually don’t do those things, even though they are legal. What makes these issues, for the liberal, American Baha’i scholar I suspect, is that the authentic Baha’i positions on these issues are not liberal, not leftist, and not those embraced by the academy. In other words, most liberal, American Baha’i scholars do not believe in these positions and if they do they would never tell their friends and family and associates, because none of them would share such beliefs.

The introduction and conclusion of this book, which, despite my criticisms, is the only one of its kind and well-written and fully comprehensible to most collegiate level readers, seem to propose that the Baha’i community become something more akin to the Reform movement among Jews, or the Unitarian Universalists among Christians. That is, that it abandon traditions that are not valued by secularists and liberals, that it follow popular trends in social justice that have been adopted by the left in North America since the 1960s, that it becomes a thoroughly progressive movement, abandoning everything from its past that is not fully acceptable to liberal Americans. This reader doesn’t think that is going to happen, and thinks it more likely that the Baha’i Faith will continue to evolve along the lines that have defined its existence for the past century. There is one option, however, that has been largely unexplored, which might take Bahá'ís in a different direction. It turns out that they have something to say about peace-making. If they were to take actions that match up to their avowed convictions, they could earn great renown in this field of endeavor. And we can agree that we would all prefer to live in a garden of peace than in a graveyard of war. To quote the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, in a letter to the people of the world: "Indeed one’s righteous deeds testify to the truth of one’s words."

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