"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
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The article is based on "unpublished interviews and drafts done by anonymous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
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,
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
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
 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
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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).
 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
 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.
 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.
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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).
 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.
 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.
 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).