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Church and State in Scripture

Posted by Sen on October 6, 2009

cimabue_detailIn a conversation with a friend about the translation of the 8th Ishraq (discussed here), I realised that he thought the whole question of the Bahai teachings on church and state hinged in some way on doubtful matters: on the translation of the Ishraqat, on whether the words “the consummate union and blending of church and state” had been interpolated into a report of Abdu’l-Baha’s words, (See the entry ‘A consummate union’), and such like.

Nothing could be further from the truth: the separation of Church and State does not depend on a single verse of Bahai scripture, it is one of the core principles of the Faith, stated in various terms by Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. It is often included (as ‘non-interference in politics’) in the various lists of the 10 or 12 essential Bahai principles. But the separation of Church and State is not just a Bahai teaching, it is solidly rooted in the Abrahamic tradition, from the days of Kings and Prophets to today. In the New Testament we find Christ saying:Buoninsegna_temptation

Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s. (Luke 20:25)

The Christian teaching also does not rest on a single verse. When Christ is tempted, the second temptation is worldly power ((Luke 4:5). At his trial, Christ declares “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). In the Epistle to the Romans we read “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God..” (13:1) The letter to Titus (3:1) and the first letter to Peter counsel obedience to magistrates and governors.

openquranIn the Quran, this principle appears in a form similar to John’s formulation, but the separation is more clearly applied within this world: Muhammad is the Messenger of God and leader of the religious community, but is not given any civil authority:

I [Muhammad] am not over you as a warder…(6:104)
We have not set you [Muhammad] over them as a warder, and you are not over them as a guardian. (6:107)
We have sent you to the people as a messenger … whoever obeys the messenger has obeyed God, and as for those who turn away, we have not sent you as a warder over them. (4:79-80)
We know what they say: you do not have the power of enforcement over them. Cause them to remember, through the Quran … (50:45)
(and many more similar verses)

The teachings of the Bab

Kitab-e Asma page

In a letter to the Shah, the Bab says “I have no desire to seize thy property … nor do I wish to occupy thy position” (Selections from the Writings of the Bab, 26). Shoghi Effendi says that the Babis involved in the Mazindaran and Nayriz upheavals categorically repudiated “any intention of interfering with the civil jurisdiction of the realm, or of undermining the legitimate authority of its sovereign,” (God Passes By 43) and that the Bab and his leading disciples had no political intent, for “the sovereignty of the Promised Qa’im was purely a spiritual one, and not a material or political one.” ( Unfolding Destiny 426). He supports this with reference to what Baha’u’llah, who was a contemporary and partial eyewitness, writes in the Kitab-e Iqan.


In the Writings of Baha’u’llah

Abdu’l-Baha gives us a summary of the themes of the Kitab-e Iqan: “… the Babi chiefs [i.e., Baha’u’llah] composed treatises …, they interpreted the sovereignty of the Qa’im as a mystical sovereignty, and His conquests as conquests of the cities of hearts, …” (A Traveller’s Narrative, 17) and Shoghi Effendi says that the theme of the Iqan is that “the sovereignty of the Promised Qa’im was purely a spiritual one, and not a material or political one…” (Unfolding Destiny, 425-6). Both sovereignties are real:iqan

Yea, the sovereignty attributed to the Qa’im and spoken of in the scriptures, is a reality, the truth of which none can doubt. This sovereignty, however, is not the sovereignty which the minds of men have falsely imagined.
… by sovereignty is meant the all-encompassing, all-pervading power which is inherently exercised by the Qa’im whether or not He appear to the world clothed in the majesty of earthly dominion. … You will readily recognize that the terms sovereignty, wealth, life, death, judgment and resurrection, spoken of by the scriptures of old, are not what this generation hath conceived and vainly imagined. Nay, by sovereignty is meant that sovereignty which in every dispensation resideth within, and is exercised by, the person of the Manifestation, the Day-star of Truth. That sovereignty is the spiritual ascendancy which He exerciseth to the fullest degree over all that is in heaven and on earth, and which in due time revealeth itself to the world in direct proportion to its capacity and spiritual receptiveness, … Kitab-e Iqan 106-8.

Baha’u’llah gives the example of Muhammad’s lack of worldly power during the time he was in Mecca, and contrasts it with the spiritual authority which was accorded to Muhammad in Baha’u’llah’s own time:

Ottoman-Sultans … how many are the Sovereigns who bow the knee before His name! How numerous the nations and kingdoms who have sought the shelter of His shadow, who bear allegiance to His Faith, and pride themselves therein! … Such is His earthly sovereignty, the evidences of which thou dost on every side behold. This sovereignty must needs be revealed and established either in the lifetime of every Manifestation of God or after His ascension unto His true habitation in the realms above. (Iqan 110-111)

The sovereignty of the prophets is the power to attract devotion and to change hearts, to reform morals and call forth sacrifices, to create a new form of human community. Later in the Iqan, Baha’u’llah refers to the Babi community itself as one of the signs of the sovereignty of the Bab (Iqan 234-5). Baha’u’llah attacks the millennialist expectation that the faithful will come to exercise worldly power:

Were sovereignty to mean earthly sovereignty and worldly dominion, were it to imply the subjection and external allegiance of all the peoples and kindreds of the earth – whereby His loved ones should be exalted and be made to live in peace, and His enemies be abased and tormented – such form of sovereignty would not be true of God Himself, the Source of all dominion, …
… the purpose of these verses is not what they have imagined. Nay, the terms “ascendancy,” “power,” and “authority” imply a totally different station and meaning. For instance, consider the pervading power of those drops of the blood of Husayn which besprinkled the earth. … Furthermore, call to mind the shameful circumstances that have attended the martyrdom of Husayn. … And yet, behold how numerous, in this day, are those who from the uttermost corners of the earth don the garb of pilgrimage, seeking the site of his martyrdom, that there they may lay their heads upon the threshold of his shrine! (Iqan 126-9)


It is essential to thoroughly understand how Baha’u’llah has defined terms such as authority, sovereignty, and dominion in relation to religion: the “earthly sovereignty” and “power” of religion is not excercised by becoming the government! Baha’u’llah writes in the Iqan that “earthly sovereignty is of no worth, nor will it ever be, in the eyes of God and His chosen Ones.” (Iqan 125). This is one of several references which show that he considered this not to be a new teaching, but to be part of the essential teaching of the ‘changeless Faith of God’ that is restated in each succeeding religion, and will not change in the future.

Baha’u’llah continues in the Iqan with two examples of the spiritual sovereignty of Jesus, citing words reportedly spoken by Jesus at his trial “Beholdest thou not the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and might?” Words like these are found in Mark 14:62, Matthew 26:64 and Luke 22:69, and are usually translated in the future tense. But in Baha’u’llah’s reading, this is not a promise for the future, but a claim by Jesus about his station and kingship even at that time, despite his apparent powerlessness.

In the middle period of his ministry, Baha’u’llah wrote a number of tablets to the Kings, and also the following to his own followers:Gleanings cover

Know thou that We have annulled the rule of the sword, as an aid to Our Cause, and substituted for it the power born of the utterance of men. Thus have We irrevocably decreed, by virtue of Our grace. Say: O people! Sow not the seeds of discord among men, and refrain from contending with your neighbor, for your Lord hath committed the world and the cities thereof to the care of the kings of the earth, and made them the emblems of His own power, by virtue of the sovereignty He hath chosen to bestow upon them. He hath refused to reserve for Himself any share whatever of this world’s dominion. … The things He hath reserved for Himself are the cities of men’s hearts, that He may cleanse them from all earthly defilements … (Lawh-i Nabil-i A`zam, in Gleanings CXXXIX 303-4).

And to another of his followers:

The one true God, exalted be His glory, hath ever regarded, and will continue to regard, the hearts of men as His own, His exclusive possession. All else, whether pertaining to land or sea, whether riches or glory, He hath bequeathed unto the Kings and rulers of the earth. From the beginning that hath no beginning the ensign proclaiming the words “He doeth whatsoever He willeth” hath been unfurled in all its splendor before His Manifestation. What mankind needeth in this day is obedience unto them that are in authority, and a faithful adherence to the cord of wisdom. The instruments which are essential to the immediate protection, the security and assurance of the human race have been entrusted to the hands, and lie in the grasp, of the governors of human society. This is the wish of God and His decree…. . (The Lawh-e Ashraf, in Gleanings, CII 206-7).

In the Surah-ye Bayan, Baha’u’llah writes:

handwriting_bahaullah-diamoOut of the whole world He hath chosen for Himself the hearts of men – hearts which the hosts of revelation and of utterance can subdue. Thus hath it been ordained by the Fingers of Baha, upon the Tablet of God’s irrevocable decree, by the behest of Him Who is the Supreme Ordainer, the All-Knowing. (Gleanings CXXVIII 279).

In his 1868 letter to Nasir ad-Din Shah of Iran, Baha’u’llah denies any ambition in the world, saying that it would be ridiculous for a powerless outcast to entertain such hopes:

Among the people are those who say “that youth desires only to perpetuate his name” and others say “he seeks the world for himself,” although I have not found any secure place in my days, on which I might stand. (Summons of the Lord of Hosts, 100)

In another section in the Tablet to the Shah, Baha’u’llah says

“rendering assistance to God” (nasrat) does not mean “contending or disputing with any soul” but rather “that the cities of men’s hearts, … should be subdued by the sword of utterance, of wisdom and of understanding.” (Summons 109)

The Bahais are to achieve victory (nasrat) only over the hearts of the people, for God siegener_kroenchen

… hath entrusted the kingdom of creation, its lands and its seas, into the hands of the kings, for they are, each according to his degree, the manifestations of His divine power. Should they enter beneath the shadow of the True One, they will be accounted of God, and if not, thy Lord, verily, knoweth and observeth all things. (Summons, 108)

Baha’u’llah’s letter to Pope Pius IX (1869) advises the Pope:

20baiocchi_detAbandon thy kingdom unto the kings, … Exhort the kings and say: ‘Deal equitably with men. Beware lest ye transgress the bounds fixed in the Book.’ “ … Beware lest thou appropriate unto thyself the things of the world and the riches thereof. Leave them unto such as desire them, and cleave unto that which hath been enjoined upon thee by Him Who is the Lord of creation. (Summons, 61)

Baha’u’llah’s Kitab-e Aqdas contains both Bahai religious laws and teachings about society, including the Church and State question. Shoghi Effendi says, “its Author – at once the Judge, the Lawgiver, the Unifier and Redeemer of mankind – announces to the kings of the earth the promulgation of the ‘Most Great Law;’ … disclaims any intention of laying hands on their kingdoms; reserves for Himself the right to ‘seize and possess the hearts of men…’ ”

In the Aqdas, Baha’u’llah lays the foundations of the ‘houses of justice’ at local and international levels, which are to govern the Bahai community, and also recognizes and honours the institution of human government, in the forms of monarchy and republican government, and enjoins all people to obey “those who wield authority.” So there is no possibility that Baha’u’llah first spoke of the sovereignty of human governments, in the Iqan, and later came up with the idea of Houses of Justice to supplant the kings and rulers. He deals with them both, in one core work, and never conflates the two. The provisions of the Aqdas, according to Shoghi Effendi, “remain inviolate for no less than a thousand years,” (God Passes By 211), and no Bahai institution is given authority to alter any of its laws or principles. The separation of church and state, announced as the doctrine of the two sovereignties in the Iqan, is anchored in a concrete institutional form in the separate addresses to the Houses of Justice and the Kings and Rulers in the Aqdas. Those who are unhappy with what Baha’u’llah has done here, will just have to wait for the next Manifestation – who will no doubt disappoint their hopes.

For our present purposes, the heart of the Aqdas is verses 82 and 83:stairway_kings_night3

Ye are but vassals, O kings of the earth! He Who is the King of Kings hath appeared, arrayed in His most wondrous glory, and is summoning you unto Himself … Arise, and serve Him Who is the Desire of all nations, Who hath created you through a word from Him, and ordained you to be, for all time, the emblems of His sovereignty.

By the righteousness of God! It is not Our wish to lay hands on your kingdoms. Our mission is to seize and possess the hearts of men. Upon them the eyes of Baha are fastened. To this testifieth the Kingdom of Names, could ye but comprehend it. Whoso followeth his Lord will renounce the world and all that is therein; how much greater, then, must be the detachment of Him Who holdeth so august a station! Forsake your palaces, and haste ye to gain admittance into His Kingdom. This, indeed, will profit you both in this world and in the next …

Note again the indication, in verse 82, that Baha’u’llah thinks of this principle as part of the essential teaching of all true religions, not as something that may be changed in the future.

As for Baha’u’llah’s Book of the Covenant, the Kitab-e `Ahd, part of Shoghi Effendi’s summary of its contents says that it:

GPB-cover2… directs the faithful to pray for the welfare of the kings of the earth, “the manifestations of the power, and the daysprings of the might and riches, of God”; invests them with the rulership of the earth; singles out as His special domain the hearts of men; forbids categorically strife and contention; commands His followers to aid those rulers who are “adorned with the ornament of equity and justice.” (God Passes By 239).

The part of this work that Abdu’l-Baha cites in his Risaleh-ye Siyasiyyeh, as a scriptural foundation for the separation of Church and State, reads:

uhjbuildingO ye the loved ones and the trustees of God! Kings are the manifestations of the power, and the daysprings of the might and riches, of God. Pray ye on their behalf. He hath invested them with the rulership of the earth and hath singled out the hearts of men as His Own domain.

Conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book. This is a decree of God in this Most Great Revelation. It is divinely preserved from annulment and is invested by Him with the splendour of His confirmation. Verily He is the All-Knowing, the All-Wise. It is incumbent upon everyone to aid those daysprings of authority and sources of command who are adorned with the ornament of equity and justice. (Tablets of Baha’u’llah 220-221)

Note that the above is addressed specifically to the “trustees of God,” — a term usuallly referring to the members of the Bahai Houses of Justice — who are told that their function is to aid the daysprings of authority, not to contend with them, much less supplant them! In another late work, his Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Baha’u’llah writes:

augustus-aureus-headsEvery nation must have a high regard for the position of its sovereign, … and hold fast his authority. The sovereigns of the earth have been and are the manifestations of the power, the grandeur and the majesty of God. This Wronged One hath at no time dealt deceitfully with anyone. … Regard for the rank of sovereigns is divinely ordained, as is clearly attested by the words of the Prophets of God and His chosen ones. He Who is the Spirit (Jesus) — may peace be upon Him — was asked: “O Spirit of God! Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not?” And He made reply: “Yea, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” He forbade it not. augustus_aureaus_tails2These two sayings are, in the estimation of men of insight, one and the same, for if that which belonged to Caesar had not come from God, He would have forbidden it. And likewise in the sacred verse: “Obey God and obey the Apostle, and those among you invested with authority.”… (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, 89)

In summary…

The separation of church and state, as distinct but interdependent organs within the body politic, is one of the key themes running through Baha’u’llah’s life work. He takes a single position, from his first major doctrinal work, the Kitab-e Iqan to his Will and Testament, the Kitab-e `Ahd and his last major work, the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf. He writes about this principle often and in the clearest terms, and what he says is explicitly a development of the earlier tradition, in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.


Abdu’l-Baha on Church and State

Abdu’l-Baha wrote a short book on the principles underlying politics, entitled the Resaleh-ye Siyasiyyeh, available in Persian from the Bahai Reference Library, which I have translated as the Sermon on the Art of Governance. [The translation has since been retitled The Art of Governance] This book is devoted on the one hand to the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, and on the other to the relationship between the religious and political orders. These two orders are described as two fundamental forces through which God has always – and will always – guide humanity. Religious leaders are described as “the fountainhead of the interpretation of God’s commandments (tashrii`), not of implementation (tanfīdh): the same two terms which Abdu’l-Baha uses again in his Will and Testament, the first referring there to the Universal House of Justice, the second to civil governments. There can be no doubt therefore that the principle set out in the Resaleh-ye Siyasiyyeh applies equally to the House of Justice:

…when the government requests an explanation concerning the requirements of the Law of God and the realities of the divine ordinances … they must explain what has been deduced of the commands of God, and what is in accordance with the law of God. Apart from this, what awareness do they have of questions of leadership and social development, the administration and control of weighty matters, the welfare and prosperity of the kingdom, the improvement of procedures and codes of law, or foreign affairs and domestic policy?

The same Will and Testament refers to the House of Justice, using the term bayt al-`adl, and gives it authority over the believers, and also refers to a Supreme Tribunal, using the term mahakame-ye umuumii. The membership, electorate, electoral method, principles of operation and purpose of the supreme tribunal are different to those of the Universal House of Justice, so there is no doubt therefore that Abdu’l-Baha at the end of his life was still thinking in terms of two forces or two orders, the religious and the governmental, just as ihe was when he wrote the Resaleh-ye Siyasiyyeh.

In one letter, he explains:

der-rufer-bO concourse of the Kingdom of Abha! Two calls to success and prosperity are being raised … The one is the call of civilization, of the progress of the material world. This pertains to the world of phenomena, it promotes the principles of material achievement, and is the trainer for the physical accomplishments of mankind. It comprises the laws, regulations, arts and sciences through which the world of humanity has developed, which are the outcome of lofty ideals and the result of sound minds, and have been achieved through the efforts of the wise and cultured, among the noble founders and their successors. The propagator and active power (naafidh, executive) of this call is just government.der rufer A

The other is the soul-stirring call of God and the sacred spiritual teachings, which are safeguards of the everlasting glory, the eternal happiness and illumination of the world of humanity, and cause attributes of mercy to be revealed in the human world and the life beyond. This second call is founded upon the instructions and exhortations of the Lord and the admonitions and altruistic emotions belonging to the realm of morality which, like a brilliant light, brighten and illumine the lamp of the realities of mankind. Its active power (naafidh) is the Word of God.
(Ma’ida-ye Asmani V:109-110, my translation, adapted from Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha 282-4.)

This principle of the ‘two calls’ (both of which we must answer in the affirmative) is reflected in some of Abdu’l-Baha’s more topical letters addressing issues that arose because of misunderstandings of the Bahai Faith among the Bahais, and anti-Bahai propaganda. In one such letter, Abdu’l-Baha instructed the Bahais to cease using the name “House of Justice” for their elected religious institutions:nsa_canada_2008b

The signature of that meeting should be the Spiritual Gathering (House of Spirituality) and the wisdom therein is that hereafter the government should not infer from the term “House of Justice” that a court is signified, that it is connected with political affairs, or that at any time it will interfere with governmental affairs. Hereafter, enemies will be many. They would use this subject as a cause for disturbing the mind of the government and confusing the thoughts of the public. The intention was to make known that by the term Spiritual Gathering (House of Spirituality), that Gathering has not the least connection with material matters, and that its whole aim and consultation is confined to matters connected with spiritual affairs. … (Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha Abbas vol. 1, 5-6)

This makes it quite clear that the principles regarding leaders of religion that he set out in The Art of Governance also apply to the Bahai elected bodies at the local and national levels: they do not form any part of the government, whether executive, judicial or legislative, and are not to interfere in any way with government matters.

He says that the Bahai teachings for society may be presented, and the relationship between Baha’u’llah and the Qajar and Ottoman government could be discussed, but he is anxious that the Bahais in America should be a religious community and not a political party:

Abdulbaha2It is very acceptable for you to present to them the excellent praises which the Blessed Perfection hath made in behalf of these two governments, the exhortations which He hath delivered for obedience to them and the prayers He hath written for the confirmation and protection of His Imperial Majesty the Shah. Likewise, the advices and recommendations that this servant [Abdul-Baha] hath written in Tablets to Persia and America; also the irrefutable command that the Blessed Perfection hath given in Tablets that the believers must obey the kings with the utmost sincerity and fidelity, and He hath forbidden them to interfere at all with political problems. He hath even prohibited the believers from discussing political affairs. (Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha Abbas, vol. 3, 497-8).

The last phrase clearly meant ‘[discussing political affairs in their communities]’ but must have led some Bahais to think that they were not to undertake the normal political duties of citizenship in a democracy. Abdu’l-Baha later clarified the issue:

JThompson-portrait-AB… Thou hast asked regarding the political affairs. In the United States it is necessary that the citizens shall take part in elections. This is a necessary matter and no excuse from it is possible. My object in telling the believers that they should not interfere in the affairs of government is this: That they should not make any trouble and that they should not move against the opinion of the government, but obedience to the laws and the administration of the commonwealth is necessary. Now, as the government of America is a republican form of government, it is necessary that all the citizens shall take part in the elections of officers and take part in the affairs of the republic. (Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha Abbas volume 2, 342-3).

From these letters it is clear that the principle of ‘non-interference in politics’ does not apply to the individual Bahai as a citizen, who is in fact required to participate in “the affairs of the republic” so far as this is legally allowed; rather it applies to the Bahai communities, Bahai meetings and Houses of Justice (temporarily renamed the Spiritual Assemblies), which must be spiritual, not political, in nature.

This is a permanent position, based on principle. In ‘The Tablets of the Divine Plan’ Abdu’l-Baha says: Temmenhausen_krone

Should they place in the arena the crown of the government of the whole world, and invite each one of us to accept it, undoubtedly we shall not condescend, and shall refuse to accept it.” (page 50)

In some of this talks, Abdu’l-Baha lists the core Bahai teachings, in the form ‘the first teaching is’ … ‘the second teaching is.’ Most of these are not authenticatable, because there are no Persian notes of what he said, checked by Abdu’l-Baha. But in one case, for a talk Abdu’l-Baha gave in London on 3 October 1911, there are Persian notes. In this exposition of core Bahai teachings, the ninth teaching reads:

Religion is separated from politics: religion does not enter into political matters, in fact, it is linked with the hearts, not with the world of bodies. The leaders of religion should devote themselves to teaching and training the souls and propagating good morals, and they should not enter into political matters.


Shoghi Effendi on Church and State

Shoghi Effendi picks up the same message as was preached by Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha before him. He echoes the last passage cited from Abdu’l-Baha when he writes that the Bahais must never “allow the machinery of their administration to supersede the government of their respective countries,” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah 66, the letter dates from 1932), so clarifying that non-intervention in politics does not prevent individuals ‘taking part in the affairs of the Republic’ (after all, Baha’u’llah had envisioned the possibility of a Bahai king taking the throne) but rather it applies specifically to “the machinery of Bahai administration” : the spiritual assemblies and houses of Justice which the Bahais must not allow to supersede the governments. In writing this, Shoghi Effendi was also clarifying his own 1929 letter which had referred to the Universal House of Justice as “the supreme organ of the Baha’i Commonwealth” and apparently led some people to envision the Universal House of Justice as a sort of world government.

Shoghi Effendi saw “…in the slow and hidden process of secularization [in Iran] … symptoms that augur well for a future that is sure to witness the formal and complete separation of Church and State.” (Baha’i Administration 149). He emphasised that the institutions of the Bahai Administrative Order exist to serve the Bahai religion, which is itself entirely non-political:UHJ_arc

This Administrative Order, … functions in strict accordance with the interpretations of the authorized Interpreters of its holy scriptures. … The Faith which this order serves, safeguards and promotes, is, it should be noted in this connection, essentially supernatural, supranational, entirely non-political,… (Statement to the Special UN Committee on Palestine, 1947).

Shoghi Effendi describes the distinction and relationship between the religious and political orders in terms of twin simultaneous historical processes, analogous to Abdu’l-Baha’s “two calls”:

“… each clearly defined, each distinctly separate, yet closely related and destined to culminate, in the fullness of time, in a single glorious consummation.

One of these processes is associated with the mission of the American Baha’i Community, the other with the destiny of the American nation. The one serves directly the interests of the Administrative Order of the Faith of Baha’u’llah, the other promotes indirectly the institutions that are to be associated with the establishment of His World Order. (The Citadel of Faith 31-2; see also The Advent of Divine Justice 85 – note the distinction between Administrative Order and World Order).

“The first process,” he says, entails both external expansion and the erection of the institutions of the Bahai Administrative Order. “It will be consummated through the emergence of the Baha’i World Commonwealth in the Golden Age of the Baha’i Dispensation.”

The second process — the parallel political track — is the development of a new political order, which “dates back to the outbreak of the first World War,” “received its initial impetus through the formulation of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points,” “suffered its first setback” when the American Senate failed to endorse the League of Nations, and developed, through the second World War, until:UN_building

It assumed a definite outline through the birth of the United Nations at the San Francisco Conference. … It must … lead, through a series of victories and reverses, to the political unification of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, to the emergence of a world government and the establishment of the Lesser Peace, as foretold by Baha’u’llah and foreshadowed by the Prophet Isaiah. It must, in the end, culminate in the unfurling of the banner of the Most Great Peace, in the Golden Age of the Dispensation of Baha’u’llah. (The Citadel of Faith 32-33).

Another text, ‘The Unfoldment of World Civilization,’ (1936) explains the implications of Baha’u’llah’s words “Soon will the present day Order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead” (Gleanings IV, 7) in terms of the second of the ‘two processes’ just mentioned: the development of a global political order. Shoghi Effendi sees negative signs indicative of the progressive decay of the old order, but also positive signs such as the acceptance in principle of the system of collective security that Baha’u’llah advocated:

Unification of the whole of mankind is the hall-mark of the stage which human society is now approaching. … Nation-building has come to an end. The anarchy inherent in state sovereignty is moving towards a climax. A world, growing to maturity, must abandon this fetish, recognize the oneness and wholeness of human relationships, and establish once for all the machinery that can best incarnate this fundamental principle of its life.
… The unity of the human race, as envisaged by Baha’u’llah, implies the establishment of a world commonwealth in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united, and in which the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded. (The World Order of Baha’u’llah 202-3.)

UN_building genevaWe can see that the ‘members’ of this commonwealth are states, not believers. This is a political union, uniting people of different creeds, in contrast to the Bahai Commonwealth, whose members are Bahais, as believers rather than citizens, and which is governed ultimately by the Universal House of Justice. (For more on the two commonwealths, see the entry on Two Commonwealths). Shoghi Effendi envisions that this machinery of world inter-state governance should be established “once for all,” so he can hardly have imagined it being replaced by the Houses of Justice or merged with them at some time in the future. He continues:

This commonwealth must, as far as we can visualize it, consist of a world legislature, whose members will … enact such laws as shall be required to regulate the life, satisfy the needs and adjust the relationships of all races and peoples. A world executive, backed by an international Force, will carry out the decisions arrived at, and apply the laws enacted by, this world legislature, and will safeguard the organic unity of the whole commonwealth. A world tribunal will adjudicate and deliver its compulsory and final verdict in all and any disputes that may arise between the various elements constituting this universal system. (The World Order of Baha’u’llah 203)

These institutions are all clearly political, inter-state bodies. Considering that this is a religious vision of society, the absence of religion is striking. Yet religion is present, not as an institutional element in the world government but as an underlying rationale for having world unity, and for having faith that it is possible:BeatSwordsIntoPloughshares

A world federal system, ruling the whole earth and exercising unchallengeable authority over its unimaginably vast resources, blending and embodying the ideals of both the East and the West … a system in which Force is made the servant of Justice, whose life is sustained by its universal recognition of one God and by its allegiance to one common Revelation – such is the goal towards which humanity, impelled by the unifying forces of life, is moving. (204)

In another of his letters, The Promised Day is Come, Shoghi Effendi deals with government at the national level and goes to some length to demonstrate that in its political teachings, the Bahai Faith endorses constitutional monarchy combined with democracy. He says that Baha’u’llah’s “teachings embody no principle that can, in any way, be construed as a repudiation, or even a disparagement, however veiled, of the institution of kingship” (page 71) – an institution that is entirely absent in the Bahai Administrative Order. The implication is clear: national governments and the Administrative Order are two separate things in Shoghi Effendi’s mind.


This is just a small sample of one of the central Bahai teachings, which is reiterated over and over in the Bahai scriptures, in hundreds if not thousands of verses from Baha’u’llah’s first works to Shoghi Effendi’s last breath. In lists of the Bahai Principles it is often called ‘non-interference in politics’ : the meaning is that religious authorities, including the machinery of Bahai Administration, should not interfere in politics. When combined with another Bahai teaching, that the state should not interfere in matters of conscience, this is recognisably the same as the ‘separation of church and state’ in modern political discourse. It is a recognition of the distinct spheres of government and of religion, and the necessary differences between the institutions of religion and government.

In the thinking of Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi — and unlike, for example, the constitutional arrangements of the USA or France — this separation is not an end in itself, but the foundation for a partnership between the state and religious institutions in furthering the common weal. But that is another story.

~~ Sen McGlinn ~~
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2 Responses to “Church and State in Scripture”

  1. Kurt said

    I have noticed in my own study of the Guardian’s letters and books that Shoghi Effendi challenged that 1930-1940s leadership and Bahai oommunity to dig deeper, to see the bigger picture. I sometimes think we Bahais forget that other religions had their golden ages too and perhaps we should look at those periods with much greater scrutiny to determine just what made them so golden. We may be surprised that our discoveries provide solutions to today’s problems as well.

    For example, 13th century England produced a golden age of economic stability such that the average working man could provide all his family’s necesities with only 14 weeks work. The rest of the year he hunted, fished, had leisure time for spiritual pilgrimages and entertainment. Every table had bread and meat. Every one wore good wool. Every village had technical schools that trained the villagers who donated some of their time to the building of the Medieval Cathedrals. That is a golden age! The sovereign crown issued and regulated the money supply debt free. Most importantly usury (loaning money at interest) was forbidden. Why? Because the Church said so or because God said so? What does Baha’u’llah say about usury? He forbids usury and gambling as did the manifestations before Him because over time it tends to concentrate wealth where it least belongs. Is there a spiritual lesson to be learned here about running an economy in such a way that the masses are not burdened with debt and taxes to service the debt, have more leisure time to pursue spirituality and simply not have to worry so much about the small stuff that creates tensions and leads to the bickering and fighting like echoed in the US these days.

    I noticed that Shoghi Effendi’s description of the world commonwealth leaves little room for conglomerates of corporate and financial power as we see in the world today. I makes me wonder if he did not foresee it and thereby overlooked it or if he definitely sees no place for it in the World Order of Baha’u’llah? In any case, his vision of the lesser peace is remarkably simple to acheive through financial reforms, debt forgiveness, etc, basically accounting entries. Is there room in the Faith for workable solutions to the world’s problems in civil society? Or are we to look down our noses at a disintegrating financial system and a declining civilization as materialistic? I would prefer the former even though over and over again our leadership emphasizes the latter which seems appropriate to the 30-40s when Europe and Asia exploded but less so seventy-eighty years later. I do not know personally any Bahai who can relate Shoghi Effendi’s marvelous letters to the current world in any meaningful way. And that saddens me to no end. It makes me suspect that, due to human error, religions never really develope quite as intended by the Manifestations. That the first centuries of a religion provide the greatest and sincerest latitude in personal beliefs and practices. And that what becomes rigid orthodoxy over centuries begins in the second century of ecclesiastical/administrative order. Still, it is a marvelous process to behold.

    Thanks for all your essays and thoughts. They are practical and insightful and help those of us who don’t have the time or inclination to piece the puzzle together or to unravel all the knots of this very new faith.

  2. Sen said

    There’s a relevant discussion in the email archive:

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