Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Church and State – theological arguments

Hi XX,

You are right that the year 2000 thing is no big deal, as compared for instance to the dreams of seers and prophets for centuries past being fulfilled and humanity achieving unity. But in both teaching and apologetics, one has to respond to what comes. As you can see from the thread, the ‘failed prophecy’ was a serious attack

and it was also a serious issue for some Bahais who had spent the 90’s expecting some dramatic event to achieve the fulfilment of the prophecy on schedule. It can be important to clear away such clutter, precisely so that the really big issues come to the fore. I’ve also dealt with some of the other failed prophecy incidents you mention, in my blog at, such as those in Baha’u’llah and the New Era. That raises an important point: good apologetics is not defending one’s team regardless. When there is something wrong in Bahai secondary literature and this becomes an issue – or even before – we have to say ourselves that it is not right.

You asked “why is that [ the separation of church and state] good for society if religion is From God?” The answer that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha give is – not surprisingly – first of all theological and metaphysical: they do give pragmatic reasons why this works but that is secondary.

Abdu’l-Baha’s argument in the Resaleh-ye madaniyyeh ( text at and my translation at ) is that

“human society requires the training and cultivation of a true master, and … human souls need a governor, one who binds and restrains, … For the garden of his [God’s] creation cannot attain beauty, delicacy and plenty except through the training of the kindly gardener, the overflowing bounty from the realm of unicity, and the just governance provided by the government. ” (para 4)

“Now this prohibition and prevention, rules and restraints … is divided into two types. The first protector and restrainer is the power of governance that is related to the physical world, a power that guarantees happiness in the external aspects of human existence. It safeguards human life, property and honour, and the exalted quality and refined virtues of the social life of this illustrious race. Just monarchs, accomplished representatives, wise ministers, and intrepid military leaders constitute the executive centre in this power of governance, the axis of the wheel of these divine favours. … The second type of educator and governor of the human world is sacred and spiritual power: the heavenly Books that have been sent down, the prophets of God, and spiritual souls and devout religious leaders. For those in whom revelation descends and divine inspiration arises are the educators of hearts and minds, the correctors of morals. They beautify conduct and encourage the faithful. That is, these holy souls are like spiritual powers.” (Paras 5-6)

So one answer to your question is simply: because God says so. God has always guided humanity through two powers, the political and the religious. I will leave it to you to follow how Abdu’l-Baha works out this argument. It’s not a long book, but too much to summarise in an email. You can see that it is a combination of exegesis of scriptural texts, and historical examples.

The approach in the Iqan, especially in the second part, focusses more on the specific nature of the sovereignty of the Manifestations, arguing that “the sovereignty of the Promised Qa’im was purely a spiritual one, and not a material or political one…” ( Unfolding Destiny 425-6). Baha’u’llah says that his purpose in writing is “to reveal and demonstrate unto the pure in heart … that they Who are the Luminaries of truth and the Mirrors reflecting the light of divine Unity, in whatever age and cycle they are sent down … are invariably endowed with an all-compelling power, and invested with invincible sovereignty” … “even though to outward seeming they be shorn of all earthly majesty.” He takes the arguments for the non-literal interpretation of religious language developed in the first part of the Iqan, and applies them to the expectation which you have described yourself: “all the heavenly books proclaim the victory of the Promised One over all the world.” For example he cites words reportedly spoken by Jesus at his trial “Beholdest thou not the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and might?” In Baha’u’llah’s reading, this is not an eschatological promise of a future victory of the saints, but a claim about Jesus own sovereignty at that time, despite his powerlessness.

This sovereignty, he says “is not what this generation hath conceived and vainly imagined.” It is eventually demonstrated not by supplanting the temporal sovereigns and taking control, but rather when,”Sovereigns … bow the knee before His name.” It is proven by the “transmuting influence” they have on their followers. Then comes what I feel is the crux of the argument: “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, Whose majesty and power all things testify.” “Earthly sovereignty” he says, “is of no worth, nor will it ever be, in the eyes of God and His chosen Ones.

So where Abdu’l-Baha gives us a picture of God using two different agencies to tend the garden of humanity, the picture in the Iqan is rather of God selecting spiritual sovereignty for himself and his prophets and saints, and leaving temporal sovereignty to the kings and rulers. In Gleanings section 139 he writes “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 … ” and in Gleanings 102 he writes “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.” So there’s your second answer: the distinction between the political sovereignty of temporal rule, and the spiritual sovereignty of religion, is good and unavoidable, because God keeps his promises. God has “bequeathed” temporal sovereignty “unto the Kings and rulers of the earth.” “Out 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, …” (Gleanings sect 128)

As I said, these are theological arguments: they are not addressed to today’s secularists (who should rather be presented with the arguments for the need for religious and political authorities to work together, and for the vital role of religion in society). But they are the underpinning of the Bahai teachings on this: Bahai apologists should understand them, and they can be presented to religious intellectuals who are looking for ways to fit the evident effectiveness of the separation of church and state into a religious worldview. Naturally what Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha say on this is vastly broader and deeper than I have sketched here. It’s a sea whose outlines we can barely surmise.

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