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                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Church and State – 1

On Iranian.com, one of the participants asked

“Is there any separation of state and religion in the “Bahai Administrative Order”, or the Bahai “sharia” is going to be the “order”?

My response (August 22, 2009)

Yes, there is: it is a fundamental principle in the Bahai teachings. The Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, wrote,

“Theirs is not the purpose,… to violate, under any circumstances, the provisions of their countrýs constitution, much less to allow the machinery of their administration to supersede the government of their respective countries.” (Shoghi Effendi, in The World Order of Baháu’llah 66.)

Abdúl-Baha wrote:

“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.” (Tablets of the Divine Plan 51)

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. … (Tablets of Abdúl-Baha Abbas vol. 1, page 6).

Baháu’llah 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….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…. .” (Gleanings, CII 206-7)

This is just a small sample of one of the central Bahai teachings, which is reiterated over and over in the Bahai scriptures. In lists of the Bahai Principles it is often called ‘non-interference in politics’ : the meaning is that religious authorities should not interfere in politics, and the other side of the coin is that the state should not interfere in matters of conscience. Abdu’l-Baha wrote a short book about the relationship between politics and the religious leaders, the Resaaleh-ye Siyaasiyyeh, which is free to download from the library at the Bahai World Centre site:

http://reference.bahai.org/fa/

My English translation of this book is published as the Sermon on the Art of Governance [the translation has since been retitled The Art of Governance]

Abdu’l-Baha also wrote a broader programme for the modernisation of Iran, called the `Resala-ye Madaniya.́ It is summarised in an article in the Encyclopaedia Iranica, electronic version , 2009 (use the search engine to find Madaniya, click on the title to get the full article); the Persian text is available at http://reference.bahai.org/fa/ and an English translation is available on the English part of the same site, under the title The Secret of Divine Civilization.

So the Bahai writings are quite clear in endorsing the separation of church and state.

The confusion on this point comes because there are similarities between the Bahai teachings about how the worldwide Bahai religious community should be organised, and how world politics should work. Baha’u’llah saw that the spirit of the age was moving away from absolutism and rule by “special people”, a move from absolute monarchy to democracy (he favoured constitutional monarchy), and from priestcraft to the participation of all the believers. Shoghi Effendi quotes him as saying “”From two ranks amongst men, power hath been seized: kings and ecclesiastics.” (in God Passes By, p. 230). You can see why the Bahai have been persecuted in Iran by Qajars, Pahlavis and Mullahs, and elsewhere by totalitarian regimes.

Because both religion and politics are affected by the same sea-change in the way the world operates, which Baha’u’llah attributes to the spread of “reason” to all the people, the Bahai writings about religion and about politics sometimes sound similar. The theme in both is that everyone can and should participate, not just an elite. There’s a ‘new world order’ (political) and a ‘Bahai administrative order’ (runs the Bahai community), a ‘commonwealth of nations’ and a ‘Bahai Commonwealth’ – a way of running a religious community when it is a common-wealth not a priestly hierarchy.

There’s a compilation from the Bahai Writings on Church and State on my blog, here, and if you go to the ‘categories’ list in the left column, one of the categories is ‘church and state.’

I also have a book on this topic:

Church and State, a postmodern political theology (2005) which is for sale from Amazon and Kalimat

~~ Sen McGlinn

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