Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Political involvement

This was on soc.religion.bahai, but I have not recorded the year !

On Mar 23, 3:05 am, GG wrote:

> Sorry but I disagree entirely. Whether Sen or others appreciate this
> point, there is a developing cynicism towards old party style
> politics. Americans are abandoning their faith in a system rooted in
> dirt, smear, and ultimately this party based system.

I agree : it is not old style parties I am thinking of. The old
ideological and competing parties have had their day – and it has
been a fairly brief day, from the early-19th to the late-20th

I’ve discussed the future of political parties and Bahais’
participation in them in my book, Church and State, at pages 346-356 and
particularly in the section on open democracy at pages 350-352. I
distinguish there between ideological parties, a relatively recent
phenomenon, and parties in the sense of the organisation of social
interests who should be represented in decision-making.

I start by taking issue with various scholars who have attributed
Baha’u’llah’s stance in recognising the authority of kings and rulers to
pragmatic considerations relating to the vulnerability of the young Bahai
community. While it is reasonable to suppose that the safety of the Bahai
community must have weighed heavily with Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, they
both wrote works advocating and foretelling parliamentary democracy and
other democratic reforms in Iran, which in itself would have been an
offence if they had been living in that country. They had these books
printed in Bombay and distributed through the Bahai community, which must
have been regarded as an act of sedition by the Iranian government.
However great their concern for the safety of the Bahai community may
have been, it did not weigh heavily enough to make them withdraw from a
position of principle in relation to democracy, so it seems unwarranted to
regard their recognition of the legitimacy of the Qajar state as a mere
tactical position. This recognition has more substantial roots in
Baha’u’llah’s vision of the deep structure of the universe (i.e., his

Peter Smith’s excellent paper on ‘Millenarianism in the Babi and Baha’i
Religions’ (1982) represents the Bahai Faith as advocating progressive
political positions, such as constitutional rather than absolute monarchy
and the development of an international political order, but also says
that the Bahais “were not to concern themselves with political affairs.”
This is an odd comment coming from a historian, since Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha were both
closely involved in progressive political movements, while not having any
political ambitions for themselves, and Abdu’l-Baha wrote to Thornton
Chase that

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.

(Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v2, p. 342)

So in a democracy, Bahais MUST “take part in the affairs of the republic.”

Any number of examples could be given in the Bahai secondary literature
that give the same impression, that the Bahai teachings are against any
involvement in political affairs. This contains an element of truth, but
embraces at least three confusions. The first is historical, and one would
have expected Smith to avoid it. The practical instructions given to
Bahais regarding political behaviour, and the example set by their
leaders, have changed over time and in different countries. For example,
in Iran the constitutional revolution of 1905-6 led to a marked withdrawal
of the Bahai community from involvement with progressive political
movements, partly to preserve the safety of the community and partly
because conservative religious forces had seized control of the coalition
backing the revolution, and these forces insisted that the Bahai minority
should be excluded from the political process. This was the price that
‘progressives’ such as Afghani and Malkum Khan paid, for having used
religious networks to mobilise support for democratic change, not
realising apparently that the separation of church and state is not a
fruit of democracy and
progressive government, but its foundation.

Later, in the United States of the McCarthy era, the Bahais found it
impossible even to register as a voter without becoming entangled in the
polarized party-political system. From the 1940s to 1960s, Bahais from
the United States were instrumental in founding many of the Bahai
communities outside of the Middle East. To this day one finds Bahais who
think that Bahais are required to abstain from voting, and may even hope
that the political system will eventually be destroyed by such concerted
abstention. But as Abdu’l-Baha’s letter to Thornton Chase shows, the
principle that Bahais must support and obey their governments means that,
in a democratic society, they must fulfil the political duties of
citizenship, as participants. This is the general principle. There
are exceptional circumstances in which this is not possible: in Iran
because the price of participation would have been to deny being Bahai, in
McCarthy’s America because the price was signing up for one or other
mainstream party and against the communist party. Such temporary
exigencies should not be confused with political quietism as a matter of
principle (as in some world-deny ing millennialist movements), and the
present situation should not be read back into the time and teachings of
Baha’u’llah. World peace is the goal, and Abdu’l-Baha has stated that the
enfranchisement of women and their participation in politics will be a
factor in securing it:

“If, in the future, women like unto men are given the franchise,
assuredly they shall prevent the occurrence of war ..”
(letter of Abdu’l-Baha printed in Star of the West Vol. 10 No.3. April 28
1919, 39-40)

Are we to suppose that Bahai women should participate in politics, and
Bahai men should not? Or that women in general should participate, but the
Bahai women, who have as much stake in achieving lasting peace as any of
their sex, and more guidance on how to go about it, should not lift a

Clearly the institutional separation of politics and religion cannot mean
that believers cannot be political: this is an aburdity.

The second confusion here is between taking part “in the affairs of the
republic,” which is encouraged, and joining external organizations,
whether political, religious or social. Bahais are called on to support
and participate in progressive movements, (Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i
Administration 126, 174; God Passes By 330.) but also to exercise great
caution in joining organizations so far as this implies giving allegiance
to them or to an ideology, or supporting the organization’s actions and
programme as a whole. In particular they are not permitted to be
registered members of the Bahai community and at the same time members of
a church or a political party. This policy dates from the 1920s
[footnoted sources] and, in my opinion, will eventually have to be changed.
One would not expect the writings of Baha’u’llah or Abdu’l-Baha to
mention it, since institutionalised political parties in the contemporary
sense did not exist in the Middle East of their time. Indeed ideological
political parties are a relatively recent and, I think, short-lived
phenomenon. Prior to the 20th century, parties such as the Tories and
Whigs of English politics, or
those in France and the United States, represented interests rather than
ideologies. Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha supported a consultative
government in which various interests, such as the nobility, agricultural
interest, labour and capital would be represented, and it is hard to see
how the interests and concerns of farmers, for example, can be
represented in parliament unless they are organised to choose their
representatives and to maintain contact with them. Twentieth-century
ideological parties, on the other hand, were built on a homogeneity of
class interests that no longer exists, and on a claim that one ideology
could provide the coordinating function in society. The policy in force
in the Bahai community from the 1930s to today, that Bahais cannot be
members of a political party, is evidently defensible so far as it refers
to an era of ideological politics. But since democracy requires political
parties, or something with the same function and a different name, and the
Bahai teachings evidently endorse democratic government and also require
believers to contribute to the system of government they live under
(democratic or not), th e position of the Bahais in an era of
non-ideological politics becomes less clear.

Multi-party democracies today consist of a mixture of ideological parties
such as communists and racists, purely pragmatic parties with varying
ideas and emphases about how to achieve good government, and largely
pragmatic parties that are still living with a party tradition inherited
from the ideological era, such as Labour parties. It would be invidious
for a National Spiritual Assembly
to make case-by-case judgements that membership or candidacy for
some political parties is permissible, but not for others, so the policy
could only be changed where all or most parties have shed any ideological,
race or class basis. The question evidently requires more study, but as a
rule of thumb I would suggest that those parties that allow multiple party
memberships and public selection of candidates can be supposed to be
representing legitimate social interests, rather than ideologies. These
have been called open parties. Although no country today has a political
system based on open parties, Paul Hilder has assembled a list of parties
and platforms in many countries that are experimenting with new concepts
of the political party, in the face of falling memberships and the
declining relevance of the traditional political party. His article was
published on in January 2005.

Ideologies compete, but interests overlap. A farming family for
example may wish to support both an organisation that ensures that
the concerns of the countryside are heard in parliament, and one that is
primarily concerned with ensuring that legislation takes into account the
needs of families with young children. At election time a decision must be
made as to which issue is most urgent, or which organisation warrants the
greater confidence, but a vote for one is not a vote against the other, if
they recognise their complementary nature. In this situation there seems
to be no objection in fundamental principle to Bahais joining one or
other, or both.

The third confusion – to summarise enormously – is that the teaching of
the separation of the institutions of church and state is being confused
with non-involvement of the believers in politics, ie with political

~~ Sen McGlinn
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