Everybody Wants to Rule the World

It is well known the Baha'i Faith supports a variety of positions on social issues that might very well be seen as political: racial and gender equality, world peace, economic justice, universal education, and human rights. However, at the same time, individual Baha'is are prohibited from participating in any sort of political activism that would induce governments to apply their ideals. Persistent and vocal political activity can cost a Baha'i his administrative rights within the community. Even membership in a human rights organization such as Amnesty International is prohibited by Baha'i Institutions because, while many aspects are compatible with Baha'i ideals, it opposes the death penalty while Baha'i scripture allows it.

The natural question is, if Baha'is can't work politically towards the realization of their social ideals, how do they expect to achieve them? One way, certainly, is the public proclamation of Baha'i principles, which is something that occurs at all levels of the Baha'i community. Another is the offering of the Baha'i community as a model for how these ideals can be put into practice, as was done in 1986 in the widely-disseminated statement The Promise of World Peace.

However, at a grassroots popular level, there is an expectation that the world's problems will be solved simply by bringing together the peoples of the world under a theocracy governed by Baha'i institutions. While Baha'i scripture prohibits any violent means for promoting the faith, and current practice forbids political involvement, many Baha'is feel that by spreading their religion and building its institutions they are helping to bring about this theocratic future.

It would be impossible to say, without extensive research, just how prevalent the expectation of a future theocracy is within the Baha'i community. My own personal experience was that this belief was intrinsic to the Baha'i Faith. Since becoming active in cyberspace, however, I have encountered people who think of it as a "fringe" belief. All one can say with confidence is that this interpretation is persistent. It also seems that theocratic beliefs are the hallmark of more conservative elements in the community, while Baha'i liberals almost uniformly reject them.

There are indications that theocratic views are dominant at the top levels of Baha'i governance. For example, the Baha'i Faith's international governing body, the Universal House of Justice, in its April 7, 1999 letter, condemned the view that Baha'u'llah supported the separation of church and state, characterizing it as part of a "campaign of internal opposition" to Baha'i teachings.

As with any internal religious debate, these differing views hinge on the interpretation of Baha'i scripture. The theocratic vision of the Baha'i future reflects the conservative tendency to view the teachings of their faith almost entirely through the interpretations of Shoghi Effendi (Guardian of the Baha'i Faith from 1921-1957). Popular views have been especially influenced by his unofficial statements recorded in "pilgrim's notes".

The more liberal view has come from academic methods that insist on examining the original texts of Baha'u'llah's writings directly and in their historical context. It should be noted, however, that Shoghi Effendi's explanations of the subject are not uniformly theocratic, and some of his statements explicitly support the separation of church and state. However, a theocratic undercurrent definitely exists in his writings, and they are open to varying interpretations.

Within the context of Shi'ih Islam, where the political ideal is for church and state to be united, Baha'u'llah's claim to be the bearer of a Revelation would have entitled him to take over the secular government. However, he made several statements renouncing such a claim and saying he was far more concerned with the "hearts of men" and denying any interest in "earthly sovereignty". It is possible, therefore, that those Baha'is who are promoting a vision of the future that includes the Baha'i institutions ruling as a world government have moved in the exact opposite direction from what Baha'u'llah planned for his religion.

Probably the best explanation of the non-theocratic view of Baha'i political thought is the first chapter of Juan R.I. Cole's book "Modernity and the Millennium", available from Amazon. Other resources on this subject are given in links below.

Author's note: This article was first published on Themestream on December 17, 2000.

"Church and State in the World Order of Baha'u'llah" by Sen McGlinn
UHJ letter on Theocracy
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