Here in the U.S. presidential election politics has been playing out for many months, and by now has risen to a fevered pitch with the conclusion of the major parties’ conventions. It dominates news, social media, and conversation. Baha’is, though, are called to distance themselves from this kind of politics. “Politics” is a big word with several connotations, but for the present purpose it may be useful to restrict ourselves to the definition that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once gave: “Politics is the art of getting other people to do what you want them to do.”
Baha’is are not called to “get other people to do what [we] want them to do.” We are called, rather, to teach others about Baha’u’llah. I would argue that we are not even called to convert others to the Baha’i Faith; rather, conversion is a matter between the individual and God, and if it happens should not be attributed to our efforts but to the Word of God itself. Indeed, our calling is so important that Baha’u’llah has drawn a sharp distinction between it and “the affairs of this world”:
O ye the beloved of the one true God! Pass beyond the narrow retreats of your evil and corrupt desires, and advance into the vast immensity of the realm of God, and abide ye in the meads of sanctity and of detachment, that the fragrance of your deeds may lead the whole of mankind to the ocean of God’s unfading glory. Forbear ye from concerning yourselves with the affairs of this world and all that pertaineth unto it, or from meddling with the activities of those who are its outward leaders.
The one true God, exalted be His glory, hath bestowed the government of the earth upon the kings. To none is given the right to act in any manner that would run counter to the considered views of them who are in authority. That which He hath reserved for Himself are the cities of men’s hearts; and of these the loved ones of Him Who is the Sovereign Truth are, in this Day, as the keys. Please God they may, one and all, be enabled to unlock, through the power of the Most Great Name, the gates of these cities. This is what is meant by aiding the one true God — a theme to which the Pen of Him Who causeth the dawn to break hath referred in all His Books and Tablets.”
(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, CXV, p. 240)
This passage and others like it are the root of Baha’i principles regarding obedience to the government and noninvolvement in politics (of the sort mentioned above). While there are subtleties which have been expanded upon by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the Guardian, and the Universal House of Justice, here is the core principle: “unlocking the gates of the cities of men’s hearts” is the concern of Baha’u’llah’s followers, not electing the right candidates or passing the right laws.
The reason for this, as I understand it, is fundamental. Humanity is in dire need of the prescription dispensed by the Divine Physician. Only spiritual transformation can heal its illness. Changes in laws, changes in politicians, even wholesale changes in government cannot do so beyond a limited measure:
O ye the elected representatives of the people in every land! Take ye counsel together, and let your concern be only for that which profiteth mankind and bettereth the condition thereof, if ye be of them that scan heedfully. Regard the world as the human body which, though at its creation whole and perfect, hath been afflicted, through various causes, with grave disorders and maladies. Not for one day did it gain ease, nay its sickness waxed more severe, as it fell under the treatment of ignorant physicians, who gave full rein to their personal desires and have erred grievously. And if, at one time, through the care of an able physician, a member of that body was healed, the rest remained afflicted as before. Thus informeth you the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.
We behold it, in this day, at the mercy of rulers so drunk with pride that they cannot discern clearly their own best advantage, much less recognize a Revelation so bewildering and challenging as this. And whenever any one of them hath striven to improve its condition, his motive hath been his own gain, whether confessedly so or not; and the unworthiness of this motive hath limited his power to heal or cure.
That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith. This can in no wise be achieved except through the power of a skilled, an all-powerful and inspired Physician. This, verily, is the truth, and all else naught but error. Each time that Most Mighty Instrument hath come, and that Light shone forth from the Ancient Dayspring, He was withheld by ignorant physicians who, even as clouds, interposed themselves between Him and the world. It failed, therefore, to recover, and its sickness hath persisted until this day. They indeed were powerless to protect it, or to effect a cure, whilst He Who hath been the Manifestation of Power amongst men was withheld from achieving His purpose, by reason of what the hands of the ignorant physicians have wrought.
(Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 90, para. 1.174-1.176)
What is the point of leaving one ignorant physician to seek treatment from another? Indeed, how much benefit can be derived from the sound prescriptions of one able physician if one is also being treated by a host of ignorant physicians? Rather, as Baha’is shouldn’t our concern be for taking the Divine Physician’s prescription and sharing it with others?
Certainly there may be times when we can do so in the context of political discourse, but this requires some care and skill. Such discussion needs to be divorced from the names of candidates and current rulers and not identified with partisan platforms or positions. Most political arguments rely upon “spin,” the practice of interpreting facts in a way that supports a desired conclusion. Such interpretations are usually faulty, relying upon invalid use of statistics or leaving out key information, and thus are little more than lies told in an effort to “get other people to do what you want them to do.” While such lies can sometimes be convincing, usually they usually sway few people and only serve to deepen divisions.
Baha’is are called to bring people of diverse opinions together, to forge bonds of love and unity, and through the instrument of united consultation find solutions to the problems of the day. This is a very different calling from the siren song of politics. During this political season, let us all make sure we’re listening to the right song.