The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience


See Dialogue archives at Dialogue Magazine 1986-1988

    dialogue: S U M M E R / F A L L 1 9 8 7
    A Modest Proposal: Recommendations Toward the Revitalization of the
    American Baha'i Community


    Since the fourth epoch of the Age of Transition has dawned, and momentous 
    events both within and without the Baha'i community have ushered in our 
    rapid emergence from obscurity, a new sense of maturation and openness has 
    begun to infuse the followers of Baha'u'llah. No longer a minuscule band of 
    true believers braving the odds in a hostile world, the worldwide Baha'i 
    community is now a dynamic, awakening force; its millions of adherents 
    flexing new spiritual muscle, beginning to look outward beyond their 
    confines and meeting the eyes of mankind as they begin to look in. This 
    maturational process, though, is fraught with all the difficulties, 
    transitions, and growing pains inherent in any rapidly-changing organism.
    Chief among any organism's growth adjustments is the major shift from closed 
    system to open system; from dependence to independence. In the growth and 
    maturation cycle of almost all higher life forms there is a natural and even 
    beautiful process of a decreasing need for nurturance and a consequent and 
    increasing need for self-realization and unprotected development. The seed 
    becomes sprout becomes sapling becomes tree and bears fruit; the bird 
    gradually learns flight; the child becomes a woman. As growth and maturation 
    in the physical realm leads from attachment to detachment, so the cycle of 
    spiritual maturity in a given community is a function of increasing autonomy 
    and openness to discovery, awareness, and change.

    No objective observer could fail to recognize the signal growth and 
    maturation of the American Baha'i community since its inception 91 years 
    ago. Moving from a tiny enclave of co-religionists to what has now become a 
    well-known and dynamic community of faith, the Baha'is of the United States far outweigh in activity and 
    influence our modest size of about 100,000 believers. However, there is 
    clear and compelling evidence that the fortunes of the United States Baha'i 
    community have stagnated, at least by some objective measures, within the 
    past decade. Americans are loathe to face such stagnancy or admit that any 
    decline is occurring, but even a cursory look at a few basic facts and 
    indicators reveals the trends:

    Declarations have slowed to a maintenance pace. In the 1960s and early 
    '70s,10,000 declarations a year, many among young people, were not unusual. 
    Since 1974, enrollments have hovered around the 3,000 per year level, which 
    is approximately what it takes to replace attrition to withdrawals, 
    pioneering, deaths, etc.

    Youth declarations have dropped even more precipitously as we have been 
    unable to sustain the influx of youth and young adults at levels comparable 
    to the 1969-1973 period, when unprecedented numbers of youth enrolled in the 
    Faith. Consequently the total of 19,000 Baha'i youth in the American Baha'i 
    community in the peak year (1971) has declined to a total of 2,800 in 1987.
    While the goals of the Nine, Five, and Seven Year Plans were, for the most 
    part, won, the American Baha'i community has yet to achieve anything close 
    to widespread enrollments and the beginning of the process of "entry by 
    troops" expected here for over a decade.

    Inactivity and alienation are difficult to measure quantitatively. However, 
    the most commonly accepted gauge of inactivity-Baha'is who are listed as 
    being "address unknown" status-now comprise a staggering percentage of the 
    total community: 40-45,000 names of 100,000 believers. In the 1970s, this 
    figure generally stayed within the 30 percent range, while now almost 50 
    percent of our community are "address unknown"-a figure that likely 
    indicates increasing inactivity and alienation among the believers.
    The national Fund faces a greater deficit than ever before, and 
    contributions, while up monetarily each year, continue to represent stagnant 
    or even smaller numbers of participants, both in terms of
    individual contributors and local Spiritual Assemblies. And most seriously, 
    many conscientious Baha'is are convinced that a spiritual malaise has 
    settled upon our small community, infecting us with a lassitude that has 
    compromised our ability to grow and be healthy.

    These are serious and troubling matters. But they are not new, nor are they 
    insurmountable. The Baha'i community of the United States has faced similar 
    tests and periods of dormancy before, and has redoubled its efforts and 
    overcome its trials. Such effort was often painful, requiring much personal 
    sacrifice as well as the sacrifice of sacred cows; but the results were 
    great victories like those realized during the Ten Year Crusade and Nine 
    Year Plan.

    And not all, certainly, is bleak. There has been great progress and a 
    veritable explosion of Baha'i culture in the past 20 years, with signal 
    developments in the areas of Baha'i scholarship, development of Baha'i 
    institutions, social and economic development, and the level of maturity of 
    the community, to name just a few areas. No one discounts or denies that 
    growth, but the problems remain large and seemingly intractable, and could 
    seriously erode the aforementioned gains if not addressed.

    The purpose of this essay is to attempt a beginning at the discussion of 
    potential remedies for our plight. `Abdul-Baha assures us that the 
    solutions to tests and difficulties come from frank and honest consultation. 
    Hopefully, this proposal will serve to launch earnest and soul-searching 
    discussion within the community. By no means does this essay pretend to be; 
    all-inclusive, nor does it portend to have all or even one of the answers. 
    We have restricted our observations and proposals to a limited range of 
    national policy issues that can be consulted on and implemented or rejected 
    in a timely manner. It is our hope that the implementation of new policies, 
    designed to open up the f1ow of information between the believers and their 
    institutions, will bring about more honest communication and consultation 
    and thereby assist us all to more effectively address such issues as 
    deficiencies in Baha’i devotional life, or problems with racism,
    prejudice, cultural pluralism, and sexism in our midst-problems which many 
    readers may view as more fundamental than the one's we raise here. It is the 
    fondest hope of the authors that these observations and recommendations will 
    be accepted in the spirit of loving and honest consultation, and not taken 
    personally by any one or looked on as hostile, destructively critical, or 
    dissembling in any way.

    One caveat: We begin with a fundamental assumption: that the members of the 
    American Baha' i community are essentially good and sincere Baha'is. This is 
    a declaration of faith founded on the belief that renewal and growth can 
    only come when it is assumed that there exists a potential for change; that 
    the most successful endeavors come when high self-esteem flourishes; that 
    high expectations assure outstanding results. We can repeat the many ills 
    which test the members of the community; we know that our pain is no 
    different from the pain of countless others who are not Baha'is; we 
    recognize that violations of Baha'i law occur in communities across our 
    land. Nevertheless, we believe that another litany of our shortcomings will 
    not inspire us to the task before us. Too often we hear lack of progress in 
    the Cause blamed on a parallel lack of spirituality or commitment in the 
    body of the believers. While there may be some truth to such assertions, a 
    fair observer must acknowledge that our leadership and our ingrained 
    traditions and even some of our time-honored spiritual shibboleths must also 
    bear at least partial responsibility for our community's slow growth.
    Again and again, Baha'u'llah and `Abdul-Baha, although profoundly aware of 
    our limits, emphasize the good that we can do, as all great teachers must. 
    Few have improved because they have been told that they are worthless or, 
    once again, failing to attain their assigned goals; they succeed to the 
    extent they see before them a vision of their own potential for perfection. 
    This vision motivates our willingness to discuss openly disappointments, 
    miscalculations, and mistakes, for beyond them is a love no paralysis of 
    will, no crippling, time honored administrative tradition, no amount o(f 
    apathy criticism can destroy. Love, therefor, emboldens us and perhaps makes 
    us appear arrogant or (foolish; but we offer these proposals believing, as 
    all lovers do, that anything is possible.

    1. The Guardian's admonition to "drown your troubles in a sea of new 
    believers" has oft been alluded to in communications from the Universal 
    House of Justice, but never really realized in the United States. Cultural 
    conditions here may prevent such entry by troops now, but sufficient 
    resources have never been allocated, whether locally or nationally, to find 
    out if that is the case. In fact, the large enrollments in the South and 
    elsewhere during the last period of rapid expansion in our community were a 
    source of much controversy, and led to an emphasis on consolidation that the 
    effect of stifling further expansion by depriving it of resources and 
    administrative support Today, less than 10 percent of the national Fund 
    contributions are spent in the service of teaching. And while more money 
    does not necessarily equate with more teaching, at least an increased 
    commitment would demonstrate our priorities are in order.

    ISSUE: If we want to spread our Faith, we need to put our money where our 
    mouth is.

    PROPOSAL: (A) Establish a National Teaching Fund, to be used solely for 
    teaching activities by a rejuvenated National Teaching Committee with full 
    power to encourage and create large-scale enrollments through providing 
    grants to local spiritual assemblies for teaching projects; (B) Utilize 
    these Funds for long range teaching projects with deputized full-time Baha'i 

    OBJECTIVE: That contributions to the national Fund will increase once a new 
    emphasis is placed on support of teachings projects, and the teaching work 
    that proceeds from such contributions will bring unprecedented expansion of 
    the Cause to the United Stages.

    2. The process of excessive centralization, so often castigated in the 
    writings, has gone too far in the US, both at the local and the national 

    Such centralization has inhibited the "grass roots" growth of new ideas and 
    new energy. Moves such as the establishment of Town Meetings and the 
    recasting of electoral districts into smaller units are positive, 
    progressive actions the National Spiritual Assembly is to be applauded for 
    taking. The Universal House of Justice has called for a "devolution of 
    autonomy" in the affairs of the community, and more of this vital new trend 
    should be pursued.

    ISSUE: The chief unit of the Faith is the local community, and the 
    community's voice in the affairs of the Faith has too often gone unheard or 
    unheeded. As a corollary, the grass roots efforts borne of individual 
    initiative have too often been unsupported, ignored, or not given adequate 
    consideration by a well-meaning but over-protective national administration.

    PROPOSAL: (A) That the National Spiritual Assembly adopt and publish a new 
    policy emphasizing openness and decentralization in the affairs of the 
    American Baha'i community; (B) That the National Spiritual Assembly consider 
    a more Universal House of Justice-modeled administrative approach by 
    establishing a national secretariat, with at least two or three NSA members 
    based in Wilmette and responsible for the day-to-day direction of the NSA 
    and its activities; (C) That American assemblies, both local and national, 
    endeavor by policy to more actively seek out the views and input of their 
    respective constituencies before undertaking any major initiative or 
    program; (D) That the National Spiritual Assembly, its staff, committees, 
    and agencies adopt a more open administrative style that will encourage and 
    permit more individual initiative and the growth of nontraditional or 
    unconventional approaches to Baha'i activity, with the aim of fostering 
    unfettered and creative new approaches to teaching, consolidation, and 

    OBJECTIVE: That activities undertaken with the prior knowledge and 
    consultation of the community at large will be exponentially more 
    successful, and that a new spirit of openness, tolerance, and acceptance off 
    diversity on the part of the NSA will provide an example for the community 
    and let a thousand flowers bloom.

    The free flow of ideas and opinions is vital to the open consultation 
    process and, more importantly, to the spirit of that cardinal Baha'i 
    principle: the independent investigation of truth. Certainly, signing a 
    declaration card does not strip the new believer of his or her access to 
    said principle; yet we often act as if it were necessary to protect the 
    Faith from its adherents. As a consequence, there are many who feel that the 
    zeal with which our National Spiritual Assembly pursues the mandated policy 
    of reviewing prospective publications and special materials (once necessary 
    in the days of our community's infancy) has overstepped the bounds of 
    moderation. Originally intended by Shoghi Effendi only to insure accuracy 
    and dignity when presenting the Baha'i Faith to the public, review of 
    publications has become a politicized process whereby reviewing bodies may 
    impose their particular views of the Faith in unmitigated and unchecked 
    censorship. This policy, now often utilized to silence disparate opinion and 
    frank expression of non-mainstream views, has become a silent censor, hidden 
    from the community at large and doubly dangerous because of its cloistered 
    nature. As the recently "opened up" Letters column in The American Baha'i 
    proves, Baha'is not only have a high level of interest in unfettered 
    expression, but use such opportunities thoughtfully and responsibly. The 
    Guardian himself declared that the review process was only a "temporary" 
    measure and would "definitely be abolished" once the Faith was better known.

    ISSUE: In a community that has "emerged from obscurity," review and its 
    accompanying censorship have no place. In fact, since all non-Baha'is can 
    openly write and publish freely on the subject of the Faith, Baha'is should 
    certainly be afforded the same freedom.

    PROPOSAL: That the National Spiritual Assembly petition the Universal House 
    of Justice for the abolishment of review in the United States Baha’i 

    ALTERNATIVE PROPOSAL: Review be confined to introductory literature aimed at 
    explaining the Baha’i Faith and teachings to the public produced by the 
    Baha'i Publishing Trust (that is, material that would be perceived by the 
    public as "official" literature of the American Baha'i community and its 
    institutions). Evaluation of Baha'i scholarship, literature, and special 
    materials produced by independent Baha' i publishers and companies should be 
    made by those responsible for the material.

    OBJECTIVE: If review is abolished, the flow of ideas, scholarly debate, and 
    intellectual fervent will increase, becoming a boon to the quality of Baha'i 
    life, individually and collectively. A climate in which people feel 
    comfortable to speak out and share controversial or new ideas will be 
    created. Also, non-Baha'is will begin to see a community that values and 
    gives full expression to diversity.

    The National Baha'i Convention is a wonderful institution, brimming with the 
    spirit of the Baha’i electoral process and alive with potential dialogue and 
    interchange between the believers' democratically elected delegates and 
    their NSA. But for too long, the national convention has been a hollow shell 
    of what it can be, with limited and even truncated time for consultation, 
    with speechifying instead of meaningful exchange of views, and with the 
    subsequent loss of the real opportunity to get to know one's fellow 
    delegates. Even though the formal convention itself may be time- or 
    agenda-limited by guidance from the World Centre, nothing prohibits us from 
    extending it by holding a delegate conference beforehand.

    ISSUE: That the Baha'i National Convention is a vital opportunity to 
    translate community concerns and perceptions into national action.

    PROPOSAL: That each national convention be supplemented by holding a 
    delegates’' conference just prior to convention with: (A) Sufficient time 
    for delegates to prepare by mailing of NSA and committee reports at least 
    one month beforehand; (B) the formation of small-group working sections and 
    study groups on particular issues; and (C) publication of position papers 
    produced by working groups of delegates around particular issues; (D) there 
    be a pre--convention announcement the delegates of upcoming NSA 
    issues/agenda items; and (E) increased levels of input and responsibility 
    from the delegates concerning major capital expenditures the NSA expects in 
    the coming year.

    OBJECTIVE: That a growing sense in the community that the process of opening 
    up our administration to new input and influence is important; and 
    ultimately a much better and more responsive administration.
    Many National Spiritual Assembly members, beginning with Horace Holley, have 
    complained of the difficulty in serving administratively for long periods of 
    time. Extended incumbencies, especially at the national level, tend in any 
    governing body to produce stasis and inertia that can become hidebound and 
    inflexible, thus turning such servants of the Cause from progressive forces 
    to entrenched defenders of the status quo. For a Faith without a clergy, 
    some would argue that we have created, by continuing to elect the same 
    people to our National Spiritual Assembly, a professional class of 
    administrators in the US Baha'i community. These leaders, then, tend to 
    remain on administrative bodies because of their high level of visibility 
    and name recognition, and thus generate extended incumbencies that insulate 
    and draw them away from the concerns and activities of the rank-and-file 
    believers. Dynamic leadership, important in any newly emerging group, cannot 
    afford to lose contact with the experience of their constituency, and almost 
    invariably does so in an extended incumbency.

    ISSUE: That the Continental Board of Counselors has taken a significant and 
    insightful step forward
    in appointing Auxiliary Board members to renewable five year terms.

    PROPOSAL: That we extend such insight to our Rulers; and that the terms of 
    National Spiritual Assembly members (and local, where possible) be limited 
    to five years of service, with re-election permissible after a one or 
    two-year hiatus.

    OBJECTIVE: That the coursing of new blood and new leadership through the 
    Cause effected by such a move, and the parallel and consequent benefits of 
    having recent NSA members return to active non-administrative involvement, 
    would spawn an exciting, fresh new level of creativity and strength in our 
    administrative affairs and in the community-at-large.
    Our financial base as a community is, as we know, the "lifeblood of the 
    Cause." Many observers have noted, however, that our accountability of how 
    we spend our funds in lacking.

    ISSUE: That we should do a better job of last-dollar financial accounting in 
    terms of telling the believers exactly where their contributions have gone.

    PROPOSAL: That we publish a clear, comprehensible, last-dollar annual 
    report, detailing the expenditure of Baha'i funds, every year prior to 
    national convention.

    OBJECTIVE: If we publish a detailed annual report, the believers will see 
    the myriad and important uses of their contributions more clearly, and will 
    subsequently increase their giving.

    No small amount of progress has been made over the past decade in the US 
    Baha'i community in terms of uniting and bringing together the institutions 
    of the Rulers and the Learned in consultation and in action. This is a trend 
    that bodes well for the Baha'i future, and should be expanded and enhanced. 
    In fact, the need for an advisory group, to provide fact-finding assistance, 
    expert guidance, a wide spectrum of opinion, and consultative input on 
    crucial questions facing the community, is an obvious use for the expansion 
    and greater application of this trend. Most decision-making bodies use such 
    think tanks to so advise them.

    ISSUE: There is too large a gap between the local believer and the NSA in a 
    large complex community like the United States, and that gap can be 
    partially bridged by forming a think tank designed to advise the 
    administrative order on crucial matters.

    PROPOSAL: That the NSA and the Continental Board appoint, from among elected 
    delegates and other qualified believers recommended by Local Spiritual 
    Assemblies, four regional advisory boards (in `Abdu'1-Baha's. designated 
    regions). Special attention should be given to placing persons from 
    minorities and lower-class backgrounds on the Advisory Boards and other 
    national committees. All too often, these are Baha'is alienated from the 
    Baha'i administration, which operates on a white corporate America model as 
    much as any ideal Baha'i model. At present, national committees do not 
    reflect the ethnic or class background of these groups. That is to say, even 
    though national committees often have members from different ethnic 
    backgrounds, they are usually drawn from middle and upper-middle class 
    Baha'is who share a similar perspective on the Faith and its implications 
    for humanity. Beyond participation by minorities, the Advisory Boards should 
    also be comprised of active teachers, Baha'i scholars, and especially the 
    elected delegates; and the consultation of these boards be open to the 
    community at large. The NSA would then meet with each of the four boards 
    once a year in the respective region, and consult on matters of concern and 
    significance there.

    OBJECTIVE: The affairs of the Faith, when seriously, and reflectively 
    consulted on by a divers group of minds, can only be beneficially affected 
    with additional input to our governing bodies.

    8. One of the most sacred, important, and crucial responsibilities incumbent 
    on the Administrative Order is its role in the establishment of world peace. 
    Called on to be a herald of the Lesser Peace by Shoghi Effendi, the 
    Universal House of Justice has certainly set in motion a mighty process by 
    the release of The Promise of World Peace. National Spiritual Assemblies the 
    world over have promulgated the peace message, but few have gone beyond 
    simple proclamation. The principles enshrined in the peace message need to 
    be studied, applied, and acted on at the national and local level in the 
    United States, not only so that the Baha' is can put their principles into 
    practice, but so the world can see we revere deeds more than words.

    ISSUE: That world peace is a major goal of the Baha'i Faith, and that the 
    American Baha'i community has a great bounty and responsibility toward 
    urging its establishment.

    PROPOSAL: That the National Spiritual Assembly appoint an executive-level 
    National Peace Committee, empowered to make significant steps in the 
    application of Baha'i ideals as they represent peace and word unity.

    OBJECTIVE: That a National Peace Committee could have a real galvanizing 
    impact, not only on the believers, but on the United States, its people, and 
    its leaders.

    Five years ago, the Universal House of Justice alluded to future glory for 
    Baha'i institutions when it referred to "great humanitarian projects which 
    will be launched" under the aegis of the administrative order. As a rule, 
    though, Baha'i institutions have avoided involvement in humanitarian 
    projects like famine relief, the resettlement of refugees (other than our 
    own), or the provision of general assistance to victims of violence, natural 
    disasters, or oppression. Many Baha'is argue, in fact, that our resources 
    and energy must be used solely to build up the Baha'i pattern, because they 
    are so limited, and should not be expended in the cause of "outside" 
    concerns. This view has crippled our ability to show the world that our 
    concern for humanity goes beyond a set of high-toned principles. The 
    beginnings of a remedy for this perception have taken root in various social 
    and economic development activities, but most have been limited and 
    primarily local in their scope. The national coordination of annual social 
    and economic development priorities, and the development of one goal area 
    during each Plan for the general assistance of humanity, would much more 
    closely parallel the Master's life and example.

    ISSUE: If the Baha'i community could consult and agree on a more unified and 
    specific approach to social and economic development at the national level, 
    our effectiveness in demonstrating our concern for our fellow human beings 
    and thus our teaching efforts would bear more fruit.

    PROPOSAL: That the NSA establish in each successive Plan a specific area for 
    the Baha'is to focus on-although not to the exclusion of other areas in the 
    matter of social issues (for example, civil rights, human rights, drug 
    abuse, minority employment, etc.). Further, that the national assembly 
    itself take on the task of conceptualizing, planning, and carrying out the 
    centerpiece activity of such a campaign.

    OBJECTIVE: That the resultant campaigns would bring Baha'i solutions to bear 
    on difficult community problems; cause a vital intermingling of Baha'is and 
    non-Baha'is who are interested in solving society's problems: and provide 
    every Baha' i with the assurance that his or her religion is interested in 
    reaching out to others with a selfless and pure hearted concern.

    The nine foregoing suggestions, as far as the authors know, violate no 
    statutory provision in the Baha' i lexicon, nor do they go counter to any 
    vital Baha'i spiritual principle. Their implementation would be a matter of 
    simple legislation by the National Spiritual Assembly, and would only in a
    few cases involve further consultation with the Universal House of Justice. 
    None, with the possible exception of numbers 1 and 9, would require any 
    significant expenditure of funds. Most, if not all, would win wholehearted 
    support by the majority of believers. And, perhaps most important, none of 
    them are irreversible once adopted. All could be tried, and if found 
    wanting, be easily jettisoned. Given the current state of our community, 
    might it not be worthwhile to give at least some of them a chance?


    Note: This article never appeared in print. The editors submitted it for 
    "review" (in-house official Baha'i prepublication censorship) to the 
    National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, and actually met with two 
    members of that body in the spring of 1988. At National Convention in April 
    1988, the authors and editors were condemned for even thinking about 
    publishing such a document. The editors, heart-broken, ceased publication of 
    Dialogue. - Ed.