A Review of Sen McGlinn's Article on Theocracy


Susan Stiles Maneck


Sen McGlinn's article "Theocratic Assumptions in Bahá'í Literature" argues that, contrary to the belief commonly held by Bahá'ís and reflected in secondary literature to the effect that our Teachings support the eventual establishment of a theocratic government, a close examination of the scriptures would lend support for the Western notion of a separation of church and state. The article singles out for criticism the writings of certain Bahá'í authors such as John Hatcher and Loni Bramson but for the most part Mr. McGlinn sets up what he himself calls a 'straw man' to argue the normative theocratic position which he then proceeds to critique.

In McGlinn's survey of the Bahá'í scriptures he includes the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh such as the passages wherein He makes the distinction between the spiritual and worldly sovereignty and enjoins obedience to government yet he leaves out key passages wherein Bahá'u'lláh states that the "All matters of State should be referred to the House of Justice."1

McGlinn's discussion of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Writings focuses on the Risaliy-i Siyasiyyah, The Secret of Divine Civilization and A Traveler's Narrative, texts where 'Abdu'l-Bahá decries 'ulama interference in matters of state as evidence that 'Abdu'l-Bahá supported the separation of church and state. He omits in Abdu'l-Bahá's explicit references to the Universal House of Justice enacting secular law [qanun] and civil law [akham-i madaniyyih.]2

In his discussion of Shoghi Effendi's writings, McGlinn begins by pointing out the instances where the Guardian applauded the growth of secularization in the Middle East apparently believing this had more to do with the Guardian's supposed belief in separate spheres of religion and state rather than because it decreased the power of a clergy which was persecuting the Bahá'í community. He also points out a key passage where the Guardian states that Bahá'ís in establishing their administrative institutions have no intention of violating the constitution of any government, much less of taking it over.3 McGlinn goes so far as to argue that Shoghi Effendi's selection of scriptures to translate in the years 1932-1939 were aimed at teaching the Bahá'ís that their religious institutions were not never to assume the reins of temporal government. If so it seems rather strange that he would have had his secretaries write letters such as these:

Eventually, however, as you have rightly conceived it, the Movement will, as soon as it is fully developed and recognized, embrace both religious and political issues. In fact Bahá'u'llh clearly states that affairs of state as well as religious questions are to be referred to the House of Justice into which the Assemblies of the Bahá's will eventually evolve.4

And:

The Bahá's will be called upon to assume the reins of government when they will come to constitute the majority of the population in a given country, and even then their participation in political affairs is bound to be limited in scope unless they obtain a similar majority in some other countries as well.5

In his treatment of The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, McGlinn argues that when Shoghi Effendi predicted the establishment of a Bahá'í State he was merely speaking of the time when the Bahá'í Faith would become the state religions much as is the case in countries such as England. It did not mean that Bahá'í Institutions would take over any of the functions of government. McGlinn even suggests that Bahá'u'lláh's own praise for that government included praise for their church/state relations. Given the fact that Bahá' u'llah only praises the British for combining kingship and consultation, this seems highly speculative. McGlinn insists that when Shoghi Effendi used the term Bahá'í Commonwealth he meant nothing more than the Bahá'í religious community [`ummá]. McGlinn points out that Edward Gibbon used the term 'Christian Commonwealth' to refer to the Christian community prior to Constantine. There are two problems with this argument. Gibbon uses the term only once in his mammoth work and then only to point out the ways in which the church replicated many of the functions of government as the Roman Empire was declining.6 Second, Shoghi Effendi never uses the term 'Bahá'í Commonwealth' to refer to the Bahá'í community of the past or the present, but only for a future state of affairs. Had it referred merely to the Bahá'í community in general he would have surely used it in those contexts.

McGlinn accounts for the prevalence of Bahá'í belief in theocracy by arguing that it is rooted in tampered version of talks given by 'Abdu'l-Bahá in Promulgation of Universal Peace and Paris Talks, texts which he insists constitute nothing more than pilgrim's notes upon which no rigorous scholar would rely. Yet strangely, he tries to account for the theocratic ideas of the Western Bahá'ís by reference to a single set of notes from Kheiralla's lessons. If Mr. McGlinn wishes to utilize oral reports to explain concepts of theocracy as they appear in the Bahá'í community would not it have made more sense to examine all of the numerous pilgrim's notes derived from the time of Shoghi Effendi most of which strongly reflect the theocratic ideas which McGlinn rejects? On the one hand McGlinn insists that "we know what Kheirella taught' on the basis of this single set of notes while on the other he either ignores or discredits the numerous oral talks of both 'Abdu' l-Bahá and the Guardian! While McGlinn is correct that oral reports cannot be used to determine Bahá'í doctrine or practice, from a historical standpoint such reports cannot be discarded either.

McGlinn strangely refers to the Guardian's writings as 'scriptural sources' although this is not generally done in the Bahá'í community, going so far as to insert in quotation marks as passage saying that the Guardians interpretations "become part of the sacred text and cannot be changed," leaving the reader with the false impression that this passage is from an authoritative source. Yet no source whatsoever is offered for this quotation. McGlinn omits any mention of letters written on the Guardian's behalf as well as the elucidations given by the Universal House of Justice.

The problems associated with these omissions can be seen in his rejection of any notion of a progressive unfoldment of the Bahá'í World Order, something he derisively refers to as "dispensationalism."7 McGlinn instead argues for a much more frozen conception of the Bahá'í Writings wherein the political institutions mentioned in the Writings must continue to exists. Letters written on behalf of the Guardian indicate that precisely the opposite is the case.

"As regards the International Executive referred to by the Guardian in his 'Goal of a New World Order' it should be noted that this statement refers by no means to the Bahá' Commonwealth of the future, but simply to that world government which will herald the advent and lead to the final establishment of the World Order of Bahá'u'llh. The formation of this International Executive, which corresponds to the executive head or board in present-day national governments, is but a step leading to the Bahá' world government of the future, and hence should not be identified with either the institution of the Guardianship or that of the International House of Justice."8

We also have this letter written on the Guardian's behalf which is in direct contradiction to McGlinn's thesis that Bahá'í and governmental institutions cannot be merged:

The Universal Court of Arbitration and the International Tribunal are the same. When the Bahá' State will be established they will be merged in the Universal House of Justice.9

The most serious omission of sources in this article is the April 27, 1995 letter on the subject of the separation of church and state addressed to Sen McGlinn himself. That letter, which is several pages in length refutes the very positions which McGlinn takes in this article and appears to support the evolutionary approach to resolving apparent contradictions which appear in the texts. The question then arises as to why McGlinn ignores this key authoritative source. The most obvious reason is that he did not like this letter very much as demonstrated by these comments he made regarding it made on the Bahá'í Studies email list:

I don't think the letter shows the House in a very good light, and those who wish the UHJ well should allow the letter to sink into the archives of the forgotten.10

And also:

Feel free to bring up any of the arguments and facts in that letter, as your own, and I will as cheerfully knock them down, but let's leave the UHJ out.11

Sen McGlinn appears to do precisely that when he presents the gist of the House's arguments (minus the evidence and sources used to substantiate their case) in the form of his anonymous straw-man. It would appear that McGlinn does not regard the House of Justice's statements on this issue authoritative. In stressing the immutability of scripture, and in confining his sources to only those texts which are written by Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu' l-Bahá or Shoghi Effendi directly, McGlinn implies that other authoritative sources such as letters written on behalf of the Guardian or elucidations from the House of Justice cannot overrule it. As a statement of principle this is true, but beside the point. The manner in which it is used in practice in this article implies that such sources cannot be used to overrule the author's own personal understanding of those writings. Yet it is quite clear that the Guardian regarded it as within the purview of the function of the Universal House of Justice to determine what is the proper relationship between the Bahá'í and political institutions:

"And as we make an effort to demonstrate that love to the world may we also clear our minds of any lingering trace of unhappy misunderstandings that might obscure our clear conception of the exact purpose and methods of this new world order, so challenging and complex, yet so consummate and wise. We are called upon by our beloved Master in His Will and Testament not only to adopt it unreservedly, but to unveil its merit to all the world. To attempt to estimate its full value, and grasp its exact significance after so short a time since its inception would be premature and presumptuous on our part. We must trust to time, and the guidance of God's Universal House of Justice, to obtain a clearer and fuller understanding of its provisions and implications."12

And elsewhere:

"Touching the point raised in the Secretary's letter regarding the nature and scope of the Universal Court of Arbitration, this and other similar matters will have to be explained and elucidated by the Universal House of Justice, to which, according to the Master's explicit instructions, all important and fundamental questions must be referred."13

Whatever ones personal feelings regarding the House's position on the issue of the proper relationship between religion in state, it is clear from the above that no discussion of the Bahá'í Teachings on this matter is complete without reference to the elucidations of the Universal House of Justice.

Having said all this, I think that in some sense the Bahá'í Teachings do call for the separation of religious and secular government. But this distinction can only be understood if we cease to frame the question in terms of Western debates on question of the 'separation of church and state.'

The hidden assumption in all the discussions which have taken place thus far on his issue is that Bahá'í administrative institutions are analogous to the Christian church and that references to government in the Bahá'í writings refer to executive, legislative and judicial functions found in Western society. I would challenge that assumption. For the most part the Bahá'í Writings were not written in a context of Western institutions of church and state. They were written in the context of the religious and political institutions as they existed in the Middle East, both in theory and in practice, and in the context of changes which the Central Figures wished to make in this arrangement. In the Islamic world the religious sphere is not dominated by a institutional church, but rather by a class of clerics known as the 'ulama or the learned. Law was seen as something divinely revealed and interpreted by the 'ulama. Laws issued by rulers themselves were considered less than legitimate. The 'ulama then, had (or claimed) a virtual monopoly over both legislative and judicial functions, leaving to the rulers only the executive function of government. The Central Figures called for a separation of the 'ulama from the state, not a Western-style separation of 'church and state.' This separation of the functions of learned and the rulers, is something which is already reflected in the Bahá'í Administrative Order itself wherein legislative function was given to the Houses of Justice, while the learned serve merely in an advisory capacity. Law is still seen as ultimately divine in nature, as in Islam, but the now the democratic process itself has been sacralized. There remains however, a distinction

This House of Justice enacteth the laws and the government enforceth them. The legislative body must reinforce the executive, the executive must aid and assist the legislative body so that through the close union and harmony of these two forces, the foundation of fairness and justice may become firm and strong ...14

I would argue with that this dual-partite conception of the state organization resolves some of the apparent contradictions found in Bahá'í texts without resorting to the an evolutionary concept, which, while undoubtedly there in some cases, do not adequately address the question as to precisely what role Bahá'í institutions are to play in the Bahá'í Commonwealth. It also can serve to relieve concerns which might arise in connection with the idea that religious institutions might possess the coercive power of the state. By the 'government' retaining the executive functions, the power of coercion remains theirs, not that of specifically Bahá'í institutions.

While there may well be several possible understandings of the proper relationship between religion and state envisioned for eventual World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, anything which claims to represent the Bahá'í Teachings on this matter must take into account the full breadth of authoritative sources and these include letters written on behalf of the Guardian and elucidations made by the Universal House of Justice. While a historian might well consider the writings of a specific Bahá'í figure in isolation from later pronouncements, a Bahá'í theologian cannot do justice to the Teachings without considering what all the authoritative sources have to say.


1. Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, translated by Habib Taherzadeh, (Haifa, Bahá'í World Centre, 1978) p. 27.

2. *Qanun *is the word used in the passage from the Will and Testament: "The House of Justice enacteth the law and the governmet enforceth it." The reference to the House of Justice making civil law can be found in 'Abdu' l-Bahá's Tablet on the Functioning of the Universal House of Justice which is in Majmu'ih-yi Maka'tibi 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Iranian National Bahá'í Archives, Vol. 59, pp. 275-280.

3. The passage in question states as follows:

"Theirs is not the purpose, while endeavoring to conduct and perfect the administrative affairs of their Faith, to violate, under any circumstances, the provisions of their country's constitution, much less to allow the machinery of their administration to supersede the government of their respective countries." Bahá'í Administration, p. 149.

The Universal House of Justice explained this passage in their letter to Sen McGlinn as follows:

"As for the statement made by Shoghi Effendi in his letter of 21 March 1932, the well-established principles of the Faith concerning the relationship of the Bahá'í institutions to those of the country in which the Bahá'ís reside make it unthinkable that they would ever purpose to violate a country's constitution or so to meddle in its political machinery as to attempt to take over the powers of government. This is an integral element of the Bahá'í principle of abstention from involvement in politics. However, this does not by any means imply that the country itself may not, by constitutional means, decide to adopt Bahá'í laws and practices and modify its constitution or method of government accordingly." (27 April 1995.)

4. 30 November 1930. Cited in a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice and addressed to Sen McGlinn April 27, 1995.

5. 19 November 1939 Cited in this same letter from the Universal House of Justice to Sen McGlinn.

6. Edward Gibbon, Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, (New York: Random House, n.d.) vol. 1, pp. 417.

7. The term "Dispensationalism" normally refers to a classic form of Christian Fundamentalism.

8. From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, March 17, 1934 Helen Hornby, compiler, Lights of Guidance: A Bahá'í Reference File, (New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988) p. 320.

9. Letter written on behalf of the Guardian in June 17 1933. Cited in a memorandum from the Research Department dated June 27, 1996.

10. Bahá'í Studies Archives, March 21, 2002.

11. Bahá'í Studies Archives, March 16, 2002.

12. Shoghi Effendi, Bahá'í Administration, (Wilmette, Ill: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974) p. 62.

13. Bahá'í Administration, p. 47

14. Abdu'l-Bahá, The Will and Testament, p. 14. This dual-partite division of the functions of the affairs of state would seem to be supported in talks given by 'Abdu'l-Bahá as well:

"Thee centre of the executive power is the government, and the legislative power lies in the hands of thoughtful and wise men. On the other hand, if these strong pillars and firm foundations are not complete and comprehensive, how can it be supposed that there will be safety and salvation for the nation? But as, in these latter days, such excellency is rare, the government and the whole body of the nation are in sore need of just and discerning directions. Thus it is of the utmost importance to establish an assembly of learned men, who, being proficient in the different sciences and capable of dealing with all the present and future requirements will settle the questions in accordance with forbearance and firmness. All the civic affairs and the legislation of material laws for the increasing needs of the enlightened humanity belong to the House of Justice. This the House of Justice, will be not only a body for the legislation of laws according to the spirit and requirement of the time, but a board of arbitration for the settlement of all disputes arising between peoples. When the Universal House of Justice is organized the members will do their utmost for the realization of greater cordiality and comity amongst the nations. The Laws of Bahá'u'llh are the unchangeable, organic laws of the Universal House of Justice. They are the very foundation upon which the structure of additional legislation is built... Again, I repeat, the House of Justice, whether National or Universal, has only legislative power and not executive power...
(From words of 'Abdu'l-Bahá in: Star of the West, Vol. VII, No. 15, pp. 138-139)