Baha’i offers alternative to electoral process

Voices of Religion

Posted: Friday, May 18, 2007

Two weeks ago I participated as a delegate to the Alaska Baha’i convention and I read the following letter from the Baha’i World Centre located on the slopes of Mount Carmel in northern Israel, addressing the state of the electoral process:

“One of the signs of the breakdown of society in all parts of the world is the erosion of trust and collaboration between the individual and the institutions of governance.

“In many nations, the electoral process has become discredited because of endemic corruption. Contributing to the widening distrust of so vital a process are the influence on the outcome from vested interests having access to lavish funds, the restrictions on freedom of choice inherent in the party system and the distortion in public perception of the candidates by the bias expressed in the media.

“Apathy, alienation and disillusionment are consequences, too, as is a growing sense of despair of the unlikelihood that the most capable citizens will emerge to deal with the manifold problems of a defective social order.

“Evident everywhere is a yearning for institutions which will dispense justice, dispel oppression, and foster an enduring unity between the disparate elements of society.”

To date, there are 182 Baha’i National Spiritual Assemblies worldwide. Every five years, members of these assemblies elect nine Baha’is to serve on the administrative body of the worldwide Baha’i community.

In addition to its extraordinary diversity and wide geographic distribution, perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Baha’i community is its unity. Explicit teachings on the institutional framework of the faith and a clear line of succession of leadership have protected the Baha’i faith from schism.

More than 100 years after the passing of Baha’u’llah, the single worldwide Baha’i community is knit together by a network of elected institutions. Baha’u’llah taught that in an age of universal education, there was no longer a need for a special class of clergy. Instead, he provided a framework for administering the affairs of the faith through a system of elected councils at the local, national and international levels.

All Baha’i elections occur through secret ballot and plurality vote, without candidacies, nominations or campaigning, but with a great deal of thought, dignity and heart. Candidates are chosen for their unquestioned loyalty, selfless devotion, well-trained minds, recognized abilities and mature experience.

Baha’i assemblies operate through “consultation,” a process of non-adversarial decision-making in which all those present are expected to set forth their views with candor, courtesy and loving kindness, and in a spirit of unity.

The Baha’i elections, conducted worldwide, challenge the emerging consensus that the only truly democratic elections are multiparty elections in which each party’s candidates compete freely for votes.

Baha’i electoral institutions are based on three core values: respect for the inherent dignity of each person, the unity and solidarity of persons collectively and the justice and fairness of institutions.

In light of ongoing concerns about the character of the electoral process in actually existing democracies, further research into Baha’i elections and their philosophical foundations provides a promising basis for rethinking widely held liberal assumptions about how democratic elections must be conducted.

Baha’ulla’h, like Abraham, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad and the other divine messengers who preceded him, sought to awaken the moral and creative capacities latent in human nature. “Noble have I created thee,” is the divine assurance. He states that “the purpose for which mortal men have ... stepped into the realm of being, is that they may work for the betterment of the world and live together in concord and harmony. Dissipate not the wealth of your precious lives in the pursuit of evil and corrupt affection, nor let your endeavors be spent in promoting your personal interest ... Guard against idleness and sloth, and cling unto that which profiteth mankind, whether young or old, whether high or low.”

In linking spiritual development to personal behavior, Baha’u’llah wrote “that the citadels of men’s hearts should be subdued through the hosts of a noble character and praiseworthy deeds.” He exhorts the world’s peoples to “illumine their beings with the light of trustworthiness, the ornament of honesty, and the emblems of generosity. Service to humankind is the purpose of both individual life and all social arrangements: “Do not busy yourselves in your own concerns; let your thoughts be fixed upon that which will rehabilitate the fortunes of mankind and sanctify the hearts and souls of men.”

The ultimate aim in life of every human soul, the Baha’i writings state, should be to attain moral and spiritual excellence — to align one’s inner being and outward behavior with the will of an all-loving Creator.

Paul Gray is a Baha’i in Soldotna. Interfaith services are at 11 a.m. Sundays at Paul and Nancy Gray’s home.

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