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Can Democracy be Spiritual?

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Can Democracy be Spiritual?

By Pete Haug

Electoral systems vary widely. Washington’s electoral process is far ahead of most. Secretary of State Kim Wyman, now in her third term, oversees elections here. She’s the only Republican on the West Coast elected to a state-wide position. Now she’s leaving to serve as President Joe Biden’s election security lead in the Department of Homeland Security, a necessary improvement in our democratic republic.

But more is needed. It’s been said the people in a democracy get the government they deserve. We deserve better. Governments the world over need to be improved.

Democracy’s roots

Athenian democracy appeared about 550 BCE. Plato’s Republic delivers “a damning critique of democracy” because it‘s “conducive to mass ignorance, hysteria, and ultimately tyranny.” Plato predicts “an enormous socioeconomic gap, where the poor remain poor and the rich become richer off the blood and sweat of others…they will use it as a battle cry against their oppressors, sparking a revolution.” History seems to confirm these predictions.

A new model of democracy

Our world has had democracies since Athens. One of the newest, the administrative structure of the Baha’i Faith, formally began in 1897. It “served simultaneously as Persia’s ‘Central Spiritual Assembly’ and as the governing body of the local community in the capital,” Tehran. Since then, that democracy has spread globally. It enfranchises the individual within a governmental system both just and equitable. Although it currently serves a tiny portion of humanity, its influence is felt globally, from small indigenous communities to national governments and nongovernmental agencies.

This democracy holds elections annually by secret ballot. Electors are free to vote for any eligible candidate. Nominations are prohibited. Even discussions of individuals are considered gossip or backbiting. To create a local governing body of nine, called a local spiritual assembly, voters consider choices thoughtfully, through individual prayer and meditation.

As electors vote to create the local assembly, each ballot must contain exactly nine different names. The nine individuals receiving the most votes constitute the new assembly. At the national level, communities are divided into regions, which send delegates to an annual convention. Delegates elect nine to serve on the national spiritual assembly. Every five years, members of national spiritual assemblies worldwide elect the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Baha’i Faith.

Election criteria

Criteria for elections are simple. Voters cast ballots for individuals who best combine “qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience.” Individuals with these characteristics are generally known within the Baha’i community. Certain names  rise quickly to the top, so tellers can sort ballots relatively quickly, even at the international level.

Trust is essential in this system – trust in the system itself, trust in the institutions established through elections, and trust in God. Once elected, institutions or members are not responsible to those who elected them. They function by consulting on how to apply Baha’i principles, rooted in justice and equity, to any given situation. Institutions make decisions collectively through a process of consultation, which seeks unity. If unity is not possible, the majority rules.

No individual in the Baha’i Faith has any personal power, not even members or officers of assemblies. There is no expectation on the part of voters of “reward” from those elected. How could there be if discussion of individuals is prohibited and ballots are secret?

Spiritual governance

As the Universal House of Justice has explained:

“There are spiritual principles…by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems …The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them.”

Although foundational principles are unchangeable, Baha’i institutions exercise flexibility when applying them. No written body of laws can encompass all possibilities. Laws, therefore, must be applied with equity, which is not the same as justice, i.e.  “common law” or “case law.”  

Equity is associated with principles of fairness in applying case law, a medieval concept for alleviating harshness and inflexibility of common law. When conflict arose, equity prevailed.

 Our legal system doesn’t excuse ignorance of the law. An equitable system might allow a defense of ignorance under certain circumstances, as in cases of mentally incompetent offenders. Baha’i institutions interpret and apply with equity foundational guidance and principles written by Baha’u’llah and his son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all could live under such equitable governance?  

About Pete Haug

Armed with an AB in English literature, Pete Haug plunged into journalism fresh out of college. That career lasted five years while he reported for a metropolitan daily, edited a rural weekly, and worked in industrial and academic public relations. He abandoned all for graduate school, finishing with an MS in wildlife biology and a PhD in systems ecology. Pete taught college briefly, then for a couple of decades he analyzed environmental impacts for federal, state, Native American, and private agencies. His last hurrah was an 11-year gig teaching English in China. After he retired in 2007, curiosity led Pete to explore climate change and fake news and to give talks about both. About five years ago he returned to journalism to write columns under the watchful eye of his draconian live-in editor and wife Jolie. They’ve both been Baha’is since the 1960s. Pete’s columns on the Baha’i Faith represent his own understanding and not any official position.

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