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  • Louis Venters

What Is Happening in the United States?

Protesters at Los Angeles International Airport, Jan. 29, 2017

As a Baha'i I attempt to adhere scrupulously to my faith's prohibition on involvement in partisan politics. To make a long story short, a faith whose central teaching and primary goal is the oneness of the human race can't employ means that are inconsistent with its ends. We vote in civil elections and abide by the results, obey the laws of the countries in which we live, and, according to our circumstances, strive to improve our communities and serve our neighbors in cooperation with other people of goodwill. We never engage in subversion or attempts to overthrow a government, and we make no attempt to interfere in relations between the governments of various countries. When we seek redress for injustice, either against ourselves or our neighbors, we do so only in constitutional, non-violent, and principled fashion. This is an approach that we've been refining around the world for more than a century now in diverse and often trying circumstances--from Nazi Germany and Russia under Communism to apartheid South Africa and civil war in the Congo. The longest and best-known example is the Baha'i community in Iran, the faith's birthplace, where it has gained the respect and admiration of many fair-minded Iranians despite decades of relentless persecution.

With all of this in mind, I have made it a point not to say much publicly about the recent elections in the United States, and when I have--when it would have been tone-deaf of me not to say something in my classes or in public events--I've tried to choose my words with a great deal of care.

But make no mistake, Baha'is are not sheep. We aren't naive about political processes in the world today, and we can tell the difference "between just and tyrannical rule." We believe that political authorities have sacred obligations to serve the best interests of their people. We are obligated--as are the adherents of every faith--to be "a home for the stranger, a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the fugitive." In our individual and collective capacities, in our conversations with our friends and neighbors and when we represent our faith to political leaders, we speak and work and yearn for justice and peace for the whole world, wherever we reside. When we speak, we seek to do so with clarity, frankness, courtesy, and integrity.

It is in this vein that I share an important news item from here in the U.S. that escaped me late last week, when I (and I think most anybody else watching the news) was quite understandably focused on the chaos surrounding the executive order concerning immigration and visas. It appears that Stephen Bannon, a white supremacist propagandist and conspiracy theorist who serves as the President's chief adviser, was on Friday promoted to a permanent seat on the National Security Council, while the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence were demoted to attending meetings only when their particular expertise is deemed directly relevant. This is apparently a rather unprecedented arrangement for this important agency.

Coverage by the New York Times and NPR was rather restrained; the Washington Post seems to connect more dots.

As a colleague who was directly affected by the travel ban suggested on Facebook over the weekend, I am beginning to think that the chaos of the immigration ban was intentional--calculated to distract from the consolidation of power taking place in the White House, on the one hand, and to test how much latitude various agencies of the executive branch have to defy the judiciary (and, as far as I can tell, the U.S. Constitution), on the other.

As this thoughtful analysis suggests, it is looking more and more as if the federal government of the United States is experiencing a coup d'etat for the first time in its history. It is a rather slow-moving coup and not what I ever expected, but I'm not sure what else to call it.

I have unshakable faith in my country's future. Baha'is believe, based explicitly on our faith's sacred writings, that the United States is destined to lead the nations of the world into a global commonwealth in which all peoples and all factions will find expression of their "highest wish" for justice, dignity, peace, and prosperity. But our writings are equally clear that the path towards our country's moral and political maturity will be tortuous. It certainly has been already, as I am reminded every semester when I teach my course on U.S. History since 1877.

I'd be happy for things to turn out differently and to be proven wrong about our immediate circumstances. Either way, American Baha'is will keep up their work of uniting people across the barriers that divide our country. But it sure looks like perilous times lie immediately ahead.

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