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O God! Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious. Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world. – Abdu’l-Baha, Prayer for America, Baha'i Prayers, p. 24.
We don’t seem to live at a time when spiritual values are rising, world peace is within reach, or the world regards America as “glorious” and “praiseworthy.”
In fact, with every day more shocking news reaches us, whether pertaining to climate change and weather-related tragedy, war and conflict, racism, sexism, and contention in the political sphere. In these troubled and troubling times, what can we do (besides voting our conscience) to uplift others and heal the growing rifts that manifest themselves in American politics and life in general? How can we better understand and navigate the collective life we lead?
Perhaps history can help guide us. The presidential election of 1912 had some interesting parallels with this one. Republican Theodore Roosevelt, convinced he could offer what was needed in leadership, ran under a third-party ticket after Taft was chosen by the Republicans, thus splitting the Republican vote and leading to a Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson.
Abdu’l-Baha travelled through America during the election season. Yet he did not comment on it; he offered no opinion on the candidates, the virulent hostilities expressed, or even the outcome of the election. He did go to the Lincoln, Nebraska home of William Jennings Bryan—who had visited him in the Holy Land in 1906 and invited Abdu’l-Baha to visit him in America—but Bryan was on the road at the time, campaigning for Woodrow Wilson. Bryan’s family entertained Abdu’l-Baha; he visited Bryan’s library and wrote a prayer for the occasion.
On October 14, when Abdu’l-Baha visited Phoebe Hearst at her Pleasanton, California estate, the election came up in conversation, and Abdu’l-Baha spoke generally on the qualities a presidential candidate should have:
The president must be a man who does not insistently seek the presidency. He should be a person free from all thoughts of name and rank; rather, he should say, “I am unworthy and incapable of this position and cannot bear this great burden.” Such persons deserve the presidency. If the object is to promote the public good, then the president must be a well-wisher of all and not a self-seeking person. If the object, however, is to promote personal interests, then such a position will be injurious to humanity and not beneficial to the public. - Mahmud’s Diary, October 14, 1912, p. 327.
In Washington, D.C., Abdu’l-Baha had also touched on the topic of the presidential election, asking Florence Khan (the wife of Persian diplomat Ali Kuli Khan), “What would you say if a woman were to become President of the United States?”
The remark, said Florence, came like a bombshell. Abdu’l-Baha then said: “The time will come when the Presidency will go begging, so advanced will civilization have become that no one will want to leave his social and humanitarian tasks to take the time to assume the Presidency.”
We can now imagine a woman president. We can also imagine how difficult it will be for future potential candidates to want to run after so much public scrutiny and contention in the 2016 election. But we cannot yet imagine the fullness of what Abdu’l-Baha predicts in terms of an advanced civilization and its social and humanitarian emphasis.
Yet we must help create the kind of civilization he calls for. How? Perhaps by not contributing to divisive discourse, by trying to see and comment on that which is praiseworthy and unifying, by helping others gain hope and faith in changes to come, by developing our own humanitarian interests.
On that October morning in Pleasanton, Abdu’l-Baha also commented on how human beings can find peace, freedom, and happiness:
What conforms with divine decree will be realized. In addition, good intentions and sound thoughts attract confirmations. The desires of human beings are endless. No matter what level a human being reaches, he can still attain higher ones… He can never find peace but through effort and resignation, so that, notwithstanding all efforts in worldly affairs, the human heart remains free and happy… This station can be attained only through the power of faith. – Ibid., p. 328.
Reflecting on this guidance Abdu’l-Baha offered in 1912—ever more relevant in today’s world—we can strive to translate faith into action using all of our best capacity and awareness, both individually and collectively.