I've been wondering lately at the role of the passing of the year 2000 has had on the increasingly sectarian attitude of the Baha'i Faith in recent years. To me, there has been a dramatic shift in emphasis from the Baha'i Faith as a universal religion that would embrace the whole of humanity, to the current viewpoint that it is a religion with very specific beliefs, and if you don't go along, then you should just get the hell out of Dodge.I never ran into this latter attitude until I came onto the Internet, and since then, things have gotten worse. Enrollments are at their lowest point in decades, and those who question the current direction the community is taken get into trouble -- as in this example. People are not becoming Baha'is, and longtime Baha'is are either leaving or becoming active. The astounding part of it is that the administration doesn't care! No longer are we reciting the mantra of "Entry by Troops" being around the corner; there is much more open concern about making sure that those who remain in the Faith has a particular, generally fundamantalist outlook, and those who don't share that are either silenced or pushed out. And, the administration just seems to think that it's a good thing for the Faith to shake out as much of what they regard as dead wood as possible.
Anyone who came into the Baha'i Faith before the mid-'90s was given a particular vision of the near future: Within the 20th century, mankind would be faced with an apocalyptic Calamity that would be so terrible that the nations of the world would recognize the necessity for a world government, and create the political arrangement called "the Lesser Peace" by Baha'u'llah. This deadline is based, apparently, on oral statements by 'Abdu'l-Baha', and from what I understand, the word he used does not literally mean "century" but is vaguer, more like "era" or "age".
Anyway, as late as the early '90s, Baha'is would speak of this as if it were a near-certainty. Not only ordinary Baha'is, but highly placed officials, like Peter Khan, who gave a talk on the subject -- I have the tape. He was discouraging an over-emphasis on apocalyptic speculation, while at the same time, taking it for granted that the Lesser Peace would arrive by the year 2000. The whole plan to finish the buildings on the Arc in on Mt. Carmel was based on something Shoghi Effendi said, that the completion of these buildings would coincide with the Lesser Peace, so there was a great drive to have that done before the end of the century. (They didn't make it; there's still one building left to go, and the spot is owned by someone else.) There were Baha'is who gave money to this effort, believing that they were somehow hastening the arrival of world peace by doing so.
These hopes gradually fizzled out as the last decade of the century progressed, and by the time 2000 came, it seemed that no one was talking about it any more. I guess the UHJ wrote a letter about it, but for the most part, this expectation that loomed so large in the Baha'i consciousness just sort of disappeared. No big crisis of faith, no big disappointment; it was just gone. What I'm wondering is what other hopes have been taken along with it.
As I mentioned, the expectation of "entry by troops" i.e., large numbers of converts, has largely disappeared. Things have been stagnant too long for even the most hard-headed fundamentalist to believe it anymore. The number of LSAs in the U.S. declined from a peak of 1750 in 1985, to just above 1100 in the mid-90s -- and it was explained away by a change in election requirements. Once upon a time, the preservation of these assemblies was a big priority, and a loss would have been considered a major disaster, but now, it's no big deal. People are leaving, and it's no big deal. It's as if the universal vision of the Baha'i Faith is gone completely, replaced by a view of Baha'is as a kind of spiritual elite with a lock on the truth. I can't help wondering if extending the expectation of the Lesser Peace into the distant future has contributed to that. We aren't really trying to bring in mankind anymore; the administration would rather have a handful of ideologically correct Baha'is than deal with the inevitable mess having a diversity of people within the Faith would bring. All the rage is the Ruhi program, which is meant to program people into the proper views, and expectations for growth are put off until each community has completed a certain amount of that program. The number and extent of these classes is now being kept track of, as a record of progress, just like the numbers of LSAs once were. It seems that they don't want converts until they are sure that those who are currently believers have adopted a fundamentalist view of the Faith, and the expectation is that they will bring in new believers who have a similar outlook. Gone is the outreach to freethinking, liberal "seeker" types, for whom they have a considerable degree of contempt; at least one NSA member is encouraging Baha'is to give up on that type and teach Christian fundamentalists. He says that the liberal types haven't responded to the message, but that's not true -- they *did*, once upon a time. The real issue is that the administration wasn't happy with that kind of convert, once they got them.