Essay Juan Cole TomGram

Fundamentalist Pandemics

A Tomgram: Juan Cole, Iran and the U.S., an irony of curious affinity.

By Juan Cole with introduction from Tom Engelhardt / Reprinted with permission from

We are in a strangely viral religious moment. Only recently, a White House in which little, including the deaths of Americans, counts for more than the support of evangelicals rejected initial guidelines prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for “re-opening” America. A major reason: because those evangelicals might imagine that the guidelines infringed on their “religious freedom”! Those guidelines encouraged churches to begin making sure that all congregants wear “cloth face coverings when inside the building,” offer video streaming or drive-in options for services, and consider “suspending use of a choir or musical ensemble.” It also suggested that churches consider “temporarily limiting the sharing of frequently touched objects,” including hymnals, prayer books and collection baskets.

According to the New York Times, several federal agencies reviewed those guidelines and found them “too burdensome for houses of worship.” After all, evangelical ceremonies without choirs? Who could imagine it, given freedom of religion? Forget that one church choir practice in Mount Vernon, Washington, to which 61 singers turned up, “including one who had been fighting cold-like symptoms for a few days,” left 53 of them with Covid-19 and two of them dead from it. And no collection baskets! Yikes, where will the pastor’s salary come from?

Oh wait, in the Republican-sponsored Covid-19 bailout initiative, the Trump administration took care of that. Among helpful hands offered (especially to big corporations), that bill also helped pay pastors’ salaries and church utility bills. President Trump himself “made sure” that would be part of the legislation, since churches weren’t holding services and getting their usual weekly offerings from parishioners. As Vice President Mike Pence said in a conference call with pastors, “There is a portion of that revenue that just by virtue of people’s habits and practices doesn’t come back.”

Indeed! However questionable the very idea of the U.S. government paying pastors (or have I blanked on where this fits into the separation of church and state?), it’s but one passing strangeness in a world growing ever stranger. As TomDispatch regular Juan Cole points out today, in spirit we now have a fundamentalist White House that has — despite its abandoned nuclear deal, sanctions, drone assassinations, and military threats — something strangely in common with the fundamentalist regime of Iran. Such a unique insight is typical of Cole, whose columns at Informed Comment I read religiously — if I can use such a word in this context — every day (and yes, he posts a new one daily, a miracle in itself). Today, he puts the fundamentalist nature of both the Trump administration and Iran’s present government in the context of that most famous of all Iranian books of poems, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, of which he’s just produced (as you’ll learn from reading his piece today) a new translation. I’m planning to get my hands on a copy. You should, too

Tom Engelhardt

What Evangelicals Could Learn From The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam

by Juan Cole

In our own perilous times, right-wing fundamentalist governments like those in Brazil and the United States, as well as religious fundamentalist ones as in Iran, have made the coronavirus outbreak far more virulent and dangerous by encouraging religious gatherings at a time when the pandemic’s curve could only be flattened by social distancing. Their willingness to blithely set aside reason and science out of a fatalistic and misguided faith in a supernatural providence that overrules natural law (or, in Donald Trump’s case, a fatalistic and misguided faith in his own ability to overrule natural laws, not to speak of providence) has been responsible for tens of thousands of deaths around the world. Think of it as, in spirit, a fundamentalist version of genocide.

The pecuniary motives of some of this obscurantism are clear, as many churches and mosques depend on contributions from congregants at services for the livelihood of imams and pastors. Their willingness to prey on the gullibility of their followers in a bid to keep up their income stream should be considered the height of hypocrisy and speaks to the importance of people never surrendering their capacity for independent, critical reasoning.

Though you might not have noticed it on Donald Trump’s and Ali Khamenei’s planet, religion seems to be in the process of collapsing, at least in the industrialized world. A third of the French say that they have no religion at all and just 45% consider themselves Catholic (with perhaps only half of those being relatively committed to the faith), while only 5% attend church regularly. A majority of young people in 12 European countries claim that they now have no religion, pointing to a secular future for much of the continent. Even in peculiarly religious America, self-identification as Christian has plunged to 65% of the population, down 12% in the past decade, while 26% of the population now disavows having a religion at all.

In post-pandemic Iran, don’t be surprised if similar feelings spread, given how the religious leadership functionally encouraged the devastation of Covid-19. In this way, despite military threats, economic sanctions, and everything else, Donald Trump’s America and Ali Khamenei’s Iran truly have something in common. In the U.S., where it’s easier to measure what’s happening, evangelicals, more than a fifth of the population when George W. Bush was first elected president in 2000, are 16% of it two decades later.

Given the unpredictable nature of our world (as the emergence of Covid-19 has made all too clear), nothing, secularization included, is a one-way street. Religion is perfectly capable of experiencing revivals. Still, there is no surer way to tip the balance toward an Omar Khayyam-style skepticism than for prominent religious leaders to guide their faithful, and all those in contact with them, into a new wave of the pandemic.

Copyright 2020 Juan Cole

Juan Cole
Juan Cole

Juan Cole, a TomDispatch regular, is the Richard P. Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. His new book is The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation From the Persian (IB Tauris). He is also the author of Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. His award-winning blog is Informed Comment.

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