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 Ruba'iya't 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
What Evangelicals Could Learn From The Ruba'iya't of Omar Khayyam
By Juan Cole
This spring, the novel coronavirus pandemic has raised the issue of the relationship between the blindest kind of religious faith and rational skepticism -- this time in two countries that think of themselves as polar opposites and enemies: Supreme Leader Ali Khameini's Iran and Donald Trump's America.
On the U.S. side of things, New Orleans pastor Tony Spell, for instance, has twice been arrested for holding church services without a hint of social distancing, despite a ban on such gatherings. His second arrest was for preaching while wearing an ankle monitor and despite the Covid-19 death of at least one of his church members.
The publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's famed Origin of the Species, arguing as it did for natural selection (which many American evangelicals still reject), might be considered the origin point for the modern conflict between religious beliefs and science, a struggle that has shaped our culture in powerful ways. Unexpectedly, given Iran's reputation for religious obscurantism, the science-minded in the nineteenth and twentieth century often took heart from a collection of Persian poems, the Ruba'iya't, or "quatrains," attributed to the medieval Iranian astronomer Omar Khayyam, who died in 1131.
Edward FitzGerald's loose translation of those poems, also published in 1859, put Khayyam on the map as a medieval Muslim free-thinker and became a century-and-a-half-long sensation in the midst of heated debates about the relationship between science and faith in the West. Avowed atheist Clarence Darrow, the famed defense attorney at the 1925 "monkey trial" of a Tennessee educator who broke state law by teaching evolution, was typical in his love of the Ruba'iya't. He often quoted it in his closing arguments, observing that for Khayyam the "mysticisms of philosophy and religion alike were hollow and bare."
To be fair, some religious leaders, including Pope Francis and Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have followed the most up-to-date science, as Covid-19 spread globally, by supporting social-distancing measures to deal with the virus. When he still went by the name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio and lived in Buenos Aires, the Pope earned a high school chemical technician's diploma and actually knows something about science. Indeed, the Catholic Church in Brazil has impressively upheld the World Health Organization's guidelines for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, defying the secular government of far right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, that country's Donald Trump. Brazil's president has notoriously ignored his nation's public-health crisis, dismissed the coronavirus as a "little flu," and tried to exempt churches from state government mandates that they close. The archbishop of the hard-hit city of Manaus in the Amazon region has, in fact, publicly complained that Brazilians are not taking the virus seriously enough as it runs rampant in the country. Church authorities worry about the strain government inaction is putting on Catholic hospitals and clinics, as well as the devastation the disease is wreaking in the region.
Here, we witness not a dispute between religion and science but between varieties of religion. Pope Francis's Catholicism remains open to science, whereas Bolsonaro, although born a Catholic, became an evangelical and, in 2016, was even baptized as a pastor in the Jordan River. He now plays to the 22% of Brazilians who have adopted conservative Protestantism, as well as to Catholics who are substantially more conservative than the current pope. While some U.S. evangelicals are open to science, a Pew Charitable Trust poll found that they, too, are far more likely than the non-religious to reject the very idea of evolution, not to speak of the findings of climate science (action on which Pope Francis has supported in a big way).
Death in the Bible Belt
In the U.S., a variety of evangelical religious leaders have failed the test of reasoned public policy in outrageous ways. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, railing at "tyrannical government," refused to close his mega-church in Florida until the local police arrested him in March. He even insisted that church members in those services of 500 or more true believers should continue to shake hands with one another because "we're raising up revivalists, not pansies."
As he saw it, his River Tampa Bay Church was the "safest place" around because it was the site of "salvation." Only in early April did he finally move his services online and it probably wasn't to protect the health of his congregation either. His insurance company had cancelled on him after his arrest and his continued defiance of local regulations.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis muddied the waters further in early April by finally issuing a statewide shelter-in-place order that exempted churches as "essential services." Then, after only a month, he abruptly reopened the state anyway. DeSantis, who had run a Facebook group dominated by racist comments and had risen on Donald Trump's coattails, has a sizeable evangelical constituency and, in their actions, he and Pastor Howard-Browne have hardly been alone.
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