A pro-lifer shrugs in the face of mass death
With a pandemic rampaging across the country and the world, the stock market falling and rising like a roller coaster at full throttle, Congress passing $2 trillion dollars in economic stimulus to avoid a depression, and the president openly defying the consensus of experts in public health, just keeping up with the news requires sharp focus on the biggest headlines. But that shouldn't prevent you from pausing for a few short minutes to read a remarkable essay recently published by the conservative religious magazine First Things.
Authored by the journal's editor R.R. Reno, "Say 'No' to Death's Dominion" manages to distill something important about the character of conservative American Christianity in the Trump era. For years now, commentators have tried to make sense of how so many people who profess devotion to the teachings of Jesus Christ can square that faith with fervent support for what the Republican Party has become in recent years. Usually the answer has to do with the president's embrace of the pro-life movement, along with his facility at antagonizing secular liberals.
But Reno aims to go further. In a recent book, he gave a modulated endorsement in classically Christian terms to Trumpian nationalism and populism. And now, in the form of a pithy opinion column, he offers readers a theologically inflected defense of the Fox News line on the coronavirus: Don't shut down the country because of a pesky little virus, even if it means a bunch of people die. For those looking for a primer on how conservative Christianity in the United States might look in the future, Reno's essay is the place to go.
On a first read, my initial reaction to Reno's piece was to be stunned that the editor of a magazine that has always been steadfastly pro-life had made an argument implying that Christians should respond to mass death with a collective "meh." (Full disclosure: I worked as an editor at First Things from 2001 to 2005 and quit after an ideological falling out with its late founder and editor in chief Richard John Neuhaus.) Whereas FT has long held that abortion is always wrong in every circumstance because human life has absolute intrinsic worth, Reno seems to argue … something very different.
In Reno's view, "physical life" is merely one good among many. Indeed, to hold that life should take precedence over other goods, like "justice, beauty, and honor," is, he claims, a form of "sentimentalism," and nothing less than evidence of death's, and Satan's, expanding dominion over our culture and civilization. This would seem to clash rather violently with the premise of the pro-life position. After all, if physical life can be overridden by other considerations, then we're no longer thinking about morality in terms that justify absolute (unconditional) strictures against terminating a pregnancy. Put somewhat differently, if justice, beauty, and honor can trump the protection of physical life, then why not the personal autonomy of the pregnant woman? It would seem that Reno has fatally undermined the foundation of his own absolute opposition to abortion.
Yet Reno anticipates this objection and implicitly addresses it head on by making a crucial distinction early on in the essay. The anti-abortion fight, he asserts, is a "battle against killing." Imposing draconian public-health measures in order to protect our families, communities, and nation from a potentially fatal illness is, by contrast, "an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death."
Abortion is about killing. Public health is about dying. That difference is everything for Reno.
Ending a pregnancy is a great evil because it is the intentional taking of an innocent human life. But other forms of dying that happen by nature (a virus killing its victim is a natural process), like deaths that follow indirectly from social and economic structures that prevail in the United States, are matters of moral indifference. Yes, they're unfortunate. It is fitting to mourn them. They require "triage," as Reno repeatedly puts it. But that's life. People get sick. They die. Bad things happen. Get used to it.
Interestingly, Reno points to some of the greatest inequities in the U.S. medical system — the fact that we "ration health care by price, waiting times, and physician discretion" — and sees them as additional evidence in favor of his central claim. To treat these distinctively American norms and institutions as a given is to accept the way things are meant to be in a universe governed by God. To treat them as marked by problems or injustices that cry out to be fixed or reformed, on the other hand, is "demonic."
The implications of this outlook for public policy and self-government more broadly are quite astonishing. Imagine a busy suburban intersection where a car accidentally plows into and kills several children walking to a nearby school. Should the governing township respond by hiring a crossing guard or building a bridge over the thoroughfare to prevent the wrenching event from being repeated? By Reno's logic, the answer is no. Life is unfair. The world is unjust. Children sometimes die. That's why we have the Eucharist and the rosary — to console us while we await the return of our Lord Jesus Christ and ward off the temptations of Lucifer.
Those who doubt that Reno's claims end in precisely such resignation and passivity in the face of suffering and death should pay close attention to the final third of the essay, where he compares our current efforts at halting the spread of the coronavirus very unfavorably to the way Americans responded to the Spanish flu a century ago. "Their reaction was vastly different from ours. They continued to worship, go to musical performances, clash on football fields, and gather with friends…. Unlike us … that generation did not want to live under Satan's rule, not even for a season."
They were models of Christian courage, while we "cower in fear."
What Reno neglects to say, perhaps out of unconcern, is that this insistence on going on with normal life in the face of a dangerous contagion a little over a hundred years ago resulted in the deaths of well over half a million Americans at a time when the population of the United States was less than a third of what it is now. Reno apparently believes it would be vastly better for a couple million people to die over the coming months than for us to shelter in place for a few weeks.
Reno calls this Christianity, but it is more accurately described as American libertarianism raised up into a theological first principle. Individuals are absolutely forbidden to take a human life at any stage of development following conception because to do so violates that person's rights. But any effort to think in communal terms, to use state power to mitigate mass suffering, or protect our fellow human beings from harm, is "specious moralism," an unacceptable, satanic imposition on the rightful order of things.
So much for love of neighbor. So much for the common good. So much for sacrificing a little individual liberty for something bigger and nobler than ourselves.
Just as our current president swept into office on talk of putting America first and ended up treating the nation's highest office as a vehicle to advance his own power and wealth, so R. R. Reno set out to defend Christian nationalism and finds himself instead justifying indifference to the suffering and death of his fellow Americans and calling it the will of God.
Which just might make Reno's divinization of pitiless, rugged individualism the perfect religious complement to a Republican Party that's been thoroughly remade in the image of Donald Trump.