I am old enough to remember the conservative outrage over nonexistent death panels in the Affordable Care Act. I am even old enough to remember the outrage over CO Governor Richard Lamm’s pronouncement that terminally ill have a duty to die and not use resources younger people could better use. And because I am so old, I am not enamored with Ben Shapiro’s (on the right below) reasoning here. Watch:
Ben Shapiro: “If somebody who is 81 dies of COVID-19, that is not the same thing as somebody who is 30 dying of COVID-19…If grandma dies in a nursing home at age 81, that’s tragic and it’s terrible, also the life expectancy in the United States is 80” pic.twitter.com/L2UJi95OUN
The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the unseemly elements of some who call themselves pro-life. I have written recently about R.R. Reno and his view of society as excluding the old and medically compromised.
I have no problem with disagreements over logistics of social distancing and suppression efforts. In fact, the “lockdown” hasn’t been a complete lockdown of all economic activity. States are starting to relax some of their restrictions as more is learned about the virus and as the earlier efforts are paying off.
We also now know that the elderly and nursing homes need special attention. What is amazing to me is that the conservative, pro-life folks haven’t been on top of that. If anything, when questions of life versus standard of living comes up, you get this utilitarian garbage such as Shapiro is promoting.
We really can have public policy that takes care of everybody. We are talking about a comparison of death versus temporary limitations in mobility and standard of living. There are legitimate discussions to have about the human costs of unemployment and access to human services. Given the money being redistributed by politicians, those needs can be met and still take care of people vulnerable to COVID-19. However, public policy that can walk and chew gum is apparently too hard and complex for what passes as today’s conservative leaders.
R.R. Reno and First Things has led the way in skepticism about the seriousness of COVID-19 and the need to social distance. I first looked at Reno’s historical revisionism last month in response to his objections to churches closing.
First paragraphs are supposed to get the reader’s attention and this one does its job.
The coronavirus pandemic is not and never was a threat to society. COVID-19 poses a danger to the elderly and the medically compromised. Otherwise, for most who present symptoms, it can be nasty and persistent, but is not life-threatening. A majority of those infected do not notice that they have the disease. Coronavirus presents us with a medical challenge, not a crisis. The crisis has been of our own making.
In what most public health experts believe is the beginning of the COVID-19 ordeal, Reno pronounces the pandemic no threat to society. However, for Reno, society is something and someone other than the elderly and the medically compromised. This exclusion is reason enough to question what comes next.
Reno’s dismissal of COVID-19 as a threat is based on a sunny reading of selected findings about mortality rates. He gets his first comparison between the flu and COVID-19 very wrong when he writes:
The next day, Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis sifted through the data and predicted less widespread infection and a fatality rate of between 0.05 and 1.0 percent—not that different from the common flu. The coronavirus is not the common flu. It has different characteristics, afflicting the old more than the young, men more than women. Nevertheless, all data trends since mid-March show that Ferguson was fantastically wrong and Ioannidis was largely right about its mortal threat.
Reno here compares Ioannidis’ speculations about COVID-19’s death rate (.05-1%) to that of the common flu. This is an irresponsible and misleading comparison. According to the CDC website, there were 2 flu deaths per 100,000 people in 2017. Most recent estimates I have seen for the flu are at about .1% (not 1.0%). Much of Reno’s argument is based on this spurious comparison. He really wants COVID-19 to be comparable to the flu so we can just blame the frantic infectious disease crazies and get back to normal.
Since Reno insists Ioannidis has had the better model, let’s see how his predictions have worked out. In his March Stat article, Ioannidis wrote:
If we assume that case fatality rate among individuals infected by SARS-CoV-2 is 0.3% in the general population — a mid-range guess from my Diamond Princess analysis — and that 1% of the U.S. population gets infected (about 3.3 million people), this would translate to about 10,000 deaths.
As I write this, according to Worldometer.info, the death toll in the U.S. is 56,173.
Reno is correct that the fatality rate is likely to be much lower than the 2-5% that is showing up in the states. Due to the puzzling cases of asymptomatic carriers of the virus, many people have it and don’t know it. However, even if it is .3%, that is three times higher than the flu. If it is .3% (which it appears to be in Chelsea, MA — a place cited by Reno but without stats), that would be a huge increase in deaths as the virus spreads. The fact is we don’t know what is going to happen and Reno’s appeal to science is tendentious. He picks what he likes.
Let me say that I am not unsympathetic to the impulse to get back to normal. As a psychology professor, I realize that poverty, isolation, and joblessness make existing bad conditions worse for many. A complete shutdown over many months would require a coordination and distribution of resources to the masses which the current administration is incapable of performing.
Due to the bungling of testing and crisis management by the federal administration there was no way to know where the disease was prevalent. It is highly likely that the stay at home orders (based on experience in previous pandemics) prevented outbreaks of the disease. Americans responded well to the guidelines and lives have been saved as a result. It is a mystery to me why skeptics don’t appear to entertain the notion that prevention worked.
However, Reno wants the whole thing to have been a waste of time and money. He writes:
We need to be told the truth about COVID-19’s effect. It is not a uniquely perilous disease; for people under 35, it may be less dangerous than the flu.
I agree we need to be told the truth, but we don’t know all the truth yet. There is much scientists are still learning about it. An article in Science summarizing research on the virus to date concluded:
Despite the more than 1000 papers now spilling into journals and onto preprint servers every week, a clear picture is elusive, as the virus acts like no pathogen humanity has ever seen.
Reno wants us to believe his expert. However, his expert was wrong too. Ioannidis was close on the mortality rate but his assumption of 1% infection rate was way off. There is a lot that is still not known and caution in the face of the unknown still seems like a wise policy to me.
Democrats and media aren’t demanding indefinite lockdowns for public health reasons. Democrats know the booming economy was Trump’s biggest political advantage, so they made the deliberate decision to destroy tens of millions of jobs and livelihoods for their own political gain.
The editor of The Federalist Sean David tweeted this yesterday.
Let’s back up a minute. Who recommended the lockdowns? Why President Trump’s own coronavirus guidelines! Also, most state governors of both political parties imposed stay at home orders because of evidence of community transmission. The President’s own task force recommends the stay at home orders and compliance with state orders.
Let’s back up a little bit more. Why are the lockdowns in place? Because COVID-19 is highly contagious and potentially deadly. Did the Democrats do that too, Mr. Davis? Did over 40,000 Americans die to hurt Donald Trump? Did all the nations of the world lockdown their economies just to hurt Donald Trump’s re-election chances?
Is the virus a Democrat, Mr. Davis?
It is sad and discouraging that The Federalist has an audience for this perverse reasoning.
We aren’t even close to the election yet, so I suspect there will be other entries in this category. But for now, this is my front runner for most bizarre tweet of the COVID-19 season.
Today in nearby Mercer PA, a small protest against PA’s stay at home restrictions was held and a friend took this photo:
Starting Sunday night, Governor Tom Wolf requested “as many people as possible wear a nonmedical or homemade mask when leaving their homes.” Apparently, this woman has no idea what slavery is or was because there is nothing equivalent about slavery and a requirement to wear a mask to prevent the spread of disease. It is impossible to take protests like this seriously when this kind of absurd and racially insensitive rhetoric is featured.
This same woman is not permitted to walk down the middle of the street or drive on the wrong side of the road. These rules are for her good and the safety of others. Today I wore my mask when I went out and I plan to protect myself and others for the duration.
It is beyond belief that Donald Trump has done nothing to discourage these protests. He has actually promoted them with his tweets to “liberate” three states with Democratic governors. I can’t think of a comparable situation in my lifetime where an American president says one thing to the public but provokes his followers to ignore what he says. He could put a stop to this by calling out the protesters. They are carrying Trump signs and flags. Some are carrying Confederate flags. He has every reason to discourage the protests for public health reasons but he winks and nods and they continue.
In Harrisburg, PA today, an antivax message was prominent as a part of the protest.
By now, those who keep up on religion and politics are aware that president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and nominee to be the next president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Al Mohler, has endorsed Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
Mohler did not endorse Trump in 2016. In fact, he criticized Trump and cast his opposition as being consistent with his criticism of Bill Clinton on moral grounds. After citing an article decrying Clinton’s morals, Mohler said in 2016:
I cite that article I wrote during the Clinton crisis to document arguments the importance of sexual morality and character to leadership. I read those words because I want to make certain I am consistent over time and not bending my argument to the political urgency of the moment. If I were to support, much less endorse, Donald Trump for president, I would actually have to go back and apologize to former President Bill Clinton. I would have to admit that my commentary on his scandals was wrong. I don’t believe I was. I don’t believe evangelicals who stood united that time were wrong.
Several commentators have pointed out Mohler’s flip flop in articles that are well worth reading: Jonathan Merritt, John Fea, David French. My interest in this post is demonstrating just how far from his former position he has moved. During the Clinton years, Mohler was one of several evangelical leaders who took a very persistent stance that Bill Clinton’s character disqualified him from office. Here are some illustrations.
Lying Destroyed Credibility in 1998
In September 1998, Mohler was quoted as calling for Clinton’s resignation over the Lewinsky affair.
Mr. Mohler, the Southern Baptist theologian, has called for Clinton’s resignation, as have other leaders of Clinton’s own denomination.
“An apology requires moral credibility, and the president has destroyed that moral credibility,” he says. “Basically, he’s saying to the American people, ‘I lied to you, I lied repeatedly, I lied even most recently, but I am not lying now.’ That just does not wash.” (1)
called on Clinton to resign because restoring trust to the presidency “can only be accomplished by your relinquishing your office.”
Apparently, we no longer need to trust the president.
Character Mattered in 1999
On February 18, 1999, the Baptist Press reported that Mohler made his third appearance on “Larry King Live” to discuss, among other things, Clinton’s character. The article quoted Mohler at length:
“I think what we see here is a great culture war, the great moral divide in this country being made very apparent. … [People] saw the president’s sins, and the resulting consequences which should come of them, in entirely different worldviews. It was impossible for persons on one side of that divide to understand the other.
“I think we’re all losers here. … I think we’ve learned something new about the moral climate of America, something very disturbing.
“There is sin all around. No one has any right to act as if there is no sin in him,” Mohler said, reflecting comments from some of the other guests who noted the sick and dark condition of Americans’ hearts and souls.
“The issue is what do we as culture … rightly expect to be the moral standard whereby our leaders should live and be accountable to the American public?” Mohler asked.
“The real issue is the president’s character … [and] the way we have separated sin from consequences. That is fatal for a society. … We’re becoming very satisfied with an inconsequential understanding of moral evil.”
Mohler said later generations will be “greatly harmed” by some of the immoral messages afloat in American culture, including the message sent by the senators who acquitted Clinton.
Apparently, the president’s character is no longer an issue when the president is a Republican.
Core Evangelical Values in 2016
In 2016, Mohler questioned whether Trump supporters adhered to core evangelical values.
MOHLER: We have taken comfort in the fact that there have been millions and millions of us in America. And a part of that evidence has been the last several election cycles, with the evangelical vote being in the millions. And now we’re having to face the fact that, evidently, theologically-defined – defined by commitment to core evangelical values – there aren’t so many millions of us as we thought.
On CNN, Mohler told Don Lemon the election of 2016 was a disaster for evangelicals. He didn’t favor Hillary Clinton but had special criticism for Trump. Watch:
This quote is haunting: “When it comes to Donald Trump, evangelicals are going to have to ask a huge question: Is it worth destroying our moral credibility to support someone who is beneath the baseline level of human decency for anyone who should deserve our vote?” Apparently, it is worth it to Mohler to destroy what moral credibility evangelicals as a group have left to endorse Trump.
Character Still Mattered in 2018
Mohler probably needs to apologize twice to Clinton because as late as June 2018, he was banging on Clinton for his morals. In a column reacting to Clinton’s inadequate answer about his lack of apology to Monica Lewinsky, Mohler wrote:
That’s the twisted, convoluted, moral world that many of us remember from the 1990s and the play out of the sordid affairs concerning Bill Clinton as president of the United States. I bring it up today on The Briefing simply because of this. We need to remember that this kind of action has consequences, and the consequences continue.
I could go on but I think the point is made that Al Mohler has used Bill Clinton as a punching bag since the late 1990s, was consistent when judging Trump at first, but has now flipped. He owes more than Bill Clinton an apology. He owes every Christian who listened to him an apology.
As David French pointed out in his excellent commentary, Mohler’s endorsement comes as Donald Trump presides over a dismal performance as president during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we speak, Trump is undermining his own COVID-19 task force by encouraging civil disobedience among his supporters. Instead of telling his supporters to go by the social distance guidelines, he tweeted for them to “Liberate” their states. Trump’s unfaithfulness may no longer involve women, but it has consequences nonetheless.
After all is said, the only thing I get out of Mohler’s turnabout is that he has done what he said he didn’t want to do – bend his “argument to the political urgency of the moment.”
Trump sure sounded like he meant all of that to me. However, one of his court evangelical apologists said he was “speaking hyperbolically.”
Trump was speaking hyperbolically, trolling those who fear his taking over as dictator. It worked. Meanwhile well-spoken Gov Cuomo pushed through a bill for abortion into the 9th month & even celebrated that violence & savagery as a Women's Rights victory. Just not unborn women.
Greg Thornbury disagreed and they continued their conversation. However, it is uncanny to me how anyone could watch those exchanges and think Trump did not take himself seriously. In fact, today he tweeted this:
Tell the Democrat Governors that “Mutiny On The Bounty” was one of my all time favorite movies. A good old fashioned mutiny every now and then is an exciting and invigorating thing to watch, especially when the mutineers need so much from the Captain. Too easy!
I don’t actually fear Trump being able to take over as a dictator in certain respects. However, he did stonewall the Congressional investigation into Ukraine and Robert Mueller’s investigation as well. He got away with ignoring Congressional oversight. He seems to believe he has this power and apparently wants to use it.
I know it has been asked before, but can you imagine the gnashing of teeth from conservatives if Obama said something like this?
Literally, I will be home for Easter. My wife and I will be watching our church service on the television in our living room. I’ll miss seeing my brothers and sisters at church, but Easter will happen and God will be fine with it.
Some Christian pastors are not happy about this, and some Christians are stirring up a ruckus. For example, the president of the Claremont (CA) Institute, Ryan Williams, appears to be calling for civil disobedience.
Starting the resistance and civil disobedience to an unconstitutional lockdown on Easter Sunday would probably maximize the effect.
It’s a natural rights two-fer: freedom of association AND free exercise of religion.
I don’t understand the problem. I am naturally a skeptic and don’t like being ordered around, but I really like breathing. Taking rational precautions to avoid COVID-19 just seems smart. I can tell the difference between an arbitrary usurpation of my natural rights and a situational one in a crisis.
The Common Good 1918 Style
In 1918, the people of Claremont, CA apparently didn’t mind putting the common good ahead of their rights. With just a little bit of searching, I found this clipping from the October 26 edition of the Pomona Bulletin Sun.
During the Spanish Flu pandemic, churches all over the U.S. closed. There were some clergy who complained but here is a truth: closing churches didn’t lead to a loss of religious rights. It was temporary and a benefit to all citizens. Christianity survived; some might say it thrived.
Some might protest, “But Easter?” Well, Easter is an important day in Christianity to be sure. But Christians aren’t supposed to worry about how we keep “holy days.” The book of Colossians tells us, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” (2:16).
In my tradition, I get no more grace or credit for going to church on Easter than any other day. The first Easter the grave was empty. This year our church will be pretty empty too. But that’s okay. If He is taking attendance, God can keep track of where we all are.
On the Constitutional question, legal scholar Jonathan Turley opined today that the state has the right to halt church gatherings temporarily. I agree that the state has a compelling interest in stopping the spread of the virus and has not singled out religion or any particular church. The edicts are temporary, impose no permanent harm on churches, and do not prevent other means of worship (e.g., online). Although untested, I agree with Turley that the courts would likely uphold the orders to close.
But I really cringe to hear about churches taking things to that extreme. Christians are not of this world, but we are in it. And if we are going to do any good in it, we shouldn’t put our desire to meet for a church service over the good of our neighbors.
The technology of 1918 was the local newspaper and pastors used the papers to communicate with their congregations. The Pomona Bulletin Sun (11/3/1918) gave local pastors space to give greetings to their flock at home.
I appreciate this winsome word from Methodist preacher Walter Buckner:
Writing briefly about John Prine yesterday made me think of other singer-songwriters I have enjoyed. Canadian artist Bruce Cockburn immediately came to mind. There are many songs by Cockburn I could choose to highlight but I picked this one – Fascist Architecture from the Humans album.
I have always felt calmed by this verse:
Bloody nose and burning eyes
Raised in laughter to the skies
I’ve been in trouble but I’m okay
Been through the wringer but I’m okay
Walls are falling and I’m okay
Under the mercy and I’m okay
I have a diverse group of readers. Any Cockburn fans out there? If so, post favored songs in the comments.
Image: Bruce Cockburn performing at the City Stages festival in Birmingham, Alabama, United States. Janet Spinas Dancer – Author.
Singer-songwriter John Prine died today of complications of COVID-19. His songs were covered by numerous artists and he was admired by Bob Dylan and discovered by Kris Kristofferson. My favorite Prine song was recorded by Bonnie Raitt (among others) – Angel from Montgomery:
Readers who are fans, leave your favorite Prine song in the comments.