On R.R. Reno’s Faulty History

In a widely criticized essay on current state imposed social distancing, First Things editor R.R. Reno said the following about social reaction to the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic:

More than one hundred years ago, Americans were struck by a terrible flu pandemic that affected the entire world. Their reaction was vastly different from ours. They continued to worship, go to musical performances, clash on football fields, and gather with friends.

After insisting that Americans of 1918 understood methods of quarantine, Reno suggests they just didn’t care.

Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death. They bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives.

Although surely some churches worshiped, some games were played and some gatherings were held, these paragraphs and the contrast between now and then is grossly inaccurate. It is so irresponsibly misleading that Reno and First Things should retract the piece or at the least issue a public correction.

The Spanish Flu Pandemic

The Spanish Flu pandemic claimed 50+million lives world-wide in 1918. It was highly contagious and was particularly hard on young people. It is well documented that Philadelphia was particularly hard hit because city leaders did not quarantine their citizens whereas other towns around the country (e.g., St; Louis, Columbus) did so and experience a much lower death rate.

However, is Reno correct that outside of those famous cases, life went on as normal? Did citizens bow their heads “before the storm of disease?” The definitive book on the pandemic is John Barry’s The Great Influenza, but it is relatively easy to find evidence that Reno is wrong on all counts. Below is some of that evidence.

Worship

Today some churches are meeting. Would Reno say that we are bowing our heads against the storm of disease? Obviously not, his problem is that are cancellations at all.

In 1918, church services were canceled in cities large and small due to the virus. For instance, Evanston, IL closed just about everything in October, 1918 in response to a growing number of flu cases.

Little Urich, MO closed everything including churches during the second wave of the epidemic.

In Columbus, OH, a minister’s council advised churches to close in response to the orders from the State Board of Health.

On Oct. 11, 1918, the State Board of Health ordered all theaters, schools and churches closed and banned public funerals.

The Columbus Citizen reported that “Columbus Ministerial Council has requested of all churches that they close doors and not debate whether or not the order applies.”

From Nashville, to Dallas, to Worcester churches closed even though some pastors didn’t like it.

Football

Reno is also wrong about football. There was no professional football league yet. In fact, one can make a case that the flu pandemic delayed the development of a professional league until 1920. There was interest in forming a league and people played professionally, but games were postponed due to the flu. For instance, this article in the October 15, 1918 edition of the Akron Evening Times shows that pro football had to be put aside for awhile.

High school and college football also suffered due to bans on crowds and playing in games. Far fewer college games were played (704 in 1917 v. 394 in 1918) on account of WWI and the Spanish flu pandemic). While it is true that the season was not completely canceled, it is not true that the people of the time plugged on as if death and illness was inevitable. A sports columnist from the Baltimore Sun lamented the impact of the flu on the gridiron.

High school games were also canceled due to the quarantine as in Wichita, KS.

Social Distancing

I hope it is apparent that the people of 1918 are a lot like the people of 202o. Some now don’t see the need to socially distance and some then didn’t either. However, that doesn’t mean the people of 1918 didn’t do so. Just a few more examples should demonstrate how Reno’s history is so far off.

All over the nation, social gatherings, churches, sporting events, etc. were canceled. Health officials took their responsibilities seriously and issued warnings and orders, just like now, and hoped their fellow citizens would have the good sense to do what was right. Just like now.

Reno and First Things have abused their platform in a very significant way. Of course, Reno is entitled to his view of life and death. However, using faulty history is beneath First Things and it should be corrected.

Additional information:

Many other cities closed schools, churches, and various social gatherings during the pandemic. For reference, I am going to list links to additional resources describing contradictions to Reno’s claims.

Minneapolis-St. Paul closed schools, churches, and businesses off and on throughout the pandemic.

Also in MN, Bemidji’s mayor ordered all public gatherings, including churches, to close during October of 1918.

Los Angeles shut down schools, churches, and other public gatherings for seven weeks.

Winston-Salem, NC shut down schools, churches, and theaters in October, 1918.

Tacoma and Pullyup, WA closed public gatherings from early October through November.

Nebraska’s state government ordered the closure of “schools, churches, places of entertainment, and public gatherings” in early October.

Other cities that closed down various public meetings spaces include: Houston, Chicago, Aspen COBaltimore.

The House and Senate closed their public galleries during October 1918.

 

 

 

 

Is There a Pro-Life Call to Death?

My title question is odd. I know it. However, it occurred to me as I considered two offerings from ostensibly pro-life sources. One is an interview with Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick; the other a truly stunning article in First Things by editor R.R. Reno.

Let me start with Reno’s ode to death. Reno quarrels with N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo for his zeal to — of all things — save a life. Reno complains:

At the press conference on Friday announcing the New York shutdown, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “I want to be able to say to the people of New York—I did everything we could do. And if everything we do saves just one life, I’ll be happy.”

This statement reflects a disastrous sentimentalism. Everything for the sake of physical life? What about justice, beauty, and honor? There are many things more precious than life. And yet we have been whipped into such a frenzy in New York that most family members will forgo visiting sick parents. Clergy won’t visit the sick or console those who mourn. The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of “saving lives.”

“The false god of ‘saving lives”? Where am I? I thought I was reading First Things.

As it turns out, I was reading First Things which then turned into Worst Things. Reno follows up with gems like:

There is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.

In our simple-minded picture of things, we imagine a powerful fear of death arises because of the brutal deeds of cruel dictators and bloodthirsty executioners. But in truth, Satan prefers sentimental humanists.

Just so, the mass shutdown of society to fight the spread of COVID-19 creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere.

Reno is not happy that the Governor is taking extreme measures to limit the spread of the virus. Apparently, saving lives at the cost of temporary restrictions on social gatherings and corporate worship is too high a price for Reno. In Reno’s view, putting others ahead of self is no longer noble altruism but rather demonic sentimentality.

There is a lot wrong with this article, including some faulty history. In it, Reno says Americans during the Spanish Flu epidemic took no social distancing measures as we are doing now.

Their reaction was vastly different from ours. They continued to worship, go to musical performances, clash on football fields, and gather with friends.

To the contrary, it is well documented that the leaders in St. Louis shut down schools, theaters, and other establishments to keep the flu from spreading. Leaders in other cities, such as Philadelphia, did not, and the population of that city suffered more deaths and disease as a result. People lived in St. Louis because of those decisions. We should learn from their experience.

Reno ends with his version of “Don’t Fear the Reaper:”

Fear of death and causing death is pervasive—stoked by a materialistic view of survival at any price and unchecked by Christian leaders who in all likelihood secretly accept the materialist assumptions of our age.

While I understand that we are not to fear death, I am stunned that Reno says the fear of “causing death” is “stoked” by materialism. I absolutely should avoid causing the death of another. If I should not fear causing another’s death, then there is no basis for a pro-life movement at all. I can’t believe Reno actually thought this through.

On this very point, now consider the Lt. Gov. of Texas Dan Patrick

It sure seems like he’s saying that granny and granddad are expendable if the economy would be better off by putting their lives at risk. The tweet below says it well.

If demonic materialism is making an appearance in 2020, it is in the suggestion that the old and physically vulnerable are expendable. If the economy suffers too much, the weak have to die. According to Reno, we can’t worry about “causing death;” in fact, it is demonic to worry about it.

Remember when conservatives falsely claimed that Obama wanted to kill grandma via death panels? There were no death panels in the Affordable Care Act, but conservatives used the threat of the government deciding to ration care to the young and away from grandparents to bash ACA. Now, conservative are embracing the idea.

These assertions are moments of clarity and require us to reassert the fundamental dignity of all people, even those who are old, weak, and without stock portfolio.

After I wrote this, I came across this tweet from the indefatigable Hunter Crowder.

Perhaps, my readers can help him. I have been around these parts awhile and I can’t think of any articles like that.

COVID-19 Information and Open Forum

Coronavirus information is everywhere so I want to list a few resources that I am using and want to get all in one place.

The website I am checking most is 1Point3Acres. This site has real time updates of new cases in the U.S. and Canada and all states and provinces. There are links to sources for all claims and links to the health departments of every state. The computer engineers staffing this site have been diligent in their work to keep it up to date.

Johns Hopkins University has a worldwide map of cases and deaths. The JHU resource center page is full of information on the virus.

Our World in Data tracks the growth of cases in most countries where the virus has appeared.

Although not as helpful as the JHU site, I should also mention the CDC website.

Trump dissolved the office for Global Health in the National Security Council which would have coordinated an early strategy. He now takes no responsibility for his actions.

Feel free to add additional links in the comments section. We are inching closer to a shutdown (announced more tightening here in PA today) so we all might have more time to read and comment.