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Public Reasoning in a Pandemic: Responding to Moore, Reno, and Littlejohn

March 30th, 2020 | 23 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

The rapidly expanding number of Covid-19 cases in the United States poses an extraordinary test of our nation’s institutions and their leaders. In recent days, a discussion has broken out about how we should integrate our interest in preserving and protecting human life with the concern to keep employment opportunities open for those who are most economically vulnerable.

The President’s stated interest in ‘reopening’ our economy and our churches by Easter—which was nullified by last night’s extension of the present social distancing guidelines—originally fueled the conversation, which was then extended by religious leaders from a variety of denominations.

Two competing standpoints emerged: on the one side are people like Russell Moore, whose recent op-ed distills how reverence for the sanctity of human life is more important than the GDP. On the other side is Rusty Reno, who has argued that ‘sentimentalism’ and our fear of death have both undermined the witness of our churches and rendered us incapable of taking seriously the devastation to our economy. 

The discussion has not been a model of intellectual clarity or grace, virtues which are all the more pressing because of its very real stakes. It has instead traded on reductive and uncharitable readings of our politicians’ rhetoric, and unnecessarily heightened the contrasts between positions in order to stand ‘prophetically’ against the spirit of our age. Brad Littlejohn’s contribution here at Mere Orthodoxy is one notable exception

Yet while I concur with much of Littlejohn’s argument, even he prescinds from facing up to the fundamental question that our leaders, specifically, must answer: how many deaths are proportionate to the end of securing the social and political stability that a flourishing economy contributes to?

From the outset, this discussion has obscured the fundamental differences between the individual judgments that citizens must make to preserve and protect life and the tragic political choices that leaders must sometimes make to protect the good of the society—a good that includes, but is by no means limited to, the protection of the individual lives of its citizens.

While I take Reno’s position to be that some such judgment is necessary, its indispensable importance was buried beneath the torrent of his rhetoric about our fear of death. Such a strategy has neither enabled us to understand the awesome responsibilities of political leaders, nor prepared us to offer meaningful counsel about how such a judgment must be made while protecting each and every citizen from either unnecessary death or immoral degradation.

Instead, our Christian intellectual leaders have largely retreated into the warm comforts of our ‘grand narratives’ about modernity’s many ills. While such a move may stir the hearts of the faithful, it leaves Christianity’s political witness at best impotent—and at worst dangerous.  

Suspicion and Grand Narratives

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While the President’s interest in reopening the economy by Easter is rather nakedly economic, Rusty Reno’s objections to our current regime have taken a more spiritual cast. As I understand Reno’s concerns, our society’s resolute unwillingness to face our mortality has engendered a panic that has unnecessarily jeopardized the well-being of countless Americans. His objection has taken a variety of forms: in his opening salvo, Reno described our current regime as a satanic capitulation to the fear of death. Such a regime has been animated by a ‘sentimentalism’ that refuses to acknowledge which was embodied by Andrew Cuomo’s claim that “if everything we do saves just one life, [he’ll] be happy.” 

In more recent days, Reno has taken to naming the various rhetorics that engender such fear of death: the “rhetoric of preventable death,” the “‘do everything possible’ rhetoric,” the “well-intended rhetoric of compassion,” and the “’life at any cost’ rhetoric” all come in for criticism. At the same time, Reno has not squared the force of his own rhetorical denunciation of our regime as ‘satanic’ with his more recent suggestion that he was never attempting to offer practical guidance. “My concerns have not been epidemiological (an area of expertise in which I have no right to an opinion),” he writes: “they have been political, social, and spiritual.” As to shelter-in-place policies—the very policies that he proposed are indicative of our demonic captivity to escaping death—Reno now allows that “perhaps they are the wisest course of action.” 

It is telling that Reno dismisses the various forms of ‘rhetoric’ that he sees permitting pernicious social policies while attempting to escape the responsibility for the practical judgments embedded within and entailed by his own. It is eminently reasonable to suspend judgment about shelter-in-place policies: the question of weighing up trade-offs is extraordinarily difficult. Perhaps, if nothing else, that uncertainty means one shouldn’t describe our current response as satanic. It would be reasonable to forgive Reno his rhetorical excesses if Reno had forgiven others theirs.

There are a variety of ways to read Andrew Cuomo’s statements (and others like it): we might see within them a sentimentalism that refuses to take seriously the power of death, or we might see them as aspirational, as motivating New Yorkers and others to take seriously the threat of Covid-19 and their responsibilities to live together. Reno has opted to match rhetorical excess with rhetorical excess, rather than allowing for the fact that politicians in democratic societies must heighten their rhetoric when faced with crises that require collective action: what else can they do?

That is not to say Reno’s concerns about the rhetorics he is critiquing are entirely wrong: if anything, they have launched an avalanche of responses that seem to prove his point. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, for instance, took to the pages of the New York Times to offer an implicit rejoinder to Reno’s position

“We already are hearing talk about weighing the value of human life against the health of the nation’s economy and the strength of the stock market. It’s true that a depression would cause untold suffering for people around the world, hitting the poor the hardest. Still, each human life is more significant than a trillion-dollar gross national product. Stocks and bonds are important, yes, but human beings are created in the image of God.” 

While Moore’s emphases are the antithesis of Reno’s, his approach is similar. Moore acknowledges the suffering that our current approach is inflicting, and endorses government action and civil society as means of ameliorating it. But the worry is a qualification to his main theme, and leads him to effectively reduce worries about the suffering of the poorest to concerns about the stock market.

Where Reno thinks we have to talk about tradeoffs but has so far been unwilling to discuss them in concrete terms, Moore rejects them outright: “We cannot coldly make decisions as to how many people we are willing to lose,” he writes, “since ‘we are all going to die of something.’”

Behind their respective practical judgments lie sweeping narratives about the way the spirit of the age has structured our life together. Reno is rightly conscious that our society is unwilling to face death; Moore is reasonably worried that in this hour we would revert to treating human life as disposable. Citing Wendell Berry, Moore suggests that the”the great challenge of our time would be whether we would see life as a machine or as a miracle” (before again reducing concerns about workers to worries about a “balance sheet”).

To these we might add a third, from Littlejohn’s exemplary essay. While Brad rightly acknowledges the inevitability of having to make some calculation about the relative risks to human life and economic opportunities, he cannot resist his own speculative deconstruction about what’s animating concerns about the economy: “At the root of our protest that ‘the cure is worse than the disease,’” he suspects, “is a fear that our own way of life may have to change. Comforts that we once took for granted might turn out to be luxuries.” Money, materialism, death—for my part, I suspect that any successful attempt to diagnose our society’s pathologies must somehow account for them all. 

Such diagnoses have an important place in moral reasoning, in that they make us aware of the temptations embedded within the practical possibilities before us. It is possible that our manifest unwillingness to accept our finitude and mortality has made us too cautious at this juncture. (It has not.) Such ‘rhetoric’ draws our attention to details within the moral landscape that we may have otherwise overlooked.

Yet the very rhetorics Reno so opposes have their own therapeutic function as well, in that they make us acutely conscious that our response would further the degradation of human life we see all around us and deepen our contempt for the elderly and the vulnerable. Making us alive to the possibility of our own complicity with the spirit of the age is precisely “rhetoric’s” point. 

Yet grand narratives often obscure as much as they reveal, as they carry within them their own temptation to meet each new situation as though it were simply an extension of the past. A pandemic becomes merely a confirmation of our priors, which cuts us off from ever being wrong or learning about the nature of our moral ecology. Though Reno might (for now) wish to prescind from issuing a practical judgment about the appropriate course of action, such abstemiousness cuts off political deliberation right as it begins.

Those who are tasked with making decisions about when to reopen our economy cannot escape the onerous responsibility of assessing the epidemiological, economic, social, and political evidence. How they undertake that task is a matter of extraordinary moral, social, and theological significance. If that is their responsibility, is the Christian who would claim to penetrate so deeply into the spiritual realities beneath such practical judgments free from doing likewise?

The validity of a grand narrative as an explanation for our response depends upon the details of whether our response is prudent or not: our appeal to grand narratives should follow our explication of the rightness or wrongness of our leaders’ practical judgments, rather than precede them (if those judgments come at all). To do otherwise allows us to denounce without understanding, and leaves us impotent to provide our political leaders guidance about how to weigh the moral options before them in light of the spiritual and theological grand narratives we see as relevant.

However plausible they might be, grand narratives are no escape from the onerous responsibility of offering practical guidance to those who are tasked with translating such spiritual concerns into practical (political) decisions: not to venture “precise hypothetical judgments,” as my advisor Nigel Biggar writes, is “to leave the ethical task only half done.” 

Morality and Public Judgments

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As a matter of public deliberation, the question of whether ‘the cure is worse than the disease’ can only be resolved by those who have been authorized to act on our behalf: our government officials, including and especially our President. The ongoing arguments among commentators are important for weighing up the reasons for action and inaction, and in that way offering some type of consultation to those officials.

Such analysis helps mediate the government’s judgments and its reasons to the people, and thereby equips the citizenry to hold our elected representatives accountable. The unique responsibility for stewarding the common weal our leaders are under is accompanied by the awesome authority to risk lives on its behalf. The most concentrated form of government authority is disclosed in its power over death and life, which it enacts through sending soldiers into battle. 

Focusing on the social and political dimensions of what deaths we might or must accept for the sake of the commonwealth helps show, I think, why neither Reno nor Moore’s positions are adequate. Consider Reno’s use of the traditional distinction between ordinary and heroic measures to save a life. The first criterion for decisions to treat or not is what is intended: doctors are absolutely prohibited from intending the death of the patient.

But the next question is whether they are obligated to extend every means to save the life of the patient. Reno is right the traditional answer to that question has been a firm no. Heroic interventions, he contends, must both have a good probability of success and not be unduly burdensome. Reno’s contention is that our current measures fail the second criterion. 

Yet what Reno does not make explicit is that he is extrapolating from a principle of medical ethics to a question of social ethics: the question of preventing lives from becoming sick is distinct from our obligations to save them once they fall ill. The criterion of ‘heroic’ measures has typically applied only to the latter, rather than the former. Reno’s later essay seems to recognize this gap, as he takes up the question of what deaths are ‘preventable.’ “As a society,” he writes, “we are acting on the technocratic assumption that a total mobilization of society can significantly reduce the death toll. This frames nearly every death from the coronavirus as ‘preventable’” (italics mine).

The move Reno makes between the first and second sentences is subtle, but significant: there is a world of difference between a mobilization that ‘significantly reduces’ the death toll and that which treats every death as preventable. But the question of ‘heroic’ measures to save a life cannot answer which course we should pursue. 

Reno seems to think that because everyone will die of something, there is no need to specify who and how many should die from this virus—and whether their deaths are ‘unnecessary’ or ‘inevitable.’ At the same time, his worry rests upon a practical judgment about the effects of our current regime on the economy, to the point that he treats our willingness to embrace those effects as indicative of our captivity to the spirit of the age. Such a stance is animated by his reading of the ‘rhetoric’ he is hearing.

But it is disingenuous to issue the ‘spiritual’ critique without doing the gritty work of explaining why the costs to our economy are simply too high to pay. Reno needs to render some hypothetical judgments about how many lives might be lost if we return to work—or explain why his own rhetorical excess is permissible, but his critics’ excess is not. In his latest essay, Reno seems to acknowledge as much: “When this crisis passes and we’re not ratcheted up into a state of moral panic (understandable in these circumstances), we’ll need to give some sober thought to what should not be sacrificed to preserve lives.” That’s true: but we also need to give some sober thought to how many lives Reno thinks we should have been willing to see die in order to preserve our current economic order.  The only way to such a judgment, though, is through the impossibly opaque waters of empirical considerations, moral analysis, and other relevant factors: or through what has traditionally been called ‘casuistry.’ 

Such a task cannot be as simple as developing a crass utilitarian calculus that vainly attempts to commensurate the goods of life and economic flourishing, as Littlejohn rightly notes. Yet in conditions of duress, such as when they are at war, public officials must make judgments of proportionality that will sometimes require them to accept extraordinary suffering in their effort to do good.

As Oliver O’Donovan notes, proportionality determines the “shape of a successful act of judgment”: an “act of war is held disproportionate if the damage it does is excessive to the measure of peace it can reasonably hope to achieve.” Notably, the end to which such acts of war must be proportioned is peace, a political end. Though a pandemic is not war, as a matter of political judgment the same principle applies: while our politicians are prohibited from intending any person’s death, they must proportion our response to the end of our community’s true peace. Such a peace demands due reverence not only for the value of human life, but also the preservation of the conditions that allow life to flourish.

To know how to bring ‘social distancing’ to an end, we must be able to have some sense for when the costs of fighting the virus exceed our gains. Such a judgment can only be done if we recognize, with Reno, that the appropriate valuation of human life in our political judgment will sometimes require us to accept, and mourn, its death. While such judgments happen under conditions of extreme uncertainty, our political leaders cannot avoid them—and neither can those who would seek to critique their decisions. Moore’s repudiation of any tradeoffs is too ethereal: it cannot answer the practical questions upon which our leaders will be held to account. 

It is at this point that we come up against the limitations of Littlejohn’s magnificent intervention. Littlejohn rightly acknowledges the reality of trade-offs, while still defending the importance of non-negotiable norms. As he says of the latter, a “society cannot function if it treats every possible life as a cipher in a grand trade-off equation.” His example also draws from a military context: a unit is held together by bonds of loyalty and honor, rather than a cold-hearted utilitarian calculus. 

All that is undoubtedly true: yet it also leaves out the disparities between what happens within individual units and the commanders who are responsible for ordering them into danger. While the latter doubtlessly feel the same bonds of loyalty and honor, they do sometimes have to make cold-blooded calculations about how many men they can risk to lose in order to obtain an objective, in order to know whether sending them into danger would be proportionate to the end.

Paradoxically, a society cannot function if it puts a dollar sign on human lives: but those who lead it may sometimes be put in extraordinary situations where they might be required to do just that, or something very near it. The qualification is necessary, as the decision to preserve economic opportunities is not fundamentally about ‘dollar signs,’ but is instead about preserving the freedom of citizens to fulfill their divinely-ordained tasks to cultivate the earth and so bless the world through their labors. 

There are, then, some important differences between how public officials must reason about the sanctity of human life and its central and unique importance to any just and peaceful political order. Much as we find it distasteful, our elected officials especially cannot avoid having sober conversations about how overburdened our hospital systems might become if they do nothing—and what sorts of starvation they may risk inducing if they shut down everything. (To speak of starvation in this context is not too strong, as many people who already face food insecurity may have already found themselves unemployed, with help still three weeks away.) 

Assessing the moral quality of our leaders’ actions is especially challenging in a representative democracy, as the reasons for political acts are not consolidated in the person of a king. Yet such scrutiny is necessary: as our representatives and as stewards of the authority God has entrusted to them, our political leaders must demonstrate a due reverence and regard for the sanctity of every human life, and a special concern for those who are already most vulnerable within our society.

Such reverence will be shown both through the manner of their reasoning and the content of their action. If critics were right to be concerned that the President’s interest in reopening the economy prematurely demonstrated negligence in the face of profound suffering, we must also be relieved by his decision to forestall returning to our ordinary course of life too hastily. 

‘Christian Intellectuals’ in a Pandemic

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Any moral analysis of our response to this pandemic must acknowledge the distinct responsibilities citizens and leaders bear. Littlejohn does, to be sure: yet he seems to suggest that objections by Reno and others to our course of action are unhelpful: “There may be a time to protest and speak prophetically against tyranny,” he writes, “but this is not that time.” Instead, he contends with the Apostle Paul (which is safe ground, to be sure) that we should now submit to “every ordinance of man whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.” That is doubtlessly true, even if ironic: as Brad notes from the outset, it was the President himself who launched the position that Reno and others decided to defend. 

The proportionate judgment that our leaders will eventually have to make will establish the criterion for whether we have successfully navigated the pandemic. Such a judgment depends upon the shape of the peace we are ordering our society toward, a vision about which there is no little dispute and disagreement. Though the discussions that happen across websites, social media, and talk radio have no direct bearing on the actions of our leaders—except for Tucker Carlson, that is—their content will form the standard against which we will hold our leaders accountable.

With due respect to Brad, then, I am sympathetic with the need to issue ‘minority reports’ to the current orthodoxies. Such dissent should not match the charged rhetoric of our leaders, or luxuriate in the delights of prophetic denunciation. Instead, by responsibly holding open the possibility of alternative courses of action, such criticisms can force our leaders to sharpen their reasons for this one, and so in their own way contribute to the formation of a social consensus that our course is right. 

At the same time, for such judgments to form the basis of a real sense of accountability, they cannot avoid undertaking casuistry. It is tempting to avoid rendering practical judgments, to be sure: doing so allows us to avoid the concrete possibility of being wrong. When lives are actually at stake, it is doubtlessly safer to err on the side of spiritual analyses while punting the practical questions to others. Yet doing so reduces the church’s moral and political witness to generalities, and leaves those who are responsible for making decisions bereft of counsel about how they should proceed given the vast range of complexities they must address.

As Biggar observes, the extraordinary pressures and limited time of our political leaders means it is “incumbent on those…who have ethical expertise to take moral principles and to show what they might amount to concretely in a range of relevant cases.” Christian moral reasoning requires “careful reflection,” he goes on, “running all the way up and down the chain of moral reasoning between the theologically sublime and the casuistically meticulous, on whether the ethical concepts used are sufficiently shaped at all the appropriate points by relevant moments in the whole theological narrative.”

Our elected officials must in this season understand the judgments of epidemiologists—even while they also take into account economic and social realities. Such judgments not only help us defeat an epidemic, but order us toward establishing a more just society as we do so. If our elected politicians must account for such data, though, surely those whose responsibility it is to determine how Christian moral reasoning informs this moment can do no less. 

How we undertake that task is, of course, itself determined by our own assessments of the social and political dynamics at work in this pandemic. I would propose that our arguments should defend the sanctity of human life as a central component of the peace to which our political community ought be ordered. That peace has never been better than imperfectly realized in America: various communities have been subject to violence of various types since our inception. Yet as trust in our political institutions erodes and our animosity toward those across the political aisle increases, the possibility of bringing about a more stable and just peace in the future erodes as well. 

As such, I think it imperative for Christians to reason together about our responsibilities within a pandemic in an especially charitable way. We ought recognize the gaps between political rhetoric that is meant to induce widespread changes in behavior (Cuomo’s) or to inspire those who are downtrodden with hope (perhaps our President’s). If we honor the concrete value of each individual human life, we should similarly focus our accounts of the economic devastation we are wreaking on the real lives of those who suffer, rather than indulgently criticizing middle-class consumerism or reducing people’s positions to abstractions like the GDP. We might even momentarily set aside our sweeping narratives about the sources of cultural degradation, and open ourselves to the possibility that there has always been more goodness latent within our society than our love of decay narratives would allow. 

This pandemic will test our institutions more than they have been in my lifetime. It demands not only statesmanship from our political leaders, but clear-eyed guidance and counsel from our moral and spiritual leaders. Trust in our religious institutions has been destroyed in recent years, in large part because of our own sins and hypocrisies.

Yet in this pandemic, we have undertaken the extraordinary task of closing our doors so that we would not become sources of our neighbor’s death. Such a witness is a marvel: yet we must not throw the seed away through indulging in either ethereal abstractions or unsympathetic calculations. And if those who are leading our religious institutions will not provide it, one wonders: to where else will the laity go, much less those who govern us? 

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