Last week, First Things editor R.R. Reno, a prominent Catholic intellectual who backed Donald Trump for president, let the world know he’d had enough of the effete conformists following public-health guidelines in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Sharing a photo on Twitter of Trump saluting World War II veterans, none of them wearing masks, he declared, “They’re men, not cowards. Masks=enforced cowardice.”
The reaction from critics was swift and punishing, as they noted the emerging wisdom that masks may be one of the most effective measures in preventing the spread of Covid-19. But Reno decided to tweet through it in a typo-laden tirade. “The mask culture if fear driven. Masks+cowardice,” he wrote. “It’s a regime dominate by fear of infection and fear of causing of infection. Both are species of cowardice.” Other, similarly garbled tweets followed, but one of them serves as an especially telling summary of his position: “Now we know who want to cower in place. By all means rage against those who want to live.”
The outburst was no aberration. Since March, he’s produced a string of commentary doubting the severity of the pandemic and lamenting the measures taken to combat it—particularly the temporary closures of churches. It’s not as deadly as we feared, he’s said, and for those under 35, perhaps little more worrisome than the flu—a statement that blithely ignores all that we still don’t know about Covid-19, from the long-term effects it might cause in even healthy young adults to the sudden spike in a Kawasaki-like disease in children. No matter. Reno renders his verdict: “The science increasingly shows that the measures we have taken in the last few weeks have been both harmful—with freedoms lost, money spent, livelihoods destroyed—and pointless,” he wrote.
It’s not just that Reno can sound at times like a coronavirus truther. He is also convinced that our pandemic response stems from a deeper civilizational malaise, one that prioritizes the fleeting material world over the everlasting life that awaits our souls after death. In a missive published in March, Reno declared, “There are many things more precious than life,” and castigated political leaders, especially New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, for leading “an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.”