Is Grandma worth the price?

Nihilism’s intellects have emerged from the shadows in the wake of President Donald Trump’s March 22nd tweet: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!”

Hear the resurgence of Social Darwinism, a discredited 19th-century ideology that baptized rivalry. Modern-day advocates usually guise their cannons in the language of free enterprise and nonintervention and deregulation: Let market forces prevail and all will be well. But now they’re liberated amid the pandemic, free at last to sever their ties with traditional conservatives and proclaim their survival-of-the-fittest creed in all its glory. Some frame themselves as grim realists (“most can’t bear hearing this, but …”). Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, a former right-wing radio host, even offered himself as a martyr: “No one reached out to me and said, ‘as a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ … And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”

Social Darwinism once held sway in the 19th century, when philosophers such as Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) applied theories of natural selection to human society: Might makes right in a pitiless universe. Robber barons and captains of industry employed it to enforce 12-hour work days and paltry wages. They snubbed Matthew 25:31-40 despite their church attendance. Jesus says he’ll line up the sheep and the goats at his second coming and invite the sheep into his kingdom: for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” They did that whenever they “did it to one of the least of these.”

That’s great for Sunday school, but we gotta come back to Earth on Monday.

A lawyer’s dilemma

Sample Attorney Scott A. McMillan. He boldly tweeted on March 23: “The fundamental problem is whether we are going to tank the entire economy to save 2.5% of the population which is (1) generally expensive to maintain and (2) not productive.”

Notice McMillan’s assumptions. Money’s everything. The sick and the elderly carry a huge price tag (they’re “generally expensive to maintain”) and fail to do their bit (they’re “not productive”). Don’t count the moments grandpa bounced little Emily on his knee or grandma told Joey she’d beat up the monster under his bed, thus ridding him of those nightmares. We can’t measure such trifles in billable hours, so they don’t count. Human beings are economic cogs; worth is always measured in dollars or stock options.


Classical Christianity, of course, says that’s twisted. We possess intrinsic worth because we’re made in God’s image. Money serves the human community, not vice versa. As Russell Moore says: “Each human life is more significant than a trillion-dollar gross national product.”

Most religion tries to overcome hostility and seeks harmony with God and neighbor; Social Darwinism lifts competition as a high virtue and assumes it pervades nature. Laura Ingraham of Fox News unwittingly displayed such presuppositions in a tweet posted a few hours after McMillan’s: “A global recession would be worse for our people than the Great Depression. Doctors provide medical treatment and cures – they should not be the determinative voices in policy making now or at the end of 15 days.”

Skip past the chasm between an intentional, curve-flattening short-term economic shutdown and the cataclysmic, system-wide crash of the 1930’s. For now, just probe how Ingraham funnels her mental energy. We could harness our thoughts, channel them toward synergy, and pose different questions: “How can medical and government wonks cooperate to save our lives and our pocket books?” But no. That’s not practical in a hostile world. The lions and hyenas are snarling over a carcass on the drought-riddled plain, so we carnivores better grab our chunk of meat before it rots. And watch your back. Every friend’s a potential foe. It’s rich versus poor; weak versus strong; young versus elderly; and doctors versus government officials.

Remember: Our questions well from our presuppositions and we mold reality accordingly. Nineteenth-century industrialists assumed a cutthroat universe and built factories with perilous working conditions. Later generations saw the world through different prisms. Factories are now safer and workers earn livable wages.

When “realism” doesn’t make sense

Some – such as Brit Hume, Dennis Prager, and Glenn Beck – have followed Ingraham’s path. RR Reno blasted Andrew Cuomo and suggested the New York governor was “dangerously sentimental” when he said this: “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.” Reno upbraids: “What about justice, beauty, and honor? There are many things more precious than life.”

Reno posted his piece at the pro-life First Things, an irony not lost on authors such as Max Boot.

A self-fulfilling doomsday

Fortunately, other influencers see the glaring logical flaws. US Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming), hardly a fire-breathing lefty, tweeted this: “There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus.”

In other words, Social Darwinist “realism” isn’t realistic. It spells economic doom.

Cheney’s not alone. Some of the most eloquent voices come from the center-right (classical conservatism roots itself in the thought of Edmund Burke – 1729-1797 – who valued tradition and community). The Bulwark’s Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist pastor, wrote a post entitled, “Our Parents Are Not Expendable.” He says: “As a Christian, Jesus tells me to love my neighbor, who in this case includes the business owner who is looking at his company going under, the waitress who just got laid off because her restaurant closed, the immigrant laborer who was fired last week as his factory cut back—and our parents and grandparents who cannot now leave the house for fear that they will catch this disease and die a gruesome death in a short period of time. If we’re not willing to go to war with this virus and fight for all of them, then we’ve already lost..”

Medical professionals are already faced with grievous choices, partly because authorities turned a deaf ear to early warnings and didn’t obtain enough life-saving equipment. Still, the COVID-19 pandemic forces us to ponder: Is grandma a wrinkled and dispensable sprocket, worthy only insofar as she’s useful in the remorseless machine? Or is she an exalted imago dei? Our answer to that fundamental question will guide us toward the right questions and formulating the best policy in the upcoming days.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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One Comment on “Is Grandma worth the price?”

  1. Sarah Latimer Says:

    Love this: “Most religion tries to overcome hostility and seeks harmony with God and neighbor; Social Darwinism lifts competition as a high virtue and assumes it pervades nature”. I have for some time now been baffled by many conservative Christians’ adoption of and Ayn-Randian Libertarianism as an especially Christian worldview. Given the origins of Christianity in the middle east 2000 years ago, and its roots in Judaism, such a perverse worldview was antithetical to all normal assumptions.

    Also love this: “Remember: Our questions well from our presuppositions and we mold reality accordingly. ” this explains the disorientation I feel speaking with my Christian brethren: we aren’t even drawing from the same assumptions, anymore. I have to backtrack their convictions in order to even understand how they got there.

    And I have taken to calling myself “pro-fife ®” with the trademark. Because my people have become the people of sin and darkness and death.


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