Tuesday, 16 February 2016

The greatest show on Earth

American politics. What’s not to love, especially from a safe distance?

Antonin Scalia, contrarian and intellectual bruiser that he was, would I think have enjoyed the prospect of the argument which will follow on his death in the midst of the nastiest and most unpredictable presidential campaign in living memory. Here’s my immediate thought on how this will play out. (Unless of course another justice pops their clogs, in which case we are in West Wing territory.)

First, and most tentatively: I suspect the focus on this issue will do some limited damage to Donald Trump and, by the same margin, boost Ted Cruz during the Republican primary contest. Cruz has been banging on about the Supreme Court forever: it’s his issue. But the issue is also a reminder that the Presidency of the United States is a solemn office with serious responsibilities, which may possibly make some of those who think a reality-TV star would be fun reconsider their choice. But, that is a side issue.

President Obama will of course ignore the calls for him to postpone a nomination. But he will choose an exceptionally centrist, moderate, overqualified candidate, daring the Republicans in the Senate to vote him down (it will almost certainly be a ‘him’). Some of those Republican senators who are facing uphill re-election battles this November will be tempted to approve the nomination, but there will not be enough votes to break a filibuster and the nomination will either be voted down, or will reach the point where it is being so plainly blocked that it will be withdrawn.

Then, the President will make a second nomination, of a candidate who will be more of a red-meat, base-pleasing Democrat. Hillary Clinton, who will be then be the unmistakable Democratic nominee for President, will lend her firm approval to this person, and make clear that if she is elected and the post is not yet filled, she will back the same candidate.

Naturally this candidacy will be dead in the water before the election. But it will mobilise the Democratic base, and will prove especially useful in rallying women to the Clinton candidacy, by presenting her Republican opponent (whoever he is) as part of a wider ‘war on women’. It may also (by setting her more clearly against Citizens United) help her to shake off her in-bed-with-Wall-St problem. It will further enrage the Republican base, of course, but that base is already about as angry as it can get, and no matter how angry they are they still only get to vote once. So it’s a net benefit to the Democrats.

If she wins, and if the Senate shifts somewhat on her coattails, then the nominee or someone similar will get confirmed either before or after her inauguration. If she loses, of course, the Republican winner gets to do that – unless the Senate flips anyway, in which case let’s imagine a quick abolition of the filibuster and attempt to squeeze a confirmation through in mid-January 2017, giving the Supreme Court a solid liberal majority until Justice Ginsberg follows her old friend’s example, and giving the country a particularly nasty sense of political illegitimacy. That would be bad.

Indeed, placing a crowd-pleasing, red-blood Democrat on the court might be bad too, and I say that as an instinctive Democratic supporter. Who thinks that what America needs is sharper partisan division?

So perhaps the cleverest thing that Republican senators could do is to call the Democrats’ bluff and accept a centrist nominee, so boosting their own re-election hopes, spiking a key campaign issue for their opponents, avoiding the danger of having a really unpalatable justice on the court and, incidentally, bringing a measure of healing and moderation to the republic. And of course, the decision would come too late in the year for any of them to have to worry about primary challenges.

But of course, they won’t.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Margaret Bullett's PhD: Unexpected Calvinists

In Huddersfield yesterday to examine a PhD – not something I would normally blog about, but then doctoral theses aren’t normally this good. Maggie Bullett’s title doesn’t stir the blood: ‘Post-Reformation Preaching in the Pennines: Space, Identity and Affectivity’ – I confess my heart sank when it arrived in the post. But the thing about books’ covers applies doubly to theses.

There’s real scholarly substance here. In sheer research terms, the most impressive thing is the careful reconstruction of a well-known and much-misunderstood major civic dispute in Leeds in the 1620s. Maggie has found stacks of highly relevant new documents and has very convincingly interpreted the dispute, not as a conformists v. Puritans punch-up, but as a split between two different factions of what she calls ‘progressive Protestants’. In the process, she manages to explain an old mystery: why St John’s Chapel in Leeds, which was built in 1631-4, is decorated with a set of royal arms dating from 1620. If you want to know more, read the thesis.

The most exciting innovation, though, is her use of financial records to unlock a whole new set of data about popular participation in local religion. It wouldn’t be possible to do this for the heavily-parished south of England, but in the North, huge parishes with multiple chapelries required and allowed much greater lay involvement. So when she shows us communities arriving at a consensus that they intend to levy a rate, or simply mobilising huge numbers of small donations, to pay for visiting ‘godly’ preachers; when we see them building or rebuilding their chapels with architecture which prioritises preaching, dedicating their pew rents to the support of the godly ministry, and pricing the pews so that the ones nearest to the pulpit (not nearest the communion table) are the most expensive – it’s hard to avoid the once-unthinkable conclusion that there is some real popular Calvinism happening in the Yorkshire dales.

My favourite nugget, though, hangs on my longstanding preoccupation with people who fall asleep during sermons. Readers of the indispensable 101 Things to Do During a Dull Sermon  will recall that it recommends, as well as discreetly pinching yourself to stay awake, discreetly pinching the person next to you, which should keep both of you awake. Of course, in the seventeenth century, pinching yourself was for wimps: Nehemiah Wallington tried pricking himself with a pin.

Maggie, however, has found another of those quarrelsome folks from Leeds, one Maria Beckett, who in 1615 was presented to the court for ‘misbehaving her selfe in tyme of divine service … by pricking them that satt next her with pinnes’.

I now propose to trawl through the church court records for people trying the other exercises recommended in 101 Things. ‘Rapture Bingo’ would have been great fun in the 1640s.