Friday, 8 April 2016

Why I'm backing Donald Trump

Joking! Joking. Almost, anyway.

In some sort of extended corollary of Godwin's Law, every blogger eventually gets drawn in to the phenomenon that is Donald Trump: surely the most extraordinary event in America, if not the world, this year. But once we've overcome the incredulous outrage he generates, or at least put it to one side: what does the phenomenon mean?

That he represents a kind of backwash to Obama's America is becoming a commonplace, and no less true for that. A formerly dominant slice of American culture - white, male, relatively uneducated, relatively rural - which has been seeing both its social privileges and its economic position steadily eroded for two or three generations, has been nursing various kinds of legitimate and illegitimate anger for much of that time but has not managed to find satisfactory ways of expressing it. There have been constructive ways of doing so, and real political victories along the way, but none that have changed that underlying trajectory. Obama's election does seem to have turbocharged that anger - both by making government seem alien in a way it had not seemed to white Americans before,and by emphasising that the opposing coalition really could win. And he won by beating two of the most constructive, moderate and appealing figures Republican politics could offer, McCain and Romney - who lost partly because they had had to contort themselves out of that moderation in order to secure their party's nomination.

So it sort of makes sense that this burgeoning, nameless rage should now finally express itself in an irrational howl. It's time for a section of white America's id to be heard, and Mr Trump's remarkable skill has been to be its ventriloquist. No one else could do it this way, but in any other year he would have made no progress at all.

Most of the non-Trump world is focusing on immediate and practical questions like, how to stop him, and how, if at all, the Republican Party can rebuild itself after this eruption. But it's not generally good to respond to seismic political change by wishing it will go away and normal service will resume.

I think the key question is how to get America through this moment without suffering long-term harm - and preferably, to allow Trump to act as a sort of scapegoat or sin-eater, who can concentrate the poison of American politics in his person and take it into the wilderness with him. 

So, while I appreciate why so many Republicans want to block him at the convention (and it now looks like they may succeed), I sort of hope they fail. If he is blocked the long-term damage may be severe: a large section of the Republican Party will feel that its democratic will has been thwarted, and that if only its candidate had run it would have triumphed. It will not be reconciled to the new order. Not even if, highly implausibly, a Republican candidate who emerges from that train-wreck of a process goes on to win. This is obviously a problem for the Republican party, but it's also a problem for the republic as a whole.

Whereas a Trump candidacy which is really, thoroughly, soundly walloped in the general election could achieve what nothing else could: getting through to that agonised, disempowered chunk of the American electorate that, for good or for ill, the old days are OVER. If as stumbling and flawed an embodiment of America's ego as Hillary Clinton can beat the most fluent and articulate embodiment of its id, that should not be an experiment that anyone will want to repeat. And indeed, I would bet that in retrospect, the Trump candidacy will seem grotesque and shameful to many of those who will deny that they were ever caught up in it. With luck, Trump's electorate could start demanding that politicians of both parties actually address their problems.

It is just the tiny, tiny risk that a Trump candidacy might not end in defeat that gives me pause.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

JEH 67/2: Today Cambridge, tomorrow the world

Normally with a new number of the JEH out, I'd flag up a particular article, but this time there's a slightly broader point to be made. As we say in an editorial at the beginning of the number: the Journal's remit is the history of Christianity as broadly conceived as possible, without geographical, chronological or disciplinary restrictions. Naturally we have traditional areas of strength (early modern England, for example), and that's fine and good - please keep them coming, folks. But sometimes it's good to stir the mix a bit. So, a few years ago (before I became an editor), we launched an annual prize for the best essay in early church history, up to the year 700. (I can't help mentioning that the first prize was won by a former Durham colleague of mine, now in Melbourne.) It's got us some excellent essays in itself, but has also helped build up the Journal's strength in that area more widely.

So, early church, tick: next on our list of concern is the global history of Christianity. We're a traditional journal, and we like it that way, but traditional shouldn't mean parochial, and we have tended to be rather Eurocentric. With the help of several members of our advisory editorial board (not least the still keenly lamented John D. Y. Peel), we've been making a concerted push to put this right: expanding the remit of our reviewing and seeking out first-rate articles which take us out of the North Atlantic region.

The first really visible fruits of this are in the new number, two of whose six articles are non-Euro/American in focus. James Fujitani has done a precise, elegant piece on how the early Jesuit mission to Japan negotiated penitential practices with their converts, adapting them to Japanese expectations and patterns. David C. Kirkpatrick has a significant analysis of the Ecuadorean evangelical theological C. RenĂ© Padilla, looking at how his encounters with Marxism helped to shift global evangelicalism's consensus towards embracing social action as well as narrow proselytization in the 1970s.

There's more goodies of this sort to come. Without giving away too much ... In the pipeline we have a piece on indigenous evangelists in British Africa c. 1900, a piece on the Mexican influences on Ivan Illich, a couple of articles on Christianity in 20th-century Israel/Palestine, and most recently one on 1990s Sudanese refugee camps as sites of church growth.

But, we're greedy and we want more. So we're launching another prize: a World Christianities Prize, we're calling it provisionally, which will be 500 good British pounds for the best essay each year whose main focus is Christianity outside Europe and North America after the year 700. (Inevitably the field will be dominated by 19th- and 20th-century entries, but as Fujitani's essay reminds us, global Christianity is not a new phenomenon.) Full details in the next issue, but in the meantime, anyone who wants both to win a prize and fund a decent mini-break somewhere should get writing.

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.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

JEH 67/1: Queen of all she surveys

The January 2016 Journal of Ecclesiastical History is out, with all the usual treats, including one example of the kind of review which we all occasionally have nightmares about receiving. But for me, given my own interests, there's no doubt which is the most exciting piece this time.

Cyndia Susan Clegg's article, 'The 1559 Books of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Reformation', revisits a well-worn question: just how did that 1559 Book of Common Prayer end up the way it did, that is, a version of the 1552 Prayer Book but with a couple of highly significant tweaks? If you're not a Prayer Book geek, trust me, this is a more important question than it looks: it is an important clue to the nature of Elizabeth I's government and indeed to the whole nature of subsequent Anglicanism. As such it has been vigorously contested down the years, with policy documents, parliamentary proceedings, diplomatic correspondence and even musical scores brought to bear on the question, with varying degrees of success.

Clegg's approach is that of a book historian, and as a result parts of the article can get a teensy bit technical. Stick with it, because what she has found is a genuine smoking gun. She focuses on one of the many anomalous pieces of evidence from the chaotic first half of 1559: a single edition of 1559 Prayer Book published, not by the Queen's Printer like all the rest, but by Richard Grafton, an unrepentant evangelical who had printed the 1552 Prayer Book back in Edward VI's reign. There have been several attempts to explain how this object comes to exist, but none of them very conclusive - but then it did not seem to matter very much. Until now.

Part of the argument depends on one of those too-obvious-to-mention points: there were no photocopiers in mid-Tudor England. So, if Parliament was to consider a bill authorising a substantial text such as the Book of Common Prayer, how were all its members supposed to be able to read it? It might well make sense to produce a small, bespoke print run of the book simply for Parliamentary use. And if you're to do that with a draft Prayer Book, then surely the obvious person to turn to is, not the Queen's Printer, but the bloke who produced the most recent editions of the Prayer Book and will be best placed to rush one into print.

Clegg's argument that this is what Grafton's mystery edition was turns in large part on the technical correspondences, and differences, between his 1552-3 and 1559 editions. But it also depends on, or rather is clinched by, a single copy of the Grafton edition which is signed by nine members of Elizabeth's Privy Council. A little bit of careful detective work allows Clegg to prove that, to have attracted those nine signatures, it must have been signed no later than 20 January 1559, and possibly as much as a month earlier.

For the Prayer Book geeks amongst you: yes, that is 20 January. And yes, the Grafton text is a text of the 1559 Prayer Book as it was eventually authorised by Parliament.

So whatever else happened in all the delicate negotiations and brinksmanship in Parliament in the spring of 1559, it now looks very, very clear that the Elizabethan regime came out of the process with exactly the text of the Prayer Book which it had decided on from the very beginning of the reign.

And it also looks as if Elizabeth I's early mastery of her realm was no less impressive than Clegg's mastery of this subject.

Monday, 7 December 2015

In sheep's clothing

Reading a splendid article forthcoming in JEH on the Anglo-Saxon origins of the office of Lord Chancellor, I discover that the office likely derives from the office of the keeper of the royal reliquary. And that one of the first holders of this office, under King Alfred the Great, was called ... Werwulf.

No wonder his successors like to sit on a woolsack.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Reasons to be cheerful II: Oldham by-election

So, Dr Pangloss is pressed into service once again for the Oldham West and Royton by-election, where a contest between two unpalatable parties saw my own pressed into a bad fourth place. But it's not as bad as it looks! Here's why.

1. UKIP's flush remains busted. The collapse of Britain's most authentically nasty party continues. Rather wonderfully, they decided to blame their defeat on poll fraud and on a scarcely-disguised implication that it was those unwelcome Asians voting against them in droves. A good rule of politics, I think, is that when you are defeated, a mixture of sour grapes with racial slurs is not going to broaden your appeal. I look forward to watching their continued evaporation with enjoyment, and hope the unpleasant sludge left over at the end doesn't smell too bad.

2. None of this means that the Corbyn leadership of Labour is a success. It is not, simply in competence terms: regardless of ideology, there is no indication that the current leadership is up to the formidable challenge of running a major political party. BUT it might just put paid to the unspoken (and sometimes spoken) assumption amongst what used to be the Labour mainstream that the whole thing is just a nightmare that they will soon wake up from: that if they can simply find a way of defenestrating Corbyn then it will all go back to normal, or that the party membership will pretty soon realise what a ghastly mistake it has made and will humbly do what the PLP advises.

What is still yet to appear (at least to my eyes) is any sign in the Labour establishment of a real willingness to harness and work with the energy and anger that created the wave that flung Mr Corbyn up the beach. It doesn't need to mean 1970s Islington socialism. What it does need to mean is a serious and credible attempt to change Britain's political culture, a culture which was embodied in the hapless Messrs. Burnham, Cooper and Kendall and which could not have been rejected louder or clearer by the wider party. My hope is that somewhere on the Labour benches lurks someone who combines some genuine moral standing or at least apparent personal integrity; pragmatic realism and creativity about policy which is capable of pinching good ideas from other parties; an ability to challenge some of the many doctrines which the British political consensus says are unquestionable but which majorities of voters say they oppose; and an ability to make the consensus appear crazy, rather than themselves.

If anyone knows of such a person, perhaps give them a nudge?