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Heading toward Agincourt

A new Supreme Court opening ratchets up the tension of a stress-filled year

A woman holds a candle in remembrance of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. ALEX EDELMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Heading toward Agincourt
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The weekend that began at dusk on Friday, Sept. 18, brought us Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year's Day, and one more hard twist in a year, 2020, that already looks like three years—COVID-19 year, racial tensions year, and a knife’s-edge presidential election campaign—rolled into one.

The weekend began with the news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. President Donald Trump’s initial response to the Supreme Court justice’s passing was gracious: “Whether you agree or not ... she led an amazing life.” Ginsburg did. If you live in a conservative bubble, either of two recent films that turned her into a pop culture celebrity—RBG and On the Basis of Sex—is worth watching to learn how the other half thinks.

Ginsburg also had an amazing friend, the late Antonin Scalia. They were opposites ideologically, but hours after Ginsburg died, Scalia’s son Christopher tweeted a story about Scalia buying her two dozen roses for her birthday. Asked if the gift softened her up so she voted with him on a 5-4 decision, Scalia said, “Some things are more important than votes.”

Saturday, Sept. 19, brought another milepost on this memorable weekend: the 100th birthday of America’s greatest writer on baseball, Roger Angell. He’s lost much of his sight but can still follow games. Angell centered his greatest article on what seems to me the greatest game ever, the sixth game of the 1975 World Series on Oct. 21, 1975. When Carlton Fisk ended it with a 12th inning home run, Angell visualized Red Sox fans all over “dancing and shouting and kissing and leaping about like the fans at Fenway—jumping up and down in their bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms.”

I imagine that will be the reaction of millions of Christians and others some day when the Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade. Angell continued his description: “And on back-country roads, a lone driver getting the news over the radio and blowing his horn over and over, and finally pulling up and getting out and leaping up and down on the cold macadam, yelling into the night, and all of them, for once at least, utterly joyful and believing in that joy—alight with it.” Pro-lifers await that moment.

Angell titled his essay “Agincourt and after.” The Battle of Agincourt in 1415 was a smashing English victory over a far more numerous French army. It became grist for William Shakespeare’s eloquence. He has one noble, Westmorland, complain of having not enough soldiers. Henry V replies, “The fewer men, the greater share of honour. … But if it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive. … We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

Even before Ginsburg’s death this coming presidential election looked like an Agincourt contest, with Donald I trying to rally his forces against Democrats more numerous in polling and in the House of Representatives. The Supreme Court opening ratchets up the tension. Concerned Women for America head Penny Nance says, “Our happy warrior women are battle-tested.” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, calls on Trump and GOP leaders to “move swiftly to fill this vacancy.”

How swift is swift? Eight months before the 2016 election Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court seat suddenly vacant via Scalia’s death. Republicans refused to vote on it. Now, six weeks before the 2020 election, Republicans are in a hurry. True, in 2016 the White House and the Senate were in opposing hands: Now they are both in GOP control. True, Democrats have also switched positions: “Just do it” in 2016 and “no, no, no” now. Nevertheless, the switches supplement the Critical Theory view that everything is a matter of power, not principle. Evangelicals who have already abandoned the previous insistence that “presidential character matters” may gain more disdain.

Adding to the complexity: Scalia rightly said, “Some things are more important than votes,” but some votes are life and death. Shouldn’t we seize the opportunity to throw Roe v. Wade into the dumpster of inhumane decisions next to Dred Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson (“separate but equal”)? Yes, a Roe v. Wade reversal that would empower state legislatures won’t come close to ending abortion—New York, California, Illinois, and other blue states would still be magnet murderers—but it would probably save 100,000 lives per year.

On the other hand, Republicans can’t act in a vacuum. If Mitch McConnell pushes an affirmative vote on Trump’s nominee and finds a way to have his caucus hang together, the Democrats have an obvious response if they win the White House on Nov. 3 and gain a Senate majority: Expand the court and add two more liberal justices. (Or if the radicals have their way, add six.)

And yet, as our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrated Rosh Hashanah, it was all too easy in thinking through moves and counter-moves to sound like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: “On the other hand … on the other hand.” Harry Truman, complaining about the conflicting advice economists offered him, said he was looking for a one-handed economist.

Some WORLD members may be looking for the same, but our editors and reporters are unlikely to comply. Our operating principle of Biblical objectivity means that we present clear views where the Bible is clear, as it often is, but we don’t pretend to say “God saith” when God hasn’t saith whether it is wiser to push for a Supreme Court vote before the election or wait. We all have our opinions, but we should acknowledge they are just opinions.

On Aug. 14 and Sept. 1, I interviewed two Christian conservatives, pro-Trump Wayne Grudem and anti-Trump David French. You’ll see their arguments in the upcoming issue of WORLD. The new court opening is likely to move the national focus from a physical virus to a judicial virus, which probably increases the pressure on pro-life people who oppose Trump, but I’ve seen no indication of French modulating his criticism. Instead, he noted on Sept. 20 that we are in for “another sharp escalation in the culture war, and this escalation could well lead to a cascading series of events that could strain the constitutional and cultural fabric of this nation.”

So I have only three pieces of advice. The first is to read a variety of views, not just those that confirm what you’ve already decided. Here’s centenarian Roger Angell’s favorite joke: A beat-up worker after a hard day comes into a diner and says, “Give me a cup of coffee, a piece of pie, and a few kind words.” The waitress serves him the coffee and pie. He says, “Hey—where are the kind words?” She leans over and says, “Don’t eat the pie.”

Second, read what the Bible says about people confident that they know exactly what “the smart play” is in judicial nominations or theology. For example, Psalm 2 offers one of God’s favorite jokes: “The nations rage and the peoples plot in vain. … He who sits in the heavens laugh; the Lord holds them in derision.”

Third, esteem leaders who know God’s in charge. A millennium ago King Canute’s kissing-up courtiers said he could control the ocean tides. Storyteller Henry of Huntingdon described Canute—king of Denmark, England, and Norway—setting his throne at the seashore and saying, as the incoming tide wet the bottom of his robe, “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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