Romney attacks Obama's "secular agenda"

Has "secular" become a dirty word in US politics?

American presidential elections always produce their bizarre surprises, but few could have predicted that a row over the funding of birth control should be overshadowing the state of the economy as the focus of a heated national debate about religious freedom. Or to accusations that President Obama is engaged in an all-out "war on religion".

Yesterday Mitt Romney, looking ever more vulnerable to the socially conservative Rick Santorum, was answering audience questions in Michigan ahead of next week's primary -- one of those contests invariably described as "crucial". He took the opportunity to burnish his "pro-life" credentials, pledging for example to cut off federal funding for the abortion provider Planned Parenthood and promising to choose a pro-lifer as his running mate. He also spoke, not for the first time, of the need to protect "religious freedom". Criticising Obama's record, he put much of the blame on "the people the president hangs around with and their agenda, their secular agenda". They were people who "fought against religion".

This is, of course, code for the administration's policy, since watered down (largely under pressure from the Catholic Church) to force even religious employers to provide contraceptive coverage as part of their workers' health insurance. The ultimate problem might lie in the concept that healthcare provision should form part of the employer-employee relationship at all. There's no doubt, though, that an ad hoc alliance of Catholic bishops, Protestant evangelicals and Republican politicians has managed to turn this from an issue of equal access to healthcare into one of "religious freedom", at least in terms of the public debate.

Even though the freedom under discussion is not the freedom of citizens to worship freely but rather the freedom of powerful religious organisations to deprive ordinary Americans of provision that most of them have for decades taken for granted. Even though most ordinary Catholic voters disagree with their church leadership on the issue.

When Romney speaks of a "secular agenda" what he is actually talking about is the rights of women to have control over their own bodies and their own fertility. The vast majority of American women, including Catholics, have long used contraception in their own lives, whatever the official position of the church hierarchy. Romney himself, when he was governor of Massachusetts, took a far more nuanced position on abortion than the one he now advocates. It's fair to say, though, that his current pro-life stance long predates the emergence of Rick Santorum as a serious contender. He has been accused of flip-flopping, but it would probably be truer to observe that his shift mirrors the reorientation of the Republican party as a whole in recent decades.

As Ann Gerhart noted the other day in the Washington Post, there was a time when a Republican congressman from Texas (by the name of George Bush Sr) could argue that "if family planning is anything, it is a public health matter." That was the 1970s.

For all the heightened talk of a "war on religion", it's hard to see how the the Obama administration represents an atheistic lurch. As both candidate and president, Barack Obama has "done God" with the best of them. The US constitutional tradition, embodied in the First Amendment, has always stressed freedom of religion rather than (like French secularism) freedom from religion, but from the days of the Founding Fathers until well into the second half of the twentieth century, politics and religion were seen as largely separate spheres of activity. John F Kennedy's opponents tried to discredit him by hinting darkly that, as a Catholic, he might be taking orders from Rome. Today's Republican hopefuls, even the Mormon, seem almost to want to present themselves as instruments of Vatican policy. All very strange.

It's actually the Obama administration, insofar as it is pursuing a "secular agenda" at all, that stands in the mainstream of US political and legal history. A secular agenda is not the same thing as an anti-religious one, a fact that would have been obvious to every previous American generation. What is historically novel is the attempt on the part of the religious right to recast political questions as spiritual ones. They are trying to use the hallowed constitutional right to freedom of worship to restrict the freedoms of ordinary Americans, religious and otherwise. And, at least in the limited area of the race for the Republican nomination, they would seem to be making most of the running.

George Bush Sr, in the speech quoted above, could refer to opponents of state funding for birth control as "militants" who sought to use the issue as "a political stepping stone." Forty years later, it seems, the militants have taken over the Republican asylum.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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