It seems a contradiction that a show about politics could shape a person’s view of religion in any kind of positive way. Politics is more likely to cause a person to abandon faith in a higher power or simply conclude that said higher power has a really sick sense of humor. Still, a show about government and politics that was insightful, funny and sometimes too idealistic, but always brilliant, did offer some positive portrayals and ideas on religion and faith (and did an equally good job of pointing out religious hypocrisy). There were episodes that focused solely or mostly on religion, but insights and commentaries could also be found in a clever one-liner or during one of the famously lampooned (and recently parodied) “walk and talk” sessions.
I feel like I need to begin this post with a disclaimer, however,. When I talk about religion and faith in this article, I am referring to a mostly Judeo-Christian perspective since that is my religious background and this article explores how The West Wing helped shape and change some of my views on religion from the perspective. It is in no way meant to offend or discount other religious or non-religious views.
For myself, the character of Jed Bartlet was the driving force in helping to reshape some of my ideas on faith and its context in my daily life. As the president, Bartlet was not the main focus of every episode of The West Wing, but the show revolved around him and the man, and his ideas were the linchpin of the show. Here was a man whose faith was not blind but studied, deliberate and fully aware of the hypocrisies and shortcomings of his religion. The following are a couple of ways that a fictional American president helped to realign some of my ideas on religion and faith.
It is possible to be both religious/spiritual AND liberal. Also, being a liberal won’t send you to hell
I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I have you here. I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?
It’s OK to get really, really pissed at God
I think the Season 2 finale, “Two Cathedrals,” is arguably one of the greatest single episodes of television history. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful and for an episode that is not action-packed, the tension in this episode is uncomfortable in the best possible way. President Bartlet’s beloved secretary, Mrs. Landingham, was suddenly killed in a tragic car accident in the previous episode. In the context of her funeral and the fallout of a political scandal, we see flashbacks of how this woman was a driving influence in Bartlet’s life and how she helped shape him into the man who would one day be president. In one of the most powerful scenes in the entire series, Bartlet is left alone in the National Cathedral and proceeds to call out the Almighty for the senseless acts of cruelty visited on those he loves, going so far as to call God a feckless thug. Bartlet wonders what he has done to deserve such treatment from a deity he has worshiped all his life, asking if the good deeds he has done over the years mean nothing in the face of one lie. It’s the unraveling of a devout man’s faith and it’s beautiful to watch in all its brutality.
My maternal grandmother was my Mrs. Landingham. She died maybe a year before the episode aired, after years of wasting away due to Alzheimer’s. My grandmother tried to live by Jesus’ teachings to the best of her ability, which basically meant that she treated everyone with respect and kindness and helped anyone she could. She had a steel core wrapped in the body of a sweet, choir-singing church lady, and I loved her. Watching this scene gave voice to all the rage and frustration I held against the God I had worshiped, not only for my grandmother’s decline and death, but for the isolation I felt within the Christian church; a place in which I had always been assured one could find true community. The final image of Jed Bartlet lighting a cigarette in the middle of a cathedral, a deliberate act of rebellion on holy ground, summed up how I felt about my higher power at that moment. The scene was the catalyst of much soul searching for me, which led to a years-long hiatus from the Christian faith.