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Boob Tube Guru: How “The West Wing” Reshaped My Views on Religion

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

This may seem like an absurd notion. Of course you can be liberal and still adhere to certain religious and spiritual beliefs. However,  for someone growing up in the Christian evangelical subculture, especially in the early ’80s through the ’90s, the idea of holding beliefs outside of what the Moral Majority, Focus on the Family and other Christian based political organization espoused was considered almost heretical. For someone like me, who was liberal, not just politically, but also theologically, (it’s what happens when a girl reads books not found in the Christian section of the bookstore), I had a hard time reconciling my own beliefs with what I was hearing from the pulpit and the community.
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?
So then comes this portrayal of a man who was liberal, extremely intelligent, the leader of the free world and also deeply religious. He was the kind of religious that was attractive to me. It was an undeniable part of who he was, but he didn’t lord it over those around him or beat people over the head with the Bible. Bartlet never used the Bible to cut someone down, except maybe in order to expose hypocrisy, like he did in the Season 2 episode, “The Midterms.” Bartlet drops in on a reception for various talk radio hosts, including a right-wing talk radio host who called homosexuality an abomination based on Leviticus 18:22. Bartlett points out that the Bible has laws against various acts and behaviors that Christians no longer follow and that it’s hypocritical to focus so much attention on one verse while ignoring all the others. I remember watching this scene when it first aired and actually saying out loud, “Yes! Thank you.” I’m the type of person who has never been very good with verbal arguments. I get too flustered and tongue tied. Bartlet’s take down perfectly illustrated everything I wanted to say to those in the larger community in which I found myself at the time. It also sparked my desire to explore other interpretations of certain Biblical passages, not only relating to homosexuality, but also the role of women in the Church, the poor, non-Christians, etc.

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.

Two Cathedrals
I'd like to think the Latin translation for this scene is, "Come at me, bro."

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.

As it stands now, my religious beliefs are in flux. I still categorize myself as a Christian, but I have found I can no longer abide the American Christian evangelical subculture. I guess the simplest way to describe my faith is that it’s my own. It’s been deliberated, fought for, wrestled with and is undeniably mine. As uncomfortable as belief is at times, I am at peace with it (most of the time) and see no need to impose it on anyone else. I think that may be the greatest lesson gleaned from The West Wing; a person’s beliefs can inform and shape their life, but it does not have to be the end all or be all of who they are as a person. The character of President Bartlet can be described as a devoutly religious man, but without the need to impose it on anyone else. Someone secure enough in their faith to have it be their own and not shove it down other people’s throats. I think that is probably the best lesson of all.


By Stephens

Florida girl, would-be world traveler and semi-permanent expat. Her main strategy of life is to throw out the nets and hope something useful comes back, but many times it's just an old shoe. She also really, really hates winter and people who are consistently late.

8 replies on “Boob Tube Guru: How “The West Wing” Reshaped My Views on Religion”

There’s also the scene where Toby tells Jed and Abby that he and Andi are expecting twins (through IVF, and they’re divorced): Toby tries to explain why he hadn’t told them before – because they’re Catholic. I wish I could find the exact quote, but Jed says something like: “It’s my religion, Toby, it works for me, but it doesn’t have to work for anyone else”.

And “Two Cathedrals” makes me cry every time I watch it.

This is brilliant.  Like Sequined, I’ve felt an extreme disconnect between my faith and that of the Catholic church for awhile.  And the church’s response to more liberal parishioners is to bring in priests who are more conservative and evangelical.  What kind of sense does that make?  None, I tell you!

It seems as though when there are certain cultural shifts in our society, the people who are most resistant to it are the ones who stomp and scream the loudest, because they see where their power might be fading and they want to hold onto it for as long as they can.

I totally agree on your point about leaders fearing their power failing and therefore throw a shit fit. The exact same thing happens in the Protestant evangelical branch of the Church. I’ve noticed it happens whenever the issues of women in church leadership, gay marriage or different ideas about heaven or hell come up. Also, basically anything to do with sex in general.

The women in leadership issue is near and dear to my heart and I swear, the shit storm that erupts whenever a woman teaches in church, even if she’s co-teaching with a male pastor, is disheartening. Sometimes it’s hard to fight the good fight. It just seems easier to walk away.

This is a great post, and I relate a lot to the topic. I’m Catholic, but I feel disconnected from the Church as it is represented in Rome and by many of the Catholic bishops and dioceses in the US right now, and I feel disconnected from many of my Catholic peers who (seem to) feel less ambivalent about their religion. I should watch that episode!

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