Friday, January 8, 2016

Christianity and the Small Screen: The West Wing

Once my family and I joined Netflix I immediately began watching NBC political drama The West Wing. In a nutshell, the story follows the day to day life of key White House staff of the fictional President Josiah Bartlett administration who served from 1999-2007. I binged-watched the show (which is what makes Netflix so great) and was able to enjoy all 156 episodes rather rapidly (for a father of two). Now years later I find myself going back and slowly digesting the show bit by bit and taking it in all again. Of all of the shows I've ever watched, no doubt The West Wing ranks as one of my favorites.

The writing is superb and most will agree with this assessment. Though most suggest the writing during the Aaron Sorkin years is best, I believe the final season which followed the presidential campaign of Congressman Matthew Santos (D-TX) and  Senator Arnold Vinick (R-CA) rivals the Sorkin seasons.

Like all shows I watch and explore (see links below), I view them through the lens of Christianity. My worldview as a believer not only informs me about the world but allows me to understand how others see the world and The West Wing is an excellent venue to explore the mind and worldview of the American left.

The West Wing is a liberal fantasy drama.

President Bartlett embodies what liberals wish every President was. He is an academic wonk with a Ph. D. in economics. Even more, he has a Nobel prize in economics (he is a Keynesian) and has an impressive political and academic resume: tenured professor, fluent in four languages, five-term state representative, three-term US Congressman from New Hampshire, and two-term governor of New Hampshire. Even his ancestry goes back to the founding of the nation. As such he is always the smartest man in any room. His very presence demands attention and respect. Not only is he brilliant, but strong. At times he has a quick temper, yet he is hard working, politically savvy, willing to use the American military, strong armed, and assembles a staff that loves the hard ball game of politics even more than he does. Yet Bartlett is no bully (though he can be bullish as Charlie first learned upon first meeting his new boss). Early in the series he admits to a White House doctor that he is uncomfortable with violence.

Bartlett is also spiritual - even religious - but not too much. His liberal ideology is never outweighed by the claims of "Holy Scripture." His faith is mostly personal and usually comes to the forefront as a means of destroying the religious right. The first time we are introduced to the president, he excoriates right wing evangelicals. See the scene below (some language):



Later in the series, President Barlett does the same thing to another evangelical who is against homosexuality using classic theological liberal arguments (some language):



For a show that presents America with the ideal liberal President, why have one that has a minor in theology? One reason, I believe, is because liberals hate that the right owns the religious vote and are viewed as being anti-religion. The West Wing aired before the recent and serious rise of the Nones. Through the voice of the president, the writers not only make liberal theological arguments (old arguments its turns out), but do so in an effort to make a political point: secular liberals can be religious too. Yet Bartlett's faith always takes a backseat to his politics. He will often use his minor in theology as a means of gaining a political advantage, not to promote a cause greater than him or his country.

In a whole, Bartlett is everything liberals have ever wanted in a President. He organizes real peace between Israel and Palestine (though it requires American forces). He stairs downs enemies yet is no war monger. He is a loving father who defends abortion-rights (see, one can be pro-choice and a good dad). He supports liberal policies aimed at stopping global warming. And as the above clip shows he is liberal on social issues like gay marriage.

The West Wing is a liberal mega phone and the writers do not hide it. They dedicate an entire episode, for example, to capital punishment. Its final scene has President Bartlett, a converted Catholic, confessing his sin of allowing a man to be executed without intervening to a priest in the Oval Office. The Bartlett administration passes gun control early in the first season which explores the second year of his first term. Prior to delivering one of his State of the Union speeches, Toby begs the President to cut the line "The era of big government is over" (sound familiar in the real world?). When asked why he wants to cut the line, Toby (ever the most passionate one) explains:
I want to change the sentiment. We're running away from ourselves. And I know we can score points that way. I was a principle architect of that campaign strategy right along with you Josh. But we're here now. Tomorrow night we do an immense thing. We have to say what we feel, that government no matter what it's failures in the past and in times to come for that matter, government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind. No one gets left behind. An instrument of good. I have no trouble understanding why the line tested well, Josh, but I don't think that means we should say it. I think that means we should change it.

Beyond the liberal ideology that permeates the show, The West Wing puts forward ideal politicians it wants to promote. Consider the two candidates vying for the Oval Office in the final season: Congressman Matthew Santos and Senator Arnold Vinick. Santos is a Hispanic liberal - more liberal than Bartlett (who wins of course. You didn't really think they were going to give the Presidency to a Republican did you?). Senator Vinick, however, is not the polar opposite of Santos, rather he is a moderate Republican more akin to a John McCain (actually more left than McCain) than Sarah Palin. Vinick may support tax cuts, yet is very open about his less than pro-life views on abortion. So even when given the opportunity to explore how the two parties and their base view virtually every issue, the writers preferred to highlight the sort of politicians they could either celebrate (Santos) or tolerate (Vinick).

This is what makes this show so insightful for a conservative Christian like myself. I disagree strongly with most of Bartlett's policies and the writer's fantasy, yet it is intriguing to enter into their dream. Shows like this remind me that to the liberal, politics is everything. To them, the primary hope for a perfect world is not found in a church, but in the Oval Office.

Furthermore, The West Wing exposes the liberal left. At times the show makes fun of its own political worldview. In the first season, for example, Josh Lyman (a democrat who works in the Bartlett administration) explains to his secretary why he is against using the budget surplus to give the American people their money back.



No elected or paid Democrat will admit the above, but is it not true?

In conclusion, I will say as a Christian that The West Wing, though a show I enjoy immensely, reminds me why my hope is built on something greater than politics and Washington DC. President Bartlett and his administration might be the best gifted President liberal writers at NBC can imagine, but even then he is a disappointment. There is no salvation even in Bartlett's America.


For more:
Christianity and the Small Screen: The West Wing
Christianity on the Small Screen: The Office
Christianity and the Small Screen: "Smallville"
Christianity and the Small Screen: Fox's "House, M. D."
Christianity and the Small Screen: NBC's "Crisis"
Christianity and the Small Screen: FBI Files    
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