By: Elizabeth Bailey
The West Wing is a popular American drama that follows the life of President Josiah Bartlet during two terms in office. As a democrat and a catholic, President Bartlet struggles with these often-conflicting beliefs throughout the entire series. As a catholic, Bartlet does not believe in abortion, but as a democratic he believes women have the right to choose (Clark 232). Throughout the series, The West Wing uses religion as a teaching tool and to emphasize the personal struggles President Bartlet encounters during his time in office.
According the Joshua Meyrowitz in Stig Hjarvard’s article “The Mediatization of Religion”, there are three different methods of communication media: “media as conduits, media as languages, and media as environments.” (Hjarvard 12). The metaphor of “media as languages” is relevant in understanding the messages the writers want to come across in The West Wing. According to Hjarvard, this method of communication “focuses on the various ways the media format the messages and frame the relationship between sender, content, and receiver.” (Hjarvard 12). When watching a TV show, viewers do not want to be bombarded with religion; they want to watch drama, sex, and violence. Writers must be savvy when placing religion in TV shows and this is where “media as languages” comes into play, Hjarvard writes, “the choices of medium and genre influence important features like the narrative construction, reality status…media adjust and mould religious representations to the modalities of the specific medium and genre in question.” (Hjarvard 12). By creating an American President with conflicting beliefs such as Catholicism and liberalism and writing episodes that parallel real life events The West Wing is able to use religion as a major component within the plot.
In season one, the episode “Take This Sabbath Day” aired, which follows the President’s struggle personal and political struggle with capital punishment. When the Supreme Court sentences a criminal to death, the staff of the west wing spends the weekend trying to find a way to stay Simon Cruz’s execution. As a catholic, President Bartlet is fervently against the death penalty, but as President he must find a legal reason to stay an execution. This episode in particular, causes Bartlet and Toby Zeigler, the Communications Director, to grapple with their religious beliefs versus their political ones. As a practicing Jew, Zeigler seeks guidance from his rabbi after learning Cruz will be put to death. Throughout the entire episode the audience is repeatedly told, “Vengeance is not Jewish” (“Take This Sabbath Day” NBC). While Zeigler seeks guidance from his rabbi, Bartlet discusses this moral dilemma with a Quaker and the Pope.
At the end of the episode, Bartlet does not interfere with the execution and Cruz is put to death. In the final minutes of the show, Bartlet receives a priest in the Oval Office where he tries to justify his decision. Bartlett explains to Father Cavanaugh that he prayed to God for wisdom and help, but he did not receive any. Father Cavanaugh immediately tells Bartlet that God sent him three signs: Toby Zeigler, the Quaker, and the Pope all of whom told him that killing is the lord’s job (“Take This Sabbath Day” NBC). “Take This Sabbath Day” ends with Bartlet kneeling on the floor confessing his sins to Father Cavanaugh. The shift of power from the President to the priest in the Oval Office at the end of the episode elucidates Bartlet’s struggle between his religious and political beliefs.
Following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, The West Wing aired a special episode “Isaac and Ishmael” to educate the public about Islam (Clark 239). In this episode, Josh Lyman, deputy chief of staff meets with a group of high school students to discuss the differences between Islam and Islamic extremism. With the help of his colleagues, Lyman impresses upon the students that those who practice Islam are not terrorists. One of the first lessons the students learn is “Islamic extremism is to Islamic as KKK is to Christianity” (“Isaac and Ishmael” NBC). By comparing Christian extremists to Islamic extremists the students begin to understand that there is a difference between religion and terrorist actions. As the episode progresses, the first lady, Abbey Bartlet retells the story from the Old Testament of Isaac and Ishmael the fathers of Judaism and Islam. While this episode’s primary purpose is to address ignorance surrounding Islam, use of religion and a greater understanding of Islam is what allows the main characters to answer the students’ questions (Clark 239).
In both episodes the titles inform that audience that religion will be a key theme. While the over arcing plot is not completely religious, the use of religion within the plot illustrates personal struggles or is a tool to educate others. The bible also plays an important role in each episode; throughout “Take This Sabbath Day” the bible is continually quoted to support the belief that capital punishment is wrong. In “Isaac and Ishmael” the story of Abraham’s two sons is used to emphasize the similarities between Judaism and Islam.
Throughout The West Wing, the writers use religion as an important characteristic that drives and explains many of the decisions Bartlet makes. Religion is used in the series, just as chocolate sauce is used on ice cream, only when it is really needed and just enough to make it taste a little better. The audience is never overwhelmed by the amount of religion or the moral issues the characters wrestle with, it is part of human nature to struggle with difficult decisions. Religion within The West Wing allows the viewers to relate with President Bartlet about the tough decisions he makes because viewers also struggle with their religious and political beliefs.
Clark, F. Elizabeth. "The Bartlet Administration and Contemporary Populism in NBC's The West Wing."The Contemporary Televison Series. Ed. Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2005. 224-243. Print.
Hjarvard, Stig. "The Mediatization of Religion: A Theory of the Media as Agents of Religious Change." Northern Lights 6 (2008): 9-26. Print.
"Isaac and Ishmael." The West Wing. NBC. 3 Oct. 2001. Television.
"Take This Sabbath Day." The West Wing. NBC. 9 Feb. 2000. Television.