on TV, we trust
A Sunday indulging in one of my favourite television shows: The West Wing. We’re currently a few episodes into Series 7 here in Ireland, ahead of the UK for once, and this will be the last series, ending with the election of the new President.
Over the last few months I have been slowly catching up with the previous series on DVD, and am coming to the end of Series 6. The second half of this series has covered the fight between three contenders for the Democratic nomination, with occasional detours following the single credible Republican candidate, Senator Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda.
In the episode I just finished, In God We Trust (6-20), Vinick visits the White House to broker a deal on an economic bill headed for Congress. That doesn’t take long, but Vinick is in no hurry to leave, in case it looks as if he gave in too easily, so the next question is: “where do you keep the ice cream?” This is an excuse for Vinick and President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) to head down to the kitchen, raid the freezer, and have a less formal chat.
Vinick is frustrated and unsure how to proceed in the face of media questions about religion, a core issue for Republicans. Viinck hasn’t been to church in years, since his wife died, and has to decide whether to accept an invitation from a prominent preacher and Republican – a fictional Pat Robertson, if you will – to attend his church that Sunday.
The question of whether to hide his “lapse” from the voters quickly leads to a discussion on health, and President Bartlet’s battle with Multiple Sclerosis, which he did hide. “A speeded-up version of ageing” is what he calls it, before noting that previous US Presidents had concealed their medical issues – Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and others. Vinick concedes the point, then goes on to describes his position on religion;
“One Christmas my wife gave me a very old edition of the King James Bible. 17th Century. It was a real find, for a book collector. It was a thrill, just to hold. Then I read it.”
“You can’t take it literally.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what my priest friends kept telling me. The more I read it, the less I could believe it. I could not believe there was a God who said that the penalty for working on the Sabbath was death. I couldn’t believe there was a God who said that the penalty for adultery was death.”
“I’m more of a New Testament man, myself.”
“I couldn’t believe there was a God who had no penalty for Slavery. The Bible has no problem with Slavery at all. Lincoln could’ve used a little help from the Bible.”
“You think Lincoln was an atheist?”
“I hope not. That would mean all those reference to God were purely political.”
“He didn’t make any until he started running for office.”
“He certainly was a doubter.”
“What about you?”
“Are you going to try to save my soul?”
“Let’s just say that I struggled for a long time, with that book, and finally just gave up the struggle.”
Bartlet goes on to offer Vinick advice which appears to suggest that he did not need religion to do the job of President:
“The only thing you can pray for in this job is for the strength to get through the day. You can try coffee if you want. Prayer works better for me. Try the Pistachio.”
The result? Vinick walks out to face the press, and excoriates them for focusing on religion:
“I don’t see how you can have separation of Church and State in this Government if you have to pass a religious test to get in this Government… if you demand expressions of religious faith from politicans, you are just begging to be lied to. They will all lie to you, or a lot of them will, and it will be the easiest lie they ever had to tell to get your votes.
“So, every day until the end of this campaign, I’ll answer any question anyone has on Government. But if you have a question on religion, please, go to church. Thank you.”
If anyone still has any questions on why I hold The West Wing in such esteem, even well after the departure of creator Aaron Sorkin, I could explain in great detail, but one need look no further than this. A crucial point about separation of Church and State, made in a dramatic and creative fashion – I can’t ask for much more from modern popular culture.