Religious Characters in Pop Culture: Josiah Bartlet

Yes, I know that the Pope resigned. I’ll get to that in a minute.

One of the topics that I find most compelling is how individual characters of faith are constructed, particularly by non-religious writers and storytellers. I’ll start myself off with a fairly easy one, given that he plays a central role in what is probably my favorite TV show of all time, The West Wing. Does that count as “pop culture”? Whatever, doesn’t matter.

Josiah (Jed) Bartlet is the (sadly) fictional President of the United States from 1998-2006. Think Bill Clinton, but older, from New England, and – wait for it – a devout Catholic. Bartlet attended Notre Dame in the hope of becoming a priest, but changed his mind after meeting his future wife.

Bartlet’s Catholicism is understandably inconsistent at times – although, really, whose Catholicism isn’t inconsistent at times? It doesn’t bother me a whole lot given that 1) the show went on for seven seasons and 2) Bartlet’s faith is only one part of one person in a huge ensemble case. When considering Jed Bartlet’s personal faith, four different scenes of significance come to mind.

By the way – if you’ve finished Season 2 at least or don’t really care about The West Wing, you’re good. Otherwise, major spoilers below, especially my fourth example):

1. “The Midterms” (Episode 2.3): President Bartlet smacks down Jenna Jacobs/Laura Schlessinger

In a shocking twist, the internet has wildly different reactions to this scene. Conservatives cry foul at his cherry-picking of Bible verses and general sense of elitism, while progressives love the fact that they get to see “Dr. Jenna Jacobs” get put in her place. My major problem with this scene isn’t so much the fact that Bartlet publicly dismantles a homophobic radio host, but the fact that this scene started reminding me that Aaron Sorkin was the lead writer. Sorkin’s writing is at its best when his poetic idealism matches up with context, plot, and character. Instead, it’s painfully obvious that he’s using Martin Sheen as his mouthpiece.

(edit: further proof that Bartlet’s diatribe is basically a Sorkin rant at the expense of consistency: Jed Bartlet’s “brother John” who plants two crops side-by-side? That’s the only mention of Bartlet ever having a brother, and in seven seasons we never meet or hear about him. It’s a pretty good sign that Sorkin just liked the rhythm of that phrase).

Again – ideological bias doesn’t really bother me, but if you’re good at writing characters, it shouldn’t be so obvious. Still don’t believe me? Read this letter to Laura Schlessinger in 2000, then re-watch the clip.

2. “Take This Sabbath Day” (Episode 1.14): Faith, Democracy, and the Death Penalty

In my mind, Sorkin’s writing shines brightest are the ones in which Bartlet grapples with the tension between his personal beliefs and the realities of governing the strongest nation on earth.

In “Take This Sabbath Day”, the Supreme Court rejects a death sentence appeal, leaving Bartlet with the choice of whether or not to commute the death sentence. While there are B and C plots in every television, the theme of the death penalty is distinctly the “plot A”. Over the course of the episode, Bartlet hears arguments for and against the commutation of the sentence. Despite his personal opposition, he concludes that public opinion prevents him from imposing his personal preferences onto this particular case. Along the way, two strong voices for commuting the sentence come from a rabbi and a Quaker (which will make sense in the video clip). At the end of the episode, he invites his boyhood parish priest (in Karl Malden’s final acting gig before his death) for guidance.

More quick context before you watch this short video (which you should). Before this scene, Bartlet asks his priest to address him as “Mr. President”.

I admit that this scene is right up my alley, because I personally agree with everything Father Karl Malden says in this clip. But more generally, the idealistic part of me really hopes that these sorts of conversations happen in the Oval Office, that modern Presidents – all of whom, on paper, self-identified as Christians – ask themselves how their faith does or doesn’t play into their decision-making processes. Sorkin’s conception of Bartlet as a religious Democrat makes it all the more interesting, because conservatives’ opposition to abortion and gay marriage tend to dominate that realm of discussion more often than not. Or at the very least, they dominate the headlines.

3. “Shibboleth” (Episode 2.8): Where Faith and Politics Mix in a Not-Cataclysmic Way

I think this was a brilliant way of merging faith with political considerations. It’s a shame this scenario is way too cool to ever take place.

So here’s what happens: A group of Chinese illegal immigrants is caught on the coast of California seeking asylum in the United States. They claim that they are Christians fleeting religious persecution.

Right off the bat, President Bartlet faces pressure from domestic evangelical groups and the unpleasant scenario of angering Chinese officials. His staff warn him that illegal immigrants often feign religious faith. So, how does he get around this? By getting them to say “Shibboleth“. (Not literally).

If you don’t feel like checking out the Wikipedia entry, here is the Old Testament passage from which the phrase originates:

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Two thousand and forty Ephraimites fell on this occasion.

Judges 12:5-6

In other words, President Bartlet invites the leader of this band of Christians to gauge if his faith is genuine. Unfortunately, I could only find the audio, but give it a listen:

After this exchange, Bartlet calls in the Red Cross and orders the California National Guard to stand down. He then informs Beijing that the refugees escaped.

4. “Two Cathedrals” (Episode 2.22): “That was my son. What did I ever to do yours but praise His glory and praise His name?”

If you’re a fan of the show, you knew this one was coming.

One of the most memorable scenes takes place during the Season 2 finale entitled “Two Cathedrals” – which, incidentally, is also the best 42 minutes of television ever produced.

If I’m remembering the DVD commentary correctly (I’ve already conceded the fact that I know way too much about this show), Martin Sheen and the rest of the crew felt pretty nervous about shooting this scene, particularly because Sheen himself is a Catholic. But this scene is breathtaking.

So, context: After the funeral of his longtime secretary and surrogate older sister, Delores Landingham (whose death is dropped right on the audience at the end of the previous episode), Bartlet asks his Chief of Staff to seal off the Cathedral. Yelling at God (in Latin) ensues:

Here’s the English translation of what he was saying in Latin:

Gratias tibi ago, domine. (“Thank you, Lord.”)

Haec credam a deo pio, a deo justo, a deo scito? (“Am I to believe these things from a righteous god, a just god, a wise god?”)

Cruciatus in crucem! (“To hell with your punishments!” — literally, “Put/send punishments onto a cross”.)

Tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci. (“I was your servant, your messenger on the earth; I did my duty.”)

Cruciatus in crucem — eas in crucem. (“To hell with your punishments! And to hell with you!” — literally, “May you go to a cross”.)

It’s possible that I like this show too much. But where does fandom and overanalysis of pop culture go, if not on a blog?

While there are moments in which Sorkin’s idealistic progressivism makes things a little inconsistent, Bartlet is probably my favorite religious TV show character. Any suggestions for future posts? I’m thinking Shepherd Book from Firefly.


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