Debunking The Famous West Wing Bible Rant: A Response to President Josiah Bartlett

In one of the most dramatic (and admittedly enjoyable) scenes from the hit television series The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlet (played brilliantly by famous actor Martin Sheen) humiliates a conservative radio talk show host over her anti-gay theology. The talk show host character, Dr. Jenna Jacobs, is a thinly-disguised Hollywood caricature of Dr. Laura Schlessinger. In The West Wing scene, Jacobs is present at a White House event, but refuses to show the proper respect to President Bartlet, whom she despises due to his liberal ideology. Bartlett uses the opportunity to respond to her public views on homosexuality and teach her a Bible lesson. Here is a clip of that scene…

Let’s agree that this is great television drama. Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, is an exceptional screenwriter. And Sorkin and his team do an outstanding job with this scene (one that was inspired by an “Open Letter to Dr. Laura (Schlessinger)” that made the rounds on the Internet in the early 2000s). The scene is reminiscent, in fact, of the well-scripted courtroom decimation of Matthew Harrison Brady (a caricature of William Jennings Bryan) in the famous movie Inherit the Wind, based on the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee.

Let’s agree that the character, Dr. Jenna Jacobs, as portrayed in The West Wing, is indeed an ignorant and arrogant charlatan who deserved to be put her in her place by President Bartlet. According to the fictional universe created by The West Wing, Jacobs was trading on her doctorate in literature to pass herself off as an expert in matters she had no business dispensing public advice on. What’s more, her inability to correct Bartlett’s flawed biblical exegesis (more on this in a moment) shows that she is pretty ignorant of the Bible, a book she claims to respect and follow. And her refusal to stand in the presence of the President is a perfect example of how some Christians sadly show open disrespect and disdain toward public officials (as well as common everyday citizens) with whom they disagree. As a Christian and as a pastor, I have no problem seeing someone like Dr. Jacobs taught a lesson in education, civility, and decorum. Unfortunately, The West Wing overreaches. And, as such, an important lesson on tolerance and civility is marred by its own lack thereof.

Like the Inherit the Wind courtroom scene, the West Wing confrontation between Bartlet and Jacobs isn’t just an example of great drama; it’s indicative of Hollywood’s unofficial motto: Never let the facts get in the way of good drama. Sorkin and the West Wing team weave in enough facts to make Bartlet’s speech sound credible. This makes the scene so much more powerful and its lesson that much more convincing. It’s textbook propaganda – and it’s done beautifully.

In his excellent book The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible, Robert Hutchinson writes: “For the Deep Thinkers in Hollywood, this little exchange [in The West Wing] represents a fatal, unanswerable blow to the Bible and all it represents.” Unfortunately for these “Deep Thinkers,” there’s the truth. For as Hutchinson points out, the scene “deliberately misrepresents what the Bible actually says regarding these laws.”

Anyone knowledgeable about the Bible should spot several flaws in Bartlet’s argument as well as a few big, whopping lies in what he attributes to the Bible. Rather than simply taking an appropriate stand against hate and ignorance, The West Wing creators display some hate of their own and slander both Judaism and Christianity in doing so.

Here are a few of the problems and misrepresentations from The West Wing‘s Bible lesson:

Bartlet makes absolutely no attempt to differentiate between biblical laws that are still applicable today and those which are not. For one thing, the Mosaic Law was never applicable to the Gentiles. It only applied to the Hebrew people (and those under the Hebrew covenant) who Moses led out of Egypt to settle in the Promised Land. In addition, a large number of the laws were, as Hutchinson writes, “ceremonial and cultic regulations for the Ark of the Covenant or the Temple (both of which no longer exist) or practical regulations related to life in a nomadic desert setting.” Bartlet groups them all together in an intellectually clumsy, but emotionally effective, manner intended apparently to smear Judaism and Christianity.

Bartlet claims that the Old Testament requires the burning of his mother, since she wears garments made from different threads, and the public stoning of his brother for planting different crops side-by-side. Neither of these horrific penalties are associated with the passages Bartlett alludes to in his anti-Bible rant. As Hutchinson points out, while “the Torah indeed forbids the mixing of the fibers or seeds, there is no specific penalty stated for the failure to do so….they made that part up out of whole cloth to make the biblical laws seems more harsh than they actually are.”

Even with Bartlet’s references to actual capital offenses in the Old Testament, many historians and scholars have pointed out that there’s no evidence these penalties were ever carried out. Indeed, God often shows mercy toward those who break His commandments. The entire Old Testament, in fact, accentuates humanity’s sinful condition and points to the universal need for a Savior.

As for homosexuality specifically, Leviticus 18:22 hardly represents the only passage in Scripture which points to God’s standards for marriage and sex. We see God’s standard for marriage and sex as laid out by Jehovah in Genesis 1-2 and affirmed by Jesus in his teachings on marriage in the New Testament. There are also Paul’s teachings on sexuality to confront. None of this is to sanction hatred or bigotry toward gays and lesbians, but it does prove that the Christian who espouses a traditional view of marriage and sexuality isn’t basing his or her views exclusively on Leviticus.

The West Wing exchange between Bartlett and Jacobs does (appropriately) take to task people of faith who hold to knee-jerk opinions based on sloppy biblical study. It shows the importance of people doing their homework. People should know what they believe and why they believe it – and they should be prepared when their convictions come under attack.

It also reveals the problematic nature of using religious texts for civil laws. Though I’m a pastor, I do not support using one religious group’s specific text (or their interpretation of said text) as the basis for civil law. The children of Israel were a unique exception since they were “God’s chosen people” and were established as a theocracy. The United States (the nation in which most of my readers and myself live) is not a theocracy. It’s a constitutional republic. While its founding and culture have been shaped by Judeo-Christian principles, it was never intended (by the founders anyway) that the Bible become our code of laws. The Constitution is the “supreme law” of our land.

Finally, people who claim to believe in God should always show love, kindness, courtesy, and respect – even to those with whom they disagree. Bartlett was right to call out Jacobs for her failure to do this. And I personally want to add that no Christian should deal harshly with subjects as sensitive as those pertaining to sexuality and identity. God created all human beings in His image, and makes clear that He loves everyone. We should treat all people (regardless of their faith and beliefs) accordingly.

It would of course be nice if critics of Christianity, including those in Hollywood, would extend similar courtesy and respect to people of faith and those who hold to more traditional values, but this sadly is too often not the case.

NOTE: A version of the preceding article appeared on my previous blog. It’s been updated and republished here.