I am the Lord your God

Curator's Note

The West Wing built Josiah "Jed" Bartlet into a social icon in the collective imagination of North America. As noted by Michael Coyne in Hollywood Goes to Washington, he represents the first Catholic president since JFK. From the first episode of the series, he is called a “deeply religious person”. When he appears on screen for the first time, he does so quoting the first commandment “I am the Lord your God. Thou shalt worship no other God before me”. With this majestic introduction, Bartlet is built up not only as a political leader but also as a religious authority. As well as being the commander of the nation, the president also guides the morality of his people using a Catholic compass.

From this moment forward, there are many occasions throughout the series when religious parables are used to present solutions or make weighty arguments. Religious morality is shown to be a way to lead, whether that is when the president is faced with a group of immigrants asking for asylum (as in the episode “Shibboleth”, S02E08), or is making a decision about a death penalty case (“Take this Sabbath Day”, S01E14) or is faced with post-9/11 terrorist atrocities (“Isaaac & Ishmael”, S03E00). At the same time, the relationship between political leadership and religious leadership is such a close one that Bartlet’s biggest political crisis coincides with his biggest crisis of faith. This moment occurs in the final episode of the second season, “Two Cathedrals”. In this episode, Bartlet literally tells God to go to hell. He is hurting over the death of Mrs Landingham and filled with doubt about standing for re-election. The President is seen to feel lost with regards to the political cause precisely because he is feeling disorientated when it comes to religion.

Arnold Vinick, the Republican candidate for the presidency, discusses the separation of Church and State (or lack thereof) in the United States with Bartlet in the episode “In God We Trust”(S06E20). Vinick does not understand why politicians must pass a faith test in order to be elected. The series as whole, however, does not question this connection. Through the seven seasons, it showcases an exemplary president who often turns to his religious faith in order to achieve political success, because this has also been the case through the years in U.S. politics, from Lincoln to Obama.

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