Politics, Religion, and Aaron Sorkin


The Pope resigned a little while ago. For the past week or so everyone has been interested in Catholicism and the nature of authoritarian religious leadership in a democratic society. More importantly, I think, people have been paying attention to the relationship between fervent belief and rational, critical thought. No one questions whether or not a Catholic has the potential to also be a deep thinker (that is, no one but Bill Maher and his super-crew of New Atheists, who refuse to accept religion on its own terms and continue to paint silly caricatures). Religion is such a complex, and enduring form of the human experience that it deserves attention and respect from everyone, whether they are believers or not. It’s good to see that even within all the negative op-eds about how backwards the Catholic Church is, and how terrible a person Pope Benedict was for being, well, a Catholic, the media has shined a light on someone who brought thoughtful faith to the forefront.

As Carol Zaleski noted in her piece for the New York Times, Benedict was “a profound religious thinker in the Augustinian tradition” who believed  “longing for truth is innate and universal”. He preached a religion that allowed science and philosophy and secular wisdom into the discussion. In short, he “opened a new era in the dialogue between religion and secular reason.”

I don’t know if all of that is true, I don’t follow Catholicism enough to truly have an opinion. I’ll take her word for it.

A midst all of this, I was recently reminded of another prominent Catholic who believed in thoughtful faith: President Jed Bartlet. Two episodes of West Wing that my wife and I recently watched (and I use recently loosely, school has really caught up with us) explored interesting and important elements of religion in American life. “Take This Sabbath Day”, my personal favorite, shows the struggles of compromising deeply rooted religious belief because you know too many people will disagree with you. It’s about my two least favorite subjects: the death penalty and irresponsible partying by public officials (kind of). The second episode we saw that touched on religion was “Shibboleth” about Chinese fugitives who claim to be escaping to avoid religious persecution.  “Shibboleth” was a little too Aaron Sorkin-y for me.

Let me explain “too Sorkin-y”. He, or as I like to call him, “The Sork”, obviously has a very complicated relationship with religion. Frankly, he doesn’t seem to like it much. Pretty much all of his shows portray religious people as socially dangerous fanatics who need a good atheist to slap them around once in a while (See pretty much every episode of Studio 60, and about every other episode of West Wing). What makes President Bartlet so fascinating is that he seems to be what “The Sork” wishes all religious people were. For one thing, he’s really smart. so much so that his staff gets annoyed at his super-intelligence. He doesn’t interpret the Bible literally, or at least the Old Testament. He holds his faith up high, and his altruistic moral values even higher. He makes great speeches chastising the pesky fundamentalists, and is really good at using scripture against them.

The biggest problem I have with Sorkin’s approach to religion is that he clearly sees a right and wrong when it comes to religious practice. There is a right way to believe in God, and that is a way that never offends or gets in the way of people who do not believe. I think most people can get behind that, but a professor of mine once wrote about how not to think about religious fundamentalism, which changed how I view varying approaches to religious belief. You see, Sorkin likes it when his believers act like atheists who are well versed in the Bible, much like how he likes his Republicans to act like Democrats.

And then there is this ridiculous scene from Studio 60:

If there is anything to be learned from this clip, it’s that Aaron Sorkin, much like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins, doesn’t understand why people actually pray. And the worst part is, he probably doesn’t really care.



  1. Cody Ray Shafer · February 21, 2013

    That clip is now the only bit of Studio 60 I’ve seen, but from that clip alone, I don’t think it’s necessarily anti-religion in the way that Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins are anti-religion. Instead, it seems very close to the religious attribute Sorkin apparently values the most. In “Two Cathedrals,” (my favorite West Wing episode ever), Bartlett confronts God in a sacred place and argues with Him, and essentially turns his back on Him. Of course, it’s not permanent, and it’s an honest portrayal of spiritual struggle, something I think you have to have some good idea of to be able to write so clearly. In order to understand the conflict behind a crisis of faith, you have to understand faith in the first place. This is where Maher and Dawkins just don’t match up. Sure, Sorkin has a lot of characters who ooze smug intellectualism, but when his heroes (not just zany fundamentalists) are religious they portray it with an honest dedication, and yes, humility. Bartlett isn’t the only religious character on the West Wing; Toby is a practicing Jew, and treats his faith with even more humility than Bartlett.

    • JJ Feinauer · February 21, 2013

      I think you’re right about West Wing, but Studio 60 is a different story. In fact, Studio 60 is the exact opposite in terms of how religion is portrayed. I think West Wing has a sort of necessary reverence for religion, even though sometimes it feels a little strained, while Studio 60’s attempt at is by using a token believer who never seems to really get her point across. In fact, the whole show is about how the two producers wrote a sketch criticizing religious Christianity, and it was so good that no one could handle it. The rest of the show just basically repeats that same idea. I was probably overly harsh on West Wing, but Studio 60 deserves it.

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