‘You Feckless Thug’: Protest Theodicy On The “West Wing” Television Series -- By: Warren McWilliams

Journal: Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry
Volume: JBTM 08:2 (Fall 2011)
Article: ‘You Feckless Thug’: Protest Theodicy On The “West Wing” Television Series
Author: Warren McWilliams

‘You Feckless Thug’:
Protest Theodicy On The “West Wing” Television Series

Warren McWilliams

Dr. McWilliams is the Auguie Henry Professor of Bible at Oklahoma Baptist University. He and Dr. Holcomb were colleagues when Holcomb was chair of the Department of Religion at OBU.


Have you ever been mad at God? Car wrecks, hurricanes, or the notification of a terminal illness might create a sense of outrage for a believer in God, especially in believers in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Although much of network television ignores such theological issues as the relation of God to the evil and suffering in ordinary human existence, religious themes occurred regularly on the NBC television series West Wing. Although the series ended in May 2006 after seven seasons, fans and theologians of popular culture continue to reflect on this popular series.1

President Bartlet’s Roman Catholicism, as well as the Jewish faith of characters such as Toby Ziegler, was highlighted in several episodes. A full study of religious themes in the series would extend this study too far, but a few examples will help set the stage for the study of protest theodicy.2 For example, the “Shibboleth” episode in the second season stressed the true nature of faith. President Bartlet wanted to verify that some Chinese refugees were truly trying to escape religious persecution. After being quizzed by Bartlet about his knowledge of Bible facts, his Chinese guest stressed that genuine faith was not a “shibboleth,” alluding to the story in Judges 12 about the inability of the Ephraimites to say that word correctly. In “Take This Sabbath Day” (first season), Bartlet struggled with whether to allow the execution of a criminal. Eventually

he got advice from a Quaker, a Jewish rabbi, and a Roman Catholic priest. He allowed the execution to proceed, but at the end of the episode Bartlet offered his confession to his priest. “Isaac and Ishmael,” a special episode on the third season, focused on a discussion of Islamic extremism with the West Wing staff and some high school students. The purpose of this essay is to examine the treatment of evil and suffering on two key episodes in this series, “Two Cathedrals” and “In God We Trust.” To anticipate the conclusion of the paper, I will argue that the creators of the “West Wing” series have presented the struggles of believers in God in an engaging manner, depicting their struggles with faith and doubt in a way that resonates with the witness of the Bible and contempo...

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