The West Wing … Taking God Seriously
VTR Date: September 7, 2001
Guest: Wall, James
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. James Wall
Title: “The West Wing” … taking God seriously
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And I can hardly believe that it’s been all of two and a half years now since I last called, to grace this table, upon my Midwestern ministerial friend. Dr. James Wall, long-time Editor of the distinguished national journal of opinion The Christian Century and now its Senior Contributing Editor.
It’s not exactly that every so often I’ve wanted my guest to give us this day our occasional religious “fix” on The Open Mind, but something like that. Because Jim Wall has always so wisely and so well related himself to contemporary issues from the prospective of a profoundly religious sensibility and sensitivity that, to be blunt, is comparatively rare in America’s more intellectual precincts.
Usually, of course, Dr. Wall does that along with some kind of a mischievous slap at America’s mass media. So what a delightful surprise it was to read recently his glowing Christian Century tribute to my favorite program, entertainment television’s award winning, “The West Wing” for taking God so seriously, as he wrote, “That it came as a shock when President Josiah Bartlett orders his Secret Service detail to block all entrances to the National Cathedral so that he might have a little one-on-one with the Lord”. Question then: has Jim Wall or American television gone soft in the head or taken some kind of existential turn in the road? You, Dr. Wall? Or, television?
WALL: I’m afraid television has not done that. Because it is very rare, as I said in my column, for theology to be treated so seriously and with such depth that I had to call attention to it, as it was on this show.
HEFFNER: And you think this was in-depth treatment?
WALL: To me, it’s one of those rare moments in entertainment television where you have a willingness on the part of the program, the script writers, the producers and the performers to grapple with a theological issue and to do it with honesty and integrity. Because this was a great moment in television history. Where the President had an argument, an angry exchange with God. About something that had happened that he deeply disapproved of.
WALL: Well, it … it allowed the viewer … it allowed the viewer to say, “Yes, that’s what it is …” when someone like Mrs. Landingham dies, suddenly, without any explanation, without any cause. Just a freak automobile accident and takes her out of his life. Other things were happening to him in this particular episode in his on-going series, but this one really triggered him. So when he got to the church … he went to the funeral service … and then he ordered, as you say, quoting me, “Close it down. I’ve got to have a conversation with God”. And there is, and it’s a wonderfully photographed segment … Secret Service standing off to the side, immobile, quiet, and he’s talking to God. And what they did in this moment was so unique, I think, they used the Latin … they allowed the President to speak in Latin, because he’s a Catholic and… the service had been Catholic, at least in, in tradition. And we don’t see the sub-titles, there are no sub-titles. And it’s only after the program that we were able to find out what he was saying. But you knew it was roughly an argument with God. And that’s what he was saying. Enough English came through that you knew what he was trying to say to God. And the Latin just strengthens the whole thing about it: “This is not good. You have no right to do that. You have no right to treat me this way, to treat us this way, to treat her that way. I’m angry with you about that”.
HEFFNER: Now, aren’t there those who might consider this profane?
WALL: Oh, no. Oh, no. The Biblical record is clear on this point. Of…deeply believing people … Job being the classic example of anger at God. Somebody says, “Why are you doing this to me?” And you, you get the…. after all, what do we know about God, other than personal experience and tradition and scripture? Whatever tradition we are part of. And in this instance… we don’t have Scripture, but we have the traditional understanding of our right to say to God, “This is not good. Something has happened to this person we all love. And, and this is not the way it should happen. Why do you let this happen?” Well, of course, we always ask that question when someone dies so unexpectedly. And younger than they should be when they die. Why, why did this happen? And we don’t have an answer. But we have to grapple with it, and the, the way we grapple with it is to go through the first phase of anger at the fact that it did happen.
HEFFNER: Well, Dr. Wall, you and I have spoken many, many times about the media. You’ve always been critical. Why has this occurred now?
WALL: I don’t know. I would attribute it to the people who are in charge of the program … it’s a wonderful program. It’s my favorite, as it is yours. Mostly dealing with political issues, strategy issues. When one of the producers, Pat Caddell, writes the script, it usually deals with “polling”, because that’s his tradition. But in this instance, someone … I, I don’t have the answers to who is behind it, decided to get involved in a theological argument. And it was the last program of the…of the last season. It will be the first program … the last one just before the New Season starts, when we find whether the President will run for re-election or not. I got a feeling he probably will. And it was just a rare moment in television history when the program creative people said, “Let’s get into this subject” …
HEFFNER: Wait a minute Jim … the program creative people undoubtedly said that …
HEFFNER: And these are brilliant …
HEFFNER: … young writers ….
WALL: Yeah. Yeah.
HEFFNER: …and producer and the director, etc. But certainly it was “vetted”, well “vetted” by the very network executives you have so frequently …
HEFFNER: … taken off after. So that they have accepted something
WALL: And this…
HEFFNER: as rare …
HEFFNER: … and even as raw as this.
WALL: In this instance, in this instance, you’re right … they “vetted” it. They had to. But my guess is they, they all asked the same question … ‘what group would be mad at us for doing this? Who among our listeners would be offended by us having this kind of anger displayed toward God?” And the vetting people must have decided that it wasn’t enough negative so they could get away with it.
HEFFNER: Do you think they have? Do you think this will lead to more serious religion tinged …
WALL: I would hope so.
HEFFNER: … drama?
WALL: I would hope so. But it has to be in the context of the drama itself. Now we have other programs, various type programs, dealing with the police, dealing with law, dealing with crime, where people are sometimes frustrated and they go to see a priest and say, “what happened? What can I do about this?” It, it…it figures into some story lines. Not nearly as much as it should. Because if television is going to reflect real life, not this terrible thing we call “real life television” which is atrocious, but if it’s going to deal with real life, I’ve always argued that it should deal more with the normal way people proceed. So when they face tragedy, they’re going to turn to God … many, if not most people, whatever way they define God and say, “Why did this happen? And how can I get through it?” And we then are in a position, if television wants to be really honest, of saying “Here’s how you get through it. You sustain…you are sustained by the belief you have in the divine being that is your belief system.”
HEFFNER: Well, how fair’s the rest of America’s media when it comes to the question that you’ve always dealt with here. The refusal, the inability …
HEFFNER: … to bring a religious sensibility to bear on the tales that are told.
WALL: Well, unfortunately, secular television and secular media plays to the profit line … the bottom line. And the fear is that if they show too much one kind of religious interpretation they will offend other parts of the religious community. So they play it safe, and leave it out all together.
HEFFNER: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. I don’t understand that. You’ve spoke before, not about … not about programs about religion …
HEFFNER: … you’ve spoken about the media … let’s not just talk about programs … about the media and a religious sensitivity or sensibility. And the question of what a tele…television rating expert says about how many people will be offended …
HEFFNER: … how many will not be, really doesn’t enter into it. Does it? You’ve, you’ve said that these secular people, these people themselves have no sense, and therefore, no sensibility concerning religious life.
WALL: You know, if I said that over the last many years that we’ve been doing this … I’m, I’m beginning to adjust a little bit. And let me confess to you what that means … I’m confessing and adjusting to the fact that… religious sensibility is certainly present in a large number of people who participate in this media. A lot of them. They, however, cannot get across their vision without having it, as you put it, “vetted” through the screens of producers and profit oriented sponsors …
HEFFNER: The bosses.
WALL: What’s that?
HEFFNER: The bosses ….
WALL: The bosses.
HEFFNER: … the people who call the shots.
WALL: And I don’t, I’ve never felt that was an anti-religious feeling. I’ve always felt it was just a fear of offending too many people.
HEFFNER: Oh, Jim, Jim, Jim. I could go back to transcript after transcript …
HEFFNER: … I think and find that… you expressed, at any rate, the conviction that this was an anti-religious feeling. When we spoke about political leaders who had the sensitivity … talking about Jimmy Carter, for instance …
WALL: MmmHmmm. MmmHmmm.
HEFFNER: You felt that there was a… kind of joint “down on Carter” because of this.
WALL: All right. Let’s, let’ssee if we can make this distinction. There was a real, serious “Down on Carter” because of his… religious conviction, and it took a long time for the secular media to get over that. And they really haven’t gotten over it. They still somewhat disdain … even when he’s done… doing so many great things as a private citizen, former President. I think the distinction is, if I can be clear about this … is that the, the, the dislike for certain kinds of religion … in his case a traditional Southern pietistic, evangelical religion … not fundamentalist … we’ve made this distinction before … evangelical religion … that is more open to speaking about one’s faith. The extreme example would be somebody willing to, to say they won a ball game because God helped them win it. And that offends people. Because they don’t believe and immediately, would say, “How about the other team?”. The kind of prejudice against people whose faith calls upon them to testify to that fact. Now there is a prejudice there. There is a dislike there from the secular media. But there is not a prejudice against grappling with religious issues. If they knew how to do it. It takes creativity to do that. As was the example of “The West Wing”. Because those are the issues we all grapple with. We come up with different answers out of our tradition or our lack of tradition. Out of our despair over what happens to us, or out of our hope in spite of despair of what’s happened to us. So that’s the distinction. Perhaps we should clarify it by saying the hostility is aimed at the institutionalized versions of religion that the secular media resents and dislikes. You, you don’t see much attack on institutionalized …religions that have clearly identifiable… ways of expressing themselves. Roman Catholic … the Catholic tradition, for example. The more Orthodox Judaism, for example. These … these are … and Islam, for example, and its religious expression, leaving out anything about the politics. These are overt expressions of religious feelings shown in outward and visible signs of attire. Of ritual. Hence ever Christmas you can usually find one or two networks willing to put on an actual worship service at Christmas. Even perhaps some High Holy Days of Judaism will occasionally be shown. Those are outward signs. And those, those religious institutional groups that have clearly identifiable outward signs like a Catholic Mass. Like a… Islamic worship where three times a day or … five times a day prayers take place in … toward Mecca. These are overt signs that they can show.
Now I will say that in the past ten to 15 years there’s been a greater willingness to treat those things seriously than there used to be. It used to be easy to make fun of religious people, even in those settings. But I think we’re changing in that regard. So I have a positive report to give on media about the outward and visible signs. What they can’t grapple with… are the inward and spiritual feelings of people like Jimmy Carter who can’t … who don’t have a, a worship experience that they can show us. They only have testimony. And testimony is disliked by the media.
HEFFNER: Disliked? Or not understood?
WALL: Perhaps it’s the same thing.
HEFFNER: And Al Gore? And Bill Clinton? And George Bush?
WALL: They don’t testify the way Carter does. They don’t say “I’m … “ and we know that, the public knows that. The public knows that all three of these men, who happen to be … well, let’s see … Clinton and Gore are Southern Baptist in background. Bush is currently Methodist. They don’t testify to their faith the way Jimmy Carter did, and…nor are they part of a service oriented community that does things that are easily identifiable … such as John Kennedy would go to church, in his Catholic church, and if cameras were allowed inside the worship, they would see a Mass. You don’t see that much. Bill…Bill Clinton, of course, was a master at, at being a pastor to the country. When there was deep tragedy he was there speaking, he was there identifying with, with the public through their suffering and experiences. And that came out of his background. But notice, he was at his best when dealing with grief and dealing with tragedy … American-wide tragedy … the destruction of the school out in Oklahoma …I mean “of the building” out in Oklahoma City. And crash…crashes or service personnel coming home … that’s when the church, and in his instance… a pastoral image, which is what he represented to me. I always said in my columns … Bill Clinton is one of the finest pastors we ever had, as a minister.
And you’re going to say, “Oh but some of the moral activity …” We’re talking about a man’s desire to communicate religious depths to people in need, that’s when he’s a pastor.
HEFFNER: And the need of our people, generally? We’ve spoken for many, many years. You’ve been writing, you edited the Christian Century for many, many years. What do you feel have been the changes in terms of the religious sensitivity… sensibility of the American people.
WALL: It’s a deeper faith than it used to be. When I first …
HEFFNER: Deeper faith?
WALL: Yeah. When I first started working at the Christian Century and before that another Methodist magazine … that’s been over 35 years ago. I remember a feeling then and trying to write about it then, that the American public is hungry for religious answers. For religious dialogue. For religious discussions. For religious answers. But the churches, in the case of my liberal tradition, the churches had become so concerned with solving social problems, as well they needed to do, civil rights, the War in Vietnam. On the unfairness toward gay people, the lack of fairness for women. And they fought that battle. But they didn’t address sufficiently … they … I mean this in a general sense … for mainline religion, didn’t address sufficiently the need for people to grapple with problems such as we’ve been talking about, where asking the main questions of “Who am I and where am I going? What decisions should I make? What happens when I make the wrong decision? Does God forgive me for making these decisions? Am I totally lost because I have stumbled in this regard?” And “Is there a way for me to connect with the ultimate?” All of these issues are what, as I say, 35 years ago, I think the … probably was then and increasingly so warning had to deal with those answers.
HEFFNER: And they’ve received them?
WALL: They’ve received religious structures that allow them to sit with other people, and worship God and move in the direction of finding those answers. Yes, I think the religious communities, across the board, have become better at trying to engage people in dialog so that their relationship with the Ultimate can be expressed and experienced. Yes, I do think that.
HEFFNER: You make it sound, Jim, I, I … even as I’m about to say it, I…I know I’ll regret my words … but I…I’m at a lost for better words. Almost as if it were a … as so many things in our lives have become, a public relations effort.
HEFFNER: … that what has happened has been putting …
WALL: Oh, no.
HEFFNER: … a better foot forward …as…that’s not what you mean…
WALL: You should regret having [laughter] ….
HEFFNER: No, I don’t regret it because you’ll correct me.
WALL: You should have regret … you should regret introducing that term. No. It’s not a public relations issue …
HEFFNER: What is it then?
WALL: It is a meeting of a need. That’s what religion is all about. How do you orient your life … you as an individual … an 8 year old, 12 year old, 50 year old, 80 year old. How do you orient your life to be the most productive, fulfilled individual and the most responsible person in dealing with your fellow human beings and in your obligation to your God? How do you do that?
HEFFNER: Now, what you’re saying, if I understand correctly is that this is a definition of the role of religion …
WALL: Religion, yeah.
HEFFNER: … and that this role has been increasingly filled in this country in the last generation or two.
WALL: I, I…I think I’m more optimistic about the way in which the institutional religion, that we are all familiar with in its various forms, have moved into dealing more with the answering these questions. Now, there is the … talk about public relations, there is the side of religion the media loves to report on, because it’s simplistic and absolutist. And that’s the Religious Right in this country. Extremists that, that seize upon certain political issues and use them as a way of speaking religion, but in fact, speaking politics. That is not the same thing I’m talking about. They’re not grappling with problems, they’re trying to sell a bill of goods.
HEFFNER: Jim, I don’t want you to become more critical again of the media. But you must then logically, you must then be saying, “something has taken place”, you’re aware of it in the past two generations … in a sense though it hasn’t been reported …
HEFFNER: It is unknown as far as the media are concerned.
WALL: It’s hard to report. For one thing, it’s… not simplistic. Media is at its best in dealing with simple issues … win/lose. Sports games are so much better because you know who won, you know who lost. Media is at its best when somebody on either side of an issue, will give them an absolutist answer.
HEFFNER: Yes, but …
WALL: Up and down on abortion. Up and down on gay rights. Up and down on other issues like that.
HEFFNER: But you have so well defined what you mean now.
HEFFNER: I, I’m … you know, I’m always ready to needle you …
HEFFNER: But I’m so impressed by what you say that religious institutions have done. .Have .. .the job that they’ve taken on, not that they’ve abandoned the social gospel; not that they have abandoned fulfilling other needs …
WALL: No, alright.
HEFFNER: But they’re doing something that they always should have done.
WALL: And they’re doing it well, this has been going on a long time. Religious communities have been around for a long time and they, they rise and fall. I’m just happening to feel right now, that we’re rising up a little bit in our ability to grapple with this.
HEFFNER: How do you account for this?
WALL: I, I would not know. It, it could be a…a cyclical matter; a reaction to the lack of this deep, probing to religious significance, questions. It could be, may I make a theological statement, “It could be the work of the holy spirit. It could be that in the strange mysterious ways, there’s a wave of, uprising of spiritual hunger that is being addressed.” Now you were asking earlier, “why hasn’t the media reported on,on this?” Because it’s difficult to report on something as nebulous as this is. Very difficult. You can report incidences of it. You can report…you can report on reports of people saying, “this has happened to me and I’m better because of that”. But that’s … the media prefers polling. If you want to talk about religion and media … you usually end up with a poll: “how many people go to church?”; “how many people say they believe in God.” And so forth and so on. That’s, that’s not religion, that’s just very much an outward measurement.
HEFFNER: Well, it … it … all of what you’re saying is very interesting to me. You think I’m going to look cynically upon what you’ve said. I know you. And you know me. But I, I don’t. I’m impressed …
HEFFNER: … by what you say. I’m… a little puzzled at the fact some years back you would have said, in answer to my question, “why aren’t they reporting it?” …
HEFFNER: … you would have said, not “it’s so difficult to report”.; but “they’re anti- … “they basically don’t want to deal with
WALL: I…I would admit that perhaps I would have said that. They’re “anti-” in the sense that they don’t want to deal with it because they don’t know how to deal with it. I don’t know whether that’s “anti-” or not. It just means that I, I … if sitting around a table of an editorial decision of a television program for ABC or a New York Times Editorial Conference … somebody starts saying, “why are we going to make this … how are we going to make this newsworthy?” That’s a very hard thing to do. These, these trends. So you get trend stories is what you get. And…and that’s a good sign. Some religious pages are being referred to as “trends” as well as just religious news. And that can be reported on. But it’s usually as an essay … it’s usually as a…in a letter called Testimony quoting people on these subjects.
HEFFNER: I’ve wondered whether, in issues relating to stem cells …
HEFFNER: …. issues relating to more fundamental manipulation of what it is to be human …
HEFFNER: … isn’t going to be a prod to …
WALL: Yeah, that’s a tough one.
HEFFNER: … the increasing …
WALL: … the stem cell debate is a very tough theological debate. I…I’m not pleased with the outcome of George Bush’s decision on that. And he did give us the indication that he truly studied and, and worried about it and perhaps he did. I’m not going to deny that. But it is a theological issue at heart because whether you want to use stem cells may depend on where you are on the spectrum from Left to Right, politically on the subject of … essentially abortion and, and where life begins … yeah that could help us. If we take that issue seriously and examine it theologically. I don’t know what its commission will do. But if it is made up of people willing to truly ask the serious questions about what can you do in a democratic culture, where there are differences of opinion on when life begins. How can you come to grips with something as complex as stem cell research?
HEFFNER: Do you think, we have 30 seconds left, do you think this is going to provoke an increasing involvement with matters spiritual?
WALL: I wish it would. I’m afraid it won’t because it’s such a political issue. It’s such … the, the parties involved are looking to the next election. Politicians do that. They’re looking to the next election. They’re not going to have time to argue about the theology of the Catholic vote or the Liberal vote. Unfortunately, I don’t see this as an opportunity to do that. But maybe something good will come out of it, in terms of theological examination.
HEFFNER: Jim Wall, you’ve changed.
HEFFNER: And I’m glad still you’re the same Jim Wall who comes to this table. And you will keep coming, I trust, and thank you very much for coming today.
WALL: Thank you for having me again.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.