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It’s Time to Raise the Bar

By July 29, 2019 11 Comments

One of the things I look forward to with summer is some extra space to indulge in a little binge-watching on Netflix. I’m not much of a TV watcher, so even my binge habits are rather pathetic—it takes me a while to work through a season of any show. But that’s beside the point.

I thought my show this summer would be the highly anticipated third season of Stranger Things. But instead I got hooked on The West Wing. I know, know– you’re thinking, “Seriously? You’re just now watching The West Wing? Where have you been?”

When the show first aired on NBC in 1999 (and would go on to run for seven seasons), I just wasn’t all that interested (I was more of an X-Files guy). Years later, when I became more interested, I still resisted watching it because I was so tired of the real drama in Washington. When I had free time the last thing I wanted to do was watch some political show, even if it has been heralded as some of the best U.S. television ever produced.

But now I’m completely drawn in. Binge-watching for me is five or six episodes a week, so I’m only part way through Season Two.

For those of you who may also be hold-outs and haven’t seen it, The West Wing follows the story of charismatic President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) and his highly talented and hard-working senior staff. You get an inside look at the operations of the White House, watching a president and his team tackle all sorts of crises both domestic and international, all the while not taking themselves too seriously.

While The West Wing has been celebrated for its excellent script writing and its ability to address difficult issues with wit and charm, it has also been criticized for not being a very accurate portrayal of the actual workings of American politics. According to some, it’s too personality driven, romanticized, and fails to give a picture of the slow, complex, and highly bureaucratic way that government works. In an Atlantic Monthly article titled “Why ‘The West Wing’ Is a Terrible Guide to American Democracy,” Yair Rosenberg writes,

Building a democracy around The West Wing’s version of politics, then, is setting one’s self up for disappointment. The show overstates the power of personalities to triumph over fundamental political realities. It exaggerates the import and impact of presidential rhetoric. And it concordantly minimizes the internal and external obstacles even the most well-meaning and capable politicians face when attempting to make policy. Such creative liberties add up to a romanticized portrayal which leads viewers to expect more from their elected officials and government than either can reasonably deliver.

Watching The West Wing to learn how democracy works, Rosenberg goes on to say, is like watching episodes of ER to learn how the hospital emergency room works or Law & Order to study up on how to be a lawyer.

Fair enough. The West Wing is a television show, concerned with the elements of good storytelling and character development. Of course it’s going to come up short on fully representing the bureaucracy of American politics. And who really wants to watch seven seasons of that? But I want to push back on Rosenberg’s assertion that The West Wing “leads viewers to expect more from their elected officials and government than either can reasonably deliver.”

In my opinion, this is so much of the problem with the current state of American politics: the bar has been set so low with the Trump Administration and the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, that we’ve simply become resigned to expect so little. To expect so little not just in terms of policy and decision-making but also in terms of rhetoric, moral leadership, and plain decency in how we treat each other. Rosenberg may be right that the personality and rhetoric of our leaders, particularly the president, is limited in terms of effecting large-scale policy change. But as John Meacham has argued in his outstanding book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels, the president does have enormous moral and cultural power in shaping the soul of a nation. “A president sets the tone for the nation and helps tailor habits of heart and mind.”

And this is one of the reasons I’m so taken with The West Wing. Yes, it may be quixotic in its portrayal of how decisions get made and the power of charismatic personalities to bring change. But I watch the way the characters interact with each other, and with others who disagree with them, and there have been multiple times I’ve been deeply moved. Josiah Bartlet has his own demons, yet here is a man who has his convictions and leads out of those convictions with compassion. The loyalty among Bartlet’s administration is not self-serving and transactional, driven by survival of the fittest; rather it is fueled by belief in one another, and a genuine concern for each other and a commitment to the greater good. The press is not regarded as “the enemy of the people” but a band of journalists striving to do their job, asking hard questions, and a press secretary (C.J. Cregg) who stands in there, at times jabbing back, but in way that refuses to demonize and draw enemy lines. I’m no political scientist, but I think this is how democracy is supposed to work, actually.

The West Wing may be fiction, but to watch politicians act like adults (albeit imperfect) is a breath of fresh air. And it gives me a tiny boost of hope in terms of what we can and should expect of our political leaders, most of all our president. I think this kind of maturity and moral leadership is something that is reasonable to expect of our government and elected officials. Let me say it more strongly: this is what we must expect.

It’s time to raise the bar.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.


  • Jen Lucking says:

    *LOVE* this show. If you’re a podcast listener, I highly recommend “The West Wing Weekly.” I used to binge watch the show every couple of years, and I’ve been watching an episode once a week to keep pace with the podcast (but the podcast is now covering West Wing’s 7th season so you could still binge watch at whatever pace you’d like 😉 ). There are some amazing podcast episodes with thoughtful theological reflections.

  • mstair says:

    I think presidential leadership is only influentially effective to those who are tuned in the tweets. Writing from a southern red-state location … when Obama was president most of the folks in my area purposely ignored him UNLESS his actions were emphasized by right-wing media … then, they were all-in on his activity – as a reason to criticize him. I’m afraid our 21st. Century social division is being driven by “powers and principalities” of our age.

    But, next election, if we could elect The Holy Spirit, we may have a chance …

  • Ann Mary Dykstra says:

    We watched when it came out originally. Still remember specific episodes and scenes. Don’t quit! You are in for more treats.
    And when you are done with West Wing, look for Newsroom. Some of the best of TV.

  • Kim Van Es says:

    I enjoyed this piece, Brian. And I believe that there are 2020 presidential candidates who would raise the moral bar–who would responsibly use the bully pulpit of the presidency.

  • Bumper sticker seen recently: “Any Functioning Adult 2020”

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    I share the author’s desire for the bar to be raised in American (and probably Canadian as well) civil discourse and governance. As we lobby to “raise the bar”, can we shoot a little higher than The West Wing?

    Also worth asking: Does this raising of the bar include insisting on a basic right to human life, or are we mostly concerned about crassness, boorishness, and bawdry political theater? In other words, is it worse to be a smooth talking murderer or an uncouth buffoon? If a buffoon is replaced with one who despises God’s created life, is God pleased with us on balance?

    Staking out the moral high ground is so difficult sometimes.

  • RLG says:

    I would also like to see the bar raised when it comes to the governance of our country. But what would it mean to raise the bar a little higher than that of the West Wing? I like the fact that our country is a democracy, in which the power is vested in its citizens, rather than a theocracy, by which the Bible (or the Koran) is placed alongside of or above the constitution. Talk about civil religion!

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      Hi Roger,

      To the extent that The West Wing does not represent the pinnacle of love, decency, and wisdom, there is plenty of room to aim higher without placing the Bible alongside or above the constitution. We all carry our values into public life, and we desire for righteousness and holiness to be evident in our own public lives and the lives and dealings of those who govern us. This is possible and desirable without becoming a theocracy.

  • RLG says:

    Hey Eric. Thanks for your response to my comment. It may be a little late for responding at this point. You suggested raising the bar a “little” higher than The West Wing. I’m not sure what you mean by a “little” higher. I think your suggestion was to include insisting on the basic right to human life in the raising of the bar a little. But then does this basic
    right to human life include the admitting of illegals into our country, the care of the homeless on our streets and the jobless, the abolishment of legal abortions, the reduction or abandonment of weapons of mass destruction, and on and on? There are many areas that could be included under the umbrella of protecting the right to human life. And there are differences of opinion held by moral and good citizens on any number of these issues. Perhaps the question is not so much the morality involved (as we all differ depending on the issue), but what is the prudent response, especially seeing as we live in a democracy and not a theocracy.

    • Eric Van Dyken says:

      Hi Roger,
      Thanks for the exchange of ideas. When I said a “little higher” it was a rhetorical turn of phrase meant to prompt a higher yearning. The word “little” was not meant to be taken as my literal desire, as if The West Wing was quite close to illustrating the desirable standard we should be aiming for.
      It will likely not surprise you that when I asked about a basic right to human life, I was specifically referring to abortion, a topic that gets scant and equivocal attention around here despite its woeful impact on image-bearers. Topics such as the plight of immigrants and the homeless, instruments of warfare, etc. are categorically different in that the policies in question do not fundamentally and categorically deny an oppressed image-bearer group the right to live. No political party or figure is proposing to deny immigrants of any status or the homeless of their right to life. In regards to warfare, God specifically establishes governments to bear the sword and punish evil. Violence and the taking of life are inherent in that calling. Those in power within governments will answer to God for how they carry out that role, but they are not categorically restricted from taking human life.

      You seem to equate importing moral values into our national laws and governance with theocracy. Such is not the case. All laws have a moral component. Anarchy is the result of saying morality should not enter in governance. Laws against murder are based on the immorality of murder. True theocracies are mostly visible in modern times in some majority Muslim countries, when their scriptures do in fact rule their society and their preeminent rulers are spiritual rulers. Despite the U.S.’s fundamental Judeo-Christian underpinnings, the U.S. has never been anything close to a theocracy. A Christian theocracy would require church attendance and tithing with penalty for disobedience. When Christians seek to allow their understanding of moral truths from Scripture to inform their understanding of political rights and wrongs, that is not an attempt to theocratize the country.

  • RLG says:

    Hi Eric, Thanks for clearing up some of my misconceptions as to what you meant by raising the bar a little in governing our nation. As to specifics, you were referring to the abortion issue and not the other issues that I had thought fit into a category of denying the right of human life, such as producing weapons of mass destruction. Certainly such weaponry when used, denies people the right to life, as does the denial of immigration to those who fear for their lives in their own homeland. I’m sure opinions differ as to how these all fit together or are separated from each other. On all these issues, including abortion rights, there are differences of opinion.

    As to abortion and the right to life issue, you make clear that humans are image bearers of God and life therefore is sacred (not just valuable). It is a distinct Christian tenet taken from the Bible. Non Christians have no source indicating that humans are image bearers of God, and therefore it does not play into their reasoning for preserving the fetus/child in the womb. Human life is valuable, not sacred, to those outside the church. And so to non Christians (and even a number of Christians) such sacredness of human life does not fit into their arguments for allowing abortion under certain circumstances. The point here is that there are differences of opinion on these various issues as well as many other issues.

    I agree, Eric, that all laws (or at least most) have a moral component. And I agree that humans are moral beings and as such are guided by their moral standards, but not everyone’s morality is directed by the Bible. That may be true of Christians (to some extent) but not true of others. Others may have a moral compass influenced by a number of different sources.

    As a nation, we maintain a separation of church and state. U.S. citizens do not claim to be a Christian nation governed by the Bible any more than claiming to be a Muslim nation governed by the Koran. We keep religion and government separate. To allow the Bible or the Koran to dictate legislation would be a violation of that separation. It would encroach on the idea of a theocracy. Certainly Christians, as well as Muslims are entitled to their religious principles, but such principles are not to be arbitrarily enforced on everyone. Because, as a nation, we are a melting pot of religions and cultures, a number of influences need to be considered in governing. That is why I suggested prudence (wise or judicious in practical affairs; sagacious; discreet or circumspect; sober.) is needed in guiding lawmakers in our country, especially seeing there are differences as to morality.

    Of course abortion is only a single issue facing the law makers in our country, so prudence seems to be as important as morality, especially when governing a democracy. And such prudence in governing will go a long way in raising the bar of leadership.

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