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Controversial ‘West Wing’ episode honored by religious communicators

EDITORS’ NOTE: The following article contains two references to coarse language.

WASHINGTON (BP)–A group of religious communications professionals has given an award for “excellence in the communication of religion’s values” to the controversial episode of a television show in which the main character curses at God and crushes a burning cigarette underfoot in a church, CNSNews.com reported April 3.

The Religion Communicators Council (RCC), an international interfaith association of religion communicators, is giving its 2001 Wilbur Award for Television Drama to an episode of “The West Wing,” the NBC program depicting the administration of a fictional Democratic president.

Wilbur Awards are presented to various media outlets in recognition of “excellence in the communication of religious issues, values and themes in the secular media,” according to the RCC.

In the episode being honored by the RCC, which aired Sept. 19, 2001, President Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, rails at God while standing in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., following the funeral for his longtime secretary, who was killed in a traffic accident.

“You’re a son of a _____, you know that?” says the fictional President Bartlett, who is portrayed in the show as a Roman Catholic. “What did I ever do to you to [your Son] but praise his glory and praise his name?

“Have I displeased you, you feckless thug?” asks Sheen’s character, who then stamps out his lit cigarette on the floor of the National Cathedral.

RCC Vice President Eric Shafer, a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, defended the RCC’s selection of the West Wing episode.

To say that Bartlett was swearing at God “is a gross oversimplification of the plot,” Shafer said.

“He is yelling at God in language very similar to Old Testament prophets,” he said. “And he even quotes Latin in it. He’s coming to grips with this important death and his very strong … Roman Catholic Christian faith.”

The emotions expressed by Sheen’s character, Shafer said, are not unlike those of others going through a grieving process.

“Part of it is being angry with God and then realizing that God didn’t cause this accident,” Shafer explained. “He does know that, but it’s just like everyone with a death has to get through his anger.”

“I think it was the writers’ understanding of Old and New Testament faith” that impressed the panel of judges who bestowed the Wilbur award on West Wing for the second year in a row, he said.

But not everyone believes the show offers a positive portrayal of religious faith, including Melissa Caldwell, director of research and publications for the Parents Television Council, a television watchdog group headed by L. Brent Bozell, founder of CNSNews.com.

“Certainly there are a lot of shows that deal always in a positive way with religious issues, like ‘Seventh Heaven’ [and] ‘Touched by an Angel,'” Caldwell said. “It seems strange to me that they would select the West Wing [for an award].”

She pointed to a 1999 episode of the show in which a fictional group of conservative Christians were portrayed as being “zealous, self-righteous, anti-Semitic and … confused by basic religious facts.”

In that episode, the fictional President Bartlett orders the Christian group to “get your fat _____ out of my White House.”

“That was not a very positive portrayal of conservative Christians,” Caldwell said.

The RCC selects award recipients based upon entries submitted by the companies that produce television shows, newspaper and magazine articles and other types of secular media products.

The companies submit a form and a $125 entry fee. The RCC judges consist of the group’s members along with local media individuals. The 2001 awards will be presented April 20 at a ceremony in New York City.
Hall is a staff writer with www.CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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  • Christine Hall