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FIRST PERSON: Moral absolutes — West Wing style

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–For those of us out there who are both ideological conservatives and fans of quality television, NBC’s enormously popular political drama “The West Wing” presents something of a quandary. The show is undoubtedly one of the most well-written television programs on the air. At the same time, as numerous people have previously observed, The West Wing often functions as little more than the propagandistic efforts of NBC to parade the leftist political and moral views of the show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin.

While a degree of fairness is sometimes attained, more often than not conservatives are represented as mean-spirited and downright irrational, while liberals come out looking like the true champions of American morality. This “liberal as moral champion” mentality is what makes one of this season’s episodes, “We Killed Yamamoto,” so worthy of note.

President Josiah “Jeb” Bartlett (played by Martin Sheen) is threatened with a very difficult situation. A foreign dignitary will soon be visiting America as a guest of the president.

The problem arises when U.S. intelligence discovers that this very dignitary is also the secret head of a terrorist organization that has recently attempted an attack on a U.S. military base. A debate ensues between President Bartlett and the Joint Chiefs over the best course of action.

The problem is how to effectively take the suspected terrorist into custody without violating international laws governing diplomatic immunity. The president leaves the meeting convinced that the only alternative is not to allow the diplomat to enter America.

Following the official meeting, a clandestine one takes place between the president’s chief of staff, Leo McGarry, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Fitzwallace. During this second meeting, Fitzwallace manages to convince Leo, with the assistance of fuzzy legal definitions, that the president has to let the diplomat into the country, presumably so he can be dealt with decisively.

The pivotal scene in the episode occurs at 1 a.m. in the Oval Office. Leo approaches President Bartlett with his suggestion, and the two begin to argue about whether breaking international laws is justifiable. In the middle of this argument, Leo makes the stunning comment, “That’s the only problem with your liberalism, Mr. President. You believe in moral absolutes. There are no moral absolutes.”

This argument convinces the president to allow the suspect to enter America, though the two do not decide what course should be followed after that. The president concludes the conversation by weakly stating, “There are moral absolutes,” to which Leo simply shakes his head. It sounded like President Bartlett was trying to convince himself as much as he was Leo.

The message of The West Wing is clear. Not only are social liberals the safeguards of true American morality, that morality includes no absolutes. This should come as no surprise. Hollywood and the television industry have been trying to convince us of the absence of moral absolutes for years.

The postmodern philosophy that is so prevalent in entertainment is, at its root, a denial of all absolutes. Even if absolutes in truth and morality were to exist, there would be no way for us to determine them. So, in short, morality is subjective, to be determined by the individual circumstance. Joseph Fletcher’s situation ethics has become the holy scripture of American morality.

Ironically, the moral vagueness we see articulated so clearly in The West Wing is not simply a postmodern development. Many nations throughout history have attempted to exist and prosper with an absence of any meaningful moral restraints. One noteworthy example is found in the pages of Scripture. We read in the Old Testament that during the time of the Judges, “there was no king in Israel and every man did what was right in his own eyes.”

Biblical scholars note that this phrase, which is repeated numerous times, represents the major theological theme of the book. What the verse means is not that Israel needed a human king to control morality, but that Israel had rejected God as their king.

God, who was the author of moral absolutes, was ignored. In short, God’s chosen people lived like they did not know who he was. They were functional atheists. To paraphrase Dostoyevsky, when men ignored God, anything was permissible.

Unlike Israel, America is not God’s chosen land, but many of the same principles are applicable to our own moral climate. Polls consistently show that an overwhelming majority of Americans consider themselves Christians. Many of them would even identify themselves with such phrases as “evangelical” or “born again.”

Yet, America is a country where, for the most part, every person does what is right in his or her own eyes. Multitudes claim to have a faith in God, but they live as though God (and his moral absolutes) is of no consequence to their daily lives. There are many Americans who are merely “cultural Christians” at best.

While cultural religion is never a substitute for saving faith, the problem is not limited to spiritual imposters. Regrettably, far too many authentic Christians go to church and affirm absolute truth, when in reality they are like Jeb Bartlett, trying to convince themselves that their notions of morality are not antiquated. Like ancient Israel, we are a nation of functional atheists.

Many Christians have a somewhat misinformed view of our founding fathers, believing them to be modern-day evangelicals who just happened to live in the 18th century. While this is a rather simplistic, rosy view of American history, there is no doubt that the founding fathers drafted our historical documents under the Judeo-Christian assumption that there is a God and he created a world of moral absolutes. How else can one explain the language of “inalienable rights.” Absolutes were simply taken for granted.

Unfortunately, that is not the case today. In our pluralistic culture, we can no longer assume that all Americans have basically the same worldview in taking absolutes for granted. That is why it is so important for Christians to cling to the notion of moral absolutes. It is our responsibility to speak up for absolute truth and morality.

We must engage our culture in such a way that the biblical worldview is shown to be the only truly viable option. So do not buy into the lie that moral absolutes are a thing of the past. The West Wing may possibly be the best show on television, but its government does not represent the values America needs the most.
Nathan Finn is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

    About the Author

  • Nathan Finn

    Nathan A. Finn is professor of faith and culture and executive director of the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University. He is also the Recording Secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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