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25 February 2015

What can we learn from The West Wing?

What can we learn from The West Wing?

A poll of American voters before the 2000 Presidential election showed that a majority of respondents would prefer The West Wing's President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) to either of the candidates on the real-life ballot papers. Despite its success when it aired between 1999-2006, The West Wing's portrayal of its fictional politicians continues to be an exception to the rule. Bartlet and his senior staff are committed, motivated and full of integrity, prompting one critic to ask: "What rock did these morally pure creatures crawl out from under? How do you go from innocent millipede to White House staffer, without becoming soiled or disillusioned by the dirty realities of politics along the way?" 

Generally speaking, film and television rarely entertain the idea of politicians as committed public servants. Birgitte Nyborg from Danish series Borgen (2010-present) is another exception, but mostly fictional politicians are either shallow, self-serving fools like Veep's Selina Meyer (2012-present) or Machiavellian monsters like House of Cards' Frank Underwood (2013-present). The cynicism that was ground-breaking in Yes Minister (1980-1988) has become the norm in shows like The Thick of It (2005- 2012) and the Kelsey Grammar vehicle Boss (2011-2012), along with films like The Ghost (2010) and The Ides of March (2011). Villainy often makes for better drama, so it's understandable when filmmakers align their politicos to the dark side. Understandable, but not necessarily good. 

With public confidence in politicians at an all-time low, it's debatable whether the cynical depiction of politicians reflects public opinion or shapes it. Since Spitting Image burst onto our screens in 1984, criticism of our leaders has become increasingly belligerent and disdainful. Not that politicians should be beyond criticism;political satire has a long and important history, and Spitting Image, like its modern successors, played a vital role in speaking truth to power and calling politicians to account. But increasingly there's a danger that genuine debate can get lost in personal abuse, and the pursuit of the punchline. Arguably, the constant belittling of politicians feeds the general perception that the great and the good have given way to the greedy and the mean. 

The truth is, perhaps, more like The West Wing than we sometimes admit. Alongside the self-serving and the immoral, there are also genuine public servants. Many of them – in all the main political parties – are strongly motivated by their Christian faith, which long predates their political positions. One recent government minister was a leader on CYFA Ventures in the 1980s – I know, because he was my dorm leader –and there are countless other politicians across the political spectrum who combine a calling to politics with a calling to follow Jesus, see christiansinparliament.org.uk for more examples. Rather than seeing politics as a distraction from God, they recognise it as a vital part of serving him. Of course, Christians from different parties have very different ideas about how God's values should be put into practice, but by wrestling with those questions, they are fulfilling Jesus' command for us to be salt and light in an otherwise dark and corrupt world. They may disagree about the way forward, but they all agree on the importance of having people of faith speaking up in the corridors of power. 

What about the rest of us? Cynicism is easy, and sometimes fun – I enjoy Have I Got News For You as much as the next person, but that can't be our whole response. Jon Kuhrt, who runs the Resistance and Renewal blog, argues that "the Bible is hugely political – in that it is about how God wants people to behave and act towards him, and towards each other. This involves economics and law, because these are tools that need to be used to build justice." If Christians opt out of the political process, we are leaving these tools in the hands of people with no concern for God's values. 

Would your preferred party be better or worse for having more Christian voices shaping policy and campaigning, nationally and locally? Why shouldn't you be one of those voices? Ken Leech, the vicar who founded homeless charity Centrepoint, observed that all Christians are political even – especially – when they think they aren't. When we choose not to involve ourselves, we're voting for the way things already are. Even if the role of activist isn't for you, we still need to read and think about the issues, to discuss and participate in the political process. The alternative is to leave the world of politics a little darker and a little less salty.

Steve Couch is a writer with Damaris, which provides free resources for Damaris Film Clubs as well as the Damaris Film Blog. See damaris.org/filmclubs and damaris.org/filmblog.

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