Presentation Title

American civil religion in Aaron Sorkin’s biggest hits, The West Wing and The Newsroom

Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Keywords

American civil religion, exceptionalism, Sorkin

Department

Religion

Major

Religion

Abstract

This study looked at American civil religion in Aaron Sorkin’s biggest hits, The West Wing and The Newsroom. Sorkin, a writer and producer, is known for fairly liberal politics in his television shows and films, but also for characters prone to quick wit and intellectual pronouncements. Throughout Newsroom, which just ended in November, and Sorkin’s seemingly even more patriotic The West Wing, we see numerous examples of what Robert Bellah defined as American civil religion. Bellah argued Christianity has been used to bolster democracy and the American republic from the writing of the Declaration of Independence to the present day, creating a shared civil religion that endorsed generic Judeo-Christian values. The Founders built the country on Enlightenment concepts of natural rights, but also Puritan ideas of chosenness. Biblical archetypes lie behind the civil religion at every point: “Exodus, Chosen people, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But it is also genuinely American and genuinely new. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all the nations.”[i] Using a code book for civil religion designed by the professor, students Savannah Janssen and Patrick Rear tracked every instance of civil religion in the first four seasons of West Wing and all three seasons of Newsroom. When adjusted for frequency, Newsroom turned out to have a higher frequency of references to civil religion than West Wing. Freedom of the Press and its centrality to democracy dominated both shows, but was higher in West Wing even though Newsroom is set in a television newsroom. Both shows also showed a high tendency to refer to famous thinkers for authority. Both shows also emphasized personal sacrifice for one’s nation or for others, and this theme surprisingly showed up at greater frequencies in The Newsroom than in The West Wing. Both shows referenced God (and not just in vain), both shows quoted the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, both referenced Judaism and Christianity, both made references to American exceptionalism. The sacredness of the Constitution, natural rights and freedom showed up with similar frequencies in both shows. This prevalence of civil religion in a liberal narrative brings into question the conservative stereotypes of the media. This study quantitatively shows Sorkin to be far more patriotic, favorable to American exceptionalism and indeed hawkish than he and other liberal media elites are portrayed by conservatives. Whether Sorkin’s impression of the media or conservative impressions of the media are born out through quantitative study needs further investigation.

[i] Robert Bellah, Beyond Belief (London: Harper & Row, 1970), 186; Bellah, ‘Civil Religion in America,’ Daedalus 117 (July 1, 1988): 97-118.

Faculty Mentor

Dr. Christina Littlefield

Funding Source or Research Program

Academic Year Undergraduate Research Initiative

Presentation Session

Session C

Location

Rockwell Academic Center 170

Start Date

3-4-2015 3:45 PM

End Date

3-4-2015 4:00 PM

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Apr 3rd, 3:45 PM Apr 3rd, 4:00 PM

American civil religion in Aaron Sorkin’s biggest hits, The West Wing and The Newsroom

Rockwell Academic Center 170

This study looked at American civil religion in Aaron Sorkin’s biggest hits, The West Wing and The Newsroom. Sorkin, a writer and producer, is known for fairly liberal politics in his television shows and films, but also for characters prone to quick wit and intellectual pronouncements. Throughout Newsroom, which just ended in November, and Sorkin’s seemingly even more patriotic The West Wing, we see numerous examples of what Robert Bellah defined as American civil religion. Bellah argued Christianity has been used to bolster democracy and the American republic from the writing of the Declaration of Independence to the present day, creating a shared civil religion that endorsed generic Judeo-Christian values. The Founders built the country on Enlightenment concepts of natural rights, but also Puritan ideas of chosenness. Biblical archetypes lie behind the civil religion at every point: “Exodus, Chosen people, Promised Land, New Jerusalem, and Sacrificial Death and Rebirth. But it is also genuinely American and genuinely new. It has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all the nations.”[i] Using a code book for civil religion designed by the professor, students Savannah Janssen and Patrick Rear tracked every instance of civil religion in the first four seasons of West Wing and all three seasons of Newsroom. When adjusted for frequency, Newsroom turned out to have a higher frequency of references to civil religion than West Wing. Freedom of the Press and its centrality to democracy dominated both shows, but was higher in West Wing even though Newsroom is set in a television newsroom. Both shows also showed a high tendency to refer to famous thinkers for authority. Both shows also emphasized personal sacrifice for one’s nation or for others, and this theme surprisingly showed up at greater frequencies in The Newsroom than in The West Wing. Both shows referenced God (and not just in vain), both shows quoted the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, both referenced Judaism and Christianity, both made references to American exceptionalism. The sacredness of the Constitution, natural rights and freedom showed up with similar frequencies in both shows. This prevalence of civil religion in a liberal narrative brings into question the conservative stereotypes of the media. This study quantitatively shows Sorkin to be far more patriotic, favorable to American exceptionalism and indeed hawkish than he and other liberal media elites are portrayed by conservatives. Whether Sorkin’s impression of the media or conservative impressions of the media are born out through quantitative study needs further investigation.

[i] Robert Bellah, Beyond Belief (London: Harper & Row, 1970), 186; Bellah, ‘Civil Religion in America,’ Daedalus 117 (July 1, 1988): 97-118.