3 posts

The West Wing, Radio, and the Religious Right

Written by: Alex Witt

In episode three of the second season of The West Wing President Bartlett, busy campaigning in the midterm elections, takes a moment to meet with radio talk show hosts to discuss the important role they play in the democratic process.  Upon addressing the group, he sees, sitting, Dr. Jenna Jacobs, a talk-show host known for incendiary statements regarding homosexuals.  After questioning her on her educational experience (Dr. Jacobs holds a doctoral degree in English literature), he brings up her homophobic statements, and she responds by citing the Bible.  Then comes an onslaught of references by President Bartlett of Biblical citations that are no longer considered acceptable, such as selling one’s daughter into slavery or stoning one’s employee for working on the Sabbath, as well as a final searing look that lasts until she defeatedly stands (Sorkin, 2000).

This scene in “The Midterms” was allegedly inspired by a letter written to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a conservative radio talk-show host known for her homophobic rants.  Dr. Laura, as she is known by listeners, similarly does not hold a Ph.D. in a relevant subject, such as theology or psychology.  Instead she holds a degree in physiology and a certificate in marriage, family, and child counseling.  Dr. Laura’s position on homosexuality is illustrated by her endorsement of books such as Restoring Sexual Identity: Hope for Women Who Struggle With Same-Sex Attraction.  She has been quoted as calling homosexuality a “deviant behavior, a dysfunctional behavior (“Dr. Laura,” 2010).”  Similarly, she once asked, “When a man cannot make love to a woman, how can that be normal (“Dr. Laura,” 2010)?”

Although Dr. Laura was targeted most directly by writer Aaron Sorkin, his rebuke was not only addressed towards her personally.  This was also a general critique of the Religious Right.  Other groups such as Focus on the Family have expressed similar feelings to those of Dr. Laura.  In fact, on their website Focus on the Family states in regards to homosexuality, “If a spouse refuses to seek help and refuses to change, it is almost impossible that your child will escape their youth without some scars and bruises (“Focus on the Family,” 2010),” thus making the assumption that it is necessary, and possible, for homosexuals to “change” their sexual preference.  In defense of their use of the Bible in condemning homosexuality, the organization states that leaders of the Gay-Christian movement claim, “Scriptures that supposedly condemn homosexual behavior have been taken out of context and do not apply to our present society (“Focus on the Family,” 2010).”  This is true; however, Sorkin counters this statement by pointing out other idiosyncrasies that the Religious Right choose to ignore.  Christians are convinced the Bible is the last word on homosexuality, yet they fail to follow many of its other mandates, such as stoning ones mother for wearing different materials or touching the skin of a dead pig.

In this episode, President Bartlett not only discusses the importance of the radio media, but also alludes to their power with the very vehement anger with which he addresses Dr. Jacobs.  According to Hollihan (2009), commercial talk radio has emerged as a major news source in modern America, especially for Republicans.  24% of Republicans listen to interactive radio shows, and 13% of Democrats do.  91% of political radio talk show content is skewed toward conservative positions, and 77% of Rush Limbaugh’s audience consider themselves conservative, versus 36% of the general public.  This gives those listeners a distorted representation of what they country truly feels.  Surrounded by people with similar political beliefs, these listeners have their opinions validated daily.  This validation from fellow listeners gives them the confidence that they are not alone in their beliefs.  Unfortunately, a very small percent of the population is actually reflected in this sample, thus making the conclusions invalid.

Hollihan also discusses the use of wedge political strategies and their negative influence on public confidence.  According to Hollihan (2009), people who have experienced this brand of negative advertising will not have faith that their interests will be represented or considered if their party is not elected.  He further elaborates that both the Democrats and Republicans are growing increasingly polarized and that this phenomena is encouraged by the emergence of hard-lined activists on both sides of the aisle, activists like Dr. Laura.  This is undermining the faith of the American people, which only contributes to apathy among citizens.

Rozell discusses the increasingly popular use of a bully pulpit by nonstate actors.  With access to media outlets increasing and becoming more polarized, more and more shows, such as those of Dr. Laura and Glenn Beck, are finding a channel for their opinions.  Rozell points out that non-governmental media users have some advantages over others, such as their ability to oversimplify issues into good versus bad dilemmas and their ability to shirk accountability when it comes to credibility (2008).  This is illustrated often in the case of the Religious Right.  Christians are good.  Gays are bad.  And don’t even try to accuse the broadcaster of being a bigot because they’re just speaking the Truth the Bible offers.  The Bible is a perfect iron curtain to hide behind, as its authors have been dead for millennia, and no one wants to be perceived as a sinful Christian-hater.  After all, who knows whether Rush Limbaugh has a direct line to God and to what extent he can influence where you spend eternity.

Dahlgren (2009), in examining the relationship between the media and political engagement, points out that the media audience is becoming more and more fragmented as a greater variety of outlets and channels become available to consumers.  This aspect has been very important in the development of the Religious Right, as conservative media stars like Glenn Beck, Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity have found outlets for their particular brand of controversial journalism.  Networks such as Fox News, radio outlets such as Sirius satellite radio, and infinite numbers of blogs have triggered a movement of “journalists” rushing to become more polarized than ever in order to gain the ratings necessary to stay on the air.  Unfortunately, these options seem to be more sensational than factual and often only enforce the political beliefs of their consumers, instead of actually enlightening them with the truth.

In the article, “Political Parody and Public Culture,” Hariman (2008) examines the relationship between the two.  He finds that parody is useful in many situations, including helping people see what they’ve done wrong and letting leaders know what they’ve done wrong, by placing emphasis on certain elements of the discourse.  This is true in the case of The West WingThe West Wing is writer Aaron Sorkin’s idea of what politics should be, not necessarily what it is.  Therefore, in the episode “The Midterms” the response by President Bartlett displays the way in which Sorkin believes moderates and liberals should handle the rhetoric of the Religious Right.  The idea is to wake up the audience, and ideally the politicians, to make them see the shortcomings of their actions.  In order to point out those shortcomings, though, a writer cannot be a dispassionate observer.  He must let his reaction become part of the story in order to make a truly honest critique (Baym, 2005).

The most relevant pieces of critical literature, however, do not simply make critiques.  They also become incorporated into real life, and The West Wing has done just that.  In February of 2006, British newspaper The Guardian published a piece listing the top ten political tips gleaned from the television program after the British House of Commons allegedly used a technique outlined in the show to pass real life legislation by waiting until the opposition was indisposed to call for a vote (Stelter, 2008).  And while President Obama’s presidential campaign was not necessarily based on the one run in the final season of the series by candidate Matthew Santos, many of the similarities were uncanny (Lawson, 2006).

Media such as The West Wing plays an important role in modern American democracy.  In a day and age in which audiences are bombarded from every side by radio shows, outrageous television “news” stations, and infinite political blogs, traditional media can no longer be solely trusted to relay the most important, truthful news that can be offered.  In many instances, it is up to the viewer to critically examine the information being fed, and draw their own conclusions.  Thankfully, there are aids such as The West Wing to help audiences make those decisions.


(2010, December 5). “Dr. Laura.” Retrieved from

(2010, December 5). “Focus on the Family.” Retrieved from

Baym, G. (2005). The Daily Show: Discursive integration and the reinvention of political journalism. In Political communication. Taylor and Francis Inc.

Dahlgren, P. (2009). Media and political engagement. Cambridge University Press.

Hariman, R. (2008). Political parody and public culture. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 94 (3), 247-272.

Hollihan, T. A. (2009). Uncivil war: Political campaigns in a media age. Boston, MA:

Bedford/St. Martin’s

Lawson, M. (2006, February 3). Ten top political tips from The West Wing. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Rozell, M.J., & Mayer, J.D. (Eds.). (2008). Media power, media politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Sorkin, A. (Writer), & Graves, A. (Director). (2000). The midterms [Television series episode]. In J. Wells (Producer), The west wing. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers Burbank Studios.

Stelter, B. (2008, October 29). Following the script: Obama, McCain and “The West Wing.” The New York Times. Retrieved from

Atheism and Atheists: Popular Misconceptions, Introduction

Written by: Matt Seyer

“No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered as patriots. This is one nation under God.” Former President George Bush, Sr.

“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’  They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good.”  Psalms 14.1

In its centuries-long past, the American people have misunderstood, misrepresented, and certainly mistreated a great number of minorities.  Women, African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Native Americans, Gays and Lesbians, Muslims; the list is rather long.  However, over time the misunderstandings and mistreatments have at least been partially remedied, the collective public attitude towards these people has shifted, and although still imperfect, the relationships between the different peoples and genders have improved.

Today, we have a different sort of minority whose mistreatment and misrepresentation is of a similar caliber.  They are unique in one respect, in that people of nearly every religious faith and creed feel completely justified maligning them, publicly and loudly; they are ordinary in another, in that they are feared and mistrusted for questionable reasons.  Touch on them in a casual conversation and your reference is generally met with foreboding denunciations as well as quizzical looks.  Attempt to run for political office as one, and prepare to be shouted out of the room for not having an admirable vision for America.  Who are they?


Atheists are the single least trusted minority in America today.  This mistrust and wariness is evident in nearly every conservative media outlet, has been documented by a University of Minnesota study, and can easily be observed in everyday discourse.  My belief is that this mistrust is derived mainly from a fear of the unknown; that it is a simple extension of the human habit of distrusting the unfamiliar, the obscure, and the mysterious.  The consequences of such a condition are manifested in several popular myths about atheists.  These myths are merely filling the void of the public’s lack of knowledge.  It would be easy to launch a diatribe against the Christian Right for its propagation of these myths, but this would do nothing to dissipate the widespread apprehension directed towards atheists.  My aim, over a series of pieces, is rather to shed some light on a handful of these very common misconceptions about atheists, in hopes that eradicating the myths will alleviate the fear.  I seek to open discussions between believers (theists) and nonbelievers (atheists) and to generally call for some common sense.

First and foremost, we must settle on an appropriate and accurate description of atheism.  Atheism is far too often portrayed as a set of beliefs, as a worldview, or as a perspective on various issues, such as whether or not humans have a soul.  It is seen as a damnable, depressing, degrading frame of mind.  Again, one need only encounter atheism in relaxed conversation to experience these judgments.  But these judgments are as imprecise as they are unfair (as judgments tend to be), and they bring me to my broadest item of discussion: the definition of atheism.

Briefly, it would help to define theism as well.  Theism is defined as the belief in a god or gods.  The term is sometimes used to designate the belief in a particular kind of god-the personal god of monotheism-but here it signifies the belief in any god or number of gods.

Atheism has a few different though not mutually exclusive definitions.  The most common and in my opinion the most useful one is simply this: atheism is the absence of a belief in a god or gods.  This definition of atheism is drawn from the etymology of the term: the Greek atheos (literally, “without god”).  Atheism is sometimes defined as the belief that there is no God of any kind or the claim that god cannot exist.  These are categories of atheism, but they do not exhaust the meaning of the term, and they are somewhat misleading with respect to the basic nature of atheism.  Atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief: it is the absence of belief.  An atheist is not primarily a person who believes that a god does not exist; rather, he does not believe in the existence of a god.

This should end the exposition of atheism on-the-spot, but regrettably there is quite a bit of confusion surrounding the meaning of atheism along with questions about its scope.  Here I wish to head off such confusion by pointing out that atheism-as I have defined it and in its most general sense-is a negative position that does not describe anything in particular about a person.  Put another way, atheism is no more an ideology, religion, or set of beliefs than nonConservatism, nonLiberalism, nonBuddhism, nonRacism, nonMarxism, or any number of similarly negative positions are ideologies, religions, or sets of beliefs.

Atheism, properly understood, is very narrow in scope.  The full range of beliefs, inclinations, and dispositions that one can hold as an atheist is infinite.  It is possible to be a Christian, Jewish, or Islamic atheist (the specifics of this will have to be fleshed out by the reader).  It is possible to be an atheist and still believe in an afterlife.  It is possible to be an atheistic Republican, an atheistic Democrat, or an atheistic racist.  An atheist can affirm science or eschew it; be for or against homosexual relationships; be optimistic or pessimistic about life; believe in souls and spirits; be aggressive or passive; believe in UFOs, ghosts, or werewolves; pray or meditate; be selfish or highly charitable; prefer Tolkien to Lewis.  The point is undoubtedly clear.  To describe oneself as an atheist is to say exceedingly little about what one positively thinks, believes, or practices, because the term describes only one’s individual stance on a single issue.

A remarkable amount of the misunderstanding and fear of atheists can be reduced to this lack of a proper, specific definition of atheism.  Given these introductory and, with any luck, obvious remarks about atheism and atheists, the remainder of this series should be fairly straightforward.  For example, it should be apparent that being an atheist does not inextricably saddle one with a doomed, bleak existence completely devoid of any purpose or meaning.  Atheism does not come with a built-in prejudice towards religious people or religion in general, and it does not afford carte blanche to nonbelievers to instigate the unraveling of the moral fabric of society (in other words, one still has an idea of right and wrong as an atheist).  It does not inherently elevate science above everything (see: scientism).  It does not imply a disavowal of the practical and moral lessons of religion, and being an atheist is certainly not grounds for the denial of citizenship, as one of our former Presidents would have us believe.

Even though these are all natural inferences to make based on the definition of atheism I have provided, their antithesis is what the general public believes to be true (i.e., atheists cannot lead meaningful lives, atheists hate religion and religious people, etc.).  To be an atheist is to necessarily hold each of these views, as if these views are a consequence of being an atheist.  Several of these misconceptions are bundled and ascribed to all atheists, painting a collectively morbid and even sinister portrait of atheists of all stripes.  In response, I will go through each of the aforementioned misconceptions and, to the best of my abilities, deconstruct each of them in kind.

Religious Intolerance vs. the First Amendment: The Case for the Islamic Community Center

Written by: Michael Baharaeen

With all of the controversy that has sparked over the new Islamic community center a few blocks away from Ground Zero, I feel that many people have simply congregated to their comfort zones on the right and the left and have decided that there should be no dialogue. I will admit that I was part of that group for a little while. I have thought, though, since the issue came to the forefront of national politics that the project, known as Park51, should only be the concern of the residents in the area, not politicians who have their sights set on 2012. But alas, the issue was nationalized, so I feel I must give my two cents. My goal is to look at this using reason and logic.

Trying to distance myself from the wingnuts on both sides, I sat and contemplated all of the factors that were coming into play with this new proposed project – constitutional rights, legitimate fears, constant demagoguery – and realized that this back and forth bickering is not ever going to take us forward; not on this issue, and not on any other issue. Some people, such as President Obama and former Governor of Vermont, Howard Dean, have taken the stance of, ‘Yes, they have a constitutional right to build it, but I’m not sure it’s the greatest idea in the world.’ Personally, I favor the project, mostly on constitutional grounds. But I will admit that it took a fair amount of research before I finally came to the conclusion that there really is not anything wrong with the center being placed in its prospective location.

The First Amendment is not some limited concept, something that can just be revoked or side-stepped anytime someone says or does something offensive. Fred Phelps, the minister from Topeka, Kansas, who protests at military funerals, may be terribly misguided in his beliefs; nevertheless, there has never been a successful lawsuit brought against him. Why? It is his constitutional right to preach vituperative nonsense to the rest of the country. If we start taking that right away from groups that are deemed “too offensive” in their views, where would we draw the line? It is a haunting precedent to set.

I do not want to classify the New York City Muslims in the category of having offensive views or actions, however, because I don’t believe that they do. I don’t think that their intentions are to rile up the people who were tragically affected by the attacks on the Twin Towers. A factor that we sometimes forget in these discussions is that Muslims are Americans, too, and many Muslims were afflicted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Not only did Muslims know that they would soon be facing serious retaliation, but there were also several victims of the Islamic faith that died when the Twin Towers caved in and died right next to their Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters. There is no definitive number, but most sources place the number of Muslim deaths from that day (not counting the terrorists) between 20 and 25 people – about 0.75% of all of the victims from that day. When we compare that number with the percentage of Muslims in America – about 0.6% – one can see that percentage is very similar to the number of Islamic casualties. What sense would it then make to build this center if its only intent was to slap the faces of all of the victims who went through unimaginable pain in the event’s aftermath? Sarah Palin wishes for moderate Muslims to “refudiate” this project, but why? They suffered through the same events as the rest of the people in New York City. Why are they now the one group being singled out and told that they cannot fully exercise their rights?

A lot of people seem to feel it is okay to simply paint all forms of Islam with a broad paintbrush by associating all 1.5 billion Muslims in this world with the few thousand that are responsible for acts of terrorism around the world. Newt Gingrich – who looks as if he is capitalizing on this opportunity to fire up his base in the run-up to his 2012 presidential bid – made a detesting statement in the New York Times comparing the current construction project in New York to the hanging of a swastika next to a Holocaust museum. He basically decided it would be okay to compare the entire Islamic community to Nazis. As Cenk Uygur said, while hosting the Ed Show on MSNBC, “Can you imagine if [Gingrich] did that with any other religion…how about if we didn’t let a church to go up anywhere near the Olympic site because fundamentalist Christian, Eric Rudolph, did the Olympic bombing there…should we not let any churches go up near there because of what [Rudolph] did in the name of [his] church? I know what you’re thinking: ‘but wait, that isn’t my belief; that isn’t my church…why should you punish me or my church for what some crazy person did?”

That is exactly the point that the Muslim community in New York is trying to make. Wayne Besen hit the nail right on the head when he said, “…the former House Speaker has proclaimed that America’s woes are the result of “a secular assault on God. Would Gingrich prefer a non-secular, Christian version of Iran in the United States? The genuine threat we face is not radical Islam but religious extremism of all stripes, including that preached by Gingrich.”

Cenk’s analysis of Gingrich’s comments was just the tip of the iceberg. Huffington Post reporter, Bob Cesca, did some research on both the current ground where the Trade Centers once sat and other historical sites around the country where battles were once fought. He then begged the question to the leading conservative voices in this opposition movement, where have you been? As it turns out, the builders of the new Freedom Tower, which will replace the old Twin Towers, are planning to construct a retail center underneath the new building. This means that the remains of the victims who fell to their death as the two structures came crumbling down will be mixed into the new floor of a shopping mall. Where is the outcry over this development? Another notable ‘moral hazard’ in lower Manhattan would be the strip club only two blocks away from Ground Zero, closer than the new community center would be. Are strip clubs more decent than a place of community activity and worship? Newt? Palin?

But one of the most mind-boggling discoveries that Cesca came across was at the field where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought. Known to be one of the most gruesome battles during the entire Civil War, the blood of 3,155 men was shed on that hallowed ground (that is almost two and a half times the number of U.S. soldiers that have been killed in Afghanistan during the “War on Terror”). And standing tall and proud on this sacred soil is a marble and bronze statue of none other than General Robert E. Lee. This general committed acts of treason against his country, and yet we have a figure of him standing erect and gleaming on the battlefield where unspeakable violence took place.  Where are our so-called defenders of “all ground that is holy?”

In all of this, it intrigues me to see the leading conservative activists (i.e. Newt, Sarah and Glenn) taking such noncommittal stand on the issue of First Amendment rights. It must be because “freedom of religion,” to them, means “freedom to choose your denomination of Christianity.” Well, funny enough, a lone congresswoman can contradict that line of thinking. I had the privilege of meeting former Kansas Congresswoman Nancy Boyda while I was in D.C. this summer. She has lived in D.C. for the last few years since leaving Congress. She informed me that she had the chance to visit Mount Vernon on more than one occasion. Apparently there is an old desk on display in the museum there that has a carving hundreds of years old saying something to the effect of ‘we were not founded as a Christian nation.’ Hard as it may be to believe, this nation was NOT founded on Judeo-Christian principles as many from the Christian right like to proclaim. It was founded on the basis of complete freedom of religion; that does not mean that you have to have a religion, and it does not mean that you have to be a denomination of Christianity. All people are welcome, including Muslims.

The political leaders taking a stance of staunch opposition against Park51 are using religious intolerance and the fear of terrorism to rile up their base. Cesca condemned them for these actions, saying that they were “guilty of ginning up anti-Muslim fear and demagoguery to score political points. It’s a cheap and obvious exploitation of the widespread American prejudice that anyone who happens to be Muslim is equally as guilty and offensive as the 9/11 hijackers.” One of the most harmful and significant actions taken by the project’s opponents was to improperly dub the Islamic community center the “Ground Zero Mosque,” even though the mosque is technically the equivalent of having a chapel in a hospital.

And who is the mastermind behind this sinister plan to affront the 9/11 victims? Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. In case you need a refresher, he was the man who, in the aftermath of 9/11, helped the FBI soothe the tensions between federal agents and Muslim and Arab-Americans. The Bush Administration found Rauf to be such a useful asset that they sent him to the Middle East, through the State Department, to promote tolerance and religious diversity. As head of the Park51 project, he has worked with the center’s developers to try and mollify the people’s fears about the site’s future. In fact, al Qaeda kills more Muslims than they do people of any other religions. That bears repeating: they kill more Muslims than people of any other religion. Moderate Muslims like Imam Rauf fear al Qaeda and Islamic extremists just as much as the rest of us do.

So I say to the Muslims in New York City who are preparing to make this new addition to lower Manhattan, please continue your construction on the community center. Yes, people who claim to be a part of the same religion as you committed an atrocious act a few hundred feet down the way, but this country sometimes forgets the heinous acts of terror committed in the name of Christianity. We cannot just throw all Muslims into the same group as the fundamental extremists and then turn around and decide to think of the slaughtering of millions of Jews in the name of Christianity and the lynching of blacks all throughout the south in the name of Christianity as an afterthought.

I do not intend for this to come across as defamation against all of Christianity, but rather a scolding to those who are as fundamentally extreme and show as much intolerance towards others’ beliefs as the Islamic extremists that we are fighting against do. This is not meant to be an attack on those who were directly affected by 9/11, but rather a reprimand of the opportunist politicians that are trying to take advantage of this debacle to advance their own careers. This is about showing Americans, and, quite frankly, the rest of the world that we do not stoop to the low levels of our enemies in the face of fear. We are better than that. We are better than the people who knocked down those towers. Reacting to fear by drumming up religious intolerance will not work if we want to move forward as a nation. We are starting to attack each other from within, gradually doing their work for them. They hate us because we have freedoms, and one of those freedoms is that of religion. Let’s show them that the convictions and values that our country holds are unshakable.,1518,660619,00.html