January 21, 2008


I just watched the The West Wing episode "Shibboleth," so appropriate for my study of school prayer in politics. "Faith," the Chinese religious refugee proclaims, "is the truth Shibboleth." Reciting the names of the Apostles or memorizing the Lord's Prayer is not enough.

Writer Aaron Sorkin uses the prayer in schools issue as a tool for character development and some political commentary in the episode. White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry takes his sister to the woodshed for what he sees as sensationalizing a difficult, divisive public policy. I wonder if Sorkin means to intimate some faith on the part of McGarry--private convictions that tug his conscience when "church and state" issues arise. We are a nation of laws, he tells Josephine, but "we do not strut...ever." It's one of the most dramatic scenes in the whole Sorkin canon, and mirrors others that test McGarry's aversion to PR hackery, as well as scenes from The American President dealing with the Bill of Rights. I think it's clear that Sorkin feels ambivalent about the First Amendment's interpretation, or at least wants us to appreciate how easily free speech can be trampled by anyone who pushes for one single answer. To govern a free people is to choose, and choose without fanfare.

In the context of the Chiles gubernatorial administration (1990-1998), the 1996 school prayer bill veto sheds light on some big areas:

1) the newfound and frequent use of the veto in the latter governor years; pushback replaces initiative, except for tobacco and other kids' issues

2) First Amendment

3) the rise of the Religious Right in Florida and the greater Sunbelt especially

4) a look at the inner workings of the governor's legislative unit...the effect of public opinion and correspondence via letters and phone calls on the decision to veto

5) the activity of Chiles' conscience and Christian faith in conflict

President Bartlet is fortunate in one sense. He just wants to start a debate on school prayer; he doesn't face a decision of sign, veto, or put in a drawer.

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