Toby Ziegler on Counting the Commandments

…and one other thing that amused me about the use of the Ten Commandments in The West Wing. I’ve watched this episode so many times and can’t believe I never noticed it before!

In the Pilot, there’s a scene where Toby, Josh and CJ are meeting with representatives of the religious right, who are angry about remarks Josh made on a TV show, and demanding reparations.

VAN DYKE: I’d like to discuss why we hear so much talk about the First Amendment coming out of this building, but no talk at all about the First Commandment […] The First Commandment says “Honor thy Father”.

TOBY: No it doesn’t.

JOSH: Toby–

TOBY: It doesn’t.

JOSH: Listen–

TOBY: No, if I’m gonna make you sit through this preposterous exercise, we’re gonna get the names of the damn commandments right.

MARY: Okay. Here we go.

TOBY: “Honor thy Father” is the Third Commandment.

VAN DYKE: Then what’s the First Commandment?

A booming voice comes from off screen. The camera moves to show PRESIDENT JED BARTLET with a cane standing in the doorway with several Secret Service agents.

PRESIDENT JED BARTLET: “I am the Lord your God. Thou shalt worship no other God before me.” Boy, those were the days, huh?

It’s a brilliant moment; our first introduction to the President, which tells us so much about him, and sets the tone for how he (and the show) will engage with religious themes. Bartlet is a religious man; principled, eloquent and well-versed in Scripture. We see him quote chapter and verse at various points in the show – most notably in The Midterms (Season 2, Episode 3) where he takes a talk-show host to task, with a whistle-stop tour of Leviticus.

From the opening episode we know that this is a President – and a show – that will not tolerate religious bigots, and will expose their hypocrisy with a fine cocktail of rhetoric, oratory, and attention to detail.

Except… ‘Honour thy Father’ is neither the first nor third commandment. There are different approaches to numbering the commandments, largely determined by whether you consider ‘have no other gods’ and ‘make no graven image’ as one commandment or two. The Catholic and Lutheran traditions list ‘Honour thy Father’ as the fourth commandment, and the Reformed and Jewish traditions consider it the fifth. No tradition considers it to be the third commandment.

In one sense, it’s an amusing gaffe, but I think it actually reveals from the outset what we can really expect from the show. Whilst there is some genuine sensitivity to the way Bartlet’s own faith is expressed and explored, by and large Sorkin seem less interested in engaging with the seriousness of religious claims, and more interested in constructing rhetorically pleasing one-sided rants against straw men. They are beautifully crafted and enjoyable, but I must say:

If we’re gonna sit through some preposterous debates about the credibility of the Christian faith, at least get the names of the damn commandments right.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Paul says:

    That sequence is particularly frustrating — the straw man is so straw-like his mistake is not credible and the President’s solution relies on playing two tangentially related events off against one another.


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