Three Rock Mountain  


Young, gifted and black - the West Wing's CharlieThere’s an episode in Season 4 called The Red Mass. The titular mass is a Catholic ceremony which takes place on the Sunday before commencement of the Michaelmas legal term (not just in the United States of America) and is celebrated for judges, lawyers and government officials. The Red Mass takes its name from the red vestments typically worn by the celebrants for the occasion - it's not a satanic reference or anything. The Red Mass in question forms merely a backdrop for the episode, however a character temporarily under the supervision of Charlie (Dulé Hill’s character) questions whether this constitutes a breach of the separation of church and state so entrenched in US political consciousness.

Charlie asks him to prove it and showily hands him a copy of the US constitution. So far, so preachy. A couple of days later, the character delivers a screed for Charlie’s attention on which are written several uncomplimentary comments about Charlie’s mother. Charlie remarks that he’s delighted to receive this as it has been written on the back of a sheet detailing the Establishment clause of the first amendment to the constitution which is indeed the basis for the concept of separation of church and state in the USA - "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion".

What saves this from being a disgusting display of motherhood and apple pie, is that Charlie himself is not convinced by the answer and approaches his boss, the President, in a casual moment and asks about the matter. The President concedes that the Red Mass probably breaches a narrow interpretation of the clause, but that the Founding Fathers reckoned that sometimes things “just weren’t a big deal”. The fact that the Justices of the US Supreme Court also attend of their own free volition probably lends adequate credence to the President’s perspective. Ultimately the answer provided for the viewer is a question of nuance and interpretation, rather than a stark right or wrong choice. I like that – it made me go off and look up all the surrounding hyperlinks for one.

Mind you, in the same episode, Josh Lyman (Assistant Chief of Staff) accuses a self-help guru’s ‘Owners Manual For Life’ as having been cribbed from Imanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and heroically reducing its central theme down to half a page for the McNugget generation. I resisted the temptation to go off and verify that reference – I studied Commerce not Philosophy at college. I know that Luca Pacioli is credited with elaborating the principles of double entry book-keeping, but the odd discussion on income recognition is about as far as I go into discussions about the Metaphysical Deduction. As Josh said in a previous episode “Not everybody liked the smartest kid in the class”.

© Kevin O'Doherty 2007