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I saw on this TV show make the exchange:

Leo McGarry: The Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee has a...

Josh Lyman: There's a Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee?

Leo McGarry: Yes.

Josh Lyman: Made up of members of the "There But For the Grace of God Go I" club.

Leo McGarry: You wanna mock people or you wanna let me talk to Toby?

Josh Lyman: I wanna mock people.

And again they make the same (unclear) assumption:

Donna: "It was like a meeting of the There But For The Grace Of God Society.".

Josh: "Anybody ask you out?"

Donna: "Shut up."

Now we read in the book of 1 Corinthians 15:10 NIV:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.

(Paul is taking about his incredible conversion on the Damascus Road, saying it wasn't his effort but the deliberate generosity of God).

I'm trying to understand the point of view they're assuming (that the "there but for the grace of God" group (TBFTGOGG) are somehow inferior). I think it could be one of:

  1. TBFTGOGG are self-righteous and so we should make light of them

  2. TBFTGOGG claim to have a monopoly on compassion and that is silly

  3. I want to make fun of TBFTGOGG because in my experience they're hypocrites

  4. TBFTGOGG are a minority group whose claim to my favour is invalid

  5. TBFTGOGG had some bad media or bad incident and so they're now untrustworthy in the eyes of my group

  6. TBFTGOGG are a bunch of dags and so I will make light of them being out of touch with the mainstream

My question is: What is the West Wing reasoning behind mocking people who say "there but for the grace of God go I?"

Assumptions:

  • I'm trying to show empathy and deeply understand where the other point of view is coming from (so I'm not looking for a glib answer to do with 'them and us' - I'm trying to understand motivations and reasoning
  • I'm a massive fan of the West Wing - and this puzzles me
13

Josh is referring to himself when he says "there but for the grace of God go I". He is joking that he might have been the sort of person to end up on a Citizen's Stamp Advisory Committee if his life had taken a different path.

By extension he is also mocking the people on the committee, because he clearly prefers the life he actually has. He sees their work as trivial compared to his own, and implies that being on the committee would be (or should be) embarrassing.

Donna is making the same kind of joke.

Essentially they're both saying "haha, glad I didn't end up like those people", while layering a small amount of self-mockery on top, because of their suggestion that they could easily have ended up that way - but for the grace of God.

Neither Josh not Donna are presented as overtly religious characters on the West Wing, so it is also likely that they're using this phrase because it is a common saying in English, rather than attributing their current positions to the literal grace of God.

When people use this phrase they aren't always joking or making fun of people - often they are simply expressing a sense of gratitude that they have avoided a bad situation. But in the specific quotes you included, Josh and Donna (and the writers of The West Wing) were going for laughs.

  • Also worth noting: the real life reason multiple characters say the phrase is because Aaron Sorkin re-uses phrases a fair amount. For example I've never heard the "gather ye roses" line in real life, ever, but it's in at least two Sorkin series (West Wing and Studio 60). Check out this video of "Sorkinisms" youtube.com/watch?v=S78RzZr3IwI – Tom Kidd Feb 26 at 17:42
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"There But For the Grace of God Go I" is a sentiment often expressed by those who choose to help the unfortunate - in other words, people who claim to recognize that only good fortune has caused their lives to work out differently to the lives of those in need.

Given the mocking tone that Josh is using, he is probably referring to members of minor social relief committees in government, who are preoccupied with the idea that they are doing good for the unfortunate, and perhaps burnishing their own self-images at the same time. The biblical reference adds an element of pseudo-piety to the mix.

  • 1
    Yeah - that was how I read it - I think you've expressed it better. I was interested that the other answer also included a possible 'non-cynical' view of this, which I'm still thinking through. – hawkeye Apr 14 '15 at 12:00

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