Fans of the critically acclaimed Netflix original series House of Cards are eagerly awaiting the release of the second season this Friday. Frank Underwood, masterfully played by the award-winning Kevin Spacey, embodies the corruption that so often attends to the pursuit of political power.
The prophet Jeremiah lamented the apparent flourishing of evildoers, asking of God, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (12:1). Underwood’s career in the first season has been one of prospering, at least in terms of political fortunes and influence, even if it hasn’t been the most restful of sessions for the veteran congressman. Indeed, Underwood is like the wicked of the psalmist’s complaint, who “day and night prowl about” on the walls of the city without rest (Ps. 55:10), one of “those who are bloodthirsty, in whose hands are wicked schemes, whose right hands are full of bribes” (Ps. 26:10).
In their review of the show’s first season, David Corbin and Alissa Wilkinson rightly observe that the example of Frank Underwood provides an important negative lesson about the need for faithful and faith-filled politicians. House of Cards “presents an unlikely call for those claimed by Christ to stay within the messy world of politics,” they conclude. It is, indeed, tempting perhaps to withdraw from the mire of mundane politics and wait for God to overturn the evildoers. This was the stance the prophet Jonah took toward Nineveh, for instance. But as Augustine observed, “It is beneficial, then, that good men should rule far and wide and long, worshipping the true God and serving Him with true rites and good morals.”
And indeed Abraham provides a better model for considering the morally corrupt centers of power in our own day. When God had planned to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he shared his intentions with Abraham. The patriarch interceded with God, asking, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen. 18:23). Eventually at Abraham’s imploring, God pledges to show mercy if just ten (not even fifty, forty, thirty, or twenty) righteous people are found in Sodom: “I will spare the whole place for their sake” (Gen. 18:26). It is all the more a damning indictment of the city that apparently no such ten were to be found, since in the next chapter Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed with “burning sulfur” (Gen. 19:24).
The first season of House of Cards ends with a prayer, but the godless prayer of one who, as Chad Comello puts it, uses “his persuasive prowess to bend people his way in his insatiable quest for power.” And yet even in the darkness of the District that is on full display in the show’s first season, there are a few rays of light that shine through as potential sources of moral and spiritual renewal.
The church where Underwood prays “to myself, for myself,” is also the place where the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ is (or at least ought to be) proclaimed each week. The Sunday corporate worship that Underwood observes only for ceremonial purposes offers what ought to be a respite from evil works. Underwood manages to remain immune to gospel preaching, however, even in diabolical fashion ascending the pulpit of a church in his home state to manipulate grief-stricken parents into a politically expeditious reconciliation.
A similar twist occurs in Underwood’s relationship with Peter Russo, a troubled congressman whom Underwood blackmails into submission. Russo becomes an expedient tool to further Underwood’s agenda, and Underwood enlists his right-hand man, Doug Stamper, to clean up Russo, even having Stamper act as his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. But this relationship, veiled in a shared commitment to reconciliation under the recognition of a “higher power,” becomes just one more avenue for manipulation, as Stamper’s intimate knowledge of Russo’s weaknesses of will and character are used to set up Russo’s final fall. Likewise Stamper’s seeming concern for the well-being of a prostitute turns out to be preparation for fashioning her into a means of vengeance.
In House of Cards, we have yet to see a character whom Underwood cannot find some way to cajole, coerce, or otherwise corrupt into serving his purposes. Frank can seemingly always find some way to extort or deceive. Everyone can be manipulated; everyone has weaknesses that can be exploited.
Frank Underwood has bought in to a fatal conceit: that seeking power to dominate and control others fulfills us and makes us strong. But as Augustine puts it, this is a basic “falsehood,” that “we commit sin so that things may go well with us, and, instead, they go ill with us. Or we sin so that we may fare better, and, instead, we fare worse.” Frank will ultimately be left with what Augustine observed about the fallen world, that “every disordered soul is its own punishment.”
The iniquity of the city of man on full display in House of Cards leaves us wondering whether there is even one righteous man for whom the city might be spared. But precisely in this way the sinfulness of human society points us towards the perfection of Jesus Christ, the one for whom and through whom God preserves and redeems the world of fallen man.
It turns out that one righteous man is enough to preserve our nation’s capital in the midst of our ongoing moral and spiritual crisis. It’s just that this man’s kingdom is not of this world.
Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. His most recent book is Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action), and you can follow him on Twitter @JordanBallor.
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Excellent essay, Jordan. I have not yet seen HOC, but now I definitely mean to, as soon as I can take a TV break (which probably won’t be soon, alas).
Your review suggests an interesting thought: Underwood’s use of Christianity and the political system to his selfish advantage, undermines the very things he is using, because the authority of both institutions (over any particular individual) depends on consent, which depends on trustworthiness. The threat and use of force is not authority; people voluntarily accept authority, and don’t have to be forced to bend to it. Thus have been our nation’s politicians undermined our political system to the point that the people are losing faith in it—the Tea Party for those who value independence, the Occupy movement for those who want an even bigger but somehow more effective state—and undermining our religious institutions through government destruction of religious freedoms. What I see in the narrative you describe in HOC is the ransacking of a nation’s store of cultural value for temporary benefits, hollowing out the important things that hold the nation together, and thus the title of the series.
I think that’s a generally fair assessment of what’s going on, Sam. Bad actors in the political as well as economic marketplace are parasitic, and depend for their limited success on others behaving differently. You get the sense from the first season at least that in many ways Frank is the only one with any agency, at least among the politicians. He’s the man of action, everyone else is pretty passive and essentially waiting for him to manipulate them. There are some notable possible exceptions by the end of the season, but early on everyone else looks like they are simply incompetent dullards.
Of course Augustine had some insights on the nature of evil as parasitic as well, which would dovetail nicely with your observations.
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