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Acton Commentary

The disordered soul of Frank Underwood

    Fans of the critically-acclaimed Netflix original series House of Cards eagerly await the release of the fifth season later this month. Frank Underwood, masterfully played by the award-winning Kevin Spacey, embodies the corruption that so often attends to the pursuit of political power, and as the new season nears it’s worth looking back at where it all began for Francis and Claire Underwood.

    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 was one of prospering, at least in terms of political fortunes and influence, even if it wasn't 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 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.

    Frank Underwood has bought in to a fatal conceit: that seeking power to dominate and control others fulfills us and makes us strong.

    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 some politically-expeditious reconciliation.

    A similar twist occurs in Underwood's relationship with Peter Russo, a troubled congressman that 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 revenge.

    In House of Cards, we have yet to see someone that 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.

    This commentary is adapted from an earlier review of season 1 of House of Cards.

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    Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy at First Liberty Institute.