HOUSE OF CARDS: The Gospel According to Francis Underwood — Part I

House of Cards(Note: this piece contains no season two spoilers.)

Francis Underwood is the main character of the Netflix original series House of Cards. Francis is the Democrat House Majority Whip, and a consummate politician. When he is passed over as Secretary of State, he decides to rain hellfire on Washington and amass as much power in himself as possible.

In Francis’s world, everything is about power and control. Religion is no different. It is nothing more than another means to an end. In House of Cards, the Gospel of Jesus, which is a Gospel of humility, charity, and salvation in God, is replaced with the gospel of Francis Underwood, which is based on self-aggrandizement, nihilism, and self-exaltation.

Thirty-five minutes into the first episode we are treated to the Underwoods in a Washington D.C. church. They dutifully listen to a sermon regarding humility, as exemplified in Matthew 23.12: “And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” The purpose of the sermon is to keep a room full of politicians from becoming too prideful. As the show demonstrates, the sermon fell on deaf, very deaf, ears.

(This scene reminds me of another consummate politician: Thomas Jefferson. He attended church religiously — don’t pardon the pun — as president, even though he disdained organized religion. This notwithstanding, in 1777, Jefferson organized a Calvanistical Reformed Church, and directed the minister to preach a sermon in the Albermarle County Courthouse. Jefferson was, how to say, a bit schizophrenic by nature.)

Humility rears its head again when Francis enters a church in his home district in Georgia and preaches to a packed house. His sermon (family Bible in hand) is directed toward two grieving parents who just lost their daughter, and includes an entirely made up story about Francis’s father’s death and his subsequent supplication to God. Concluding his soliloquy, Francis informs the congregants Proverbs instructs them to “trust in the Lord” — i.e., be humble.

House of CardsAfter his public sermon, Francis sits down with the grieving family and their pastor to discuss their deceased daughter. His purpose is to ensure the family does not pursue a major lawsuit against local government (which is responsible for the daughter’s death). To this end, Francis humbles himself before them, offering to resign his office if it would assuage their pain. Of course, this humility is not genuine, but calculated to manipulate the family and maintain his political power base. “If you humble yourself before them, they will do anything you ask,” we learn from Prophet Underwood.

Then, we move to the religious climax of the first season. Francis, shortly after murdering a fellow congressman, enters a church and approaches the altar. Tilting his head toward heaven, he expresses his disdain for God, and in an act of naked projection, affirms God’s disdain for him. He then tilts his head down to hell and speaks directly to Satan, insulting him by questioning his ability to formulate language or understand anything except depravity. Francis then kneels and treats us to a godless, soulless prayer: “There is no solace above or below. Only us: small, solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.” He arises and lights a candle, only then to extinguish all the candles, saving his for last. By this act he affirms (1) his place as the master who extinguishes light in others, and (2) his superiority as the last man lighted.

Thus, religion generally, and humility specifically, acts as an inclusio to House of Card’s first season. Use of this literary device is especially powerful since it is a regular feature in Biblical text. For example, the inclusio of eyewitness testimony is featured in the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John. But this is no simple inclusio. No, this inclusio is based on a stark contradiction.

The religion and humility beginning the season is one based on Jesus’ Gospel. The religion and humility ending the season is based on Francis’s Gospel. While Jesus’ Gospel uplifts all men to God, Francis’s gospel uplifts himself to himself. While Jesus’ Gospel of humility abases men to God that they might be uplifted and exalted in Him, Francis’s gospel abases men that Francis Underwood might be uplifted, that he alone might be exalted to power on high. The great power for good that is true religion — the worship of God — is replaced with the great evil of fake religion — the worship of self.

Behold, the gospel according to Francis Underwood.

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