I come from a family that is neck-deep in preachers, politicians, and lady wrestlers, which in my home state of Mississippi are basically three sides of the same coin. Okay, I’m making up the lady wrestler part, but my fascination with all things related to faith and politics came honestly, at the knee of my late paternal grandfather Thomas Edison Fant, who was a protégé of Ted Bilbo, the Magnolia State’s version of Huey P. Long. When Grandfather was fed up with politics (repudiating the bulk of Bilbo’s agenda) and had converted to Christ, he became a hellfire and brimstone preacher, the first of four generations of my family to graduate from the Baptist seminary in New Orleans.
Grandfather’s stories about Gov. Bilbo were ripping yarns about intrigue, back room harangues, and forced compromise that bordered on blackmail. Grandfather always said “compromise” with a sneer, as along with salvation he had gained a sense of principle that made compromise difficult for him. Of course, it might have been his stubbornness that made it hard, but when he gained a rock solid belief in the Gospel, it changed how he saw the world. He once told me that he knew that his conversion made him ill-fit for office because he was now predictable. People knew what he believed and what he would or would not do. Principle, he observed, was a death sentence for a politician. In the end, his activities were limited to talking and voting.
Last year Hunter Baker got me hooked on the Netflix series House of Cards, which is a raw depiction of a rising political couple, Francis and Claire Underwood, with a brutal thirst for power. Christianity Today has an insightful review in this month’s issue, though it doesn’t, perhaps, warn potential viewers strongly enough that the series is a hard “R” on the movie scale (TV-MA), with language and some scenes of sensuality that had me fast-forwarding in places. I watched the original BBC series too, which is a bit campy by comparison, but the Netflix version, which will debut season two on February 14 (the trailer has seriously salty language), captured my attention precisely because it reminded me so much of those conversations with Grandfather.
When I teach Machiavelli’s The Prince, my students typically are horrified by the advice that eschews absolute ideals in favor of power and its retention. When I tell them that Machiavelli is pretty accurate in his depictions of what happens fairly often in the halls of power, they are mortified. My first introduction to this world on a personal level was at Virginia’s Boys State program, when one of my closest friends ran for governor and was stabbed in the back by a last-minute, back-hallway deal that shifted support to another candidate in exchange for supporting someone else’s election as Lieutenant Governor. It had nothing to do with platform or personality; it was power, plain and simple: who would win. The rancid odor of the brokered outcome lingered in my nostrils for a very long time.
House of Cards is engrossing because it is so utterly believable. It preys on all of our worst fears about politics, especially as it occurs at the national level. The deal making is engrossing (especially as the politicians lubricate conflicts with other people’s money). The power couple is shrewd and pragmatic. In the middle of the series, I sort of felt like Abraham in Genesis 18, wondering if there could be any righteous men in Washington: Where is the light? Where is the redemption? Could Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith go to this Washington and assert determined principle against this kind of malignant power? At times, I mumbled under my breath the words of Romeo and Juliet’s Mercutio: “A plague on both your houses!”
But houses of cards are, really, just an updated version of the houses built on sand that Christ spoke of in Matt. 7:24-27. It is a patently present-tense understanding of power that pursues the moment because the future is either irrelevant or menacing. It cannot last, and from the preview of next season, the clock may be ticking on the Underwood’s house. I hope that their demise is couched in terms of a warning about one’s sins finding one out rather than just another drummer’s cadence toward political oblivion. Our hope as believers is that the houses of this world will all crumble at some point, bowing to the weight of this world and to the ultimate sovereignty of Christ.
House of Cards is not, however, merely about national politics. Political intrigue infuses every human realm. The microcosm of the series gives insight to the pastor who is trying to understand why that particular leader is so mean. It gives light to the job applicant who is shocked to find that she did not land the position. It makes sense of all sorts of bullying that prospers anywhere, from elementary school to nursing homes, as the essence of the series is bullying with higher stakes and greater leverage.
Underwood’s Washington is ‘red in tooth and claw,’ where the motto is, “Hunt, or be hunted.” In Matt. 16:10, Christ himself warned us about this and said, “I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves.” Understanding how the serpents of the other side operate is an important part of being shrewd; knowing how to be in that world but not of it is a key to survival, especially for those who stand on principle.
My sense is that voting in our democracy can sometimes be merely a balm to a coward’s conscience. In my conversations with Grandfather, I sometimes wondered if he ever regretted allowing principle to get in the way of his involvement. I wish I could ask him what might happen if principled men and women ever decided to overwhelm the system with citizen activists (see William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King, Jr.) who could bring torches to illumine the darkest recesses and corruptions of the world’s system. What if Edmund Burke was right, and “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”? House of Cards depicts Sodom without the righteous men; our Christian imperative is to bring the light of Christ to any place that lacks righteousness.