Christianity government

The Political Philosophy of Frank Underwood in "House of Cards"

6:09:00 AMKaitlin Fellrath

The writers of Netflix’s House of Cards could never be accused of understatement, as the ubiquitous presence of Frank Underwood’s “F.U.” cufflinks illustrates succinctly. Over the course of the show’s three seasons, we witness the political ascent of Francis Underwood and his wife Claire to the Oval Office. The Underwoods are experts in the exercise of realpolitik, in which politics is fueled by the pursuit of power. Frank Underwood describes his political doctrine as “ruthless pragmatism,” a clear allusion to Machiavellian realism. For Francis and Claire Underwood, the end always justifies the means, even if that means includes murder. The Macbeth and Lady Macbeth of American politics will stop at nothing to consolidate and maintain their grip on power. They do so not out of a misplaced desire for the good of others, but for their own advantage. The Underwoods’ moral universe is not one of good and evil, justice and injustice, but of absolute power. Their “vaulting ambition,” in the words of Shakespeare, is food for their parasitic marriage and gasoline poured on the fire of their political objectives.
At the opening of the first episode, Frank Underwood is the Majority Whip in the House of Representatives. Cast aside for a cabinet position by the president he helped elect, Frank undermines the new administration through political manipulation, motivated not only by personal revenge, but by his pursuit of the power behind the throne. Ascending to the vice-presidency and then to the presidency without ever being elected by the American people, Francis Underwood is essentially a Machiavellian version of former (and real) president Gerald Ford.
Francis and Claire Underwood practice the art of politics as envisioned by modern political thinkers such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes. The political realm of the Underwoods contains no notion of natural law or common good, as envisaged by Christian political thinkers.  Good may well be a consequence of their actions, but it is not the motivation. As for the natural law, in the words of Frank Underwood himself, “There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.” 

The third season of House of Cards revolves around the Underwood presidency. Having achieved the nation’s highest office, political survival is now Frank’s sole aim. Although many might dismiss the show as a bleak depiction of power politics, I argue that there is a strong philosophical undercurrent to the political conflict that illustrates the overall incompatibility of modern political thought with the Christian understanding of politics. This is not to say that modern political philosophy should be dismissed in its entirety, or that (limited) realism is not a necessary component to the practice of politics. It is to suggest, however, there is more at stake than simple differences in philosophy. 

There is a difference in worldview.

There is one scene in particular that provides a poignant illustration of the clash in worldview that I describe. In the fourth episode of the latest season, President Underwood orders a drone strike on a heavily populated terrorist compound, knowing that innocent civilians will likely be the collateral damage.  Frank’s initial hesitation to order the strike is not based upon any desire to avoid killing innocents, but is rather couched in a political scandal he inherited from the previous administration. The former president ordered a drone strike against an apartment complex that resulted in the wounding of an American citizen named Mahmoud. Permanently disabled by the explosion, Mahmoud sues the United States in the Supreme Court for a violation of his civil rights. In an attempt to ameliorate the growing political blowback, Frank offers to meet Mahmoud in the White House and sweet-talk him into surrender. Instead, he receives a tongue-lashing concerning justice and the common good. As Mahmoud tells him, “There is a fine line between duty and murder.”

This lecture should not assail Underwood, who is, in the words of Macbeth, “in blood stepp'd in so far.” However, the sight of Mahmoud, bound to a wheelchair by the decision of an American president, briefly jolts him out of Machiavellian politics and back into reality where even executive decisions have a moral dimension. Forced to grapple with the concept of right and wrong, Frank goes to a church to seek instruction from the bishop. The two men stand in the darkened church, with only the flickering light from candles on the altar illuminating their faces.
In the conversation that follows, Frank and the bishop embody the dialectic between Christian political thought and the strictures of modern political thinkers like Machiavelli and Hobbes. Frank’s leading question reflects the central theme of political philosophy: “I want to understand what justice is.” I argue that the truth of one’s political philosophy, or how well it corresponds to reality, hinges upon one’s definition of justice.
Frank then explores another profound divergence of modern political philosophy from the Christian tradition: the loss of a theological framework in the world of politics. Modern secular liberalism replaces the omnipotent God with an omnipotent State. Thomas Hobbes, a highly-influential English political thinker of the seventeenth century, wrote of the power of the state:
This is the generation of that great Leviathan, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that Mortal God… For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the common-wealth, he has the use of so much power and strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof, he is enabled to form the wills of them all.

Frank’s actions are the living embodiment of Hobbes’ treatise. He tells the bishop, “I understand the Old Testament God, whose power is absolute, who rules through fear - Him.” Although Frank has a rather shoddy understanding of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the viewer sees that his notion of politics is primarily rooted in the idea that the crux of politics is not justice, but the strength of one’s power. 

Frank Underwood is the Leviathan.
However, the bishop’s response reflects an understanding of power informed by a Christian worldview. He tells Frank, “There’s no such thing as absolute power for us, except on the receiving end.” The existence of an all-powerful God negates any notion of an all-powerful State. A Christian worldview tells us that we do not live solely for the kingdom of earth, but that our end, or goal, is the kingdom of heaven. Everything, including politics, must be ordered to this end. In the modern era, we shun submission to anything other than our self-will. But as the bishop reminds Frank, we will be judged by our adherence not to our own will, but to the Divine Will. “It’s not your job to determine what’s just. It’s not your place to choose the version of God you like best. It’s not your duty to serve this country alone. It’s not your goal to simply serve yourself. You serve the Lord, and through Him, you serve others.”
This Christian worldview is at odds with much of modern political thought. Hobbes writes that “the measure of good and evil actions is the civil law; and the judge the legislature.” There is no God to judge our actions, only a body of men. There is no kingdom of heaven for which we should strive, but only a kingdom of this world. Without a Christian worldview, the accruement of earthly power becomes the only goal, and men like Frank Underwood can play the game. Morality can be dismissed as a hindrance, or disguised as a mere tool of the cunning prince. Machiavelli, a man who many describe as the founder of modern political thought, expresses this concept most thoroughly: “One sees by experience in our times that the princes who have done great things are those who have taken little account of faith and have known how to get around men’s brains with their astuteness.” Frank Underwood is his own god. As he tells the viewer in another memorable scene (again, set in a church), “I pray to myself and for myself.”
The conclusion of the conversation between the bishop and Frank vividly conveys the consequences of the loss of a Christian worldview in modern political thought. “Two rules: love God; love each other,” the bishop tells President Underwood. For politics, as informed by Christian principles, was not designed to limit us to a set of rules. It was designed to bring us beyond our congressional catfights and executive orders to something higher than ourselves. It was meant to help us love God and love each other. This higher understanding of politics is what Aristotle implies when he calls political science  the “architectonic,” or highest, science. Politics as understood by men like Frank Underwood is petty and small-minded. A Christian worldview elevates politics out of this microcosm and into a larger reality. 
The church scene concludes with an action that perfectly illustrates what Thomas Hobbes could not convey through the small type of the printing press. Frank asks the bishop for some time to pray in private, walks to the altar and stands before the crucifix in mockery, looking into the eyes of the figure of Christ. "Love," he says. "That's what you're selling. Well, I don't buy it." Suddenly, he spits on the face of Christ, as the Roman soldiers who stood before the True Cross did two thousand years ago. Frank then pulls out a handkerchief to wipe off his spittle, and seized by hatred, instead yanks the porcelain figure of Christ off the cross and onto the floor of the church, where it shatters into pieces. This is what the modern secular vision of politics does. It is an attempt to pull Christ off the cross, to destroy the Christian worldview. But "ruthless pragmatism" is not realism but delusion, and modern secular liberalism is the true house of cards.


Kaitlin Fellrath

I have a passion for classic literature, history, and politics, and I hope to pursue an academic career in international affairs. I write best while sipping coffee, listening to beautiful music, and cuddling my cats.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.

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