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Religious Politicians Are Less Bad

Res Publica

August 2016

by Jackson Yenor

Frank Underwood is the antihero of the Netflix television series, House of Cards. He is a conniving politician who is not afraid to use religion to convince the people of his sincerity and virtue. For instance, he is in trouble when his chances of election are jeopardized due to the death of a young girl in a car crash. Given that a political opponent of his often accused him of neglecting the cause of this girl’s death, and a lawsuit from the parents is pending, Underwood goes to his hometown to dissuade them from filing the suit. Since the parents are resistant to dropping it, Underwood soon realizes that the only way to persuade them from their choice was through some sort of religious intervention. He knows the parents are deeply religious, and the only weakness, by his calculation, is their religious beliefs. Therefore, to maintain his political reputation, he sets out to appeal to them through a biblical argument.

Underwood knows that no legal claim can speak to the souls of this girl’s parents in the way that he needs. With this, he goes to the Bible and lies about the pain he felt when he lost his own father; a man whom Underwood really believed was just “taking up space.” After winning their sympathy, he looks to the parents and challenges them not to “lean on their own understanding,” in reference to Proverbs 3:5. He argues through this verse that the hatred that the parents feel towards him and his political pundits is natural, but through this verse he also implies that the unnatural thing to do, yet the biblical thing to do, is to drop the law suit.

Although Underwood’s true religious convictions rest on the idea that there “is no solace above or below, only us: small, solitary, striving, battling one another,” he is a good liar.Appealing to religion is a truly bold move for one with no regard for God, the law, or the afterlife. However, Underwood knows if a politician does not have religion on his side in politics, people are skeptical of his arguments, and suspect his motives. Surely one must have pure intentions with a leather bound Bible over his heart! It seems that this show is critiquing the way politicians use religion to accomplish what they want, or as something they use when convenient. However, one should not take this attack too seriously. I must say that no matter how repulsed the religiously sincere are towards a man who uses religion to further his own dark political ambitions, there is a silver lining: this “opiate of the masses” is still better than the alternative of leaders not having to be religious at all.

Societies that have their politicians manipulating them with religion, in light of the 20th century, are “less bad” than those that do not.Just as Abraham Lincoln claims that the Declaration of Independence was a barrier to anyone who thought they had the right to enslave another, so is religion a limiting factor for how evil a politician can be to the people he governs. Popular opinion, especially in America, is necessary for a politician to be effective in securing his own ends. If the public is free to practice religion, and in that freedom lives by the belief that one should “love God” and “love his neighbor,” then men of evil ambitions have quite the barrier preventing them from doing what they really want.

The other option, which is to take away such axioms completely, has resulted in three regimes of mass slaughter, corruption, and greed. The Nazi regime, the USSR, and the People’s Republic of China dismissed religion as an evil opiate used to make human beings complacent,weak, and easily manipulated.Mao,Stalin, and Hitler would probably all watch Frank Underwood on the show and say, “Look at this, you ignorant people, why would you ever let a leader manipulate you in such a way!” As an aside, they would probably further this with,“If I were in power, you would know exactly what I believe.”

Is this what we really want? Do we want leaders, and the people who are led, to believe religion only blinds people to the evils of their leaders? Irreligious men, when put in power, still managed to commit some of the greatest crimes against humanity mankind has ever known. Although these leaders might have been sincere in what they sought to accomplish for their countries, once the moral barrier of religion was removed, a whole new kind of evil was let loose. Therefore, it seems that if one has to live in a regime, it would be less bad to choose the one governed by those who are insincere in their Christian convictions, than by those who have no regard for them at all. Sure, Frank Underwood is evil. But the reason we enjoy watching him be so evil is that he must go to great lengths in covering up his own crimes. Crime becomes quite the hassle for a guy in a freely religious society.

Of course, many evils have been committed in the name of Christ and the divine as well.Yet given the evil twists and turns of the 20th century, I believe that if one has to pick a poison, choose religious hypocrisy. When we hate Frank Underwood in House of Cards for his fake religion,we can also laugh at how limiting religion is to his real intentions. Take that Frank.