When The House Folds

The newest political drama from Netflix highlights an ecumenical hazard: building on the wrong foundation

Fans of political drama certainly have gotten their plates full over the last few years. In addition to award-winning, critically acclaimed series like The Wire and The West Wing, viewers have been treated to healthy doses of political intrigue on the short-lived Political Animals, The Chicago Code, and most recently, Boss, the Kelsey Grammer vehicle.

Into the fray comes Kevin Spacey in the Netflix original series, House of Cards, which debuted last Friday in an experimental format. The early buzz is due to its novelty as the first original series produced for Netflix, but most of the critical acclaim is aimed squarely at Spacey himself for his bracing, arresting performance.

Spacey’s protagonist, Francis Underwood, is the kind of charismatic, calculating, conniving antihero that audiences can’t avert their gaze from, even when he’s doing something as viscerally disturbing as [minor spoiler alert] euthanizing an injured dog. As Underwood, Spacey fills the screen with an endless string of meetings and phone conversations with theWashingtonelite, solving problems, currying favor, and dispensing axioms left and right.

Which is to say, he’s a classic Kevin Spacey character. But there’s another figure that Spacey’s Underwood resembles – that of a pastor. The resemblance grows even clearer during the third of episode of House of Cards, when [again, MINOR SPOILER] Francis Underwood is forced to travel to his home district in South Carolina to address a local tragedy and ends up speaking at a church in the area.

Part of Underwood’s appeal is his habit of breaking the fourth wall by looking directly into the camera and telling the audience his thoughts, which often differ dramatically to whatever he’s just said to another character. So the scene where he does this from the church lectern, where he totally contradicts himself in the middle of an emotionally-charged quasi-sermon, is supposed to highlight Underwood’s depravity by juxtaposing his hypocrisy against the moral uprightness of the church.

 Unfortunately, that scene – minus a few Hollywood theatrical touches – plays out in churches all acrossAmericaevery Sunday. Except that in real life, the churches are just as complicit in the charade.

In his blog, Dr. Paul Metzger of Multnomah Biblical Seminary recently contrasted the fervor with which evangelicals tend to oppose evolution with the tacit acceptance they tend to give free-market economics, despite their being two different sides of the same ideological coin (according to Metzger, they’re both about survival of the fittest). This kind of bias creates a cultural blind spot, which invites certain pastors to speak out in favor of intelligent design in the classroom while remaining woefully silent on loopholes in the American tax code that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.

(Then again, maybe we should be grateful for the silence, since some pastors clearly don’t understand the real-world ramifications of certain economic policies. Yes, I’m talking to you, Applebee’s pastor lady.)

The truth is, sometimes pastors make decisions for less-than-Godly reasons, and the faithful in the pews sometimes have trouble discerning when and why. In this scene, Spacey’s Underwood ends up quoting Proverbs 3:5, but it’s clear that his oratory is motivated more by political reasons than by any desire to honor God or share His truth with people.

And this wasn’t even during an election year.

House of Cards gets its name not only from its original British source material, but from the idea that our political process is effective only insomuch as people allow themselves to be shielded from the details of how it works. Otherwise, the facade is pierced and the whole thing comes falling down.

The same can be said about the church. For decades, many of our churches have been places where the primary motivation for showing up is neither worship nor Word, but to ascend the various echelons of social respectability. As such, it became easier and more popular to apply social pressure to overcome secularists who resist the church’s public agenda, rather than genuinely caring about them and allowing the Holy Spirit to use us to break down their defenses through other, non-activist means.

As long as it works, everyone’s fine – but anytime there’s a shift in the prevailing sense of morality, the whole thing falls apart.

The irony is, we revert to these top-down techniques because in many ways, they work. It’s a lot easier to demonize your opponents via press release than it is to invite your political opponent over for dinner and actually listen to what they have to say. Fortunately, people like Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy and gay activist Shane Windmeyer have proven that it’s not impossible. But still, it’s the exception to the rule.

After all, Underwood’s Machiavellian machinations don’t just make for good television – they’re compelling because they’re effective. For men and women like Francis Underwood, that’s how things get done in Washington. But it doesn’t have to be this way in the church. It really doesn’t. And even if, as the more cynical among us might argue, it is this way in the church and nothing will change anytime soon, then let’s at least let’s have someone come up with a decent scripted drama about it. And no, the pastor’s-wives-reality-show The Sisterhood doesn’t count.

About the author, Jelani Greenidge

Jelani Greenidge is an UrbanFaith columnist based in Portland, Oregon. A writer and musician, he blogs at JelaniGreenidge.com.
  1. “For decades, many of our churches have been places where the primary motivation for showing up is neither worship nor Word, but to ascend the various echelons of social respectability. As such, it became easier and more popular to apply social pressure to overcome secularists who resist the church’s public agenda, rather than genuinely caring about them and allowing the Holy Spirit to use us to break down their defenses through other, non-activist means.”

    Remember, Jelani, for over a hundred years, the Black church’s social and only political vehicle has been the church. The motto apparently lived by the church has been “God helps those who help themselves.” It has not been a bad thing, but it’s hard to break with “tradition.” Now that so many obstacles have been overcome, it’s a hard transition to really focusing on caring for each other and pursuing a relationship with God outside a social and political agenda. Much of the preaching going on is now along the same lines, but updated: “take back what the devil stole!” as opposed to “he who would be greatest among you is he who serves.” Gonna take a minute, Jelani. ;)

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