Frank Underwood just dissed God. Would a real president do that?

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Kevin Spacey in Season 3 of Netflix's "House of Cards." Photo by David Giesbrecht, courtesy of Netflix

Kevin Spacey in Season 3 of Netflix's "House of Cards." Photo by David Giesbrecht, courtesy of Netflix

(RNS) All presidents beseech God to bless the United States of America. Many pray for divine aid for themselves or their policies. Some can only wonder at the inscrutable ways of the Almighty.

Then there’s Frank Underwood, who spits in God’s face.

Underwood is fictional, of course, the power-grabbing president and central character in the hit Netflix series “House of Cards.” And Underwood is a notoriously amoral — criminal, actually — practitioner of a realpolitik so brutal that nothing he does should be surprising.

Indeed, in the show’s first season, a frustrated Underwood stopped by a church and looked heavenward to speak to God, then down to address Satan. Finding no satisfying answer from either, he concluded:

“There is no solace above or below. Only us, small, solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.”

Still, it is almost jarring when, in the third and most recent season of the political thriller, Underwood — again stymied in his schemes — meets with a bishop late at night in a darkened sanctuary and engages in an extended debate on divine justice, power and love.

Underwood then asks for a moment alone to pray, and in solitude approaches a large crucifix at the altar.

Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood in Season 3 of Netflix's "House of Cards." Photo by David Giesbrecht, courtesy of Netflix

Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood in Season 3 of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” Photo by David Giesbrecht, courtesy of Netflix

“Love?” he says to the plaster Jesus. “That’s what you’re selling? Well, I don’t buy it.”

Then — spoiler alert! — he spits on the statue’s face. When he reaches up to wipe the spittle off, the crucifix wobbles and topples to the floor, smashing to bits.

Sure, that scene might seem implausible. Americans want a chief executive who embraces religion, especially Christianity, and for the most part that’s what they’ve had. This is also a small-screen drama, not real-life history.

Yet scholars who study religion and the presidency say the episode provides a valuable window into the spiritual perils of being “the most powerful person on earth.” When things don’t go your way, sometimes it seems the only one to blame is the Almighty.

“To the extent that a president sees himself or herself as called, as on a mission, as ordained, and to the extent that the presidency becomes disillusioning, then they’re grappling with God. And I think that’s natural,” said Stephen Mansfield, who has written several books on the faith of presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama.

In fact, said Darrin Grinder, co-author of “The Presidents and Their Faith,” one reason “House of Cards” works dramatically “is that it strips bare the president and reveals what one part of our consciousness thinks is likely true: these men are extraordinary, with extraordinary appetites, drive, and often cunning.”

“My educated hunch,” Grinder wrote in an email from Northwest Nazarene University, where he teaches literature, “is that these men, who are some of the most powerful persons in the world, may very well turn to God in anger, demanding an accounting. Or, like Underwood, they understand the transaction, the cost of the presidency, and simply bear the weight of it.”

Abraham Lincoln’s struggles with faith and atheism bordered on “a blast, Job-like, of despair,” as Mansfield has noted, and through the agonizing efforts to avert, and then win, the Civil War, Lincoln only found solace in accepting that “the Almighty has His own purposes” — a famous phrase from his Second Inaugural Address, delivered 150 years ago this week.

Lyndon Johnson — as savvy as any president about working the levers of political power — often beat his hands on his desk in frustration and demanded why God wasn’t making his life easier.

Perhaps the closest precedent for Underwood’s sacrilege was also fictional — it came in a famous episode from the NBC drama “The West Wing,” when President Josiah Bartlet, a practicing Catholic, stands alone inside Washington National Cathedral and delivers an epic rant against God for allowing so many tragedies.

obama lincoln

President Barack Obama looks at the portrait of Abraham Lincoln that hangs in the Oval Office before meeting with President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia on June 29, 2009. RNS photo by Pete Souza/The White House

Bartlet’s beloved secretary had been killed by a drunken driver, he himself was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and he was facing political setbacks that could thwart his run for a second term.

Bartlet curses God in Latin, and in coarser terms (“You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?”), and lists all the good things he has done for the country as president — and for what? He lights a cigarette, stubs it out on the sanctuary floor and stalks off.

There’s a key difference, though: Bartlet was a man of faith who was trying to do God’s will and wondering why things weren’t working out.

In that sense, says Mansfield, he was more like Job, or better still, King David, who used the Psalms to challenge God and question why God let so many bad things happen to good people, and why so many bad people triumph. They were men of faith who stuck with the faith.

Most U.S. presidents seem to have been in that mold, said Gary Smith, a history professor at Grove City College and author of a new book, “Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents.”

John Quincy Adams, for example, lost the 1828 election to Andrew Jackson and lost his son (to suicide), prompting him to pour out his grief over these bitter “chastisements” in his diary. “But I have experienced mercy with judgment,” Adams concluded. “Let me bow in submission to thy will!”

Presidents “are much more likely to turn to God in reverent prayer,” said Smith. Lincoln famously said that “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go,” an observation that’s been cited by many of the men who followed him into the White House.

“These men and numerous other presidents have testified that their faith became deeper while in office,” Smith wrote in an email.

Underwood, on the other hand, is (or appears to be) basically one of the bad guys, and he resents God’s intrusion into his own plans for the world. “He’s in competition with Jesus. He’s angry at Jesus,” Mansfield said.

Underwood’s crisis of faith arrived after he had shown a trace of compassion in earlier episodes rather than his usual cutthroat instinct. That, in turn, gave his opponents an advantage, a mistake he did not want to repeat.

So Underwood and Bartlet arrived at the same point, raging against God, but from different directions. Bartlet, like most presidents, returned to the faith, in some form.

Where will Underwood go? God, and screenwriters, can write straight with crooked lines. But It’s hard to bet on a clamorous conversion after watching that episode of “House of Cards.”

Walking over the plaster shards of Jesus on his way out of the church, Underwood paused, bent down and picked up a fragment from the side of the head.

“Well, I’ve got God’s ear now,” he says archly. And fade to black.

KRE/MG END GIBSON

  • Larry

    “Underwood, on the other hand is (or appears to be) basically one of the bad guys, and he resents God’s intrusion into his own plans for the world. “He’s in competition with Jesus. He’s angry at Jesus,” Mansfield said.”

    Before you guys jump on the silly ad hominem bandwagon, this is NOT AN EXAMPLE OF ATHEISM. But I will admit it would fall into what many fundamentalists THINK atheism is like. One cannot resent God’s intrusion or have a crisis of faith when one does not have faith or belief in God. One who lacks a spiritual belief would not be praying to heaven or hell.

    Frank is a lapsed Christian of whatever denomination he was born into.

    [The British version took an opposite direction. Francis Urqhardt appeared overly religious in public, as a sign of being evil. He used the Church as a tool for attacking the uncooperative monarchy-See “To Play The King”]

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  • Mike

    Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you for the spoiler! I’ve only watched the first two episodes so far, so when I get to this episode, I know not to watch it.

  • Joe

    “Would a real president do that?”

    Mr. Obama does it all the time, so the answer is yes.

    And yet Mr. Obama is heaping judgment on his own head.

  • Larry

    There was that time that George W. Bush shook a baby and kissed someone’s hand.

  • Ken

    It’s a perfect representation of atheism. You’re attempts at denying that reality is a worthless attempts at a preemptive strike to try to make reality go away.

    Hollywood knows what they are. Godless and insulting to anyone – including a Jesus replica- that stands in the way of their enjoyable immorality agenda.

    One just needs to read the Humanist Manifesto I to see the “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we are just worm food,” idol they worship. That god, so worshiped, is always staring at them in the mirror. And ever increasingly looking uglier and uglier. The soul eventually looking like the flesh.

  • Larry

    Bullcrap. It is a decent representation of how a Bible thumper sees an atheist. But has no relation to the actual thing. Bible thumpers are not really the most perceptive or honest folk when it comes to people outside their group.

    If you spent more time learning about atheists instead of demonizing them and hurling cheap insults at them, you would see that.

    You never even glanced at the Humanist Manifesto. Bearing false witness is obviously not a sin for a Christian if they are supporting their faith. Maybe you can give me a link to the part that says “eat, drink & be merry” 🙂

    You can’t hate something you don’t believe in. Atheists don’t pray because they don’t believe divine help exists. Atheists hate god the way you hate unicorns and leprechauns.

    Ken, you never had anything intelligent or honest to say about atheism. Why should I have expected anything different?

  • Tobias

    I have an extreme problem with this episode in particular, and here’s why. I personally believe there was another Hollywood agenda in this show, why in the absolute hell would you spit on the face of the man who sacrificed himself for the entire world?
    There’s an agenda against Christianity by the Media, and our President in particular based off his comparing of Christianity and Radical Islam during the National Prayer Breakfast, for some reason the Media loves to target Christianity, you know why?
    They’re a bunch of spineless cowards.
    If they really wanted to start conversation about this episode (Which is why they had him spit on Jesus) then they would’ve had Kevin spit on Muhammad, but Hollywood is scared and likes to target the one religious group that doesn’t fight back physically anymore.
    Cowards.

  • Larry

    Tobias, you do realize Frank is the bad guy in House of Cards, right?

  • Brian Winter

    I know allot about ATHEISM

    The belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason what so ever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs.

    Makes Perfect sense

  • Ken

    Obama is the same kind of “Christian” as Judas Iscariot was.

  • Fran

    Every house has a builder, there is no doubt about that; but evidently there are still some who disagree with that statement or that God had anything to do with it.

  • Fran

    Whatever every human on earth reaps, he will sow. We will each be responsible for our own actions when the end of this wicked era comes and we receive the deserving judgment from God’s son, Jesus.

  • Larry

    I am a jerk. But at least I am not a liar or engaging in slander.

    Which is more than I can say about these Christian posters chiming in to declare both their hatred and ignorance of atheists.

  • Larry

    But the universe is in no way resembles a house. We recognize houses are built by people because people build houses. We know of no being which creates universes or anything like it. You are simply making an assumption you have no basis in making.

    As so will start the circular logic death spiral in response where the Bible is proof of God and the Bible is true because of God.

  • Larry

    Which means you know nothing about atheists. Your post also shows you know nothing about the big bang theory or evolution as well. What a surprise!

    Your views only adopted by a small subset of Protestant Christianity, not of the Christian faith as a whole or even close to indicative of all religious beliefs either.

    Of course the really ridiculous part of that whole canned and overused spiel is that it is creationists who believe everything spontaneously was created from nothing from a being with no known origin. All done by the magic of God and no possibly earthly explanations.

    Makes perfect sense, if you are lazy and don’t feel the need to educate yourself or think in a critical manner.

  • Every time the writers of ‘House of Cards’ try to write about Frank Underwood’s godlessness they fail miserably.

    The writers have Frank spitting on a statue of Jesus! This is an incredibly stupid way to describe any atheist.

    It would be like a Christian spitting on a statue of Zeus
    because he hates Zeus for not being real !!

    The writers of this show are incredibly stupid on the matter of Atheism.
    Atheists don’t hate Jesus – they just don’t believe in it.

    It is ridiculous.

  • @Ken,

    “Bring to me those enemies of mine and execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    Jesus is a manmade philosophy. There is no evidence of any kind that any of it ever could be true – and no good reason to want it to be true.

    Christianity is just one more needless, despicable, horrible idea in a world desperately in need of its opposite:
    rationality, culture, decency, humanity and science.

  • First President of USA: George Washington

    “The United States of America should have a foundation free from the influence of clergy.” ~ George Washington

    A near-contemporary, the Rev. Dr. Bird Wilson, “perused every line that (President George) Washington ever gave to the public and (did) not find one expression in which he pledges himself as a believer in Christianity. … He was a Deist and nothing more.” Wilson judged all of the first six presidents to be “infidels.”

    Second President of USA: John Adams

    “The Judeo-Christian religion is the most bloody religion that ever existed.” Adams’ treaty with Tripoli specified that the American government “is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” ~ John Adams

    “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any…

  • Corey Mondello,

    Long live Separation of Church and State!
    The only remaining hope for civilization.

  • “nothing intelligent OR honest to be said about atheism.”

    You are wrong in several ways:

    1. Atheism means “I don’t believe your God is real” and that is all it means. You have determined this to be a very honest and intelligent decision for yourself regarding thousands of Gods.

    2. You are an Atheist regarding the God Aphrodite and God Neptune and thousands of other gods. You do not believe in those Gods – you do not believe they are real.

    3. You clearly have decided that the honest thing is to respond to claims about all those Gods with the same answer: “I do not believe in them”

    Now – with respect to Jesus and Yahweh I look at these claims and I do not believe them to be true:

    “many dead people walked out of their graves and visited with people in Jerusalem..” – (Matthew 27:52)

    My response to the claims of the Bible is the same as yours: I don’t believe in them.

    Does some sort of god exist? who knows? Not you. Not me.
    Don’t claim something…

  • Shame on Netflix!

  • Shawnie5

    Finish Adams’ quote, please:

    “As I understand the Christian religion, it was, and is, a revelation. But how has it happened that millions of fables, tales and legends have been blended with both Jewish and Christian revelation that have made them the most bloody religion that ever existed?”

    And do you really believe that John Adams wrote the treaty of Tripoli? It was not written by any American at all. The treaty was written in Arabic, and the clause you quoted is not actually in it but is an extremely poor paraphrase of what its translator, Joel Barlow, imagined that a particularly obscure passage might have been saying.

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  • Janet

    I never watched another episode after this one and never will! I was insulted!
    Hollywood thinks Christians will put up with anything! This one will not!

  • Sam

    It’s not a depiction of his atheism. It’s representative of how he believes he has raised himself to place of ultimate power. Even God should stand at his feet.

    He is the best character ever. I laughed so hard at that part. “Uh…I was just praying, and it fell…”