As the third season of House of Cards premieres today, many of us will begin our weekends by binging on the popular Netflix series. But before we do, it would be worth taking a moment to explore the hidden religious motif that underlies the entire series.
The title itself is revelatory—Francis and Claire Underwood have built their entire lives on a “house of cards.” Francis’s ascent to the White House is achieved through political gamesmanship, lies, corruption, and even murder.
Nearly a millennium earlier, there was another Francis who was charged with building a house for himself and his people. The 13th-century saint was praying in an old church in the Italian village of Assisi when he heard God calling to him, “Francis, rebuild my church.” Saint Francis of Assisi, along with his companion Clare, then set out on a journey to rebuild a broken Church and a society that had grown corrupt and lost the original inspiration of the founder of the faith and the Gospel he preached.
Because they built their house on the timeless resources of truth, beauty, and goodness, Saint Francis and Clare of Assisi’s house still stands eight centuries later. Today, the universal leader of the Church they rebuilt even shares their charisma and their namesake.
But Francis and Claire Underwood’s house is sure to crumble. As Jesus reminds us, only a “fool” builds his home with such weak resources. If only Underwood would consider the wisdom of the other Francis across the pond.
Unlike many, Frank doesn’t worship money. But he does think that money—even dirty money is the best way to advance his political fortunes: “When the money’s coming your way, you don’t ask any questions.” Pope Francis thinks this is a dangerous proposition. He’s asked world leaders to “ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it.”
Frank Underwood says that “the road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties.” But Pope Francis calls Frank’s bluff: “True power is service. The Pope must serve all people, especially the poor, the weak, the vulnerable.”
Frank Underwood has no time for human relationships. He tells us that “friends make the worst enemies” and that “the best thing about human beings is that they stack so neatly.” Pope Francis would surely implore Underwood to remember his namesake: “Saint Francis witnesses to respect for everyone, he testifies that each of us is called to protect our neighbor, that the human person is at the center of creation, at the place where God – our creator – willed that we should be. Not at the mercy of the idols we have created!”
In the end, it will be this idolatry of power that will bring Francis Underwood down. Viewers might like him for a season or two, but every villain has his day. That’s too bad, because, as Pope Francis reminds us, when focused on the common good, “politics is a noble activity.”
And he would know. After all, it’s Pope Francis, not Frank Underwood, who is the best politician in the world.