In the Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius of Loyola writes about the banners of Lucifer and Christ and how we as humans equivocate between one or the other. The former values wealth, honor and pride; the latter values poverty, self-giving and humility. Each of our actions and relationships tends toward one side or the other.
It is rare to encounter an individual who is unabashedly committed to one side, but when we do we should pay attention, for he or she reveals what we can radically become. What we witness is either the extraordinary capacity to serve or the terrifying capability to dominate. Francis Underwood in Netflix’s “House of Cards” is such an individual.
Over the course of four seasons, “House of Cards” tells the story of Francis and Claire Underwood’s rise to power. Francis (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) have schemed their way to federal office, expertly deploying the strength and cleverness of Machiavelli’s lion and fox. Although they resemble Macbeth and Lady MacBeth, their names evoke a more illuminating comparison: Saints Francis and Clare of 12th-century Assisi. This will sound surprising, but I think that Francis Underwood (hereafter, called Frank) is only fully understood in light of St. Francis. It is a subtle parallel that occasionally emerges throughout the show. Such a comparison may seem forced, but stepping back and comparing the two can prompt serious reflection on power, pride, humility and self-giving.
Consider these three episodes from the life of St. Francis and “House of Cards.”
Before St. Francis’ conversion to Christ, he shunned lepers. Should he ever come near one, he did his best to be far away lest he risk getting a whiff of their malodor. But as Christ’s grace began to change him, so did Francis’ encounters change with this marginalized group. As the story goes, he was riding his horse near Assisi when he met a leper. He dismounted, gave money, kissed the leper’s hand, and received a kiss of peace (apparently no longer concerned with the smell). The film "Francesco" (1989) visualizes the scene more viscerally when St. Francis (Mickey Rourke) embraces the leper and tenderly gazes at his scarred face despite the leper’s shame and initial resistance.
Compare this story with Frank’s encounter with a deranged and threatening homeless man whom police handcuffed to a light pole (“Chapter 2”). The man growls out guttural noises as if possessed by an unclean spirit. Frank walks up to him, squats down and stares at the man eye-to-eye until he is quiet. Then he states firmly: “Nobody can hear you. Nobody cares about you. Nothing will come of this.” This renders the man tranquilized and subdued. Frank continues on his way.
St. Francis and Frank both have a defining encounter with a crucifix. When St. Francis was walking by the dilapidated and abandoned San Damiano Church, the Holy Spirit moved him to go pray before the crucifix inside. While praying, he sees Christ’s lips move and utter, “Francis, go rebuild my house.” Receiving the message literally, St. Francis begins rebuilding the church’s physical structure, but eventually realizes the deeper meaning: renew the church by serving Christ more deeply. It is this divine inspiration that directs him to lead a life of poverty and humility, eventually beginning the reform movement, the Franciscans.
Frank also encounters a crucifix, but has the opposite response of St. Francis. When facing a drastic political decision, Frank, hoping for some guidance, decides to meet a bishop privately in a church (“Chapter 30”). The cross perplexes Frank—how can a just God have come to such an end? Frank asks the bishop why Jesus did not fight back when he was crucified. With the crucifix in the background, he tells the bishop, “I understand the Old Testament God, whose power is absolute, who rules through fear, but…him [gesturing toward the crucifix].” The bishop acknowledges his own struggle with theodicy, but tells Frank that ultimately fear does nothing. There is no such thing as absolute power for human beings, and Frank cannot choose the God he likes best. The bishop adds that it is not our responsibility to determine final justice; instead, we have two rules: “Love God. Love each other. Period.” Letting the bishop’s words sink in briefly, Frank then asks for time to pray alone.
After the bishop leaves, Frank stands before the crucifix and with contempt looks up to Christ’s face. “Love? That’s what you’re selling?” he asks. “Well, I don’t buy it.” He then spits on Jesus’s face. After a moment passes, he is about to wipe the mucus off with a handkerchief when the figure of Jesus falls off the cross and shatters. His security team runs in and Frank explains innocently, “I was praying and it just fell.” Frank’s encounter leads to shattering division while St. Francis’s encounter leads to building community.
A woman clarifies both St. Francis and Frank. For St. Francis, St. Clare is an enriching and inspiring friend. She followed St. Francis because she was drawn to his way of poverty and humility, and so she abandoned her possessions and became a co-founder of the Franciscan orders. They inspired numerous followers in their reform movement, leading an “army of the poor” centered on prayer, service and desire for God. Both are partners in service embodied in the canticle, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” But the same cannot be said of Frank and Claire.
Frank and Claire enable one another in ambitious striving, focused on Frank’s goal of the presidency. They share moments of affection and tenderness, but a breaking point comes in the final episode of season three (“Chapter 39”). In a darkened Oval Office, Claire confronts Frank at his presidential desk and tells him that she had foolishly believed they were two equal parts, but now she understands the truth: it was always about him. He makes the decisions, and she obeys. She only succeeds with his help and approval. “We were making you stronger. And now I’m just weak and small, and I can’t stand that feeling any longer,” she confesses. Frank accuses her of being selfish and ungrateful, saying that nothing is ever good enough for her whether it’s the Congress or the Presidency. She retaliates: “It’s you that’s not enough.”
The blow strikes. Frank absorbs the hit silently for a few moments. Then he rises out of his chair, walks around the desk and verbally assaults her. “Well, here is the brutal f***ing truth…without me, you are nothing.” Clenching her jaw and forcing her to look at him, he commands in a rising pitch, “You want me to take charge? Fine, I will take charge. You will get on that plane tomorrow, you will come to New Hampshire, you will smile and shake hands and kiss babies and you will stand with me on a stage, and you will BE THE FIRST LADY!” Then dropping his voice level, “And you do all that. I don't give a damn if you vomit on your own time.”
St. Francis died with St. Clare and his fellow Franciscans at his deathbed. Before passing away, he encouraged them to remain in God. He then requested that the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet (Jn 13:1–20) be read to him. One imagines that he died in the peace of God and fellowship hearing the words, “And Jesus loved them until the end.”
What awaits Frank in season four of “House of Cards”? What will be said that Frank did “until the end”? Will Frank die alone, unrepentant and bitter, wailing and gnashing his teeth? In “House of Cards,” we are witnessing the terrifying fall of Lucifer’s soldier. It is unlikely that any of us can see ourselves in Frank, in his pride and his vices, just as it is unlikely that we can see ourselves in St. Francis, in his humility and poverty. But “House of Cards” subtly situates us between these lives. I know many fans of the show (including me) who find themselves both rooting for Frank and wanting to see him fail. Why is that? His pursuit of power is captivating yet terrifying. But then the show’s gentle allusion to St. Francis reminds us of what the bishop told Frank: “Love God. Love each other. Period.”
Frank may not be buying it, but are we?
Benjamin LaBadie is a student at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.