claire underwood homeless manI’ve started re-watching the first two seasons of the Netflix series House of Cards and I noticed something I hadn’t before that we can really learn from. Claire and Frank Underwood have an interesting marriage relationship. They work hard together to advance their power in politics, even if it means extremely unethical schemes. Frank’s a politician but Claire runs a non-profit that brings clean water projects to poor areas of the world. In an early episode Claire decides to layoff half her staff because a donation from a lobbying natural gas company falls through (because of politics). After sacking 18 people, Claire’s middle-aged female business manager learns that she too is losing her job. “Nobody hires anybody my age,” she pleads. We then begin to see Claire experience a number of stings of her conscience—seeing a middle aged woman struggle with the register at a coffee shop, being yelled at for running in a cemetery, a homeless man returning her twenty dollar handout…

Conscience as the Voice of God
Claire has a few redeeming qualities but what we see, despite her conscience being stung, is that she rarely follows her conscience. The Second Vatican Council said that our conscience is our moral compass where God’s voice echoes from within our very depths. Ignatian spirituality uses the conscience to help discern the movement of God and help us make decisions. Ignatius might say that Claire is experiencing a vivid tension between the good and evil spirits.

  • The evil spirit is trying to appear “good” in her life, causing her to think that a little unethical behaviour is okay since she runs a non-profit that creates good for the poor.
  • The good spirit, meanwhile, is stinging her conscience. If you watch the series you can see doubts being raised within her, though she never seems to voice them to anyone.
  • The evil spirit is exploiting her weak points like her gentle personality (to appear kind to others) or her lust toward another man (who benefits her charity).
  • The good spirit is still trying to make her see those weak points, but she gives into the evil spirit most of the time.

The evil spirit has the upper hand on Claire and giving a twenty to a homeless man is not going to make up for not following the voice of her conscience.

A study noted in a recent Freakonomics podcast on religion and tithing found that the more people gave to charities the less often they attended church. It’s as if less religious participation is justified by monetary giving. The other side though shows that the more religious participation tends to mean less charitable giving.

What’s important to note here is that the evil spirit is crafty enough to make us justify less of one thing because we’re “good enough” in another area. It’s grey and nuanced, which means we must have a keen and regular awareness of where our conscience is guiding us—in other words, where God’s spirit is guiding us. Claire Underwood is too dismissive of her conscience. She doesn’t listen long enough or discerningly enough to actually be led.

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Music by Kevin MacLeod