Getting Under Frank Underwood

sWednesday was a cold and rainy day. The very air was saturated with tension. Every politician, staffer, and government official walked on pins and needles as we hurdled towards a government shutdown. For weeks, the Republicans and the Democrats in Congress ached and argued over the FY 2016 appropriation’s bills. What drifted closer and closer to the brink of catastrophe was not just the U.S. government. The Republican Party was in shambles as Speaker Boehner announced his resignation from the gavel. Furthermore, the roar of Russian fighters soaring through Syrian airspace placed immeasurable pressure on an exhausted White House. But the drama being played out was not one of party politics, Republican demise, or the Middle Eastern crisis. It was a gala for the nature of our work in a fallen world.

As I sat at my desk this past week as a Congressional intern, I experienced first hand the struggle of working under the curse. Genesis 3 clearly states the experience humans now have in their work is a result of sin, “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life.”  Rest assured, there was a lot of pain on Capitol Hill this week.  Even in my own office, I saw the pervading struggle of work. Incredible stress, discord, and uncertainty—the curse plagued our Congressional team as we sought to inform our constituents and discern our votes.

There are innumerable ways we could delve into the topic of pain in work by looking to Capitol Hill. But consistently, I have been fascinated by the simple fact that people come to the political table with drastically different presuppositions and ideas. The obvious topic this week was over Planned Parenthood funding. Should the government fund an organization that actively promotes abortion? Whether our affiliation is Republican or Democrat, the nature of funding this organization is an important topic to consider. From the right, conservatives relentlessly characterized Planned Parenthood as a murderous regime, claiming their fight was in favor of human life, not just human rights. From the left, pundits belted arguments favoring women’s rights and the protection of women’s health. Watching this fight first hand, I wrestled to wrap my mind around the very fact that these politicians were not simply arguing to win. Both Republicans and Democrats truly believe the words they say, no matter how wrong or right I consider them. It is hard to work in an environment like that. Things do not get done quickly, if at all. So, the government must pass Continuing Resolutions in order to have more time for debate. And the hardest part is to realize that this will never change. People will always disagree about vital issues, and they will passionately make opposing cases. This is politics. This is work. This is the curse.

Now, one response, at least in my vocational sphere, is to treat work like a game. There may be no clearer depiction of this attitude than in the Netflix original, House of Cards. House of Cards is a political drama about a man who viciously plays the “political game.” Congressman Frank Underwood cares nothing for the American people. He has no political agenda either, other than to maintain and to gain as much power as he possibly can. Underwood states, “For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.” So, he hunts, he kills, and he overtakes any obstacle that stands between him and power, using politics. It is a game to him, and one that he is willing to break the rules to win.

This might seem an extreme example, particularly if you have watched the show. “That’s not really what Washington is like, is it?” The question will always remain for those who live in the shadow of the Hill. But, as one who dawns those marble steps three days a week, I am happy to say I do not think so. Frank Underwood is an extreme case. But there are those who respond to the difficulties of our government by treating it like a game. Common sense, courtesy, and focus on the American people—these noble responsibilities are tossed aside, at times, simply for the win. That attitude is true on both sides of the aisle. Frankly, politics should not simply be about winning. There are elements of competition without a doubt, and these should only improve the quality of the work we do. We must think ahead of our opponents and consider strategy to advance the legislation we believe is best for this country. But, the metanarrative of politics should not be the thrill of a victory.

As I have said, completely opposing viewpoints and dogmatic stances are part of the curse we find ourselves working in. We see this both in Genesis 3 and in Genesis 11 at the tower of Babel. This disagreement is one aspect of the nature of being “fallen.”  What, then, is a holy response for someone who works in politics? How should I work as a Congressional intern, understanding that these ideological differences are set and will not dissipate? Honestly, this is a question I will struggle with throughout the rest of my internship.

Yet, there are two things I have learned worth sharing. In Matthew 10:16, Jesus tells His disciples, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (ESV). Two principles from this verse apply directly to my life as a political intern, and reflect the way I should work and respond under the Genesis 3 curse. First, be wise. Politics is about two things: who you know and what you know. As a Christian responding to the curse, I should relentlessly work to “know.” Learning and understanding not only grounds particular beliefs, but also enables you to listen and discern opposing beliefs. Knowing people enables you to surround yourself with wise counsel and good influences. Knowing legislation, both past and present, enables you to think clearly about the issues this country currently faces and how you can best respond. Also, this wisdom directly impacts how I deal with those on the other side of the aisle, both in thought and in action. Without wisdom and knowledge, it is nearly impossible to navigate politics.  Second, innocence is critical. Living a holy and upright life, both on and off the Hill, is necessary to my success and impact there, even as an intern. Many aspiring men and women come to Washington and are immersed in a culture of sin. Choosing to live uprightly in this area is not always easy. Passing legislation and campaigning can be accomplished ethically or unethically. Thus, living and working innocently is crucial to working in this environment.

There is a curse on our work. But working both wisely and innocently is necessary for the Christian in politics. Despite the pain and difficulty, we are called to this, no matter what our party affiliation.


Ryan Burns interns on Capitol Hill and is part of the 2015-2016 Capital Fellows Program.

Images: Ballard, Grzegorz Czajkowski

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  • Elizabeth Manley

    Thank you for the thoughtful discussion here, Ryan. Reading this I think of the “the ends justify the means argument.” Sadly many people, not just politicians, take the stance of Frank Underwood in their lives. They will do whatever it takes to get where they want. I appreciate your advice in how to battle such people and the idea that others do not matter as long as we get what we want. There is definitely a benefit to sitting back, listening, and learning before speaking. We have learned a lot about earning the right to be heard and I think that is very applicable in your role on the Hill.