The Good Wife is a show about political campaigns, the law, and love. It is also, by extension, a show about the cultural impact of religion. Robert and Michelle King, the show’s creators, regularly question its role in politics and why we, the voters, pretend that the illusion of religion is more moral than a lack of belief. In a country with a constitution that values secularism, religion is still the prime indicator of morality and goodness. The Kings want to know why.
This season, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) is running for state’s attorney. In many ways, she seems a lock for the win, but her atheism puts her entire character in question. If she wants voters to believe and trust in her, she must court favor with the local pastor, Jeremiah. His approval may determine the outcome of this election.
This isn’t uncharted territory for her. In the show’s second season, her prostitute-loving husband Peter (Chris Noth), who also was running for state’s attorney at the time, needed an image overhaul. There is no better way to redefine your image than to undergo a religious conversion.
Though his initial meeting with Pastor Isaiah, Pastor Jeremiah’s son, was political, over time he begins to believe in something, though he's not sure what. Peter’s opponent, Wendy Scott-Carr, is also seeking the pastor’s religious stamp of approval. Her search is not one based in faith and self-reflection. It is simply a political maneuver. In a sense, she attempts to bribe the pastor, offering to make his church her home. Her attendance will bring in more parishioners and thus more money to fund church programs. She never once brings up faith. She would be a member of Pastor Isaiah’s flock in appearance only.
Peter is different. He is honest about his religious doubts, but he is committed to learning more about God. It is this honesty that wins him the support of his pastor. Isaiah does what we should all do, value honesty above all else. He would rather endorse someone with genuine doubts than someone with disingenuous beliefs.
The show does a great job showcasing that not all of us are corrupt, hearts can change, and religion has value, even if Alicia doesn’t agree with that last point.
Alicia is a devout atheist, if devout can be used to describe someone who does not believe in a God. She is not public about her atheism, just as many of us are not public about our faith. This isn’t for any reason other than the fact that she does not feel her beliefs are relevant to her daily life, how well she does her job as a lawyer, or her capability to be state’s attorney. As she says in Season 2, "I think Jesus is someone who lived 2,000 years ago and has very little to do with me."
While Alicia doesn’t believe, she does not look down on those who do. She goes to church with her husband, but when the pastor asks to counsel her in private, she shuts him down. She makes it clear that she has no interest in conversion.
At the same time, she supports her daughter, aptly named Grace, who becomes a Christian in the second season. In the episode “Silver Bullet,” Alicia fights for Grace’s right to wear a religious t-shirt to school. Her personal feelings about religion do not affect how she behaves legally, politically, or socially.
This is in contrast to the way that the media often positions atheists—as people who will infringe on the right of religious expression. The Kings are sending the message that this is not always the case. Those of faith have nothing to fear from those who do not believe.
At times, Alicia even seeks her daughter’s advice when religious questions come up in her work or her political campaign. This shows a deep respect for Grace’s knowledge and her faith. Not all parents respect their children and it says a great deal about Alicia’s moral character that she thinks so highly of hers. Unfortunately for Alicia, voters will care more about her atheism than her ability to respect her children and people with differing opinions.
This is despite the fact that Gallup polls say that 76 percent of Americans share Alicia’s view that religion has little influence on daily life, and only 27 percent of Americans attend a weekly church service. As the Kings constantly remind their viewers, these beliefs have not trickled down to our politics; we require our politicians to adhere to a religious standard that we ourselves do not uphold.
In the Season 4 episode “The Seven Day Rule,” Peter’s opponent for governor of Illinois, Maddie Hayward, is an atheist. His campaign manager, Eli Gold, sees this as an opportunity. He tells Alicia “voters hate atheists.” If religion is going to be the golden wrench they throw into Hayward’s run, then Alicia must concede that she believes in God. Her response is only to laugh. She feels religion is irrelevant to politics, and in a country that values secularity, it should be.
Eli says something very interesting during his conversation with Alicia: “They [voters] want people who are open-minded.” In an episode from the current season entitled “Old Spice,” Alicia’s campaign manager Johnny Elfman repeats this sentiment saying that “voters don’t vote for atheists” and that Alicia needs to “change to someone that isn’t an atheist.” Voters will not elect her without Pastor Jeremiah’s endorsement because only religious people are open-minded.
Through Alicia, the Kings have shown that the widely held opinion that all atheists want to suppress any and all religious expression is false. In reality, many of us are the intolerant ones.
Because of this, no one on her campaign staff will let Alicia run on a platform of truth. They all encourage her to spin her atheism into some form of belief. At the very least, Alicia needs to position herself as a searcher, like her husband. She can be someone who believes but who isn’t necessarily tethered to a particular dogma. The unsaid fact, of course, is that her search must be a Judeo-Christian one. Voters are willing to accept searchers, in fact 33 percent of Americans identify as more spiritual than religious, but only if you search within acceptable traditions.
The overarching theme of the show’s religious commentary is that the politics of religion lacks truth—and everyone is okay with that. All religions condemn lying, but Alicia Florrick likely will not be elected if she runs as an atheist. In order to win votes, she must endorse faith with something that is very much against faith. She must tell a lie. The truth does not matter here.
We do not see any voters within the show encouraging this lie, but campaigns run on research and voters want their politicians to be people of faith. The question is: why do we want that? What makes a person of faith a more capable leader? We don’t need a primetime television show to remind us that those who claim to be religious can commit the worst of sins, not to mention selling out their constituents for greed.
Voters aren’t stupid. We all know this happens; yet we continue to endorse these falsehoods. Our inability to relinquish religion’s moral authority has likely caused hundreds of people to lie about their beliefs. The Good Wife leaves us wondering how many people have sacrificed their beliefs for their careers. Some people invent a belief, others exaggerate their feelings toward God, and many dial back beliefs that their electorate would consider too fundamentalist.
In essence, during every election we ask politicians to do something immoral just so that we can cling to the false belief that religion is the only path to fairness and strength of character. If politicians are disingenuous, it’s because we make them that way. Perhaps it’s time to take a cue from the Kings and start asking ourselves whether truth matters more than appearance.