The Good Wife and Religion for Liberals

Curator's Note

There are any number of reasons one might cite for the prominence of religious rhetoric in American public discourse in the last decade, but religion in the political sphere is almost always mobilized in relation to conservative ideologies, either supporting them or responding to them. On dramatic television, meanwhile, characters grappling with religious texts, religious difference, and quotidian, lived religion, abound.

The Good Wife features religion in all of those contexts, but to me the most intriguing is Grace Florrick’s religious awakening and her mother Alicia’s reactions to it. Alicia is established as liberal, secular, and a loving mother. All in all, she respects her daughter’s autonomy, and does her level best—often succeeding—to withhold judgment. Through this relationship, The Good Wife demonstrates a side of religion rarely seen on TV. Here the secular liberal tries to make sense of religion’s centrality in a loved one’s life. That strips this relationship of the incredulity that often serves as the liberal reaction to religious rhetoric in the political sphere.

In “Parenting Made Easy,” however, what had been Grace’s hobby turns to crisis. In this clip, Grace goes missing; Alicia is terrified. When found, Grace is in church, quietly being baptized. This incident puts religious awakening in the role usually reserved for teenagers binge drinking and having unprotected sex. Baptism figures as the ultimate terror for a liberal parent. The child in this scenario is literally lost and feared violently abducted, and the culprit is Christianity. Later, Alicia needs Grace’s new Biblical expertise for a case she is arguing, so the episode ends reestablishing Alicia as the liberal, tolerant parent. But can one conversation override the literal equation of baptism with child abduction at the heart of the episode? Does The Good Wife ultimately succumb to the repetitive discourse of liberal and religious as (terrifyingly) incompatible? This show is often a welcome relief from the idea that religion, in all its forms and uses, is solely the domain of conservatives, but does this episode make that reevaluation impossible?



"Does The Good Wife ultimately succumb to the repetitive discourse of liberal and religious as (terrifyingly) incompatible?"

I find it interesting that Grace should choose a church that is twice marked as "liberal," at least to me -- 1) it's urban, and 2) it's mainline Protestant (Methodist). It would be very different, I think, if she chose a suburban, non-denominational mega-church. I don't mean to say that all Methodists are liberal or all evangelicals are conservative (neither is the case), but as a viewer of contemporary U.S. television, I tend to read "urban" and "Methodist" as liberal. At any rate, the choice seems deliberate, and it certainly complicates the answer to this question.

 Thanks for kicking off the week, Jorie!  I'm glad you chose The Good Wife to analyze because of its portrayal of Alicia's discomfort regarding Grace's religious (re?)awakening is fascinating.  Kyle raises an interesting point in the ways the religion Grace chooses is coded as liberal, particularly using the figure of the young, cool, YouTube-saavy, "vernacular" preacher.  Yet, you rightly identify the symbolic equation between abduction and baptism in "Parenting Made Easy" as well as Alicia's ongoing uncertainty about Grace's praxis that generally position religion as something to be skeptical about and potentially fear.

Can we examine Grace's interaction with Christianity in relation to non-Christian representations on The Good Wife? Didn't Eli Gold's daughter discuss going to Israel to live on a Kibbutz? Is Christianity more than religion-in-general the cause of anxiety? Or perhaps devotion more than a representation of flexible or banal (liberal?) religion?

The first glimpse we get of this church is a quite phallic steeple, which could be taken to suggest dominance and indoctrination. However, as the female guardian figure enters the room, there is a sexual intimacy between the young woman and the the young man who is performing the baptism. I think the question is how we choose to read that first moment when the two young people are shown together.  This is not a cult.  This is a relationship.

I was raised by conservative atheists and I remember sneaking out of the house to attend church services. The relationship between a believer, her diety and her religious community is not only powerful and nuanced, it is also a safe place for young people to explore intimacy, agency, even ecstacy, which perhaps they can't find through their parent's teachings. It seems to me that, while the abduction anology is certainly implied, the resolution of this clip is to suggest consentual exploration (and even the voyerism of the guardian who remains half-hidden).

I think there's a strong connection between parenting a young person through a sexual or a religious awakening.  Both may seem overwhelming to the parent, but the child's curiousity is an essential passage into adulthood (even if the child chooses abstinence, atheism, queer sexual-expressions or an amorphous spiritual practice). I think the power of the anaology lies in the fact that parenting a child who is exploring other world views probably feels much the same to any parent, religious, atheist, conservative or liberal.

Thank you so much for your comments, Kyle, Charlotte, and Adryan. Adryan, I have never thought of the parallels you describe between sexual and religious awakening and challenges of parenting through those times, so thank you for your insight.

Kyle and Charlotte, you rightly point out that Grace's church of choice is definitely a liberal church. Charlotte raised the interesting comparison of Eli Gold and his daughter's expressed desire to live on a Kibbutz. Eli reacts with the same bemused sort of tolerance Alicia initially shows Grace's interest in Christianity. In both cases, religion is treated as teenage rebellion. What if we add another example, that of the Muslim Palestinian college student accused of murdering a Jewish student based on religious motivations? Even here, when lives are at stake and devotion is clear, the religious element of the case turns out to be a red herring. Eli quips, "A Muslim was the killer but he was also gay and sleeping with our guy so…I would call that a classic mixed message... If it helps our cause, I can find out if he’s a top—that was a joke."

If there is a consistent thread to religious representations on the show, it seems to be glib tolerance of other people's quirks. That's why this particular episode, in which Grace's faith is so clearly a threat, sticks out so dramatically.

Thanks again for your comments!

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