This post contains spoilers for the Dec. 12 episode of Scandal.
A bloody body on the floor is hardly unusual during a mid-season finale, and on ABC's popular drama Scandal, it's practically de rigueur. What the killer said next is less common: "I have committed a sin." And, later, of the victim: "He is a godless sinner and he deserved what he got."
Last week's episode played out Sally Langston's crisis of faith, with an extended soliloquy full of heavy-handed religious jargon, set to tolling church bells. Over five minutes, Sally, played by Kate Burton, rattled off one Bible-influenced phrase after another: "poison fruit," "unleashed a snake into our garden," "sullied my soul," "sold my soul," "cross to bear," "original sin," and "promised land." (Get it now, audience? She's a CHRISTIAN!)
In the guilt and self-justification that follows, Sally's religious hypocrisy continues to glare. On a show that puts antiheroes in "white hats" on a regular basis, she stands out as the character most often in conflict with the rest and the sole one who claims religion as her motive.
Scandal makes its exaggerated characters seem authentic by grounding their actions in pure self-interest, making each loyal to a relatable, if relativistic, moral code and their commitment to a goal. In contrast, Sally claims to stand for evangelical principles, but when her stance (being pro-life, for example) is challenged, she caves to self-interest.
In a show championing heroes of moral relativism, Sally gets cast as the true hypocrite, the one who lies to herself about her motives. The show's other characters, the ones who are so relatable despite their horrific actions, at least admit to acting out of flawed motives.
The focus on Sally's ability to reason herself back into righteousness reveals to us a popular but flawed portrayal of religion on TV: faith as a cloak of justification, not one of grace.
Granted, depictions of evangelicals on network TV are few and far between. Plus, presenting faith on-screen can be difficult, since the nuances of spirituality are often an internal process. But what TV attributes to Christian faith tends toward convenience, rather than conviction.
Nashville and Grey's Anatomy have included side-characters who claimed to be waiting to have sex until marriage because of religious beliefs. Their desire to remain virgins worked as fresh, brief obstacles to romantic subplots, not signs of a faith life. And certainly, this happens in real life, too, as a form of chastity based on "thus saith religion," not "God knows best." These characters' actions almost always get presented as standard religious fare, rather than failures of Bible-faith.
The closest TV has come to normalizing a Christian perspective is Friday Night Lights, with its locker room prayers and various characters' conflicts with Bible-based morality. Grace, Alicia's daughter on The Good Wife is another surprising and genuine portrayal of a person exploring faith not just as a means of believing something, but as a response to the Bible itself.
More typical are characters like Rose and Mr. Eko on Lost, who seemed to find peace and potentially redemption through faith, as did Shepherd Book on Firefly, one of my own all-time favorites. Book ultimately didn't care what anyone believed, just that they believed in something—actually a fairly common sentiment in pop culture.
On The Mindy Project, Mindy's minister boyfriend exuded joy from his spirituality, another example of the fruit that can (and should) result from rooted faith. TV handles this with a sort of "it works for them" standoffishness and typically shuttles these characters off-screen quickly (often through death or, in the case of Mindy's "cool Christian boyfriend," an inexplicable conversion of calling from missionary to rap star).
So why is Sally Langston both unhappy and unsympathetic? Well, at least Scandal demonstrates this: Not only is "faking it" always exhausting, but – according to this example – faking religion can lead to mixing up "salvation" with achieving selfish goals.
TV Christians are rarely as ambitious as Sally Langston, so it's too bad that her version of "motivational" faith lead to murder, rather than the amazing feats and good deeds that real-life Christians know it can inspire.