The Persistent Religious Presence in Madame Secretary

Josh Herring

Like The West Wing and House of Cards, Madame Secretary focuses on a powerful political player: United States Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni). Yet while she is almost always the central character in the main plot, her husband Henry (Tim Daly), a religion professor, has proven to be one of the most intriguing supporting players. His character brings a deeper, more human element than is normally seen in the typical political television drama.

We first meet Henry in season 1 guiding a group of undergraduate students at The University of Virginia through a passage of Thomas Aquinas. When Elizabeth accepts her position as Secretary of State, Henry begins teaching at Georgetown. Over seasons 1 and 2, Henry’s character becomes instrumental in two ways. In the first, he connects his religious studies to Elizabeth’s new role, drawing inspiration and comfort for her from religious thinkers. Knowledge of the religious traditions of mankind becomes key to solving political challenges, as well as equipping the Secretary of State with moral and mental stamina.

Henry adds a spiritual dimension to a character type usually defined by desire for power.

Secondly, Henry’s military past combines with his scholarly expertise, enabling him to assist the government’s intelligence agencies. Henry brings an awareness of human religious motivations and a deep knowledge of particular practices to the table. If religion is, as Georgetown University’s Thomas Farr described in a recent lecture, “the human search for a greater than human source of being and meaning,” then Henry’s awareness of this facet of humanity gives him insight that his materialistic colleagues fail to perceive. Henry helps one man understand the teachings and psychology of a cult, allowing for successful infiltration. His understandings of Islam propel him to the Murphy Station task force, a team paralleling the real-life efforts to find Osama bin Laden. Eventually he is named head of the CIA’s Special Activities Division. Henry’s understanding of human beings as religious creatures not only enables his success, but complicates the typical Washingtonian character. Henry adds a spiritual dimension to a character type usually defined by desire for power, progressive beliefs, and reflexive materialism.

By illustrating the reality of religious beliefs, Henry upholds a truth about human nature that is grounded in Scripture. As John Piper has written in regard to the Psalms, human beings were made to worship. Our problem, of course, is that we often worship the wrong things. When God summoned his people to Mount Sinai after the exodus, the first two laws he gave them concerned what they were to worship and what they were not to worship. As the apostle Paul wrote, all of humanity knows God at some level, through natural revelation. Madame Secretary’s Henry McCord reminds us that all people are worshippers, and that an effective government policy cannot separate people from this worshipping capacity.

Thus far, season 4 of Madame Secretary has not continued to draw on this aspect of Henry’s character. We’ve seen Henry struggle to balance work and parenting, his compassion for an agent with a drug problem, his continued support for his wife, and his efforts to help his son navigate high-school romance. Hopefully, as the season continues, his uniquely religious perspective will return to the forefront.

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure