Don’t get me wrong, as a doctoral student in religious ethics I’m thrilled a main character in a network drama is a professor of religion. Madam Secretary (Sundays 8/7c on CBS) is one of the few shows I watch week to week. Ordinarily I wait until the end of a show’s run to watch it all the way through. But something about the political drama that is Secretary of State Elizabeth (“Bess”) McCord’s life draws me in. (Am I looking to fill a void left by Game of Thrones? Probably.) Married to the “third hottest D.C. spouse”, Henry, she manages to walk a fine line between her former life as a member of the CIA’s “inner sanctum” and her current role as a public servant.
Her husband, on the other hand, doesn’t even know there is a line. Not only is he a former fighter pilot, he also worked side jobs as an NSA agent. In a recent episode (“Right of the Boom”) President Dalton (Bess’s former boss at the Company) asked Henry to head a special counterterrorism task force. In the most recent episode (“Hijriyyah”), we learn his unit Murphy Station is “the tip of the spear” in the fight against ISIS stand-in Hizb al-Shahid. Now I’m fine with Henry having one foot in the Ivory Tower and one foot in the halls of power (I’ve read Amy Gutmann, Leon Kass, Larry Summers, etc.). What I’m less okay with is the fact that Dr. McCord is an expert at apparently everything when it comes to religious studies.
At the outset of the series we know Henry works alongside his wife as a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia (by my best guess Bess works in the Department of History or Political Science). When she joins him in a library lecturing passionately about Aquinas, I had an immediate sense he teaches in the Theology, Ethics, and Culture subfield. After Dalton asks Elizabeth to serve as his Secretary of State following the death of Vincent Marsh (the would-be Iranian regime changer and inter-party primary challenger), Henry accepts a job teaching “theology” at Georgetown. My inner Divinity School graduate screamed. I loved it.
In episode three (“The Operative”) Henry accepts an invitation to lunch with Russian Foreign Minister, Anton Gorev. Under the pretense of discussing an article in which Henry wrote (according to Gorev’s paraphrase), “religious traditions breed cultural divisions, but they can also dissolve national borders.” He cites the modern Middle-East as an example. We don’t know if that’s Henry’s contention or whether Gorev is simply applying the concept. Regardless, the lunch is the show’s way of introducing us to the fact that Henry is teaching an ethics course. There’s a robust field of theological ethics, so that didn’t really bother me.
By episode six (“The Call”), we learn Henry went to seminary. One of his former mentors is a crooked priest with connections to tribal warlords who could stave off a genocide. In episode eight (“Need to Know”), Henry is reactivated by the NSA to plant a bug in the home of a dastardly colleague with connections to “the Butcher of the Euphrates.” They banter about a copy of one of Henry’s books by Søren Kierkegaard. Maybe he had to read it for his comprehensive exams. So far this is all squaring nicely with what we already know about his work.
But by “Chains of Command” (s. 1, ep. 13) he’s trotting out Gandhi and Muhammad quotes. Maybe this one’s a little thin on evidence, but as a doctoral student I rarely remember quotes from people I’m not actively studying. We know White House Chief of Staff Russell Jackson has a photographic memory, so maybe there’s room for another guy like him in the Beltway. Five episodes later, and Henry’s flown into Bolivia to talk down the leader of a Jonestown-style cult. There are at least five other dedicated scholars of new religious movements I would have at the top of my emergency call list, but President Dalton opted to send a self-described “medievalist.” And by the first season finale (“There But for the Grace of God”) he’s quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When Jackson introduces him to his new team in the White House, he claims Henry is an expert in Islam and jihad.
This, combined with his impressive knowledge of Eastern Orthodox saints and shrines displayed on a trip to Russia in “The Necessary Art” (s. 1., ep. 20), proves to me that all future doctoral students of religion should just quit. Dr. Henry McCord can do it all. They’ve yet to say where he did his Ph.D., but whoever he studied under is clearly minting the kind of job candidates who go on to marry cabinet-level diplomats. (I ask jokingly,) What hope is there for the rest of us?