Religion as a Front for Tyranny: A Roundtable on the Timeliness of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”

“Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”

This inner monologue from Offred, the protagonist of Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, is a warning that echoes in our time. When Margaret Atwood published the dystopian novel in 1985, she said there was nothing in the book that hadn’t already happened. What makes the story so eerie to read now is that sense of recognition, of creeping familiarity.

The fact that the book has maintained its relevance for more than three decades—and has now been given a second life as a TV series—reveals the enduring quality of the social struggles it depicts and how seamless the slide into tyranny can be.

In this special roundtable we talk about the series with Nyasha Junior, Temple University Hebrew Bible professor and author of An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation, and RD senior correspondents, Patricia Miller, author of Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church and Kaya Oakes, author of The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Seekers, Believers and Those In-Between.

Anita Little: In the first episode, Aunt Lydia utters the chilling line, “Ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will.” This reminds me of the debates around normalizing Trump’s presidency. And it makes me wonder what we can expect. Will we become numb? Complacent?

Kaya Oakes: There are some things the series portrays that aren’t realistic, in my opinion. Atwood herself describes it as speculative fiction, which always operates on the worst case scenario. Maybe this is my California filter, but I don’t see women being rounded up and forced into Puritan-style outfits (maybe ours will be designed by Ivanka?), or LGBTQ people being eradicated, or anything that blatant.

The changes we’re looking at are both major and subtle. The subtle changes or erosions of rights are in many ways more worrying because of the issue of normalization, as you point out. But we also have to be careful that #NotNormal doesn’t just become a hollow hashtag like #Resist.

In the series, everything changes very quickly, taking people by surprise. But many of Trump’s attempted policies are actually being worked through in the more laborious, slow process of courtrooms and Congress.

Nyasha Junior:  I read The Handmaid’s Tale in college, and I saw the film with Robert Duvall and Faye Dunaway in the dark ages on a VHS cassette. I re-read the novel this spring before the Hulu series began.

Since the U.S. presidential election, Sarah Kendzior, who studies authoritarian regimes, has encouraged people to pay attention to changes that are taking place. She recommends even taking notes in order to remember how things used to be and to recognize the things that are not normal.

It is possible that some Americans may become increasingly numb and acclimate to a “New Normal.” Yet, it is also possible that more people may become dissidents.

Patricia Miller: Atwood said that when she wrote the book the premise seemed somewhat outrageous even to her, and I sort of felt that way at the time. However, I also recognized that it got to an essential truth that gives the book much of its power—that authoritarian regimes always have a disproportionate interest in the reproductive control of women.

We may not see a regime where women are literally forced to wear red robes and service powerful men, but figuratively speaking, we are faced with a Republican regime that both wants to ban abortion and remove coverage of maternity services from health insurance, that would require a woman to stare at an ultrasound of a fetus she wishes to abort, and that would deny her access to affordable contraception.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a metaphor for creeping state control of reproduction. On some fronts we are in worse shape than we were when the book came out—especially when it comes to access to abortion, the ultimate marker of reproductive freedom.

I read something recently that really changed the way I think about the 1920s and that makes me think of where we are now. We think of the ’20s as the “roaring twenties” and a time of new sexual freedom, especially for women. But in reality, the 1920s marked the endpoint of the Progressive Era and what were largely women-led social policies to improve the world for women and children—things like a minimum “family wage,” subsidized day care and mother’s pensions. Instead of substantive social policies that would challenge the established order and give women more power and freedom, women gained the “freedom” to dress more daringly and drink and have sex like men.

We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the ability to talk publicly about sex and recognize different ways of being in terms of sex and gender since the mid-1980s. But at the same time, there’s been a kind of creeping authoritarianism that has inserted the state into almost every decision women make about reproduction.

I think that’s why the Hobby Lobby decision was such a big deal to so many women—it seemed almost unfathomable that in this day and age a woman’s boss should get to decide whether she gets access to birth control. But if you follow Atwood’s logic, it shouldn’t surprise you. Patriarchy will always seek control of reproduction, and even when at the margins, it waits for the time when it can reassert itself.

For a long time, I thought The Handmaid’s Tale was a recent-ish book because the issues it presents feel so hyper-relevant that I assumed Atwood was gaining inspiration from current events. I only just found out it was published before I was born. So what’s different now? What core themes of The Handmaid’s Tale make it timeless, and what does that say about how much or how little we’ve progressed in women’s rights?

Kaya Oakes: I read The Handmaid’s Tale for a women’s studies course in college in the early ’90s. The book was fairly recent at that point, and we were right in between the first Bush presidency and Clinton’s election. The Christian Right was both upsurging and powerful.

Today, what we’re experiencing—based on all statistical and empirical evidence—is more like the last gasp of an aging white male Christian Right. A creepy gasp, but a gasp. What I recall is that the book felt both timely and somewhat timeless—a similar feeling to the TV series, although the series has dropped in some pop culture references (Uber, Tinder, a protest that looked a bit like that Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad until you-know what-happens at the end of the scene) and legal changes (references to marriage equality) to update it to now.

The major differences between reading it then and watching it now is that we have actually gained quite a bit in terms of social progress in the past couple of decades, and the threat of what we’ve gained being stripped away is likely why some scenes in the series were so jarring.

Patricia Miller: I think it’s kind of awesome that you thought The Handmaid’s Tale was of recent vintage—it really speaks to Atwood’s power as a writer, as well as a thinker about issues of women and power and religion.

I read the book when it first came out as a young woman just coming to consciousness in the teeth of the Reagan administration. As someone who already had an interest in the Christian Right and issues of reproductive control, it really spoke to me and creeped me out at a time when abortion was just coming to the fore as a political wedge issue, gay people were being shamed for contracting HIV/AIDS, and Phyllis Schlafly and her ilk were still very much part of the national conversation and asserting that the only proper role for a woman was as a wife and mother.

Anita Little: In a New York Times piece, Atwood writes “the book is not ‘antireligion.’ It is against the use of religion as a front for tyranny; which is a different thing altogether.” We see this in the show in the contrast between the theocratic state of Gilead that wields the Bible as justification for oppression and the personal spirituality of Offred.  

In one tense interrogation scene, Aunt Lydia says to Offred, “Remember your scripture. Blessed are the meek.” Offred responds with, “Blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

There’s this line made between public and private religion, sort of like the line between the public religion of conservatives who want to influence policy and the personal faith of many Americans.

Kaya Oakes: Religion as an issue in The Handmaid’s Tale is portrayed as more extreme than what we see around us today. Atwood was a scholar of the Puritans, and there are echoes of Puritanism in the visuals (those outfits, public punishments, forced prayer), and in the plot devices. And yet again: there are constitutional issues at hand in our present-day reality. Sure, freedom of religion is increasingly being used as a weapon by conservatives, but who’s really threatened by that? Muslims, Jews and members of minority religions.

Sarah Jones’ take on this in The New Republic was interesting because Jones has experienced fundamentalist evangelical culture from within, whereas someone like myself, who comes from a liberal/progressive Catholic background, has always had the freedom to walk out on a misogynistic homily or write about church sexism. So that’s my own privilege-filter speaking when I say that I don’t see America going full-Atwood Puritanical. We are too secular for that. Nonetheless, the decline in religious literacy does risk the danger of secular people being slowly dominated by conservative Christian thinking without realizing it.

Nyasha Junior: The Republic of Gilead uses biblical texts selectively in order to support its use of power. Forcing the handmaids to be surrogates is linked to the Rachel and Leah narratives in Genesis during which enslaved women Bilhah and Zilpah have children for Rachel and Leah. Janine/Ofwarren’s punishment for her insolence is justified by a gruesome interpretation of Matthew 5:29 (“And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” [KJV]).

Similarly, we see the selective use of biblical texts in real-world policymaking. For example, U.S. Rep. Jody Arrington of Texas supports increasing work requirements for adults who qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. To support his position, he cites 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (“For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.” [KJV]).

The novel is a classic because it deals with themes of power, agency and voice. The Handmaid’s Tale series feels so relevant today because it focuses on the experiences of a woman living under an oppressive regime. When reproductive rights activists in Texas and Missouri staged protests wearing handmaid’s costumes, it was a chilling statement that the Gilead regime does not seem far-fetched but frighteningly familiar.

Patricia Miller: I think it’s important to note that Atwood said she didn’t put anything in the book that didn’t happen at some point in history. Unfortunately in the ensuing years since the book was published, we’ve had the Taliban and ISIS to educate us anew about how truly fundamentalist regimes get off on the absolute sexual subjugation of women.

Atwood is also right on point in her understanding of religion as a tool of social control. As she said recently in an interview in Sojourners, the people in control in Gilead aren’t “really interested in religion; they’re interested in power. They’re not interested in belief or in faith; they’re interested in compliance, and they’re using religion as a way to get the compliance, because once you set up a state religion like that … anybody who doesn’t agree with you is a heretic.”

We have only to look at how Trump conflated Christianity with white nationalism and threw in a pinch of opposition to reproductive freedom to see how far someone who is skilled at manipulating religion can get.