Why America’s Handmaid’s Tale Doesn’t Look Like Hulu’s

The following was originally published on June 15, 2017. 

As Hulu’s outstanding Handmaid’s Tale adaptation wraps up this week, it’s worth considering its vision of the rise of Christian fascism in America. Although the series was produced before the rise of Donald Trump, many viewers and reviewers can’t help but wonder whether current events might be setting the stage for Handmaid’s vision of Christian authoritarianism.

In the novel and series, the United States is beset by ecological problems and an infertility epidemic. A violent coup by fundamentalist Christians results in the founding of a new state called Gilead, though pockets of rebellion and resistance remain. If this all sounds a little implausible, it’s because it’s all a little implausible. The US military and law enforcement just seem to dissipate as the Gileadean paramilitary takes control. Even in the not-particularly-devout city of Boston resistance quickly disappears. Indeed, despite the novel’s prescience otherwise, the depiction of the process by which it all happens seems unlikely and remote.

And the novel was prescient. In an era in which most literary writers had difficulty recognizing the socially and politically resurgent Christian Right for what it was, Margaret Atwood understood its history, its public claims, its political muscle. The novel was most obviously inspired by the emergent Christian Right’s hostility to abortion rights codified by Roe v. Wade in 1973. But as Aunt Lydia makes clear in the novel, the movement was also about pushing back against the sexual politics of the “long Sixties,” as sociologists put it, including shifting gender roles, the sexual freedom permitted by increasingly available birth control, and homosexuality. The novel’s other important critique—of the Christian Right’s origin in Christian segregation, and Christian slavery before that—was calculatedly abandoned by Hulu in the interest of diversifying its cast.

Since then, white evangelicals have become a core voting bloc for the Republican party. They were triumphant in seeing the born-again President George W. Bush elected in 2000, and they rallied to Donald Trump in 2016, giving him a higher voter share than they’d given to Bush, John McCain, or Mitt Romney. Despite initial claims to the contrary, white evangelicals who are regular churchgoers are more likely to support Trump than those who attend less regularly.

But the Christian Right has invested too much symbolic capital in the idea of America for violent overthrow to be much of an option, and we miss the value of The Handmaid’s Tale as a literary map for our coming trials if we read it too literally. The crucial strategy of the Christian Right has been its intense devotion to American institutions, and its commitment to remaking those institutions in its own image. And it’s the success of the Christian Right in participating in them that gainsays the plausibility of the violent overthrow of the government in Atwood’s novel.

This investment in the idea of America has happened at all levels, but perhaps most importantly at the symbolic level of the nation itself. As Kevin Kruse’s work has recently made clear, the notion of America as a “Christian nation” primarily took shape when corporations went looking for willing church partners to oppose Roosevelt’s New Deal policies in the 1930s. That alliance between big business and conservative Christian leaders culminated in the 1950s Cold War, as exemplified in the anti-Communist development of slogans such as “One Nation Under God” and “In God We Trust.” At first bipartisan, Christian patriotism crystalized as a particularly Republican virtue during the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan administrations.

Part of the recasting of the US as a uniquely Christian nation involved reimagining American history as entailing a sectarian commitment. In Faith of Our Founding Fathers (1987), Tim LaHaye—cofounder with Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority and co-author of the Left Behind series—criticized the “historical revisionism” that had taken evangelical faith out of the history of the nation’s founding. What LaHaye sought to show, in his own act of historical revisionism, was that the Founders were not just vaguely Judeo-Christian Deists, but were, practically, evangelical Christians who would be “comfortable” in “our Bible-believing churches of today.”

This history of Christian Right rhetoric suggests how unlikely it would be to try to replace Godly America with a brand new nation of Gilead. Why start from scratch with a new country when there is already in place a nation whose history, origins, and symbolism have been carefully reconstructed into a theologically-devoted nation that can be purified, its divine purpose at last fulfilled? When Falwell and Pat Robertson attributed the 9/11 terrorist attacks to God removing his protection from the nation because of “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, [and] People for the American Way,” they were typologically interpreting the United States as the superseded nation of Israel—the nation with whom God had a special, if rocky, relationship, sometimes needing violent correction to fulfill at last its divine potential.

So, if we step back from Atwood’s thought experiment and regard it with a wider angle lens, we can see its prescience about what we might call the Christian Right’s authoritarian tendencies, increasingly on display in recent years. It was always the self-conscious nature of the Christian Right to want to impose its ethics across the nation, even to those outside itself. It sought to prevent abortions not only within its congregations, but among all citizens; it desired to re-insert daily prayer and creationism in public schools not just for Christian children, but for all children; it wanted to preclude homosexual acts and marriage not only for its members, but for all inhabitants in the nation. But its method was to work within politics, to return to politics after a mid-century hiatus.

In the decades following its emergence, however, the Christian-Right-animated Republican Party has become increasingly authoritarian in its views and methods, violating in particular the democratic norms and the civic culture of Congress. In the aftermath of the 2000 election, the GOP argued to stop recounting votes in Florida; when the Republican-majority Supreme Court agreed, it handed Florida, and the general election, to the born-again George W. Bush.

In recent years, the Republican Party has tended not to view election wins by Democratic candidates as conferring legitimacy. The GOP reportedly made the decision before President Obama’s inauguration, and in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, to have as their top priority the defeat of Obama in 2012, and to oppose his agenda on the sole principle of denying him a bipartisan legislative victory. During the Obama presidency, the GOP accelerated its practices of gerrymandering, voter suppression under the guise of combatting essentially non-existent voter fraud, and the purging of voter rolls. In 2016, the GOP Senate refused its Constitutional obligation to hold hearings and vote on a Democratic President’s Supreme Court nominee.

These are not the actions of a Party that respects the will of the “voters”; they are the actions of a Party whose chief principle is the rightness of its own power. They are the fruits of what bipartisan scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein argue is the “asymmetric polarization” of an ideologically extreme, uncompromising Republican Party. This Party continues to protect a manifestly incompetent, dangerous, and corrupt President who fired the FBI director investigating his campaign, obstructing or slow-walking all Congressional oversight into his actions and business dealings.

Are these authoritarian, antidemocratic tendencies in the GOP the result of the influence of the Christian Right, as they ultimately proved to be in The Handmaid’s Tale? While it would be wrong to assign these phenomena to a single cause, the Christian Right worldview is highly apocalyptic and Manichaean, a world of black and white moral differences in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. Its animating theology is known as “premillennial dispensationalism,” with many believers expecting an imminent End Time apocalypse in which the Antichrist will reveal himself, fooling the secular masses.

Under such conditions, to obey worldly norms is to disobey the will of God. As Frank Schaeffer, the apostate evangelical whose family helped build the Christian Right, describes, these Republican efforts to extend fundamentalist ethics across the nation overlap with the even more radical policies of Christian dominionists, Reconstructionists, and Theonomists. And as Christopher Stroop has also shown, Christian Right leaders have begun to show explicit sympathy for autocratic, Orthodox Russia, highlighting their “shared anti-LGBTQ animus.”

Like the Hebrew prophets of old, Atwood diagnosed the spiritual ills of the US with clear eyes. There is an authoritarian streak in the Christian Right’s willingness to impose its ethics on those outside its group, religious freedom be damned. But dwelling on the story’s plot of violent overthrow of the nation will blind us to the Christian Right’s crucial strategy of working within the nation’s institutions by rewriting their history and claiming for them divine purpose. To be American is to be Christian, it says. Repentance, return, and reformation are its tactics—not revolution—even if not all citizens are willing. Under His Eye, it knows what is best.