Religion and Paranoia in The Handmaid’s Tale

I have just finished watching the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale on SBS. Based on Margaret Attwood’s 1985 novel, it is set in the Republic of Gilead in what was once the United States. The birth rate has dropped dramatically and some fundamentalist Christians called the Sons of Jacob seized control. The few fertile women, who are left, including the narrator Offred, are kept as handmaids to have children for the leaders of the new regime. This is based on Genesis 30 where Jacob’s wife Rachel cannot have children, so she arranges for her handmaid Bilhah to have sex with her husband and have children for her.

Offred says she is 33 years old (Margaret Attwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, Vintage Books, London, 2010, p 153). How Messianic. When she was seven or eight years old, she saw a documentary about World War II, 40 or 50 years earlier (p 154-155). She would have seen this documentary around 1985 to 1995. This means The Handmaid’s Tale was originally set between 2010 and 2021, or about now.

The production of the television series began in April 2016, when it looked like Hillary Clinton was going to be the next President of the United states. After Donald Trump’s election, many on the Left are saying that The Handmaid’s Tale has become more relevant, as though this is the sort of thing fundamentalist Christians want to do to women.

Elisabeth Moss, who plays Offred, has said that after Trump’s election, “But then in my country things got very, very relevant, much closer to home than we could have ever anticipated.”

Some have accused The Handmaid’s Tale of inciting hatred against Christians;

The Handmaid’s Tale: The Delusionary Hysterical Fear of Christian Theocracy

The Handmaid’s Tale Is Hate Speech

However, in a New York Times article “Margaret Attwood on What The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump” Margaret Attwood has said that the book “is not “anti-religion”. It is about the use of religion as a front for tyranny, which is different thing altogether.”

Margaret Attwood had a cameo in the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale

In the same article Attwood wrote, “The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet.” This would mean secular regimes, not just religious ones. The handmaids system was set up to deal with the fertility crisis and declining birthrates. This begs the question, how would a secular totalitarian regime have responded and treated the few remaining fertile women?

Attwood also wrote, “So many different strands fed into”The Handmaid’s Tale” – group executions, sumptuary laws, book burnings, the Lebensborn of the SS and the child-stealing of the Argentine generals, the history of slavery, the history of American polygamy .. the list is long.”

“I must confess that the face-hiding bonnets came not only from mid-Victorian costume and from nuns, but from the Old Dutch Cleanser package of the 1940s, which showed a woman with her face hidden, and which frightened me as a child.”

The many (not just Christian) influences on The Handmaid’s Tale are also explored in the New York Times article, “Margaret Attwood Annotates Season 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale”

All these influences went into The Handmaid’s Tale and resulted in a form of fundamentalist Christianity which does not resemble any existing Christian group. They are not Catholics because they execute Catholic priests(The Handmaid’s Tale, p 53). They are not Baptists, which make up a large portion of the Religious Right, because they are fighting the Baptists in the Appalachians (p 92). They do not sound like Protestants at all because they have banned the hymn Amazing Grace (p 64). No one ever actually goes to church. They have machines which play recorded prayers for people (p 175-176). Who are these people and how could there have been enough of them to take over the country?

Christian groups do not usually name themselves after the Old Testament Patriarchs. Just because someone did something in the Old Testament, Christians do not try to copy it today. The whole idea of Jacob having sex with Rachel’s handmaid showed a lack of faith in God and not trusting in His timing. It seems odd that his group would call themselves the Sons of Jacob since four of the sons of Jacob had handmaids for mothers.

In an article “Margaret Attwood on Christianity, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ and What Faithful Activism Looks like Today” Margaret Attwood says the Sons of Jacob are not really Christians,

“I don’t consider these people to be Christians because they do not have at the core of their behavior and ideologies what I, in my feeble Canadian way, would consider to be the core of Christianity, and that would be not only love your neighbors but love your enemies. That would also be ‘I was sick and you visited me not’ and such and such … But they don’t do that either. Neither do a lot of people who fly under the Christian flag today.”

If The Handmaid’s Tale had been based on the beliefs of an existing Christian group, there would something for women to worry about. The fact, that Attwood had to invent a religious group and incorporate many non-Christian influences, suggests that The Handmaid’s Tale is not that relevant in Trump’s America.

Furthermore, in an article “Handmaid Tale lunacy that Trump wants theocracy” Rich Lowry writes,

“The president doesn’t want to impose his traditional sexual morality because, for starters, he doesn’t have any to impose. His critics are mistaking a thrice-married real estate mogul who has done cameos in Playboy videos and extensive interviews on “The Howard Stern Show” with [Puritan leader] Cotton Mather.”

Elisabeth Moss is also a Scientologist. She says the fictional abuses of the Sons of Jacob are relevant to contemporary America, while ignoring the real documented abuses of her own “church”.

I would like to thank Xenu Overlord  of the Galactic Federation for my Emmy wins

The Handmaid’s Tale is not real. It is upmarket science fiction satire, a feminist 1984. Nevertheless, perhaps the series was bad timing. The United States have become a deeply divided society. Both conservatives and progressives  are mistrustful and increasingly paranoid. They demonize the other side  which they think is out to oppress them. Conservatives think it is inciting hatred of them. Progressives think it is a dramatization of the right’s women’s policy. It has arguably only made this situation worse and feeds their paranoia and political delusions.

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Author: Malcolm Nicholson

I am a small business owner and I live in northern Tasmania. I am a graduate of the University of Tasmania and I have a Master of Arts in Early Christian and Jewish Studies from Macquarie University. I am a member of the Churches of Christ. I have been a teacher librarian, New Testament Greek teacher, branch president and state policy committee chairman of a political party, university Christian group president. My interests include ancient history, early Christian history, the Holocaust, Bible prophecy, revival, UFOs, peak oil and science fiction.

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