Well that took a turn.
A couple days ago I had worked out in my head an outline for a post on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. More specifically, about how some (self-identified) conservative commentators have characterized it as liberal fantasy and anti-Christian propaganda, or in an even further stretch as an indictment of the collectivism of the left. Due to the timing of its premier, many people all over the political spectrum have chosen to interpret the material as a comment on the Trump administration, though the first season of the series follows very closely the novel upon which it was based – and which was written during the Reagan Era. The author herself has said the Republic of Gilead (which she has named her dystopian America) is a product of neither conservatism nor liberalism.
I have recently become a big fan of the show and wanted to discuss the merits of its production and performance without bringing any references to the current administration into it at all. I thought reasonable people of different political and cultural understanding could discuss and recognize what seeds of this dystopia we could agree not to let root in America.
Then the Attorney General of the United States cited Romans to excuse immoral actions of the state.
My perspective took a turn. A hard turn.
I’m what some might call liberal. And what others might call moderate. Unless someone far to the left of Rachel Maddow is elected president, I’ll probably never be labeled a conservative.
But I’m not so biased that I can’t admit none of the actual people I know who do think of themselves as conservative are represented by the fictional architects of Handmaid’s horrors. Sexual servitude is not a conservative value. Enforced caste systems are not a conservative value. Institutional hypocrisy is not a conservative value.
Traditional Western conservatism, like any political theory, has its pros and cons (which is which may vary by your personal outlook) but the people who truly study, understand, and embrace it are not by definition villains. Sure I could point to countless stories of conservative (or liberal) politicians and leaders caught up in scandals of corruption and hypocrisy, but that’s a product of politics and power, not conservatism.
The evil in Gilead is an entirely different beast.
To find an anti-Christian bias in Handmaid, I believe you have to watch with the assumption it exists, because – despite plenty of Old Testament quoting – it’s not there.
I’ve seen all the episodes (which is not necessarily true of everyone who chooses to comment in favor of or against it) and I’ve noticed the writers are very intentional about not having practitioners of the state religion of Gilead mention or quote Jesus. One scene in particular drives this home. Before dinner, a familiar grace is said: “Bless us O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which are about to receive from Thy bounty…” and then it stops. It lacks the traditional ending: “Through Christ, our Lord..”
You know who does mention Jesus? Offred/June, our series protagonist. She says a prayer of protection and blessing over the scene of a massacre, and ends it with “in Christ’s name. Amen.”
The character whose red uniform has been borrowed by “liberals” as a symbol of oppression speaks of Jesus and angels to commemorate and mourn the dead. The oppressors can’t seem to reconcile Christ to their theology. That doesn’t say to me the writers are interested in bashing Christianity.
What is it then?
So if Gilead isn’t conservatism or Christianity run amok, what is it? It is (and I’m certainly not the first to say this) a fundamentalist theocracy. And like real-world fundamentalist theocracies, it starts from a familiar scripture which it then cherry-picks and twists to support the absolute authority of its civic leaders – who of course manage to find excuses to exempt themselves from the burden of the rules they use to crush others.
And like many fundamentalist theocracies it exploits the fear surrounding crises both real (in the world of Handmaid, toxic pollution and global infertility) and imagined (people unlike us are the source of our problems). Regressive fundamentalism expresses a desire to “return” to a set of values and norms which never actually existed. The only Christ-related message Gilead seems to cling to is the idea of removing a body part if it causes you to sin, except a) they are literal about it in a way Jesus never intended, and b) instead of self-regulation it’s the state that enforces the lopping, chopping, and plucking.
So if it’s not really Christianity or conservatism, why is it interpreted so?
Fundamentalism is not limited to conservative religions or ideologies. It occurs anywhere people decide their specific point of view must be enforced at all costs. Dress, speech, and reverence of symbols is prescribed and not only can one be punished for failing to follow that prescription, one can be punished (often worse) merely for questioning the system. Questions are the most threatening things of all, because once we allow discussion and analysis of ideas, no fundamentalism survives.
Yet even in the United States there are people who promote and long for a fundamentalist theocratic state. There’s a call to return to Christian values, as if Christian belief and practice is monolithic and unchanged in its expression. For the record, it’s not and never has been. It started with Peter, Paul, and James in stark disagreement over many basic issues and is all over the map today.
But when it comes to fundamentalists, Christianity itself is almost beside the point.
Somewhere in the human psyche, there’s a desire for the seeming order that fundamentalism provides. Certain people rally around it because it satisfies a tribal instinct which requires the “othering” of both outsiders and insiders who question the tribe. The instinct is not partisan. It makes our problems about the failings of other people and minimizes self-reflection. Its application is necessarily ruthless. From shunning to honor killing, mercy is removed from the equation. 99% adherence is 100% insufficient.
This is the exact opposite of what Christ taught. He certainly never suggested Christianity be forced upon anyone. Yet in the United States, a country where freedom of religion is a guaranteed right, there is an ever louder voice wanting to prescribe speech (the “war on Christmas”) and reverence for symbols (if you kneel during the anthem “Maybe you shouldn’t be in this country.”) There’s no question there is also a fundamentalist strain of liberalism which needs to be checked (no matter what you think of Ann Coulter and her execrable ideas she has the right to express them), but it lacks the coercive religious component which claims to add the fate of your eternal soul into the mix.
When relative moderates align themselves with extremists to achieve political or social goals, chances are more likely that the extremists will influence the moderates than the moderates will constrain the extremists. It’s a lot easier to irritate an extremist, and they’re more willing to walk away from the table. The concessions to civility and human rights that such an alliance requires are almost never worth it in the long term. Thus we have conservative giants like George Will bemoaning the current state of conservatism, the Republican Party and this administration in particular.
The Handmaid’s Trail
Which brings me back to our Attorney General (and Press Secretary) using Romans 13 to justify enforcing the unjust, state-sanctioned practice of separating children from their parents – while conveniently ignoring plenty of other verses specific to the treatment of aliens and refugees. Now that I’ve seen the connection to Handmaid, I can’t unsee it.
First, our government is not based on the Bible, or any religious text. Specifically. And intentionally. The individual constitutions of the first thirteen colonies were based in thirteen different (and conflicting) flavors of Christianity. To become a union (which was ironically opposed by English loyalists citing Romans 13…) we wisely ditched theocracy. Bringing it back is a Gilead-style move.
Second, Romans 13 is not a call to enforce unjust laws. Remember that Jesus guy? He was crucified for sedition. He refused to bend to the prescribed speech of the Roman empire. He violated Sabbath laws. He valued mercy and principle above fundamentalism and paid the price for it. Your hands aren’t tied by Romans 13 unless you want to call Jesus a bad example. You’ll never hear the Commanders of Gilead quoting Christ’s calls to mercy above law unless it serves their desires.
Third, it’s hypocritical. Administrations (local, state, and national) prioritize what laws to enforce and how to enforce them all the time. Nobody opposed to same-sex marriage cited Romans 13 when Kim Davis refused to do her legal duty as an employee of the state, or when Joe Arpaio defied the Supreme Court. Inconsistent and hypocritical application of scripture is Gilead 101.
Finally, throwing up your hands and crying “What can I do?” in the face of injustice – especially when you’re one of the few people in a position to do something about it! – is about as unchristian as it gets. You can choose not to do the unjust but legally required(?) thing and pay the price of following Christ’s merciful example. You can decry the horribleness of a situation, confess how you have contributed to it, and repent by finding another way. A difficult or unattractive option is still an option; choosing it when it’s the right one is a matter of character.
There is always the option to the do the right thing and look for another solution. Declaring “this is terrible but I have to because the law” – when it’s something you really want to do anyway (or not doing so will exact a price you are unwilling to pay) – and then improperly quoting scripture to justify it, is not Christian. It’s not conservative. It does not show integrity. It is a dangerously fundamentalist theocratic thing to do. It’s one of the basic conflicts in every episode of Handmaid, most dramatically addressed when Offred/June and the other handmaids refuse to stone one of their own, while the representatives of the faith insist it must be done because it’s the law and order must be preserved. If there was only some way to know which side of that dispute Jesus might land on…
No Balm in Gilead
Does anyone believe Jesus would say “Keep locking up those kids. Blame your predecessors and the refugees for tying your hands. Just don’t cause them to stumble.” To me that’s begging to be fitted for a millstone collar.
There are lots of things Jesus has to say about what we might be doing in this situation. Things like doing good to your enemy, and taking care of the least among you, and welcoming strangers. None of them coincide with unnecessarily ramping up a program you claim to disagree with and causing additional trauma to already traumatized parents and children. None of them require adherence to unjust man-made laws. They do require creativity, compassion, and a willingness to lay our political (and sometimes physical) lives down to a higher purpose.
A Christianity that doesn’t inconvenience you but tells you exactly how to detain, punish, or oppress everyone who isn’t following the rules isn’t Christianity. It’s fundamentalist theocracy. It’s a pious yet somehow Christless Gilead.
No matter our political stripe, we must resist the temptation to ally ourselves with fundamentalists and theocrats. Because once we ride such an alliance to victory, we’ll find that insatiable beast hasn’t been tamed … we merely happened to be going in the direction it wanted to go, and now we’re being dragged along for the ride and holding on lest we also be trampled.
The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t show us the end result of conservatism or of Christianity, but of fundamentalism. If we’re currently having as much trouble teasing those things apart as the Attorney General and his ilk would seem to hope, perhaps we should remember the whole premise of the Tale hinges on children being taken from mothers trying to survive desperate situations.
And all declared the will of God.