Don't Overinterpret The Handmaid's Tale

What the dystopian series does not imply about the role of religion in politics


As someone who likes to build up my capacity to imagine the worst, I’ve been finding The Handmaid’s Tale, the new television series adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, harrowing to watch. The show is an investigation into religious totalitarianism and patriarchy, and perhaps more interestingly a meditation on collaboration and complicity. I’ve been struggling with it because it seems, at times, so plausible, but also so far-fetched.

In creating the fictional Gilead—a theocratic regime that comes to power in the United States after falling birthrates and terrorist attacks lead to mass panic, then a culture of enforced sexual servitude—Atwood was issuing a warning. That the television series has come out in the era of Donald Trump has apparently helped make it a sensation. “What if it happened here in America?” viewers and critics are asking. Yet, something like Gilead couldn’t happen here, in part because it hasn’t happened anywhere.

Saudi Arabia, for example, might be an authoritarian theocracy—state law requires citizens to be Muslim and prohibits non-Muslim public worship—but it is not totalitarian. Various competing religious movements and networks operate, if unofficially, in the country, and complex tribal patronage systems provide routes for citizens to accrue resources from the state, as well as some degree of accountability.

Even the Islamic State, which does engage in sex slavery, otherwise diverges from the model of Gilead’s Christian fundamentalists. Gilead’s biblical judgments often seem laughably arbitrary and primitive (noncompliance is punished with eye-gouging, for example). ISIS is similarly comfortable with performative brutality, but it set up fairly complex and elaborate judicial and legal structures, including detailed tax codes and counterfeit statutes. The group’s interlocking sharia courts, binding fatwas, and economic regulations amount to what Yale University’s Andrew March and Mara Revkin term “scrupulous legality.”

A comparison to pre-modern Christian states may be more apt. In places like John Calvin’s Geneva, efforts to enforce moral discipline ranged from the obvious (punishing sexual deviance) to the odd (making Bibles available at pubs to encourage spiritual reflection). In the early 16th century, the Protestant reformer Ulrich Zwingli likened Christian life to “a battle so sharp and full of danger that effort can nowhere be relaxed without loss.” But pre-modern states, due to their lack of technology, surveillance powers, modern armies, and massive bureaucracies, were fundamentally different. Even when they wanted to be, they couldn’t be all-encompassing. They couldn’t be total.

Some liberals have managed to draw parallels closer to home, which has led to some absurdly mismatched comparisons. The New Republic’s Sarah Jones writes that “Texas is Gilead and Indiana is Gilead and now that Mike Pence is our vice president, the entire country will look more like Gilead, too.” No, Texas is not Gilead; it’s a state where people are peacefully and democratically expressing social conservatism. And as for the nation, Americans did just elect the most secular president perhaps in the country’s history.

As someone who wrote last year in The Atlantic that “it” could happen here, running through a number of worst-cases scenarios under a then-hypothetical President Trump, I believe it is sometimes just as important to argue that it can’t happen here. It is, of course, possible that the United States could experience a religious awakening, particularly if partisan polarization and Trump-style ethno-nationalism exhaust enough people. But the fact that Christian intellectuals like Rod Dreher and Russell Moore have resigned themselves for now to a “post-Christian” society—the idea being that Christians are an embattled minority that has lost the culture wars and that would be better off making a “strategic retreat” from America’s increasingly secularized public life—suggests that the time horizon for any such change is quite long.

But even if the United States did experience some kind of transformation of Christian consciousness, it wouldn’t—very likely couldn’t—be anything like the society described in Atwood’s novel. To suggest that this is a scenario worth taking seriously because it’s in the realm of possibility is to assume that expressions of public religiosity, regardless of how they are expressed, are automatically negative and something to be opposed. It’s to imply that conservative Christians are basically akin to totalitarians—or could theoretically become totalitarians—simply because they believe their faith has something important to say about public life and politics.

The leaders of Texas and Indiana may have retrograde views on gender, sexuality, marriage, and abortion, but they are democratically elected leaders nonetheless. To the extent that Texas is a socially conservative state, it is because voters in Texas are socially conservative—or at the very least there are enough of them who are comfortable with socially conservative policies. There is nothing intrinsically illegitimate about citizens of a state having what a liberal considers “bad” views, as long as they express them peacefully and democratically within the framework of the law and the constitution.

What makes Gilead, or for that matter any authoritarian theocracy, so terrifying isn’t just, or even primarily, the religious absolutism. It’s that religious laws, once promulgated, cannot be undone through the political process, because there is no political process. There are no elections and there are no opposition parties. There are no voters. Citizens have no recourse except to stay silent or to resist.

In other words, Christian evangelicals—or for that matter conservative Jews and conservative Muslims—who oppose abortion, gay marriage, or refuse to dine with women or men other than their spouses are not any less American. What would make them less American or un-American is if they believed, as a matter of faith, that democracy should be done away with and that there was only one truth that could be expressed by the state. Then the rest of us would have, quite literally, no choice. It is the closing of the avenues of possibility—and therefore of hope—that makes dictatorship, and not just the religious kind, so terrifying.