News & Politics

Why Margaret Atwood’s 'The Handmaid’s Tale' Isn’t So Far-Fetched in 2018

It represents a vision Pence and other theocrats have for the U.S.

Photo Credit: Hulu (YouTube)

During his visit to Philadelphia on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence was greeted with a series of angry and loud but peaceful protests. Pence was in Philly campaigning for Republican Lou Barletta, who is running against incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. in the November midterms—and while some groups of protestors were marching and demonstrating against President Trump’s immigration policy, others addressed abortion rights and the likely demise of Roe v. Wade if Brett Kavanaugh (President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court) is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. One group of female protestors dressed in the red robes and white bonnets depicted on Hulu’s hit television series, “The Handmaid’s Tale”—and given the way Trump, with Pence’s blessing, is reshaping the federal judiciary along Christian dominionist lines, “The Handmaid’s Tale” isn’t looking so far-fetched in 2018.

When Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” was first released in 1985, the Canadian author was well aware of the inroads the Christian Right had been making in U.S. politics under President Ronald Reagan—and her science fiction novel depicted a dystopian future in which a far-right Christian fundamentalist theocracy/dictatorship called the Republic of Gilead had been established in New England. In anti-feminist Gilead, women had no democratic rights and were forced to submit completely to patriarchal authority. 

A film adaptation of Atwood’s novel was released in 1990, and in 2017, the current Hulu TV version premiered. The novel, the film and the television series have all been described as “paranoid” by those who underestimate the fanaticism of the Christian Right. But the way things are developing with the U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal courts as well, the Republic of Gilead isn’t looking like a paranoid fantasy, but rather, like the vision Pence and other theocrats have for the U.S.

For 45 years, Christian fundamentalists have longed for the demise of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that, in effect, legalized abortion throughout the U.S.—and if Kavanaugh is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he would most likely join Neil Gorsuch (Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee), Justice Clarence Thomas and other “strict constructionists” in voting to overturn Roe v. Wade. But Roe is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the type of damage a far-right socially conservative Supreme Court could do in the U.S.

Also on the chopping block are 1965’s Griswold v. Connecticut—which struck down a Connecticut law banning the sale of contraception to married couples—and Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 ruling that ended a Texas sodomy law and by extension, sodomy laws in 13 other states. And another right-to-privacy decision that could be overturned is Stanley v. Georgia, which in 1969, determined that simple possession of sexually explicit material for adults could not be a crime even if the material itself is obscene. Thanks to Stanley v. Georgia, obscenity prosecutions in the U.S. have been dealing with creation or distribution, but not mere possession.

If the Supreme Court ruled that Roe v. Wade, Griswold v. Connecticut, Lawrence v. Texas and Stanley v. Georgia were all wrongly decided, it would look a lot like the Republic of Gilead. Many states would have the power to ban abortion and contraception, outlaw gay sex and send people to prison for downloading porn on the Internet. To make matters worse, the Supreme Court could expand the definition of what does or doesn’t constitute obscenity.

Prosecuting a book, film or magazine for obscenity became much more difficult in 1957, when the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren handed down a landmark decision in Roth v. the United States—which in 1973, was upheld but tweaked with the Miller v. California ruling. The Roth/Miller standard for judging obscenity says, in essence, that the intent of the entire work must be considered—not just an isolated portion, which was the pre-Roth standard applied in Regina v. Hicklin (an old 19th century British ruling that defined obscenity law for many years in both England and the U.S.). 

So, if the Supreme Court were to overturn the Miller decision and replace it with something that had a much broader definition of obscenity, everything from risqué hip-hop songs to literature promoting birth control could be judged obscene. In fact, the notorious 19th century theocrat Anthony Comstock used the Regina v. Hicklin standard when he went after birth control pamphlets for obscenity. And when Pence, the Family Research Council and other Christianists are accused of wanting to return the U.S. to the 1950s, that’s an inaccurate statement—they want to return the U.S. to the 1850s.

Before deciding to nominate Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Trump was considering Amy Coney Barrett—a federal appellate judge who, the New York Times reported in 2017, was involved in an extremist group called People of Praise. Although predominantly Catholic, People of Praise are considered a cult in mainstream Catholicism. And its practices have included requiring members to swear an oath of loyalty to the group, teaching that women should be submissive to male authority and referring to women as “handmaidens.”

People of Praise no longer use the term “handmaidens” in connection with female members, but the fact that they once did is downright chilling if one is familiar with “The Handmaid’s Tale.” And the fact that Trump was considering nominating a People of Praise ally to the U.S. Supreme Court should not be taken lightly.

However, Trump is not only appointing extreme social conservatives to the U.S. Supreme Court—he is also using the lower federal courts to advance a theocratic agenda. In addition to appointing 44 federal judges—including many appellate judges—Trump has nominated 88 others who are awaiting consideration by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has repeatedly stated that there is no separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution, and Pence obviously shares that view.

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If “The Handmaid’s Tale” were merely a paranoid fantasy, the U.S. would be much better off. But the more Trump is able to flood the judiciary and the government with extreme theocrats, the more the U.S. will be resembling the Republic of Gilead.

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Alex Henderson is a news writer at AlterNet and veteran political journalist. His work has also appeared in Salon, Raw Story, Truthdig, National Memo, Philadelphia Weekly, Democratic Underground, L.A. Weekly, MintPress News and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.