June 2017

The Handmaid’s Tale: America in the Age of Pence

The emphasis on the purity of women and an obsession with controlling sexual urges that creates ideas like the Billy Graham Rule are apparent in The Handmaid’s Tale, where the agency of the Handmaids has been stripped from them and their sanctioned sexual encounters are limited ritualized sessions in order to produce children.

Since the election of Donald Trump, liberals have fretted about the worst possible scenario. What would happen if right-wing Republicans are actually able to implement their agenda? What would the United States look like? These anxieties have generally been centered on the assumption that a Congress led by Ayn Rand disciple Paul Ryan and an executive branch headed by Donald Trump, who rose to the presidency partially on a throwback misogynistic alpha male persona, represent arguably the worst elements of conservatism. While the implications for the social safety net and civil rights may be dire, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers an alternative scenario where a right-wing Protestant totalitarian state has taken control of the United States, renaming it Gilead. Its leaders created a strict hierarchical society revolving around gender, fertility, and piety. In Gilead the state redistributes fertile women known as Handmaids to its leaders who ritually rape them once a month in the hopes of creating offspring. While there is a clear sense of art imitating life in the series, neither Trump nor Ryan fit the bill as a patriarchal religious conservative whose every action is dictated by an extreme interpretation of the Bible. There is one member of the Trump team, however, who does fit this description: Vice President Mike Pence.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Indiana Governor Mike Pence wave to the crowd before addressing the crowd during a campaign stop at the Grand Park Events Center in Westfield
Trump and Pence at a campaign event, July 12, 2016. Courtesy Religion News Service.

Pence, a former Catholic turned Evangelical Christian, possess both qualities. The Vice President’s personal life also demonstrates an inordinate concern with religious purity to the point where he refuses to be alone with a woman who is not his wife. The belief in maintaining as little contact with members of the opposite sex as possible, called the Billy Graham Rule, is not an uncommon belief among Evangelicals. The impact that the Billy Graham Rule has on the careers of women was recently the subject of an insightful piece in the The New Yorker by Jia Tolentino, who criticized the idea as being harmful to women’s career prospects.[1]  The emphasis on the purity of women and an obsession with controlling sexual urges that creates ideas like the Billy Graham Rule are apparent in The Handmaid’s Tale, where the agency of the Handmaids has been stripped from them and their sanctioned sexual encounters are limited ritualized sessions in order to produce children. Offred does challenge this strict organization by having sex with the Waterford’s driver Nick. However, much of the drama of this affair is the subversive nature of it—the pair are clearly violating the rules of Gilead by having a personal relationship.

The Handmaid’s Tale explores a “strain of highly gendered thinking in the Evangelical Christian community in which women are viewed and judged based solely on their ability to have children.”

Another problematic and revealing aspect of the Pence marriage that has been made public is that he refers to his wife as “mother.” This demonstrates a strain of highly gendered thinking in the Evangelical Christian community in which women are viewed and judged based solely on their ability to have children. In this line of thinking, the highest achievement that a woman can strive for is motherhood. This ideology is most prominently on display in the Quiverfull movement that gained notoriety with the television show 19 Kids and Counting. Adherents to the Quiverfull movement believe that God decides the number of children that they should have and that God will not give them more children than they can handle. The Handmaid’s Tale explores a similar worldview wherein the Handmaids are separated from the rest of society by their distinctive dress, which clearly delineates their role as one of the few who are able to conceive children. In the series, Handmaids are both revered for their ability to have children and resented for it. Offred’s menstrual cycle, and whether or not she has gotten her period after a ritualized rape, is of great concern to everyone in the house. Offred’s body is not her own. Her ability to have children, while touted as a “gift” in Gilead means that she is not in control of her own body. While it is still a far cry from The Handmaid’s Tale, the idea that women’s main life goal should be to bear children also removes the agency and choice of women, reducing them to their ability and willingness to reproduce.

elizabeth moss Offred Observer
Elisabeth Moss as Offred enduring ritual rape in The Handmaid’s Tale. Courtesy Observer.

The Hulu series reads as a cautionary tale about what might happen when a leader who governs purely on personal faith is given nearly unlimited control over a government. The Republic of Gilead, as with apocalyptic Evangelical Christianity, is distinctively anti-modern. Mother Lydia, the woman who trains Handmaids, tells her class in the first episode, explaining the regimes worldview: “As birthrates fell they made things worse. Birth control pills, morning after pills, murdering babies. Just so they could have their orgies, their Tinder.” These views about modernity, science, and sex fit well into current right wing religious views towards the modern world. This singular obsession with abortion and birth control has disquieting similarities to the kinds of legislation that Mike Pence attempted to enact as Governor of Indiana and promised to do on the campaign trail. As he put it: “I’m pro-life and don’t apologize for it. We’ll see Roe vs. Wade cosigned to the ash heap of history where it belongs.”[2]

While many liberals speak gleefully about a possible impeachment of Donald Trump, those of us on the left should proceed with caution before we embrace the alternative of a religious extremist like Pence. He has already shown a willingness as Vice-President to challenge women’s rights and to actively push his anti-women’s rights agenda.[3]  There is little reason to believe his priorities would change as president. Many liberal commentators have acknowledged the dangers of a Mike Pence presidency, but view the possibility of Trump remaining in office as a greater immediate threat to democracy and basic human rights. However, the possibility of a Pence administration that would follow the impeachment of Donald Trump brings with it its own horrific possibilities. The most extreme of these possibilities are on display in The Handmaid’s Tale.

American history is riddled with examples of the Christian right rooting oppression and exploitation in biblical texts.

The justification for the subjugation of women in The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the Biblical story of the patriarch Jacob and his servant Bilhah. In the story, Jacob and his wife Rachel cannot conceive a child, so her Handmaid Bilhah has children with Jacob and Rachel raises them as her own. The leaders of the Republic of Gilead quote extensively from the passages in Genesis that tell this story order to justify the ritualized rape committed by the Republic’s leaders. The story is so central to their narrative that they name the center for training new Handmaids “The Rachel and Leah Center.” While this biblical literalism may seem extreme, American history is riddled with examples of the Christian right rooting oppression and exploitation in biblical texts. Southern Protestants’ biblical justifications for slavery are the most well known example of religious texts being used to defend the institutionalized and state sponsored oppression of racial minorities.[4] Even after the defeat of the Confederacy, segregationists continued to use the Bible to justify their views on white racial superiority. Hitting closer to both The Handmaid’s Tale and the politics of the Evangelical right, there have been multiple examples of fundamentalists targeting women’s clinics with violence, using religion as a justification for killing doctors who provide abortions. In addition, the recent mass murder at a gay nightclub in Orlando caused some fringe Christian leaders to vocalize their support for the killing of homosexuals with Pastor Roger Jimenez saying: “The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die. The tragedy is-I’m kind of upset that he didn’t finish the job.”[5] While this attitude does not represent the views of all conservative Christians, there is a deep sense of homophobia in the movement overall, which has found its way into the Trump administration despite Trump’s claims about embracing the LGBTQ community.

Mike Pence,Jerry Falwell Jr.
Prominent Evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. at Pence’s speech at Liberty University on October 12, 2016. Courtesy The Orange County Register.

Pence, the most prominent Evangelical in the administration, is open about the fact that his faith is a driving his mission in politics. Indiana columnist Brian Howy, who reported on Pence during his time as governor of the state, describes Pence’s religious views bluntly: “Pence doesn’t simply wear his faith on his sleeve, he wears the entire Jesus jersey.”[6] Part of this faith-driven approach to government involves restricting the rights of those that Pence and other Evangelicals believe are living in sin, particularly members of the LGBTQ community. Pence symbolizes a desire by Evangelicals to refight the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, only this time with Evangelicals coming out on top.[7] The Evangelical mission to roll back the advancements of gay and transgender rights is eerily similar to Fred Waterford’s explanation for his vision for Gilead. He tells Offred, who he ritually rapes, that “we only wanted to make the world better. Better doesn’t mean better for everyone, it means worse for some.” A world made better for Evangelical conservatives is one worse for those who already face hardships and discrimination.

Handmaids Tor
Handmaids preparing for a ritual execution of a man accused of raping a Handmaid. Courtesy Tor.com.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, better for those like Fred Waterford certainly meant worse for people like Offred’s friend Moira or her companion Ofglen, who fear execution for being “gender-traitors,” Gilead’s term for LGBTQ folk. In a world where few people can produce children, homosexuality is not only discouraged, but also treated as a capital offense, justifying execution as long as the perpetrator is not a Handmaid. Similar to leaders’ justification for procreation-oriented ritual rape, Gilead’s persecution of homosexuality is rooted in radical interpretations of the Bible. While almost no mainstream religious conservatives would call for the death of homosexuals or those who do not conform to gender norms, conservative state legislatures in states such as North Carolina and Texas have enacted laws restricting which bathroom transgender individuals can use. In addition, we should acknowledge that the major civil rights victory of legalized same sex marriage has only come in the last couple of years. While many liberals think of the debates surrounding same sex marriage as an issue that has already been decided, we should acknowledge that like Roe vs. Wade, the advancements made by Obergefell vs. Hodges, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage, can be overturned or attacked. The ruling is especially vulnerable if a Republican appoints more conservative justices to the Supreme Court. The possibility of overturning Supreme Court rulings that expand civil rights is one of the reasons that many Evangelicals ultimately ended up supporting Trump in the 2016 in the first place, making them especially vulnerable under a hypothetical Pence presidency.

What makes The Handmaid’s Tale so truly terrifying is the flashbacks to Offred’s life prior to the Republic of Gilead. In her previous life, she was a young liberal woman, swiping away on dating apps before settling down, getting married, and having a child with her husband. Her world, and the world that people like her were accustomed to, quickly fell apart into a religious totalitarianism where the young women lost all sense of autonomy and agency, and became little more than walking wombs. The scenes showing Offred’s past bring immediacy to the show and connect the viewer to her experience in a more personal way. Offred’s life before Gilead is easily recognizable to most Americans, and the idea that it can be taken away and her identity as a person stripped so completely by a theocracy in such a short amount of time is the most terrifying aspect of the show. A future like the one proposed on The Handmaid’s Tale should cause all Americans to consider the implications of reactionary and misogynistic Republican social policy on their lives and work harder to create a livable society for all.

While the United States is unlikely to confront an immediate environmental collapse that the America of The Handmaid’s Tale faced, climate change has already begun to have a major impact on world events. The tensions that exploded into the brutal and long-lasting Syrian Civil War were exacerbated by a historic drought that scientists have attributed to climate change. Because the Trump administration appears to beunwilling to combat climate change, and even once tweeted that the Chinese government created the idea of climate change in order to give China a competitive advantage, it is more than likely that environmental issues will get much worse. We might not fair much better under a Pence presidency, as he also rejects the notion of man-made climate change. This rejection of scientific consensus will no doubt have dire long-term consequences may even be felt by the end of the current administration, whether it is Trump or Pence who ultimately serves out the next four to eight years.

Pence and Jewish conservatives
Mike Pence holding a poster that says “Make America Great Again” in Hebrew. Courtesy Haaretz.

While The Handmaid’s Tale focuses specifically on radical Protestants, the United States is home to many religious groups that practice gender separation, expect women to dress a certain way, and emphasize the role of women as mothers. Among non-Christian denominations, Haredi Orthodox Jews reject secularism and dress and act in ways that clearly define themselves as Orthodox Jews. In some ways the Haredi, with their origins in rejecting assimilation and the modernizing effects of the Jewish Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as their emphasis on having as many children as God wills, seem a closer current day comparison to the Republic of Gilead than all but the most radical Evangelical Christian. The two groups have overlapping interests, however, with a 2013 Pew Research Report claiming that Orthodox Jews were more similar to Evangelical Christians than they are to other branches of Judaism. Orthodox Jews tend to view the interaction of religion and politics in ways similar to Evangelicals. Fundamentalist Christians, then, are hardly alone in their vision for a state founded on faith-based oppression.

The Handmaid’s Tale reveals the dystopian possibilities of a Pence presidency in which right wing religious fundamentalists take control of the government and transform the state in their image. A country run by the religious right without any checks and balances would be one where the rights of women are greatly reduced, the LGBT community is persecuted, and where a state-sanctioned religion might order our lives. Unfortunately, this reality does not seem especially unrealistic in the America of 2017. While it took an ecological catastrophe to send the United States into chaos in The Handmaid’s Tale, it seems that in the real America it took the idea of a woman president to cause a major reaction. It may seem far-fetched to compare the America of The Handmaid’s Tale to the potential realities of a Pence administration, but before we totally dismisses the idea, we should remember that most of out most progressive changes and advancements have come in the past several years, and that reactionaries have the momentum. Offred’s world is not so different from our own.

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Jia Tolentino “Mike Pence’s Marriage and the Beliefs that Keep Women from Power” The New Yorker March 31, 2017 http://www.newyorker.com/culture/jia-tolentino/mike-pences-marriage-and-the-beliefs-that-keep-women-from-power

[2] Seema Mehta “Roe vs. Wade Will be Overturned if Donald Trump Wins, Mike Pence Says” The Los Angeles Times 7/8/2016 http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/trailguide/la-na-democratic-convention-2016-live-pence-says-roe-v-wade-will-be-1469737388-htmlstory.html

[3]  Kasie Hunt and Avalon Zoppo “Mike Pence Breaks Tie on Senate Measure Targeting Planned Parenthood Funding” NBC News online http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/mike-pence-breaks-senate-tie-measure-targeting-planned-parenthood-funding-n740666

[4] See Stephen Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[5]  Lindsey Bever, “Pastor Refuses to Mourn Orlando Victims: ‘The Tragedy is that More of Them Didn’t Die,” The Washington Post June 15, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/06/14/pastor-refuses-to-mourn-orlando-victims-the-tragedy-is-that-more-of-them-didnt-die/?utm_term=.184390cbeedc

[6] Jonathan Mahler and Dirk Johnson, “Mike Pence’s Journey: Catholic Democratic to Evangelical Republican,” The New York Times, July 7, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/21/us/politics/mike-pence-religion.html?_r=0

[7] For an excellent overview of the history of the culture wars see Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Eric Morgenson is a PhD candidate in history at the State University of New York at Albany. His research interests include the intersections of race and class in the United States, the relationship between liberalism and the left in the twentieth century, and American Jewish history. Eric’s dissertation, The Last Step to Whiteness: American Jews and the end of the Civil Rights Coalition argues that allegations of antisemitism made against Black Power groups in the 1960s were part of a larger effort to distance liberal American Jews from the cause of civil rights. The work explores Jewish assimilation in the twentieth century. It emphasizes the impact that Jews becoming “white” i.e. culturally accepted had on the relationship between American Jews and African Americans. He received an MA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a BA from Concordia University-Nebraska, and an Associate of Arts from Southeast Community College in Lincoln, NE. Eric was born and raised in Bismarck North Dakota, but really hates cold weather. He currently lives in Connecticut where it is still too cold. He can be reached here.

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