The Handmaid’s Tale — a novel about a fundamentalist takeover that turns part of America into a cruel theocracy called Gilead –— set off alarms when it was published in 1985.
Margaret Atwood’s vivid book has sold many million copies and been adapted into a Hulu television series that won eight Emmys and two Golden Globes. It’s become a literary sensation.
In the fictional Gilead, women have no rights, can’t vote, can’t own property, must obey men — and their fingers are chopped off if they’re caught reading.
The book’s title is taken from the bible (Genesis 30). When one of Jacob’s wives can’t bear children, she offers her handmaid Bilhah as a substitute to be impregnated by Jacob. In Gilead, some women are designated handmaids for fundamentalist leaders, whose wives hold them down while they’re raped.
This subjugation of women seemed real to millions of people because it reflects the puritanical male supremacy of born-again churches. To oppose fundamentalist laws, some women protesters have dressed as handmaids to picket Congress and state legislatures.
Why has the novel had such a strong impact? Here’s my theory:
The danger of a fundamentalist theocracy was at a peak when the book appeared. At that time, born-again evangelicals had great political power. White evangelicals had just taken control of the Republican Party and elected Ronald Reagan president twice. Big-money preachers were calling for “true believers” to dominate America as a “Christian nation.”
But then something amazing happened. Religion collapsed in America so rapidly that sociologists are baffled by the swift transformation. Educated “mainline” faiths fell first, then fundamentalists followed.
Thousands of churches close each year. Young, educated Americans especially renounce supernaturalism. A recent Gallup poll found that, for the first time, the share of Americans who belong to congregations has fallen below half. Fundamentalist power is fizzling. The born-again Southern Baptist Convention has lost millions of members since 2006.
In other words, the possibility of a Gilead theocracy loomed more likely in 1985 than it does today. The warning story that gripped the world a generation ago has possibly fallen victim to a profound cultural shift.
However, while shrinking, fundamentalists remain a hazard to America. Reports say they’re growing more fanatical as they slip. For example, what if they finally win their goal of recriminalizing abortion — dispatching women and doctors to prison and sending others in desperation to back-alley butchers once again?
If that happens, The Handmaid’s Tale would come partly true.
This column is adapted from a piece that originally appeared on Daylight Atheism.