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Duncan: It’s Beginning to Look Like Gilead as Christian Nationalism Grows

By Karen Duncan

Okay, I’ll admit it. My guilty pleasure is that I’ve been a fan of Hulu’s streaming series The Handmaid’s Tale since its beginning. Actually, I read Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about a future where Christian nationalists have overthrown the U.S. government and renamed America Gilead, creating an Old Testament theocracy, years ago. Back in the 80s, it influenced a couple of generations of women. If you’re not familiar with the story, here’s a basic synopsis.

An unspecified disease has rendered most men and women infertile. In both the TV series and the novel, it’s hinted that the infertility might have been caused by pollution and/or a nuclear war or by a virus. The Gileadeans don’t know, and since the tale is told from the point of view of a handmaid, Offred, neither does the reader ever find out.

But the Christian nationalist leaders come up with a “biblically-based” solution, and it’s a doozy. Based on the Bible story of Jacob and his infertile wife, Rachel, who demands “give me children or I shall die,” in Genesis 30:1 they implement the institution of handmaids. That is young women caught breaking Gilead’s stringent and puritanical laws are given the option to either go to concentration camps where they clean up nuclear waste until they die a slow painful death from nuclear poisoning, or they can go live with one of Gilead’s top families and bear children for them. Gilead even creates a creepy ceremony where the commander’s wife takes on the role of Rachel, quotes the passage demanding her husband give her a child, and he then rapes the handmaid, while the wife holds her down.

We don’t know that Jacob and Rachel ever performed such a ceremony, of course. In biblical times, powerful men just had harems and concubines. And privacy. They didn’t have to rape people publicly in religious ceremonies.

The hapless women chosen to be handmaids were young and already proven to be fertile because they were among the few who managed to have children, usually out of wedlock. Most of these women were lawbreakers because they committed what Gilead considers adultery, in the protagonist’s case by marrying a divorced man. Since Gilead doesn’t recognize divorce, she’s technically an adulteress. Her husband is an adulterer whose own fate, if caught, would be a gruesome death sentence. Since getting pregnant was so difficult and Gilead needed a constant supply of new handmaids, they kept increasing the number of criminal offenses women could be guilty of. Gilead was a Christian nationalist theocracy run amok by any standard.

To be honest, I always realized it was over the top and even at my most paranoid, I never actually thought there was a threat that millions of fertile young “adulterers” would be pressed into service as handmaids. But Christian nationalism, not to be confused with the religion of Christianity, is a growing political threat in America. And it really could disenfranchise a lot of Americans and limit freedoms we take for granted.

Before going on, though, let’s define Christian nationalism and explain how it’s different from being a patriotic Christian, which I think is a good and admirable thing.

Here’s how Paul D. Miller, professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a research fellow at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, defined it in an article he wrote for Christianity Today [1].

Patriotism is the love of country. It is different from nationalism, which is an argument about how to define our country. Christians should recognize that patriotism is good because all of God’s creation is good and patriotism helps us appreciate our particular place in it. Our affection and loyalty to a specific part of God’s creation helps us do the good work of cultivating and improving the part we happen to live in. As Christians, we can and should love the United States—which also means working to improve our country by holding it up for critique and working for justice when it errs.

Of course, it goes without saying that one can also be a patriotic Jew, Muslim, or Hindu as well. The point is patriotism should be what unites Americans across religious faiths and there should be a place at the table in America for all Americans.

So now that we know that not only is there nothing wrong with being a proud, patriotic Christian American, and it’s okay for our values to guide both our personal and political decisions, let’s examine what exactly makes Christian nationalism both different and troubling.

Again, according to Paul Miller:

Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation”—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have made a similar argument: that America is defined by its “Anglo-Protestant” past and that we will lose our identity and our freedom if we do not preserve our cultural inheritance.

Miller also asserts that most Christian nationalists do believe in the First Amendment and don’t actually want a theocracy like Gilead. But they believe Christianity should be privileged with a central place over and beyond other religious groups in the country. But, as I’ll show later on, I’m not sure that is true.

Many of the rising groups do, in fact, challenge the First Amendment separation of church and state and actively believe they are called to take a sledgehammer to that wall of separation to tear it down. They favor a distinctly Christian nation founded on biblical principles with laws closer to Old Testament rules the ancient Israelites lived by than the laws of modern America. They’ve shaded from a more moderate – if it can be called that – nationalism into outright Dominionism, which actively seeks to replace the U.S. Constitution with Biblical law straight out of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

The most thoughtful writing on the threat of Christian nationalism comes not just from mainstream media, but from religious writers penning articles in religious journals and blogs. It comes from theologians and religious leaders as well as secular politicians. And for them, one of the most serious threats it poses is to Christianity itself.

According to Washington Post [2] religion writer, Michelle Boorstein, Southern Baptist leader, Russell Moore called it “heretical” for linking God and country. He went so far as to call it idolatry. Of course, it’s not lost on religious leaders that church attendance is down and young people are rejecting religion in greater numbers. Some attribute this growing alienation from religion to its politicization by the far right. But many are equally concerned about its corrosive and dangerous effects on the country.

New research linking Christian nationalism with a desire to limit voting. People citing their faith as the reason they support trucker convoys that shut down the border over covid protections. And the fact that Jesus’ name appeared all over the place during the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection.

Concern about rising radicalism among a segment of White American Christians led this week to what some religious extremism experts call the biggest Congress-related event on the topic in years.

More disturbing reports are showing up in other mainstream publications lately, like this piece in the New York Times,The Growing Religious Fervor in the American Right; This is a Jesus Movement [3],” by Elizabeth Dias and Ruth Graham, which describes this increasing fervor at Republican rallies, whether held for the recent truck convoy in Washington, DC, or at Trump rallies across the country. Here’s their description.

They opened with an invocation, summoning God’s “hedge of thorns and fire” to protect each person in the dark Phoenix parking lot.

They called for testimonies, passing the microphone to anyone with “inspirational words that they’d like to say on behalf of our J-6 political prisoners,” referring to people arrested in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol [4], whom they were honoring a year later.

Then, holding candles dripping wax, the few dozen who were gathered lifted their voices, a cappella, in a song treasured by millions of believers who sing it on Sundays and know its words by heart:

Way maker, miracle worker, promise keeper
Light in the darkness, my God

This was not a church service. It was worship for a new kind of congregation: a right-wing political movement powered by divine purpose, whose adherents find spiritual sustenance in political action.

Dias and Graham also report:

“At events across the United States, it is not unusual for participants to describe encountering the divine and feel they are doing their part to install God’s kingdom on earth. For them, right-wing political activity itself is becoming a holy act.”

But it’s not simply fervent religious expression at rallies across the country and a preference for candidates that reflect their own religious views, this is a movement that is having real-life consequences playing out in everyday life even for the non-evangelical. Especially, right now, the cultural war battles in the schools being waged ostensibly to oppose critical race theory or other so-called “woke” leftist ideology is increasingly being exposed to be less about fighting far-left ideology in grade school than about imposing a distinct Christian nationalist agenda of their own on schools and libraries.

The parents’ rights movement that recently sprung up, supposedly composed of local parents angry about school closings and mask mandates, turned out to be a sophisticated, well-funded national far-right-wing movement. And once in charge of school boards their emphasis rapidly shifted from masks and mandates to going after books with political points of view they disliked regardless of whether all the other local parents agreed with them.

And once these groups got a toehold on school boards, they became emboldened to push for outright censorship beyond schools and in public libraries, now trying to dictate even what adults can seek on the shelves. As this article from the Washington Post [5] describes, in counties across Texas, like this one in Llano County, local politicians are dissolving library boards, appointing conservative Christians in the place of experienced librarians, and are removing books from shelves even in the adult sections. Here’s what one board member in Llano County said of her fight to preserve the right to read:

Leila Green Little, a parent and board member of the Llano County Library System Foundation, said her anti-censorship group obtained dozens of emails from country officials that reveal the outsize influence a small but vocal group of conservative Christian and tea party activists wielded over the county commissioners to reshape the library system to their own ideals.

None of this is actually new. Indeed, I watched this happen back in the 1970s and 80s, before being defeated then. Emboldened Christian nationalist groups took over school boards and forced high school science departments to stop teaching evolution. Fights over book bans made constant headlines. Religious groups tried to ban stores from selling Playboy Magazine and other publications they deemed “obscene.” But even back then, the targets always expanded from material with sexual content to include material these groups found politically objectionable for other reasons having nothing to do with sex. Ultimately, they were really trying to enforce their religious, philosophical, and political world view on everybody through censorship.

Theologian Diana Butler Bass, who came out of the evangelical faith tradition and witnessed this going all the way back to the 70s, said this of it [6]:

None of this just happened. Trump’s election certainly didn’t birth it. The pandemic didn’t cause it. Evangelical right-wing politics has had time to put down roots, to birth and raise its own adherents, to strengthen its reach and to grow in confidence.

Over these decades, their churches have gotten larger, their cultural influence wider their financial resources deeper, and the entire community has become increasingly able to shape its own reality, ever more insulated from and suspicious of anything or anyone who questions the political-religious world they’ve built. Yes, some demographic trends are against them, especially as young adults turn away from evangelicalism. But they’ve got power. Real power. FOX News. Politicians. Celebrities. Billionaire donors. Think tanks. Political action committees. Colleges and universities. Dynasties. Global political reach. Networks of social media, conferences, publishing. And their reality seeks to force itself upon the rest of us – whom they view as lost sinners, heretics, non-believers, witches, and infidels.

Evangelical theopolitics isn’t new. Praise-singing crusaders aren’t new. What is new is they may well be winning.”

Think about that. Gilead may well be winning despite being, as always, a small, noisy minority that simply punches way above its weight. That’s not a representative democracy. It’s not the rule of the majority, or even of a large minority. What’s winning is the tyranny of an aggressive but small sectarian minority. And that’s not good for America or Christianity.

Karen Duncan used to blog at Anonymous Is A Woman from 2005 until 2010. She also wrote occasional guest posts for Bearing Drift in 2007, where she played friendly devil’s advocate from the Democratic side of the aisle. She thinks Bearing Drift was way ahead of its time in trying to bridge the gap and end the tribalism in American politics. Karen is a long time Northern Virginian who currently is retired and keeps busy occasionally blogging under her own name, no longer wishing to remain anonymous.

Also from Karen Duncan:

Duncan: Fear, Anxiety, and Supply Chains [7]