At Elle, author Emily Gould has a profile of “The Handmaid’s Tale” star and executive producer Elisabeth Moss. While Gould manages to draw Moss out a bit on topics the actress is famous for being tight-lipped about — like the feminist messages of Margaret Atwood’s book and its television adaptation — she finds it difficult to get Moss to address what appear to be parallels between the fictional theocracy of Gilead and the Church of Scientology, which she was raised in.
There’s just one last thing left to pester her about, and I’ve saved it for last because it’s the most likely to piss her off. She’s said repeatedly on this tour and in profiles circa the last few seasons of Mad Men that she’s said all she’s ever going to say about being raised in Scientology. But… well, in the words of a recent Jezebel headline, “Isn’t It Relevant That the Star of The Handmaid’s Tale Belongs to a Secretive, Allegedly Oppressive Religion?”
Unsurprisingly, I get nowhere. To her, the show isn’t about the danger of religious extremism, it’s about the importance of religious freedom. “Whatever anyone believes, I don’t believe that Church and State should get too close. And some of the things that have happened recently have really frightened me. For me, what the book and the show are so much about is that separation. It’s a theocracy! No government should be run by any religion!” I press on, saying that after watching the show I’ve been thinking about the Hasidic Jewish women who live in my neighborhood in a different light. Their uniforms and constant pregnancy can’t help but remind me of the Handmaids. “Except there’s a huge difference,” Moss says, “that they would be murdered in Gilead.” (On the Wall that Offred and her fellow Handmaids pass on their walks, bodies are often marked with religious symbols; practicing a faith other than Gilead’s ultra-Christianity is a capital offense.) For what it’s worth, Margaret Atwood also considers Moss’s religion to be a nonissue; to her, the alleged abuses that take place within Scientology are par for the course for any religion: “They all have their pluses and their minuses,” she tells me, after listing a few of the lesser-known gory horrors found in the Old Testament.
Before its current obsession with the body, as FitzGerald observes, evangelicalism expressed itself politically through extreme and often paranoid anti-communism. My favorite example is the 1958 horror film The Blob, which told of a carnivorous mass of red Jello. Conceived at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast in 1957 by Shorty Yeaworth, an evangelical filmmaker, the movie was widely viewed as either pure kitsch or an anti-communist metaphor free of religious overtones. American evangelicalism before the 1980s was no less political in its theology; its theology just happened to align with the anti-communist beliefs of the secular sphere.
Today, the political expression of evangelicalism seems strongest in its opposition to Islam. In this sense, it may be aligning, once again, with widely held secular anxieties.
I watched the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale with an increasing sense of dread. While I can easily draw parallels to anti-feminist sentiment in modern society, the specifics of the story remain, for me, primarily fiction.
Not so for Hännah Ettinger, who grew up in the fundamentalist Christian “Quiverfull” movement. Ettinger first read The Handmaid’s Tale in college and saw herself in the story. At the Establishment, she describes the similarities between her life under the shadow of a repressive misogynistic religion and that of the women in the dystopian novel.
I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community — the church we attended could fairly be called a cult, and my parents took things a step further than even our church did, homeschooling and raising nine kids. I was the oldest. We were part of a larger movement now called “Quiverfull,” the term taken from a Psalm where the writer talks about God blessing the man whose “quiver is full of arrows.” The metaphor refers to children, and our community understood this to be a command: Have children and raise them in this aggressively conservative faith, and then there will be more “true” believer Christians in the world to bring about cultural revolution in the name of Jesus Christ. Children like me were raised to see life as apocalyptic, and ourselves as serving on the front lines of a culture war to make America Christian.
And me, the oldest child in a family of nine? As was common in the movement, I was my mom’s right hand. She sometimes called me her strength, because I helped her co-parent my younger siblings and keep the household running. When she had twins shortly before my 13th birthday, it was me who got up with her during the nighttime feedings, not my dad. When things were too busy on Sunday nights, I took over doing all the family laundry and ironing. And I did the dinner dishes almost exclusively for about 10 years, foregoing activities with my peers at church and in the community because I had too many obligations to fulfill at home. Like Offred, my life’s purpose was subsumed into serving the “greater good” of my far-right Christian community.
The cross on our door, drawn in canola oil, was a symbol that our house was God’s property; demonic forces had no right to be there. It was a spiritual “No Trespassing” sign. Friends, neighbors, extended family, the mailman, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses who stopped by every Tuesday afternoon all stood on that same welcome mat without looking closely at our door. The evidence that my family wasn’t like all the other families on our nondescript suburban block was literally under their noses, but no one ever noticed.
The grimy oil smudges were everywhere, not just on our front door. They dotted the outside walls of our house and lined the halls inside. Throughout my childhood, my mom would often walk into my bedroom holding a mug of oil. “Don’t mind me,” she’d say with a smile, drawing an oily glob on my door and then reaching down to put some on my forehead. “Just doing an oil line.”
With eerie political timing, the Hulu version of Margaret Atwood’s prescient 1984 book The Handmaid’s Tale drops next month. In the introduction to a new edition, which also comes out in April, Atwood responds to the three most popular questions about it: Is her novel feminist? Is it a prediction? Is is anti-religious? In response to the third, she takes us through the influences that helped her build the world of the Handmaids.
The modesty costumes worn by the women of Gilead are derived from Western religious iconography — the Wives wear the blue of purity, from the Virgin Mary; the Handmaids wear red, from the blood of parturition, but also from Mary Magdalene. Also, red is easier to see if you happen to be fleeing. The wives of men lower in the social scale are called Econowives, and wear stripes. I must confess that the face-hiding bonnets came not only from mid-Victorian costume and from nuns, but from the Old Dutch Cleanser package of the 1940s, which showed a woman with her face hidden, and which frightened me as a child. Many totalitarianisms have used clothing, both forbidden and enforced, to identify and control people — think of yellow stars and Roman purple — and many have ruled behind a religious front. It makes the creation of heretics that much easier.
Strickland recently told me that alt-right Christians see “racial differences” as “real, biological, and positive,” a view he insists is “merely a reaffirmation of traditional historical Christianity.” He argues that many on the alt-right who consider themselves atheists or pagans only lost their faith in Christianity “due to the antiwhite hatred and Marxist dogma held by the modern church.”
Strickland considers himself a “kinist,” part of the new white supremacist movement that, according to the Anti-Defamation League, “uses the Bible as one of the main texts for its beliefs,” offering a powerful validation to white supremacists for their racism and anti-Semitism. Strickland sees kinism as a successor to Christian Reconstructionism, a theocratic movement dating back to the 1960s that played a key role in the rise of Christian homeschooling. The movement’s primary goal was to implement biblical law—including public stonings—in every facet of American life.
When you enter “the meaning of Allahu Akbar” in Google, the first search results take you to Jihad Watch, Breitbart and Urban Dictionary. Jihad Watch tells you that Allahu Akbar is “the ubiquitous battle cry of Islamic jihadists as they commit mass murder.” One of the definitions on Urban Dictionary, home to some of the internet’s most passive aggressive users, states Allahu Akbar is “what is said by people beheading hogtied victims ‘in the name of God.’” And Breitbart, the ominous prophet of doom and gloom for the average conservative, insists that Allahu Akbar means “Allah is greater than your God or Government.”
Takbir—that is, Allahu Akbar—is a strange thing. It is Arabic for “God is great.” But to the westerner who consumes the world through purposefully tailored headlines, deliberate SEO and sequential images meant to invoke fear, takbir is a terrifying thing. To the westerner, it’s something ISIS members scream before bloodshed and al Qaeda members chant before deploying an IED. It’s that scary announcement from the brown man with a beard that hides his mouth, obscuring his face, making it impossible for you to trust him. It’s code for “we’re implementing sharia here,” according to astute Republicans who can’t pronounce Iran or Iraq without butchering it (figuratively and literally) but are adamant on presenting a singular, restricted and unimaginative interpretation of an expression millions of Muslims use in millions of ways.
But to the average Muslim, takbir generously lends itself to numerous occasions and emotions.
Consciously, I heard takbir for the first time when I was four, maybe five, in northern Virginia when my mother prayed in front of me. I watched her kiss the earth with all the love in her being. Before she knelt in prostration, she whispered something. She came up once more, whispered it again, then gently knelt in humility. Her forehead touched the ground, the tip of her nose softly grazing the prayer rug, her eyes closed in unwavering thought. To a child, this graceful movement was spellbinding. I strained my ear to hear her again. “Allahu Akbar.”
But takbir is introduced to us before we can even attach meaning to spoken word. When we are born, the azaan—call to prayer—is performed to us at a pitch softer than cotton. The day I was born, I had already been introduced to this expression that would later on become my refuge in times of despair, my cry in times of joy and yes, my roar in moments of indignation. My father softly recited “Allahu Akbar” in my ear when I came into this world.
Born after eight miscarriages, I was my parents’ miracle.
Throughout history, ethanol’s intoxicating power has made it an object of concern—and sometimes outright prohibition. And through the ages, says Rod Phillips, author of Alcohol: A History, most societies have struggled to strike a balance: “Allow people to drink because it makes them happy and is a gift from the gods, but prevent them from drinking too much.”
The ancient Greeks were a good example. A crucial part of their spiritual and intellectual life was the symposium fueled by wine—within limits. Mixing wine with water in a decorated vessel called a krater, Greek hosts served their (exclusively male) guests a first bowl for health, another for pleasure, and a third for sleep. “When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home,” the comic poet Eubulus warned in the fourth century B.C., according to one translation. “The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes. The eighth is the policeman’s; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the 10th to madness and the hurling of furniture.”
In Calgary, Aziz found a Muslim community in conflict—and denial—over how to address the fact that dozens of young men were leaving their community to travel to distant battlefields. The Canadian government estimates that as of the end of 2015, 180 Canadians overseas were actively involved with terror organizations; about half of them are believed to be in Syria and Iraq, having been recruited by groups such as isis. It was difficult for members of the city’s Muslim community to accept that radicalization was happening in Calgary. It seemed implausible that these young men could be capable of carrying out acts of violence abroad—until it started happening.
Many in the community hoped that Aziz might be able to intervene. He was, after all, not much older than those who were leaving. Other imams in the community, most of them foreign born and middle-aged, had trouble connecting with Muslim youth born and raised in Canada. They didn’t know how to address political issues such as the conflict in Syria with those who were unsettled by the slaughter of thousands of civilians. Imams across the country feared that broaching the subject of overseas conflicts and jihad directly might draw objections from others in their mosques—or worse, attract the attention of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (csis).
As part of my New Year’s Resolutions, I’ve vowed to read the hundreds of books I already own. Last night, I started and finished Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story by Jeanne Córdova, which I received last year courtesy of a giveaway from Danika Ellis, a book blogger who runs The Lesbrary. Córdova’s 1990 memoir is compulsively readable—I couldn’t put it down. She writes about her decision to join the convent fresh out of high school, her growing unease regarding church politics, her deep friendships with her fellow postulants and secular students alike, and, eventually, her decision to leave the novitiate. Córdova is well-known for her 2011 memoir, When We Were Outlaws: A Memoir of Love and Revolution, which describes her political work and LGBTQ community organizing in the 1970s. She was a force for good in the West Coast queer community. She edited a lesbian magazine, created an LGBTQ business directory, and even organized the Gay and Lesbian caucus to the Democratic Party. Sadly, Córdova died a little more than a year ago. I wish I could have met her.
In the two years since I compiled the first installation of “The Lives of Nuns,” Autostraddle wrote about queer nuns in history, Racked shadowed (fake) nuns growing marijuana, and The Huffington Post reported on a nun’s murder and the students who want the truth. Those stories and more are included below. Seclude yourself and read. Read more…