Acton Institute Powerblog

Amy Coney Barrett: handmaid of the Lord, not the state

In their attempt to forestall the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, a growing number of commentators point to her membership in a Christian group that once used the term “handmaid.” This “controversy” shows, among other things, how the works of Margaret Atwood have displaced the traditional Western canon. However, it also adds a thin veneer of respectability over rehashed anti-Catholic prejudice, camouflages anti-Christian bigotry, and conceals a noxious and unconstitutional religious test for office.

It takes little sophistication to see that the attacks on Barrett’s membership in People of Praise are both misguided and a proxy for a broader group: people of faith. Her opponents’ real quarrel is with the Catholic Church, the Constitution, and the traditional Christian views that form the bedrock of transatlantic societies.

Barrett and her husband belong to an ecumenical parachurch organization called People of Praise, as did their parents. Although most of its members are Roman Catholic, its 1,700 members believe in such charismatic expressions of faith as speaking in tongues. So do millions of Americans of all church backgrounds.

To stir controversy, critics have tried to portray People of Praise as a cult. They note that members of the organization, which was founded in 1971, swear to “support one another through thick and thin,” according to its website. Some have questioned whether a judge would give fellow members preferential treatment at the bar. The dual loyalty smear has historically targeted those well outside the Christian community.

The main line of attack has been that People of Praise assigns members an accountability partner of the same sex. Men were called “heads” and women were once called “handmaids.” Newsweek wrote – and then significantly corrected – a story claiming that People of Praise inspired Margaret Atwood to write The Handmaid’s Tale, a 1985 dystopian novel about a future theocratic republic where “handmaids” are serially raped by infertile couples to bear their children. The popularity of the book and TV series has made red-cloaked protesters ubiquitous at feminist-themed demonstrations.

There are a few problems with this narrative. First, Atwood seemingly shot down its premise. When asked last week if she took poetic license from Barrett’s organization, Atwood said, “It wasn’t them. It was a different one but the same idea.” Yet one day later, Atwood told Politico she could not say “anything specific” about the group until she reviewed her archives. The Left’s own Bible, Snopes, rated the claim “mostly false” (which means many others would rank its falsehood closer to metaphysical certainty). Nevertheless, they persist. Politico, Mother Jones, Refinery29, Reuters, and now the Associated Press have all published stories hyping the alleged subjugation of women and cultish bigotry of People of Praise.

To further complicate the campaign, even jaded former members have defended both the group and Barrett personally. One told Politico that Barrett’s family attended People of Praise meetings regularly and prayed with her family in times of need. “My point being that, though I don’t agree with her political affiliations, I think she’s probably a really kind person,” the ex-member said. Damning stuff.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., has rightly condemned these “ugly smears” against People of Praise as “wacky McCarthyism.” This revives the Left’s failed strategy 15 years ago to paint Chief Justice John Roberts as an extremist because of his purported membership in the Federalist Society – which, alas, proved less-than-predictive of his record on the bench. However, in this case, it comes wrapped in stark religious bigotry suffused with ignorance about the most consequential book in Western civilization.

For those whose literary references extend beyond mid-80s feminist novels, the term “handmaid” means something far different. We think of another red-clad damsel. The Gospel account of the Annunciation records that after the Archangel Gabriel asked the Blessed Virgin Mary (whom the Eastern Church calls the “Theotokos”) to bear the Son of God, she replied, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (St. Luke 1:38). Her self-selected title indicated her voluntary cooperation with God to fulfill her life’s purpose, one which brought about the redemption of humanity through her divine Son.

People of Praise seem to give the same construction to the word – or it did, before it jettisoned the term altogether after the novel achieved cult status. The fact that the group changed the title from “handmaid” to “women’s leader” indicates it never equated the term with abject subservience.

The act of reading a 1985 novel’s use of “handmaid” backward into every use of the word struck me personally. As a priest in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the word “handmaid” has an entirely different meaning. Orthodox priests use it to refer to every female member of the church, married or celibate (which, like Catholicism, we view as the only two morally authorized states of life). At every Orthodox wedding, the priest holds the wedding rings and says, “The servant of God [name] is betrothed to the handmaid of God [name] in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The same term is used in baptisms, anointings, the administration of the Eucharist, and other services. I once saw a pacifist-leaning priest editorialize while he prayed over an Orthodox soldier about to go to battle in Afghanistan that the young man was “the servant of God – and not Caesar.”

And that gets to the nub of the matter: Seeing all people as co-equal bearers of the divine image establishes human dignity and gives all humanity a place to claim their unalienable rights. It also places certain limitations upon the raw exercise of power. The idea, which is foundational to Western civilization, extends far beyond the Religious Right. Jerry Shestack, the Carter-era human rights official and left-leaning president of the American Bar Association, wrote:

Theology presents the basis for a human rights theory stemming from a law higher than that of the state and whose source is the Supreme Being. … When human beings are not visualized in God’s image then their basic rights may well lose their metaphysical raison d’être. On the other hand, the concept of human beings created in the image of God certainly endows men and women with a worth and dignity from which the components of a comprehensive human rights system can flow logically.

In recent decades, activists have overturned this notion, claiming that the Book of Genesis’ account of creation violates human dignity, because the Bible forbids sexual license. Barrett’s critics, too, rely on this argument.

Barrett’s antagonists have noted that PoP teaches that wives are to obey their husbands, and the organization does not allow full membership to people who have contracted a same-sex marriage. “The far-right organization Amy Coney Barrett is a part of didn’t inspire The Handmaid’s Tale, but … they teach that a man is the head of the family, while the wife submits to his authority,” wrote Jill Filipovic. “Pointing this out is not attacking her faith,” she insisted. But she could not suppress her anti-Catholic views long, writing, “the [Roman Catholic] church and some of what it teaches is pretty sexist.”

For a church that does not believe in divorce or surrogacy to be accused of creating a polyamorist dystopia by the same media that celebratethrouples” is rich.

The charge makes up in odium what it lacks in originality. Former President Jimmy Carter revealed in his book Our Endangered Values that he confronted Pope John Paul II over his alleged “perpetuation of the subservience of women” (e.g., his opposition to a female priesthood; Carter also noted “harshness” over the pontiff’s opposition to liberation theology). Barrett’s accusers have merely updated the charge and transferred them from the pope to People of Praise, which has fewer defenders. Catholicism has women promise to “obey” their husbands in their wedding vows, and it teaches that the proper substance of the sacrament of marriage is only two unmarried members of the opposite sex. The criticisms leveled by Filipovic, et. al., apply to all historic Christians.

The foremost refutation of their premise is Barrett herself. Barrett’s “high-flying career – pursued while raising a family of seven – runs exactly counter to what is portrayed in the Atwood novel,” wrote Rich Lowry in National. Review. “Anyone who looks at Barrett and thinks ‘overweening patriarchy’ is hopelessly disconnected from reality and needs to watch less Hulu.”

Ultimately, Barrett’s nemeses oppose her Catholicism as much as ever. They may not make the sort of baldly anti-Catholic statements they did during her 2017 confirmation hearings, when observers accused them of imposing an unconstitutional religious test for office. But they vent their anger at a system that allows people the right to live according to their consciences in accordance with the strictures of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause – rather than obeying government dictates – as well as the Judeo-Christian moral heritage that inspires anyone to question society’s prevailing views of feminism or an elastic definition of marriage.

“We are at the water’s edge of the argument that mainstream Christian teaching is hate speech,” Sen. Marco Rubio told David Brody of CBN News in 2015. “After they are done going after individuals, the next step is to argue that the teachings of mainstream Christianity, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is hate speech and there’s a real and present danger.”

The media have waded waist-deep in the Big Muddy of religious bigotry.

(Photo credit: Tom Williams / Pool via AP.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.