9 April 2018
If the First Amendment were Abolished
Living in a free country where everyone has the right to practice any religion they desire allows its citizens to not only express their own beliefs, but it also prevents the government from forcing a faith’s ideologies onto its people. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale,one of democracy’s defining characteristics is demolished and in its place, “Gilead”, a Christianity-based theocracy, is formed. Though it may seem like a revolutionary concept, Gilead is the answer to hair-raising question inspired by the political events of the 1980s: what would be the result if the Christian Right got their way? What would become of the United States if the rising right-wing fundamentalists were successful in creating the “perfect” government controlled by the Bible? As a witness to the Religious Right’s surge into the forefront of American media and government policy, Margaret Atwood could see firsthand the dangers of their influence through their “family-oriented” motivations, their permeating presence in 1980s American politics, and the fears of those watching the group’s national influence unfold.
Perhaps the most basic reason for how Margaret Atwood came to find the Christian Right so dangerous was by simply finding what this group was defined by. According to A Christian Manifestoby Francis Schaeffer, the “leading voice of Christianity” (Forbes 308), the right’s main focus was protecting “family values” at any cost (Flynn Jr.). While this appeared to be an innocent gesture towards keeping respect within a family, it was, in reality, an excuse for enforcing discriminating and sexist ideologies that were a part of “traditional” familial expectations. This implied that the evangelicals would use their defense of “protecting family values” as a front for bigotry towards groups like the LGBT community, African-Americans, and anyone else that did not fall into the white, straight household criteria. After discovering what the Christian Right’s true central goal was, Atwood most likely saw that their agenda would lead to the suffering of minorities, a prediction that would unfortunately prove to be correct.
Over the course of the 1960s to the 1980s, the right gained greater support from the GOP and had become the focus of many major media outlets. With all the attention, it was not difficult to manipulate their way into American politics. According to a 1984 Christianity Today newspaper article, Christian activists helped get a Gay Rights bill vetoed by California Governor George Deukmejian. Through the Christian television programs and radio shows, W.B. Timberlake, a former Southern Baptist preacher and lawyer, along with other religious community leaders, made possible over “100,000 phone calls and letters—thought to be the most ever received by a CA governor on a single subject” (Chandler). If they were able to rally such an immense amount of supporters to tackle one issue—that would likely have little to no impact on the fundamentalists’ personal lives—, there would be no telling what the Christian Right could do in larger states or even across the country. Their influence in politics would no doubt be great, especially in the 1970s and eighties when Republicans dominated the presidency. The Religious Right’s strong effect in government can further be seen in the 1968 election. In “The Making of the Religious Right”, Daniel K. Williams explains that the “Christian silent majority” was responsible for Richard Nixon’s victory in 1968 (Glordano Drake). The Republican president’s success into office also meant the start of the right’s takeover in American politics. This is because during his presidency, Nixon went on to publicly support the evangelicals on both the right and left, claiming that “the Christian Faith was indeed about building healthy families and playing specifically designed gender roles” (Glordano Drake). Janine Glordano Drake also goes on to clarify that with Nixon’s backing, groups like the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family came more into the forefront of U.S. politics by becoming major supporters of the Republican Party and wrote on controversial legislative issues that led to the elections of “Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush.” The fact that the Christian Right was able to manipulate not just one, but three United States elections demonstrates the monumental power they hold. It is one thing to be able to prevent the passing of important legislature that would lead to a freer country, but it is another to elect rulers that would guarantee a step backwards in the fight for civil rights. After bearing witness to such feats, it would be difficult not to find the Religious Right threatening to any progress that might be made in campaigning for human liberties. This must have been what Atwood felt as a feminist spectator prior to writing The Handmaid’s Tale.She saw that with the help of the aforementioned Republican presidents, the right would have virtually no obstacles in their supposed battle to protect family values.
Additionally, because of the group’s media attention, Atwood was not the only one to observe the rise of the Christian Right. As mentioned earlier, the fundamentalists of the twentieth century wanted to secure traditional home ideals and would stop at nothing to do so, but to some, this notion seemed to be of innocent motivations. After reading Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right,reviewer Tyler B. Flynn Junior of Eastern University found that the activists simply wanted to lead simpler lives in accordance with their faith. He found that in the “well-researched” title, author Seth Dowland does an exceptional job at explaining the background of pro-family fundamentalists, and that while their campaign may seem “baffling or bigoted”, it all stems from one central idea of upholding conventional gender and household roles (Flynn Jr.). With this, one can see that not everyone was convinced evangelicals were prejudiced in nature, they were simply doing as their faith told them. To some, the right’s crusade against anyone who seemingly tried to undermine Christian tradition was virtuous because it had a “legitimate” backing behind it. However, others, like G. Welton Gaddy and Paul D. Simmons, were skeptical that this was the case. In Edward E. Plowman’s Christianity Today article, “Slamming the Religious Right”, they described devout activists, particularly those attending the “annual meeting of Americans United for Separation of Church and State” in 1981, as being manipulative, authoritative, and threatening to religious freedom. Simmons, a pro-abortion ethics professor at Southern Baptists Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, argued that the evangelical fundamentalists’ strong involvement in anti-abortion proposals meant the “moralistic muddling and legislative bungling that may result in a Constitutional crisis” (Plowman). In other words, he feared that the Christian Right citing their religion in anti-abortion legislation diminished the purpose of the First Amendment which established the separation of church and state. According to Simmons, religious activists had no place in politics, a viewpoint Atwood certainly shared as evidenced by her warning of the more exaggerated consequences should the group’s legislative impact exceeded that of the 1980s. Though Atwood was a Canadian writer, this did not prevent her from seeing the possible dangers of a country plagued by devout nationalists. Furthermore, other observers of the decade conclude that the right was “as grave a threat to the separation of church and state as any government action with respect to freedom of religion” (“A Religious Wing Threat to Civil Liberty”). This anonymous writer for The New York Timesfeared that because Ronald Reagan believed that prayer should be allowed in public schools, an activity prohibited by the Engel v. VitaleSupreme Court decision in 1962, other aspects of the Christian Right’s ideologies might make their way into the education system, like the Bible being taught in public schools (422). If this were to come to fruition, then the First Amendment would essentially be abolished and the United State’s most basic liberty of the freedom to choose one’s faith would no longer be effective. Similar to the preceding commentator, Atwood also found that the stripping of religious freedom in one area could lead to a domino effect that would restrict doctrinal independence from all aspects of American life. This idea was undoubtedly a major source of inspiration to the Canadian author because of its framing in The Handmaid’s Tale,but it also served as a source of warning to those beholding the Christian Right’s ascension in real time.
As the decades passed in the twentieth century, it became obvious that the surging Religious Right movement would grip the nation, but it could not have been predicted that their impact would be so great that even present-day politics continue to feel the impact. It seems though that Margaret Atwood, after closely studying the Christian activists movements and rise to power, was able to clearly see the future implications of a society getting closer and closer to an authoritarian, theocratic regime.
Chandler, Russell. “Christian Activists Help Kill a California Gay Rights Bill.” Christianity Today(pre-1986), vol. 28, no. 007, Apr 20, 1984, pp. 42. ProQuest,
Engel v. Vitale.370 U.S. 421. U.S. Supreme Court. 1962. Print.
Flynn Jr., Tyler B. “Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right.” Fides Et Historia,vol. 49, no. 2, Summer/Fall 2017, pp. 120-122. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohoset.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=31h&AN=126242646&site=ehost-liv e
Glordano Drake, Janine. “The Making of the Religious Right.” Fides Et Historia,vol. 45, no. 2, Summer/Fall 2013, pp. 167-169, EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=31h&AN=9327015&site=ehost-live.
Plowman, Edward E. “Slamming the Religious Right.” Christianity Today(pre-1986), vol. 25, 018, Oct 23, 1981, pp. 60. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/200566662?accountid=39859.
Reagan, Ronald. “Radio Address to the Nation on Prayer in Schools.” Camp David, Maryland. 25 Feb. 1984. Speech.
“A Religious Wing Threat to Civil Liberty.” New York Times,Aug 27, 1980. ProQuest, https://search.proquest.com/docview/423959771?accountid=39859.