It’s shunning time in Madison County, Virginia, where the school board recently banished my novel The Handmaid’s Tale from the shelves of the high-school library. I have been rendered “unacceptable.” Governor Glenn Youngkin enabled such censorship last year when he signed legislation allowing parents to veto teaching materials they perceive as sexually explicit.
This episode is perplexing to me, in part because my book is much less sexually explicit than the Bible, and I doubt the school board has ordered the expulsion of that. Possibly, the real motive lies elsewhere. The conservative Christian group Focus on the Family generated the list of “unacceptable” books that reportedly inspired the school board’s action, and at least one member of the public felt the school board was trying to “limit what kids can read” based on religious views. Could it be that the board acted under the mistaken belief that The Handmaid’s Tale is anti-Christian?
The truth is that the inspiration for The Handmaid’s Tale is in part biblical: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15). The novel sets an inward faith and core Christian values—which I take to be embodied in the love of neighbor and the forgiveness of sins—against totalitarian control and power-hoarding cloaked in a supposed religiousness that is mostly based on the earlier scriptures in the Bible. The stealing of women for reproductive purposes and the appropriation of their babies appears in Genesis 30, when Rachel and Leah turn their “handmaids” over to Jacob and then claim the children as their own. My novel is also an exploration of the theoretical question “What kind of a totalitarianism might the United States become?” I suggest we’re beginning to see the real-life answer to that query.
Wittingly or otherwise, the Madison County school board has now become part of the centuries-old wrangling over who shall have control of religious texts and authority over what they mean. In its early-modern form, this power struggle goes back to the mid-15th-century appearance of the Gutenberg printing press, which allowed a wider dissemination of printed materials, including Bibles.
The Church had good reason for wanting to limit Bible-reading (in Latin) to the clergy. Limbo and purgatory weren’t in it, nor was the catalog of saints or the notion of marriage as a sacrament, among other key teachings. But John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, and their continental counterparts translated the Bible into vernacular languages and enabled cheap copies of it to be printed. As people learned to read in ever larger numbers, they read the Bible, and the result was a proliferation of different interpretations. Baptists, Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, and Methodists are all the descendants of this biblical big bang. Approximately three centuries of bitter and destructive religious wars followed, as well as massacres, excommunications, widespread heresy trials, witchcraft panics, and burnings at the stake, with the usual nasty human-warfare raping, looting, and pillaging stuff thrown in.
That’s one reason the authors of the United States Constitution framed the First Amendment as they did. It stipulates that Congress shall not make any law that establishes a state religion or prohibits the free exercise of an individual’s own faith. Who wanted the homicidal uproar that had gone on in Europe for so long?