This article contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale through Season 2 episode 2.
Religion is inescapable in Gilead, the fictional land of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The Sons of Jacob bend bible verses to their will, tossing out whole sections and making other things up in an effort to justify their society bent on control and repopulation. Atwood chose the familiarity of American televangelism and fundamental Christianity to ground her dystopian work of fiction in her audience’s reality. This makes the work more immediate, realistic, and devastating.
Like the book before it, Hulu’s award-winning show is not a statement about Christianity, but rather about the terror of patriarchal control and religious fundamentalism in all their forms, in service to the premise that “it could happen here.”
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 has made a point of incorporating religion more directly, both Gilead’s state-sanctioned take on fundamentalist Christianity as well as dissident religious beliefs. It builds on the existing use of religion in the world Margaret Atwood created, deepening it by showing by showing realistic ways that people in Gilead use religion to cope, as well as further specifying the practices of the Sons of Jacob.
In the season two premiere, the truck driver helping June escape from the Waterfords tells her to, “go with grace, kid.” It may seem like a small, throwaway line, but it’s the first religious expression we’ve heard outside the bounds of the state-sanctioned religion. It’s the kind of thing that a person might casually say in a country that values freedom of religion, if they were so inclined. But just like the first time a soldier says, “praise be,” to June in a flashback, it signals something larger.
While no one says it by name, this seems to be part of the Underground Femaleroad from the book. Based on this and a few other examples, the loose, secretive path out of Gilead counts a number of religious dissidents among its members. While many of the worst horrors of human history from the Crusades to a number of genocides have had a religious basis, many of those who stood against those regimes did so on the basis of their own religious values. Nuns in France smuggling Jews to safety during WWII, the work of the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America, and any number of examples of Christians and Muslims protecting one another in the Middle East all come to mind.
Purges of religious orders were mentioned in season one, and the bodies hanging from the wall were a reminder of how Gilead treats those outside of its own narrow religious framework. But it stands to reason that some would go underground with their beliefs, choosing survival and resistance over martyrdom, if they could. The networks that are such a strong social aspect to organized religion make it easier to mobilize for those wishing to do so, and the property accrued by the religious organizations themselves can help facilitate the kind of resistance needed in troubled times. Taking its cues from both the source material and history, the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale builds out its resistance in ways big and small.
During “Unwomen,” the second episode of the season, June finds herself coming back to her religion. Other than some references to Christmas or other religious holidays that dominate much of the US, June’s prayer at the memorial she constructs is her first real expression of any kind of faith. Sarcastic and realistic about Gilead, life in a dictatorial theocracy hasn’t exactly warmed her to the thought of organized religion. Yet as she makes her way through the empty offices of The Boston Globe, June creates a memorial as a way to process both her current situation and the fate of the people who once worked there. This becomes part of her routine and helps her maintain a sense of normalcy instead of viewing herself as helplessly trapped in a tomb. While for most of her time in Gilead religion has been a mechanism for violence and oppression, left to her own devices June found it to be a salve.
As the season progresses, we see a number of people grapple with religion in secret, showing how religion can both unify and divide, excuse terrifying behavior and engender great kindness and sacrifice. A woman rabbi, somehow still alive in spite of the purges of clergy, offers real and meaningful solace to a group of people suffering under the rule of the Sons of Jacob. Some characters naturally chafe at the idea that God has a plan, considering God allowed Gilead to exist. But others find rare comfort and community via clandestine religious expression.
At another key point in the season, we see that in spite of having to go along with Gilead’s brand of Christianity for their own safety, there’s a Muslim practicing in secret. From the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust, hiding one’s religious beliefs to survive has been sadly all too necessary, particularly for followers of marginalized religions like Judaism. Aside from offering a surprising peek into the secret lives of those eking out an existence in Gilead, this moment calls to mind the current persecution of Muslims, as well as anyone who can be mistaken for a Muslim, like Sikhs or Jains.
As The Handmaid’s Tale continues to explore religion within Gilead, I would love to see syncretism as clandestine worship. Throughout the New World, slaves used syncretism, or the merging of two religions, to continue to follow their own beliefs in plain sight, without drawing the ire of slave owners. West African Orishas became Christian saints, and Santería was born. For example, Changó, the strong warrior who throws lightning bolts, is affiliated with Santa Barbara, a fierce young woman who killed her rapist with a lightning bolt. This merging was a form of resistance and a testament to the strength of the people who created it. This brilliant survival mechanism didn’t require yielding, which would fit right in with the world of The Handmaid’s Tale.
The Sons of Jacob and their cherry-picked, Quiverful-like theocracy are clearly the religious backbone of The Handmaid’s Tale. But just like in current and historic times of religious persecution and strife, people are not so willing to abandon their own religions or their values. As a mechanism for social organizing and coping with injustice, dissident religious practices realistically occur throughout Gilead, making the show even more true to life.