Does Religious Freedom Lead To The Handmaid’s Tale?

By: Akos Balogh

I was waiting for it to happen, and finally it has. 

In an SMH article criticising the current political push to enshrine religious freedom into Australian law, prominent secular commentator Elizabeth Farrelly has invoked the spectre of The Handmaids Tale to warn about the possibility of a theocratic Gilead down under:

“We have the bizarre, unconscionable spectacle of a 21st century, new-world culture preparing statutes to defend talk of eternal damnation [referring to the push to protect Folau’s speech].  The spine-chilling medievalism of all this – the unmistakable Handmaid’s Tale-ism of it all – would be risible were it not also terrifying.    As Margaret Atwood says of The Handmaid’s Tale, “nothing went into it that had not happened in real life somewhere at some time”. [1]

No Laughing Matter: The Growing Hysteria Of The Secular Left

Any Christian that’s seen The Handmaid’s Tale will shake their head at Farrely’s article. We’ll be tempted to laugh it off: Christianity (especially as practiced in this country) doesn’t come within a trillion miles of the abhorrent, sickening behaviour of the religion practiced in Gilead. (Sure, there has been awful behaviour by some clergy and churches, such as the child abuse scandals. But this doesn’t in any way represent mainstream Australian Christianity).

But growing numbers of the secular Left aren’t laughing.

Evidently the desire of religious people (especially religious leaders) to have stronger religious freedom laws in our land is nothing less than a desire to move Australia toward a theocracy – where religion tramples the rights of others, not unlike in The Handmaids Tale.

As TGCA author Andrew Moody notes in his article entitled When you love the show, but the show doesn’t love you:

“The Handmaids Tale appeals to the prejudices and fears of the intellectual left. It shows us what the makers (and many of the consumers) of the show think religious conservatives want to inflict on women and other minorities.”

Why The Concern Around Religious Freedom From Secular Commentators?

Australian Christians might be shocked to hear that some (many?) of our secular elite believe we want to turn Australia into Gilead down under, but it shouldn’t surprise us.

Many secular elites now see Christianity not as religion for gullible ‘do-gooders’, but as a force standing in the way of cultural, sexual, and political progress.

We’re seen to be standing in the way of freedom, love and equality. We’re seen to be holding women, LGBTI and minorities in contempt – even leading to vulnerable youth to kill themselves by merely spruiking our ‘bigoted’ teaching. Folau’s social media post is seen as just another example of our religion in action.

And so any push that’s seen to give legal and political legitimacy to such ‘harmful’ views is simply unconscionable by those on the ‘right side of history’. To secular commentators like Farrely, Religious Freedom is a slippery slope that trends toward the The Handmaids Tale.

So what do we do with this serious accusation?

Responding To The Hysteria

Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t End With The Handmaid’s Tale.

There are a number of things we can say in response to Farrely’s concerns.

1) Even At It’s Most Religious, Australia Has Never Been Anything Like Gilead

Australia was once a religiously conservative country – much more so than today. According to data from the National Church Life Survey, 45% of the population was churchgoing in 1950. This was also the decade when visiting American evangelist Billy Graham filled the MCG – a feat that has never been repeated, even by sporting events.

And yet, Australia at its most religiously conservative was never anything like The Handmaids Tale. Women weren’t fleeing the country to escape servitude to religious masters. Fertile females weren’t institutionalised into sexual slavery. Nor were people coerced by the government to become religious.

This is because the Christian gospel that has shaped – and continues to shape – Australian churches doesn’t lead to Gilead.

On the contrary, according to historian Meredith Lake, Christianity has had a profoundly positive and humanising impact on Australia. Including in the brutal colonial era:

“In colonial Australia, [the Biblical worldview] provided the deepest and most important basis for condemning settler rapacity and upholding the rights of Indigenous people. With the authority of God’s own word, ‘one blood’ was the primary foundation for humanitarian thought and action. “[2]

Atheist political commentator Chris Berg makes a similar point about the influence of Christianity on society:

“The idea of human rights was founded centuries ago on Christian assumptions, advanced by biblical argument, and advocated by theologians. Modern supporters of human rights have merely picked up a set of well-refined ethical and moral arguments.”

And so, with a culture influenced so heavily by the gospel, people from around the world have arrived by the millions to make this country their home. (This included thousands of refugees fleeing my homeland of Hungary, which had been taken over, not by a brutal Gilead-esque theocracy, but by the overtly secular-atheistic regime of communism).

2) Religious Freedom Laws Merely Seek To Legalise Religious Freedom That’s Been Taken For Granted Until Now

It’s not about special privileges for the religious.

The current push for religious freedom isn’t a push for ‘religious privilege’ – as if we want (as Farrely claims) to be ‘set above the law’.

Rather, the current push for Religious freedom is to uphold the freedoms we’ve taken for granted until 5 mins ago.

It’s to allow religious authorities to teach their religious beliefs about marriage in religious institutions – without being hauled before state anti-discrimination tribunals for hate-speech, as the Catholic Archbishop of Tasmania, Archbishop Porteous, was in 2015.

Religious freedom laws would enshrine the right of religious schools to hire staff that would live and uphold their religious ethos – in the same way that the local Greens candidate should be allowed to hire staff that upholds their political ethos.

And religious freedom laws would allow students and employees to share their religious views (especially in their own time) without falling afoul of unnecessarily restrictive employer and university code of conducts, as Sheffield university student Felix Ngole did when he shared his Christian views on homosexuality online in his own time.

These are basic human freedoms that have marked out Western free countries, but they are not well protected in Australian law. Religious freedom laws would merely seek to legislate such protection.

3) Religious Freedom Is An Internationally Recognised Human Right

The Religious freedom laws being advocated by religious leaders and conservative politicians are based on existing International human rights legislation, namely Article 18 of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political rights –to which Australia is already a signatory.

Unless you want to accuse the UN of wanting to transform its member countries into ‘Gileads’, proposed legislation will simply enshrine Article 18 into Australian law.

4) Religious Freedom Laws Have Limits

Farrely betrays a disturbing ignorance about how religious freedom laws function. She’s concerned that such laws would lead to a ‘religious exemption from legal duty’, including sanctioning ‘invidious “religious” practices like genital mutilation and forced marriage’.

Apart from the fact that no one is advocating for the freedom to marry their 12 year old niece (although admittedly it is practiced by some religions around the world), the actual religious freedom legislation being advocated for by religious leaders and conservative Coalition senators is based on the UN’s Article 18, which states that:

“Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” -Paragraph 3 of Article 18 of the UN’s ICCPR

In other words, religious freedom is not absolute, and must be balanced against other rights – such as the right of women and children not to be forced into marriage against their will, or be subject to sexual slavery.

The Lesson of History: When Religious Freedom goes, so do other freedoms

What many secular elites are losing sight of is that religious freedom has always been the canary in the coal mine when it comes to human rights.

It is the first right to be compromised, whether by religious theocracies like Iran, or secular-Atheist regimes like China. And it’s not hard to understand why: totalitarian governments demand undivided ‘devotion’ – whether to their particular religion, or to the state itself. True religious freedom – as has been practiced in the West – compromises such undivided devotion, and thus is abhorred by totalitarian regimes.

This was the case under the secular communist regimes. But it’s also increasingly the case today. As American author Rod Dreher points out:

“On a train from Bratislava to Prague, I read the prison memoir of Silvester Krcmery, a lay Catholic jailed and tortured for over a decade for his faith. The 1954 court verdict sentencing Krcmery said that religious liberty was guaranteed in the [communist] Czechoslovak constitution, but that it must never be understood as permitting anything “that would slow down the building of socialism.”

Dreher continues:

“Today, our progressives might say religious liberty is important, but it must never be understood as permitting anything that would slow down the advance of LGBTQ rights.

Our secular elites don’t want religious freedom to stand in the way of their so-called progress. And one way to erode this freedom is by painting it as the road to Gilead…and The Handmaid’s Tale as the blueprint for what religious people are really after.

[1] The Handmaid’s Tale is the (award winning) dystopian story of a theocracy known as ‘Gilead’ – located in the United States – where fertile women are in sexual slavery to their religious owners, and bearing children for them. A kooky form of religion (which the author Margaret Atwood equates to fundamentalist Christianity) is the oppressive force that justifies this theocracy. A 2017 interview between Steven Colbert and Handmaid’s tale actress Elizabeth Moss is also telling (view from 5:51 onwards).

[2] Meredith Lake, The Bible in Australia – A Cultural History (Sydney, Australia: NewSouth Publishing, 2018), 95.

Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh.

About the Author: Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.