So far, the only answer The Handmaid’s Tale has given to how the world got to such a state has been “fundamentalism.” The narrative assumes the received wisdom that Christian fundamentalism in particular parallels that of the Taliban, and that no case needs to be made that a particular segment of Christianity in America could not only grow dominant enough to present a threat but also harbor an ideology capable of fueling a militarized revolution in the first place.
Definite problems arise from those assumptions. For one thing, fundamentalists in this country barely have the means to fund anything, let alone a war. Furthermore, anyone who understands American Christian fundamentalism also understands that it does not scale up; instead, it tends to thrive at the local level. Most Christian fundamentalists live sectarian lives because they are opting out of larger society to create small fiefdoms. The relative success of Moral Majority–types in getting on school boards and creating a voting bloc notwithstanding, Christian fundamentalism is unsuited to power politics on a large scale, since Christianity is by definition based on individual, unmediated communion with God. Individual faith which yields to no man’s authority in matters of conscience does not lend itself to highly centralized governance like the one that a society as regimented as that of The Handmaid’s Tale would demand, with its clockwork precision.
This is not a minor quibble, since the entire conceit of the show is that we watch and take heed, lest we head down this same path of totalitarianism. The irony of utilizing fundamentalist Christianity as a narrative framework is that, here in the real world, evangelicals, including fundamentalists, have been doubling down on the idea that Christians should opt out of American society, not take it over—especially if this takeover would involve massacring members of Congress and burning the Constitution the way it does in The Handmaid’s Tale. This particular path toward a theocratic state would be especially painful for all those strict Constitutionalists and conservative Christians currently holding congressional seats alongside their secular American brothers and sisters.
The fact that the story doesn’t make sense wouldn’t matter if we weren’t being asked to make sense of it, of course—to find meaning in its depiction of this clear and present danger. It is undeniably true that women have been, and continue to be in many places, systematically dehumanized and brutalized by their fellow human beings. But are we really moving toward this sort of subjugation in our own society? It’s a question worth asking—one that watching The Handmaid’s Tale demands, with its insistence on grounding the story in the very real phenomenon of American fundamentalist Christianity. Instead of making the story more plausible, however, this framework only serves to undermine it.