The charismatic Catholic group with which Supreme Court hopeful Amy Coney Barrett is linked has categorically denied being the inspiration behind Margaret Atwood’s disturbing dystopian novel, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.
'People of Praise' told Premier that there has “never been any evidence whatsoever” to suggest that they played a role in inspiring the book. The 1985 bestseller — which depicts a totalitarian state ruled in accordance with an oppressive, quasi-Christian theology — was thrust into popular culture in 2017 after being adapted into a TV drama series. It depicts women being captured, forcibly married and enslaved under the ownership of their husbands.
While the People of Praise’s theological ethos doesn’t appear to bear any resemblance to that adopted by the government authorities depicted in the fictional tale, it has been claimed that the group’s female accountability advisers were once called “handmaids”. This was confirmed to Premier by the group's Communications Director, Sean Connolly, who expanded on its meaning.
"The People of Praise has both men and women leaders," he said. "For many years, we referred to some of our women leaders as handmaids, following the use of the term by Mary, Jesus’s mother, who called herself “the handmaid of the Lord,” (Lk. 1:38). Mary is honoured by millions as the first Christian and as a model believer. In keeping with this, the term handmaid originally honoured a woman with an important relationship with God and a leadership role within our community."
Connolly noted that, given the negative connotations apportioned to it in recent times, the People of Praise no longer employs this term. "Recognizing that the meaning of this term has shifted dramatically in our culture in recent years, we no longer use the term handmaid to describe those women who are leaders in the People of Praise," he said.
"The People of Praise began using the term handmaid in the 1970s, well before Margaret Atwood wrote her famous novel (1985). The People of Praise community was not the inspiration for Ms. Atwood’s work."
On its website, the People of Praise describes itself as being a charismatic and diverse group of believers “characterised by deep and lasting friendships”.
“We share our lives together often in small groups and in larger prayer meetings,” they note. “We read Scripture together. We share meals together. We attend each other's baptisms and weddings and funerals. We support each other financially and materially and spiritually. We strive to live our daily lives in our families, workplaces and cities in harmony with God and with all people.”
Rebutting accusations that ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is modelled on value sets adopted by the People of Praise, Connolly highlighted a recent interview in which Margaret Atwood stated that they were not the specific group who helped form the book’s narrative. “It wasn’t them,” the author told writer Kate Schatz in response to a direct question about the influence of the People of Praise on the author’s work. “It was a different one but the same idea.”
People of Praise also contested some assertions made in a Newsweek column which attempted to link them to Atwood’s novel - the group alleged that a key detail had been left out of the article.
“Unmentioned is the fact that in an April 17, 2017, profile piece in the New Yorker, Atwood mentions a box full of newspaper clippings she collected for background on The Handmaid’s Tale,” Connolly explained. “Rebecca Mead writes about one clipping, “An Associated Press item reported on a Catholic congregation in New Jersey being taken over by a fundamentalist sect in which wives were called ‘handmaidens’—a word that Atwood had underlined.” A photo of the actual clipping shows that the controversy involved a group in the Newark, New Jersey archdiocese.
“The People of Praise has never had a presence in the state of New Jersey.”
Connolly added that it was “unlikely that this New Jersey clipping inspired Atwood’s book [because] her book was already published by the time that clipping appeared in the press”.
Newsweek later released a correction at the bottom of their article noting that the newspaper clipping referred to a different charismatic Catholic group called 'People of Hope', not People of Praise.
Amy Coney Barrett — who is anticipated to be nominated to the Supreme Court bench by President Donald Trump this weekend following the death of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — has come under increased scrutiny over recent weeks for being an alleged member of the ‘People of Praise’ group.
The judge, a mother of seven who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, has previously been questioned over her ability to interpret the law objectively given her personal religious beliefs - an accusation she strongly contests. "I would never impose my own personal convictions upon the law," she declared during her 2017 confirmation hearing for her seat on the Court of Appeals.
President Trump is set to announce his Supreme Court nominee at the White House on Saturday. Judge Barbara Lagoa, who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, is also said to be in the running.