Margaret Atwood wrote in The Handmaid’s Tale that “nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” Two recent stories from the US Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation remind me of her words and her fictional theocracy—the Republic of Gilead—in ways some might overlook.
A whistleblower complaint filed within the Department of Justice last month shows an irregularity in the traditional process for awarding grants to assist victims of human trafficking. Grants are typically awarded through a merit-based review system, but the department denied funding to higher-rated (tier one) service groups that have historically received grants to serve human-trafficking survivors, in favor of two less-established (tier two) groups that promote Christianity. It’s clear that the merit-based review was overlooked to favor those aligned with the administration’s religious viewpoints—a de facto government endorsement of Christianity.
In Matthew 22:21, Jesus gives the instruction to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” Religious organizations that respect such scripture and the constitutional separation of church and state know that accepting government funding means conforming to government regulations that ensure that their services are fully open to all. Getting too cozy with government can compromise a religious organization’s prophetic voice and interfere with their ability to be the best stewards of their faith. But some religious groups not only fail to heed such advice, they are colluding with a willing government to take taxpayer funds while retaining their exclusionary religious practices.
For example, one of the newer grant recipients forces human trafficking survivors to live by puritanical rules, forbidding the women in their care from carrying purses or reading women’s magazines that promote secular views, makeup tips, and so on. Their staff manual, obtained by Reuters, calls homosexuality “immoral” and drug use “witchcraft.” Providing them over half a million dollars in federal grants is an unjust government endorsement of prejudicial attitudes.
Meanwhile, in that gradually heating bathtub I mentioned, FBI director Christopher Wray recently cherry-picked just one case as an excuse to create the absurd “pro-choice terrorist” classification. This is a particularly egregious action considering that there are overwhelmingly more incidents of threats and violence made by anti-choice activists against abortion providers. According to the National Abortion Federation, since 1993 anti-choice activists have murdered eleven people and attempted to kill another twenty-six.
This situation is similar to one in Pakistan, where a women’s rights advocacy group has been accused of engaging in “anti-state” activity. Conservative opponents in the country are attempting to bar them from holding a planned march, claiming that by standing up for civil rights in a public venue they’re renouncing their traditional cultural roles. It’s troubling to see the US government’s intelligence community mirroring such attempts to squelch free speech.
Wray’s move suggests government intent to delegitimize pro-choice advocates and excuse increased FBI surveillance of their activities, threatening their rights. Such an unwarranted classification opens the door to government probes into organizations whose values differ from the religious extremists in positions of power. The danger of this kind of abuse of power can’t be overstated.
Seeing these stories together—the blatant religious preference in awarding federal grants, along with falsely labeling pro-choice activists as terrorists—shows how government is providing rewards and support to entities that reflect their Far-Right brand of Christianity while seeking to control and demonize everyone else. We’re slowly becoming conditioned to this type of acquiescence, much like Atwood’s gradually heating tub, setting the stage for a Gilead-type world where governments favor those religiously and ideologically similar and target opponents. Over the last four years, the Trump administration tried to desensitize us to its favoritism toward religion, so we must be ever more vigilant in identifying and raising awareness about the consistent and perilous direction in which they are marching this country.