CHURCH & STATE | Welcome to Gilead Have you noticed that parts of America are looking very dystopian these days?

Photo by Mads Schmidt on Unsplash

It used to be, if you wanted a glimpse of what life would be like in an America that had become a nightmarish theocracy, you had to read a book like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

That’s no longer necessary. Instead, you can just visit Texas.

If you doubt that, just talk to Kate Cox. The Dallas-area mother, 31, was expecting her third child when a routine screening revealed that the fetus had full trisomy 18, a chromosomal abnormality that meant the fetus would almost certainly die in utero or shortly after birth. Carrying the fetus to term presented risks to Cox and could have made it more difficult for her to give birth in the future. Citing the threat to her life, she sought to get an abortion.

But abortions are pretty much impossible to get in Texas since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. A state court initially approved Cox’s request, but that decision was quickly overturned by the Texas Supreme Court. In the interim period, Ken Paxton, the state’s attorney general, threatened to criminally prosecute any doctor who performed the procedure.

Cox left the state to have her abortion elsewhere. It’s not clear where she went or how she got there, but bear in mind that her travails may not be over: Texas has a law that allows a third party—someone who doesn’t even know Cox—to file charges against anyone who helps a person get an abortion. This would include whoever drove Cox to the clinic or facilitated her decision in any way.

In addition, several Texas communities have passed policies saying that their roads cannot be used to aid in “abortion trafficking”—a term religious extremists made up. Again, these measures apply to anyone who helps another get an abortion by transporting that person to a clinic.

Texas, a state where “In God We Trust” signs adorn public school classroom walls and many libraries are screening books for anything too favorable to LGBTQ+ people, is giving Atwood’s Gilead a run for its money. And it’s not the only one.

Under Gov. Ron DeSantis, legal abortion in Florida is hanging on by a thread. DeSantis signed a bill banning just about all abortions after six weeks, but it’s on hold pending a legal challenge.

Florida also holds the dubious distinction of banning more books than any other state. A law there allows anyone to complain about a book used in public schools. At that point, the title must be pulled from circulation and reviewed.

Rights & Wrongs by Christopher Weyant,

In some counties, school officials are being proactive by yanking books they believe might be targeted. Clay County public school officials banned a bunch of books with LGBTQ+ themes and, for good measure, tossed in one called What on Earth Is a Pangolin?

In Madison County, Alabama, public library officials were so terrorized by a group called Clean Up Alabama that they frantically compiled a list of titles that might be problematic. Most of the books had LGBTQ+ content or characters, but one of them, Read Me a Story, Stella, a tome for youngsters about two siblings who enjoy reading stories to each other, was flagged because—wait for it—the author’s last name is “Gay.” Library officials admitted a mistake was made and put the book back on the shelves. The other titles may not be so lucky.

In Oklahoma, Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters, who has said, “There is no separation of church and state in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence. It doesn’t exist,” has vowed to infuse public schools with Christianity. (I’m guessing it will be Ryan’s fundamentalist version, not what is offered by, say, the United Church of Christ.)

“We will bring God back to schools and prayer back in schools in Oklahoma and fight back against that radical myth,” Walters said, to the rapturous swoons of attendees at a Christian Nationalist conference in Washington, D.C., last year. (And lest we forget, Oklahoma is also trying to create the nation’s first “religious public charter school”—the mother of all oxymorons. This institution would somehow be public yet Catholic at the same time. The idea is so out there that even the state’s Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond opposes it.)

And should anyone think I’m unduly beating on the Bible Belt, here’s a tale from Pennsylvania: Last year, a junior high school English teacher in Hollidaysburg was threatened with criminal prosecution because she had the book Gender Queer: A Memoir on her person in the school. She wasn’t teaching it in class or reading it to students. No matter. Officials at the school, treating the book like a bubbling bucket of toxic goo, ordered her to take the volume home and never bring it back. It didn’t end there: The Blair County District Attorney’s Office launched an investigation. The office eventually released a statement indicating that it had found no evidence that laws were broken, but I’m guessing all this might have had a bit of a chilling effect on the teacher.

In Ohio, where voters had the temerity to add protections for legal abortion to the state constitution in November by ballot initiative—by thirteen points, no less—legislators are hard at work trying to figure out some way to undermine the vote or simply ignore it. One member of the state House of Representatives opined, “No amendment can overturn the God-given rights with which we were born.”

Out in the heartland, members of the Satanic Temple, a nontheistic group that views Satan as a metaphor for having the power to challenge religious authority, took advantage of an open forum at the capitol building in Des Moines, Iowa, to erect a display alongside others in December. Many government officials and clergy went ballistic. Brad Sherman, a member of the state’s House of Representatives, told constituents, “It is a tortured and twisted interpretation of law that affords Satan, who is universally understood to be the enemy of God, religious expression equal to God in an institution of government that depends upon God for continued blessings.” (Sorry, Brad, that’s not how it works.) A fundamentalist zealot later vandalized the display, damaging it beyond repair.

And don’t forget, the U.S. Supreme Court keeps inching closer to ruling that religious freedom gives religious extremists the right to discriminate against people who offend their theological beliefs even in secular settings. And oh, the court is also gunning for birth control.

For too long, too many Americans have persuaded themselves that it can’t happen here. It can. It is happening here.

The only question remaining is, how long are we going to allow it?