Following the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September 2020, Judge Amy Coney Barrett was selected as U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to the court. But her religious affiliation with one Christian group was the subject of scrutiny and widespread rumors, because its treatment of women appeared to eerily mirror a few elements of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Snopes readers shared memes and articles about Barrett with us and asked us to confirm her religious affiliation with People of Praise. Many queries were curious about whether this group served as the inspiration for the world of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in which women’s rights are severely limited.
Reports of Barrett’s membership in the group and its alleged role in inspiring Atwood’s book sparked outrage on social media. “Oh look, her fucking cult literally fucking inspired the Handmaids Tale,” one person tweeted. “Cool. This is cool.”
However, we were unable to find examples of Atwood directly referencing People of Praise in her research for the book or in subsequent interviews, and she has said on more than one occasion that her inspiration came from press clippings about a “different but similar” group.
Who Are People of Praise?
In September 2017, The New York Times reported that Barrett — now a federal judge and academic — was part of the conservative Christian group People of Praise. According to the group’s website, the movement was involved in “the growth of charismatic renewal in the Catholic Church.” The charismatic movement includes Christians of many denominations — Barrett herself is a devout Catholic — and in the 1960s had adopted Pentecostal practices like speaking in tongues, belief in prophecy, and divine healing.
Barrett’s father, Mike Coney, was also a coordinator for the group’s chapters. In 1981, the group established the Trinity Schools, a number of private Christian schools around the country. According to a disclosure Barrett filed as part of her nomination to the federal bench in 2017, she was a trustee of a Trinity School.
The New York Times report also said that members of the group “swear a lifelong oath of loyalty, called a covenant, to one another,” and are accountable to a personal advisor, who is called a “head” if he’s a man, and “handmaid” if she’s a woman. Furthermore:
“The group teaches that husbands are the heads of their wives and should take authority over the family. Current and former members say that the heads and handmaids give direction on important decisions, including whom to date or marry, where to live, whether to take a job or buy a home, and how to raise children.”
The National Catholic Reporter, a liberal media organization, covered People of Praise and its alleged mistreatment of members in a 2018 report. But leaders from the group have defended the practice of getting advice from a “head” as a way of receiving spiritual direction from fellow members. Craig Lent, a leader and member of the movement, told the National Catholic Reporter:
“‘It’s just somebody you can talk to in confidence,’ said Lent, explaining that when he was a young father, his ‘head’ gave him advice about matters as varied as raising kids and septic systems. He said he has not found the process to feel controlling.”
Coral Anika Theill, a former member of the group, described her experiences in the 1970s and ’80s as “traumatizing,” while admitting that there were regional differences among the group’s practices.
Adrian J. Reimers, a founding member of People of Praise who was forced out of the group for raising concerns about them for having too much control over their members’ lives, wrote a book about them in 2017. In it he described how a married woman in the group is “expected always to reflect the fact that she is under her husband’s authority.”
Tim Kaiser, another former member who left as an 18-year-old in 1997, spoke to Newsweek about the group’s rule regarding women submitting to their husbands:
“In the case of a woman, her ‘head’ is her husband — that’s who is in charge of her. That is the person who is supposed to be making all of her moral decisions and taking responsibility for the condition of her soul. It’s really creepy, but that’s the idea.”
A parent handbook for the Trinity School where Barrett served as a trustee said marriage is “between a man and a woman” and “the only proper place for sexual activity is within these bounds of conjugal love.” These views are in keeping with mainstream Catholic teachings, however.
Update: We should also note that these past reports do not fully represent the workings of the group today. Since we first published this story, an Oct. 7 Washington Post report revealed more details about Barrett’s role in People of Praise and their practices. In a statement to The Washington Post, People of Praise’s spokesperson, Sean Connolly, said that the group replaced the title of handmaids with “women leaders” back in 2017. He said in a 2018 statement that the title was dropped due to the recognition that its meaning had “shifted dramatically in our culture in recent years.”
A 2010 directory from the group stated that Barrett had also held the title of “handmaid” and her mother had served the same role. Connolly maintained that the role of women leaders were to “help other women who are seeking advice and guidance.”
We have reached out to Connolly to learn more about these reported practices. We also left messages with Judge Barrett’s chambers, and the University of Notre Dame Law School where she is a faculty member. We will update this post if we hear back.
Did the Group Inspire Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’?
The second element of the claim focuses on whether this group did indeed serve as the inspiration for “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In the novel, a futuristic American society is ruled by a Christian fundamentalist government, and women are deprived of their rights, including reproductive rights. The fertile among them are assigned as “handmaids” to give birth to the children of a ruling class of men.
Atwood herself did not explicitly reference People of Praise in past interviews discussing inspiration for the book, though she did make reference to an unnamed “Catholic charismatic spinoff sect” in a 1986 interview with The New York Times.
I started noticing that a lot of the things I thought I was more or less making up were now happening, and indeed more of them have happened since the publication of the book. There is a sect now, a Catholic charismatic spinoff sect, which calls the women handmaids. They don’t go in for polygamy of this kind but they do threaten the handmaids according to the biblical verse I use in the book — sit down and shut up.
A 2017 New Yorker profile described her research materials for the book. She clipped articles from newspapers about abortion and contraception being outlawed in Romania, the falling birth rate in Canada, and U.S. Republican attempts to withhold federal funding from abortion clinics. Also in the profile: “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.”
According to Newsweek, this clipping referenced People of Hope, a sect based in Newark, New Jersey. But a 2017 report in the New Jersey Star-Ledger pointed out that the October 1985 Associated Press article didn’t come out until after Atwood’s book was published. Furthermore, based on the branches listed on their website, People of Praise does not have a presence in the state of New Jersey. “The Handmaid’s Tale” was printed in Canada in the fall of 1985. It is possible that Atwood pulled this clipping around the same time the book was being released, and included it in her research materials.
Atwood herself offered slightly conflicting accounts. In a Sept. 23, 2020, interview with UC Santa Cruz, she said the group did not serve as an inspiration for the book: “It wasn’t them. It was a different one but the same idea,” she said. But in a statement to Politico, she said she was “unsure” whether People of Praise were among the inspirations for her book. At the time, she could not access her notes in the rare book library at the University of Toronto because of COVID-19 restrictions, and said, “Unless I can go back into the clippings file, I hesitate to say anything specific.”
On Sept. 27, she tweeted a correction to someone claiming that People of Praise inspired her book title, saying “not that group.. a different but similar one”:
Book of Genesis. Quoted at front of book. And no, not that group.. a different but similar one. :(
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) September 27, 2020
We reached out to Atwood through her representative to learn more about her inspirations for the events of the novel and will update this post if we hear back.
Given there is documentation and media coverage connecting Barrett to People of Praise, and past reporting surrounding their practices, but no proof from Atwood if this group was the direct inspiration for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” we rate this claim as “Mostly False.”