Handmaid's Tale? U.S. Supreme Court Candidate's Religious Community Under Scrutiny

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U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a law professor at Notre Dame  University, poses in an undated photograph obtained from Notre Dame University September 19, 2020.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a law professor at Notre Dame University, poses in an undated photograph obtained from Notre Dame University September 19, 2020Credit: Matt Cashore/Notre Dame University/Handout via REUTERS

Some have likened People of Praise, a self-described charismatic Christian community, to the totalitarian, male-dominated society of Margaret Atwood's novel "The Handmaid's Tale."

Others call it an ultraconservative group with an unusual mix of Roman Catholic and Pentecostal traditions.

In any case there has been renewed interest in the group since U.S. President Donald Trump put one of its purported members, Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the Seventh District Court of Appeals, on his short list of candidates for elevation to the Supreme Court.

The group has declined to confirm or deny whether Barrett was a member since a New York Times article in 2017 said she was in the group, citing unnamed current and former members.

The group's spokesman declined initial requests from Reuters for comment and said Overall Coordinator Craig Lent was unavailable for an interview. The spokesman later agreed to take questions by email but did not immediately respond.

Barrett did not immediately respond on Tuesday to requests for comment made through a clerk at the Seventh Circuit.

People of Praise has about 1,700 members in 22 cities in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean, according to its website, and was founded in 1971 in South Bend, Indiana, also the home of the Catholic-led University of Notre Dame.

"We admire the first Christians who were led by the Holy Spirit to form a community," the website says, tracing its origins to the late 1960s when students and faculty at Notre Dame experienced "a renewal of Christian enthusiasm and fervor, together with charismatic gifts such as speaking in tongues and physical healing."

Its most devoted members make a lifelong commitment to the group, known as a covenant.

From 1970 until recently, women with leadership roles in the organization were called handmaids, but the popularity of the 2017-to-present Hulu television series "The Handmaid's Tale," based on Atwood's 1985 book, appears to have led to a change.

"Recognizing that the meaning of this term has shifted dramatically in our culture in recent years, we no longer use the term handmaid," the group said after the 2018 media interest.

Coral Anika Theill, a former People of Praise member from decades ago, has described the group as an abusive cult in which women are completely obedient to men and independent thinkers are humiliated, interrogated, shamed and shunned.

Theill, who self-published a book about how her ex-husband dragged her through a number of religious groups, said she was campaigning to stop Barrett from being nominated.

Theill left People of Praise in 1984 but said she has remained in contact with others associated with the group, believing little had changed. Last year she wrote a blog post entitled "I lived the Handmaid's Tale."

"A lot of us suffered Stockholm syndrome and many of the women were on anti-depressants and tranquilizers," Theill said. "If you were super submissive, maybe you wouldn't be dragged in the middle of the night to an interrogation meeting."

Thomas Csordas, a scholar of comparative religion at the University of California, San Diego, said he would not consider People of Praise a cult, instead saying it was "very conservative."

He said Theill's story was similar to ones he had heard from other Catholic charismatic groups.

"There are a number of these covenant communities and some are more authoritarian than others," Csordas told Reuters.

"I don't think that People of Praise has caused her (Barrett) to be as conservative as she is. I think that she's doubtless a member of People of Praise because she already was that conservative."

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