Federal appellate judge Amy Coney Barrett’s involvement with People of Praise, a small Christian group, has been under intense scrutiny since President Donald Trump nominated the 48-year-old to the Supreme Court last month.
Barrett has declined to speak publicly about her involvement with the group and People of Praise has not confirmed she was a member, but an explosive report Tuesday from The Washington Post revealed Barrett had an active role in People of Praise and served as a “handmaid,” a term used to refer to female leaders in the group.
People of Praise describes itself as a “charismatic” Christian community, which refers to a form of Christianity that believes in supernatural occurrences through the work of the Holy Spirit like miraculous healing and prophecy. The group also abides by strict gender roles in which each member of the community is connected to a leader, known as a “head.” Heads are often consulted for life decisions, such as dating, marriage, jobs and financial issues. Married women’s “heads” are their husbands.
People of Praise says the “handmaid” label comes from a Bible verse attributed to Mary, who described the news that she would become pregnant with Jesus by calling herself “the handmaid of the Lord.” “Mary is honoured by millions as the first Christian and as a model believer,” the group’s website reads. “In keeping with this, the term handmaid originally honoured a woman with an important relationship with God and a leadership role within our community.”
The “handmaid” title evokes comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” in which a Christian fundamentalist government subjects fertile women to repeated ritual rape in order to bear the children of their male masters.
People of Praise, which started referring to female leaders as “handmaids” in the 1970s, has stopped using the label because they recognised that the meaning has “shifted dramatically in our culture in recent years,” the group wrote on its website.
Sean Connolly, People of Praise’s communications director, declined to comment on Barrett’s membership in the group in a statement to HuffPost last month. “Like most religious communities, the People of Praise leaves it up to its members to decide whether to publicly disclose their involvement in our community,” he said. (The Washington Post printed the same statement from Connolly in its Tuesday article.)
Atwood told The New York Times in 1986 that she was inspired to write her iconic novel after reading about a “Catholic charismatic spinoff sect” that called women “handmaids.” Atwood did not specify if she was referring to People of Praise, but Connolly told HuffPost that “there has never been any evidence whatsoever to suggest that the People of Praise played a role in inspiring Margaret Atwood’s book.”
While male “headship” does encourage traditional gender roles, it is not uncommon in conservative Christian communities. The religious group states on its website that “husbands should not be domineering nor should wives be servile,” but some former members have criticised the community for creating a rigid and controlling atmosphere.
The group also describes itself as a “covenant community,” which means members make a commitment to join the organisation by following common principles, meeting regularly for prayer services and pledging 5% of their annual income to the religious group. It’s somewhat common for practicing Christians to tithe, or donate, a percentage of their incomes to religious causes, but it’s rare for Christian communities to make these tithes a requirement for membership in the community.
Democrats and abortion rights groups worry that Barrett’s religious views will affect her decisions as a judge, especially on the precedent set by Roe v. Wade ― the landmark Supreme Court decision ensuring women’s access to abortion. Barrett, whose track record has been hostile toward abortion, LGBTQ and voting rights, has referred to Roe v. Wade as an “erroneous decision.”