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The Price of Our Beliefs

I was fresh out of college when I first read the book, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is now also a TV series. It depicts the US as a police state ruled by Christian fundamentalists who oppress women while surveilling and regulating the lives of its citizens. When I read it, I was struggling to reconcile my Catholic upbringing with my staunch feminist beliefs. My Catholic feminist mom was struggling with the same. Given that the church we both attended back then was widely regarded as the most liberal in Milwaukee, we were in good company among plenty of Catholics who were also trying to figure it out.

Anyway, I remember when I read Margaret Atwood’s prescient tale, the horror that struck me most was how a small faction of religious zealots could take over the government and basically enslave half its population. I remember thinking, how could that even happen and why wouldn’t anyone try to stop it? But I took comfort in the fact that the Handmaid’s Tale was fiction. Certainly, that could never happen in America. Certainly, politicians believing in the separation of church and state (a bedrock foundational notion of our Constitution supported by elected officials on both sides of the aisle, no?) would prevent it. Certainly, the free media would sound the alarm so that citizens would rise up against any such unpatriotic foolishness. And certainly, even religious folk would understand that if our government were to pick sides, it might not be their particular brand of faith that would be chosen. I mean, that kind of authoritarian dictatorship only happened in places like Russia or China. Here in America, I believed (and still do) that most people, regardless of their political persuasion, are committed to living in a free and democratic society, even though we often fall short of that lofty goal. No one in their right mind would want to live in a Hand Maid’s world. Right?

Back then, that’s what I told myself in order to sleep at night. But there was one little problem with my optimistic self-talk. It was called the Moral Majority, an American political organization and movement associated with the Christian right and the Republican Party, founded in 1979. Thankfully, just as the Moral Majority seemed to be gaining traction as I was losing more and more sleep, their founder, Baptist minister Jerry Falwell Sr., declared that “our mission is accomplished,” and disbanded the organization in 1989. It’s widely held that what he meant by “the mission” was to get evangelical Christians to accept the idea that organized religion and religious leaders needed to play an activist role in the political process. So I’m guessing Jerry would be thrilled to find that, 35 years later, the right-wing think tank The Heritage Foundation is picking up right where the Moral Majority left off.

Their plan is called Project 2025, and it specifically outlines what a future right-wing presidency would look like, using the playbook followed by the ultra-conservative leader Victor Orbán. Since taking over Hungary 2010, Orbán has undermined democracy by gutting Hungary’s civil service and filling it with loyalists; attacking immigrants, women, and the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals; taking over businesses for friends and family, and moving the country away from the rules-based international order supported by NATO.[1] Orbán’s actions and rhetoric are clear indications that the guy is no fan of democracy. But that’s just fine with the Heritage Foundation. For instance, one of the top priorities in Project 2025 is to use “government power…to restore the American family.” That, the document says, means “deleting the terms sexual orientation and gender identity (‘SOGI’), diversity, equity, and inclusion (‘DEI’), gender, gender equality, gender equity, gender awareness, gender-sensitive, abortion, reproductive health, reproductive rights, and any other term used to deprive Americans of their First Amendment rights out of every federal rule, agency regulation, contract, grant, regulation, and piece of legislation that exists…Any reference to transgenderism is ‘pornography’ and will be banned.” 

Following in the footsteps of their hero Orbán, the Heritage Foundation plan likewise calls for firing much of the current government workforce—about 2 million people work for the U.S. government—and replacing it with loyalists who will carry out a right-wing president’s demands. In practice, that would include some of the people responsible for the clean-up and rebuilding efforts currently underway following the Baltimore bridge disaster. Think the people of Baltimore would want a bunch of loyalists who don’t have a clue about emergency response efforts and infrastructure development dealing with their crisis? Would you? (BTW, one of the first things any good dictator does is to surround himself with loyalists to help him make good on his plans—not to serve America. Only to serve him and his agenda.)

And per this plan, overturning Roe v. Wade “is just the beginning.” Which is why, in a recent Supreme Court case over whether or not mifepristone (a drug used by millions of women since 2000 that safely ends early pregnancies), should be banned, the Comstock Act of 1873 was referenced on three separate occasions during oral arguments. The law, which hasn’t been used in decades, forbids “obscene or explicit” materials—like contraceptive or abortion-assisting devices—to be sent through the mail. Why is this a big deal? Because the Heritage Foundation Project 2025 Plan explicitly calls for a newly elected second-term President Trump to use this zombie law to severely ratchet back abortion access in America without requiring congressional action.

IVF anyone? Not if The Heritage Foundation and their supporters have anything to say about it. That’s next on their chopping block, emboldened by their belief that embryos are people, too.

The Heritage Foundation plan also calls for “the existential need for aggressive use of the vast powers of the executive branch,” which, translated, means a powerful leader who dismantles the current government that regulates business, provides a social safety net, and protects civil rights.2

Here’s an answer to my long-ago question as to why no one stopped the police state that created and controlled the Hand Maids and everyone else who didn’t support their extremist religious beliefs. The Heritage Foundation is betting on that none of us has the time or inclination to read all 900+ pages of Project 2025. They’re hoping that the media is too distracted with Trump’s multiple lawsuits or his latest outrageous lie. They’re certain that most of us are more interested in how our fantasy sports league is doing or what Kim Kardashian wore out to dinner last week. They have faith that the numerous assaults on democracy already being played out in Republican-controlled state legislatures will keep the media and the rest of us too busy fighting them (and each other) to pay them and their plan any mind. Assaults like passing laws banning books. Taking away women’s rights over their own bodies and parents’ rights over their kids’ healthcare. Controlling and/or defunding public education. Giving embryos/eggs the right to full personhood. Limiting or even eliminating government’s role in keeping things fair for everyone and keeping us all safe through business and environmental regulation. This is all happening right now and in front of our collective eyes. Why would we think it wouldn’t get any worse if their preferred leader and his far-right enablers are elected? They’re counting on all of us being too tired/bored/scared/busy/distracted or jaded to give a damn, or to believe that anything this outrageous could actually happen. And hey, they’re not wrong in this approach. Hitler’s playbook, Mein Kampf, outlines many of the same strategies.

But now, instead of Nazis, Project 2025 calls for a different, albeit equally extremist minority—far-right evangelical Christian extremists—to take their rightful place as the ruling power in America, under the leadership of a strongman who will do their bidding by imposing their so-called Christian values on the rest of us. Can you guess the name of the “strongman” they’re throwing their weight behind? It’s not Robert Kennedy Jr., although you could be forgiven for that guess. And it’s certainly not Joe Biden, a lifelong, practicing Catholic who has no desire or plans to foist his religious beliefs on anyone. As it should be, in America, anyway.

In light of all of this, the Handmaid’s Tale is starting to look like a pleasant walk in the park.

Think it can’t happen here? Think again. I realize some folks, especially my Republican family and friends, believe this is all alarmist nonsense. But all we have to do is take the Heritage Foundation, and the supposed “strongman” they’re supporting, at their word. They are telling us exactly what they intend to have happen, what they’re working toward right now. Listen to their fear-inducing rantings about how “thugs and immigrants” are coming to get us, to take our jobs and forever “change our way of life.” Look at the laws being passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures supposedly designed to “keep us and our kids safe.” Read the Project 2025 plan (or at least the highlights) to understand what we’ll all be forced to give up in order to live in their pristine and happy little world. Hear what their preferred presidential candidate is saying, over and over again, about how he, and he alone, is The Chosen One who is sacrificing himself to make it all happen. Just like Jesus did. And then, as Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

Hungarians currently living under the rule of Orban might have wished they’d followed her advice. Back in 2010, Orban promised jobs, order and safety if Hungarian citizens voted him in. And the price they paid for believing him, for giving up their community values and personal freedoms, was high inflation, poverty rates between 7-20%, and rising unemployment. And while their overall crime rate is lower than in the US, crimes of bribery and corruption are 61% higher than they are in this country. But the very highest price they paid was to turn over their democracy to a wanna-be dictator. A so-called strongman.

Are we willing to do the same? If so, what will we get in exchange? Even more importantly, what will we lose?

Illustration by Shepard Fairey, “Obey Giant — Andre The Giant Face

Read more here about the lessons we can learn from a former member of the Hungarian Parliament:

[1] (Letters From an American, by Heather Cox Richardson, March 17, 2024)

2 (Letters From an American, by Heather Cox Richardson, March 17, 2024)


  1. “Read the Project 2025 plan (or at least the highlights) to understand what we’ll all be forced to give up in order to live in their pristine and happy little world. Hear what their preferred presidential candidate is saying, over and over again, about how he, and he alone, is The Chosen One who is sacrificing himself to make it all happen. Just like Jesus did. And then, as Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

  2. Dear Jill.
    So clear. So well written. So God awful.
    A question for me is “How do we wake up the Sleep Walkers?”
    What will it take?

    • That, my dear friend, is an excellent question, and one with which I’ve been struggling for awhile. I have some thoughts to share in an upcoming post. Stay tuned! And as always, thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. On the one hand, you’re preaching to the choir. And I know that one needs to understand one’s opposition to try to find a clear path to the middle, where we give a bit but gain a lot. But how clever and how loud do we have to preach to those that just want to follow the shiny object, (a big shiny self-named hotel sign), or the LOUDEST contestant playing Pictionary, (a game show host), AND don’t want to do any thinking on their own? Thinking that the using “socialism” in any form is a dirty scary word, just like Senator McCarthy said it yesterday. To deny the absolute ridiculousness going on right now and the mindless followers- some in my own family too!!, seems to just be a matter of lack of empathy and taking the path of least resistance, and I don’t know how to combat lazy. Keep preaching J, I’m with you Sister!!

    • Thanks Mand. And as usual, you ask really some good questions. I’ve been researching many of them to try and find the answers, most especially to this: how do we speak effectively to people who we believe may have joined a cult/lost their minds/lost their way, and worse–don’t seem to know it. Or to even care. I know, it feels like we’re the ones who have to do all the work. But we do, if we want to live in a country based on decency and common sense. And I’m not certain the answer is in how to reach those who seem unreachable. I’m leaning toward continuing to “preach to the choir” in a way that inspires choir members to sing similar songs in their own keys. I want to (try really hard) to stay open and kind to those with whom I disagree (to a point, that is) in the hopes that if and when they come to their senses, they’ll find a place in my orbit, if that’s of interest to them. But I think my main focus needs to be on my choir–or at the very least, people who are open to the song I’ll do my best to sing in a key that they (and not just dogs) can hear and on a good day, appreciate. Funny that I’m using a singing analogy with someone who can sing a Yellow pages and bring me to tears…

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