Since President Donald Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court, there’s been a great deal of attention paid to the People of Praise, a secretive Christian and Catholic fundamentalist group of which Coney Barrett is reportedly a member.
Coney Barrett has declined to comment publicly on her connection to the group, and the group does not release its membership. Yet she has frequently appeared in the People of Praise magazine Vine and Branches, such as in birth announcements for her children, though, according to CNN, those issues were scrubbed from the magazine’s website following Coney Barrett’s nomination as an appellate judge in 2017. She also served on the board of trustees for the Trinity School, a People of Praise-founded school in South Bend, Indiana, from 2015 to 2017.
But what is the People of Praise and what does it mean that Coney Barrett is allegedly affiliated with the group?
Who are the People of Praise?
The People of Praise is a religious organization founded in the early 1970s in South Bend, Indiana, with about 1,700 members in 22 branches. It came out of the charismatic Catholicism movement, which is essentially a mélange of Catholic practices and Protestant Pentecostal practices such as speaking in tongues and faith healing. According to its website, it describes itself as a community that “shares our lives together” and “support each other financially and materially and spiritually.” Communal living and resource-pooling is encouraged among non-married members of the organization (members contribute about 5% of their earnings to the organization).
Each member also has a mentor known as a “head” that provides spiritual advice and guidance. In the past, female heads were known as “handmaidens,” until the name was changed following the publication of Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 (more on that later). They tend to have a diverse range of beliefs, but most hold the opinion that men should be the heads of the household, and that life begins at conception.
Is it a part of Catholicism or a Christian Cult?
Some suggest the group is not unlike other sects in that it’s more of a Christian fellowship focused on building community. Some former members of the group, however, have alleged that the organization is a “cult,” pointing out that it uses manipulation tactics to subjugate women. Former member Coral Annika Thiell told Newsweek that female members are expected to be subservient to their husbands and are discouraged from having any autonomy of their own. “Total discipline is imposed upon those who submit themselves to their head [husband],” said Theill, “and this includes submission of your will, your desire, your actions.” (To be fair, this is not unlike many other Christian sects that are patriarchal and view the husband as head of household.)
In his book, Not Reliable Guides, former member Adrian Reimers recounts how a married woman in the People of Praise is “expected always to reflect the fact that she is under her husband’s authority.” “This goes beyond an acknowledgment that the husband is ‘head of the home’ or head of the family; he is, in fact, her personal pastoral head. Whatever she does requires at least his tacit approval,” he writes. A spokesperson for the People of Praise did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment regarding this allegation.
Much has also been made of whether Barrett’s connection to the group would hold any sway over her position as Supreme Court justice. Historian Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University expressed concerns about this, writing in Politico that the organization “lacks transparency and visible structures of authority that are accountable to their members, to the Roman Catholic church, and to the wider public”. Conservative defenders, however, say that the group is a benign religious community, and that liberals’ objection to Barrett’s link to People of Praise reflects little more than anti-Catholic bias.
Is it related to The Handmaid’s Tale?
Previous reports have alleged author Margaret Atwood based her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, an account of a dystopian fundamentalist society, on the People of Praise. This appears to have stemmed from the fact that female advisors in People of Praise were known as “handmaidens,” though the organization has since retired that term.
Atwood herself has denied that The Handmaid’s Tale used the People of Praise as inspiration. In a recent interview published in the UC Santa Cruz alumni magazine, she said she hadn’t used the organization as source material for her book: “It wasn’t them. It was a different one but the same idea,” she said. Yet, in a piece Politico published last week, she backtracked a little, saying she couldn’t know for sure whether the group had influenced her novel, because her research notes for the book were located at the University of Toronto in a library that was inaccessible due to the pandemic. “Unless I can go back into the clippings file, I hesitate to say anything specific,” she said. In other interviews, Atwood has also cited People of Hope, a New Jersey-based Catholic group that also has referred to women as handmaids, as the inspiration for The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood published a sequel to her bestselling 1985 novel, titled The Testaments, last year, and one reason the fictional narrative has had such staying power is that she based all the details on real-life events.