Volume > Issue > The Betrayal at the Root of the Culture Wars

The Betrayal at the Root of the Culture Wars

Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement

By Christine Rosen

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 286 pages

Price: $37.50

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

In Preaching Eugenics, Christine Rosen has produced a first-rate, highly informative study of the American clergy’s involvement in eugenics from the 1880s through the 1920s. Ever since Hitler’s day, eugenics has been linked with Nazism, but Rosen demonstrates how it was first promoted by a clergy that preached the gospel of Progress. Having embraced a “higher criticism” of the Bible that drained Christianity of its supernatural substance, these clergy now gave Christ a Judas-kiss by teaching that His Kingdom would be realized not in Heaven, but on earth, by means of the compulsory sterilization of the “unfit.” One cannot help but reflect that this clergy was the forerunner of today’s Planned Parenthood clergy — who serve as chaplains in abortuaries, publish articles that purport to reconcile the Bible with abortion, and hold annual prayer breakfasts on television to celebrate the carnage.

In those days, Catholics still stood as a united front and, according to Rosen, were the eugenic movement’s “staunchest opponents.” True, a couple of priests from the Catholic University of America (John Ryan and John Cooper) served for years on the advisory council of the American Eugenics Society (AES) and, by lending their names, gave an “inestimable influence to the eugenics movement.” Yet even they engaged in criticizing the movement from inside and insistently questioned the science behind sterilization laws. They resigned after Pope Pius XI condemned sterilization in 1930.

The eugenics movement was begun by Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, with the goal of improving the human stock by encouraging the “fit” to have larger families and the “unfit” to stop breeding. More than once Galton declared that to succeed, eugenics had to be “introduced into the national conscience, like a new religion,” since it aimed at nothing less than a scientific redemption of the human race. The chief tenet of this new religion was that social problems such as crime, disease, prostitution, and poverty were the result of heredity and capable of an evolutionary solution. Misery would end when our genetic pool was cleansed of traits that caused suffering. One corollary of this utopian faith was the condemnation of Christian charity: Public relief and private alms simply caused the multiplication of the “unfit,” so charity had to be replaced by programs that would stop the miserable from breeding. Sound familiar? One cannot help but reflect that this mentality exists today — as when condoms and abortion pills, rather than food and clothing, are handed out to the destitute.

Rosen’s story starts in the 1880s in Indiana, where Congregationalist minister Oscar McCulloch made detailed histories of 250 unfit families and concluded that a “degenerate” heredity aided by “unscientific” public relief had resulted in “several generations of murderers, illegitimate children, prostitutes, beggars, thieves, and scores of ‘generally diseased’ human beings.” He called for an end to public relief, a register of dependent, defective, and criminal individuals, and the use of state power to stop these families from breeding. In 1907 his state was the first to pass laws for compulsory sterilization of the “unfit.” Meanwhile, many clergymen would follow his lead and start preaching on the eugenic “preservation of the race.”

In 1904, with funds from Andrew Carnegie and Mrs. E.H. Harriman, Charles Davenport established eugenics as a scientific enterprise in New York, at “Cold Spring Harbor Station for Experimental Evolution.” Yes, Experimental Evolution! There he opened the Eugenics Record Office (ERO). Soon after, in 1906, Willet Hays, president of the American Breeders Association, formed a Committee on Eugenics, telling a reporter of The New York Times that his goal was to have eugenics enter the popular mind as a new religion. By 1910 articles and books were appearing that treated the Bible as a coded work about eugenics, with passages such as Exodus 20:5 (about God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation”), cited as proof. Psychologist G. Stanley Hall, who had studied at Union Theological Seminary and was president of Clark University, declared that the Bible must be rigorously reinterpreted as a work about eugenics, and he himself published a biography of Jesus Christ as the eugenic “superman.”

The next phase of the popular campaign was sparked by Walter Sumner, an Episcopal dean in Chicago active in social reform. Sumner persuaded the liberal clergy to support eugenic marriages by demanding a medical certificate of mental and physical fitness before nuptials. On May 22, 1913, The New York Times concluded that Protestant ministers and Reform rabbis were now the leaders of a eugenics based on the “Galton school” and the “deductions of the Mendelians.” But the campaign for eugenic marriages met with stiff resistance from the Catholic and Evangelical clergy, and there was also skepticism on the part of eugenicists. Cardinal Gibbons complained of the “inquisitorial methods” that interfered with personal liberty and with the “divinely ordered institution” of marriage. The journal America accused certificate-mongers of overlooking the “soul, with its marvelous powers of intellect and free will,” of treating marriage as a matter of “breeding on the stud-farm,” and of violating Natural Law. Evangelical Protestants also disapproved of reducing marriage to animal coupling and questioned whether Christian clergymen should be engaged in amateur sociology, rather than in preaching faith in Jesus Christ and personal salvation. Meanwhile, eugenicists such as Davenport were skeptical about health certificates, reflecting that the “unfit” could go and breed without benefit of marriage, so the campaign amounted to trying “to control by legislation the mating of rabbits.” They noted that some doctors sold health certificates, regardless of fitness, or gave incomplete exams.

In 1913 the American Breeders Magazine remarked that churchmen were giving eugenics a “religious turn” and informing people of facts and practices which “best serve the race.” Such was Newell Hillis, a Congregationalist minister who lectured on the Chautauqua tent circuit in 1913 and used Old Testament rhetoric to drive home warnings about race degeneracy and predict that eugenics would transform the human race into “the elect.” By 1914 liberal Protestant churches, as well as Reform synagogues, were sponsoring lectures on the subject. That same year, the ERO began sending speakers across the country to tell of extended families of degenerates.

After 1915 eugenics began to take on the forms of biblical religion. Charles Davenport, lecturing on “Eugenics as a Religion,” announced that he had made a new “creed for the religion of eugenics.” One of its articles was, “I believe that I am the trustee of the germ plasm that I carry.” Rosen observes pithily that the religion of eugenics was now complete with “creed (hereditary science), sanctuary (the laboratory), texts (family studies), and, as Davenport himself surely demonstrated, high priests.” Soon there would be a Mosaic commandment and catechism: Albert Wiggam, in The New Decalogue (1922), posted as his sixth commandment, “The Duty of Preferential Reproduction,” and the AES published a Eugenics Catechism.

But under the cloak of biblical religion, eugenics was fostering racism. In 1916 eugenicist Madison Grant, founder of the New York Zoological Society, proposed sterilization for “an ever widening circle of social discards,” starting with the mentally unfit and moving on to “weaklings” and “worthless race types.” Rosen tells us that “in a 1917 survey of arriving immigrants at Ellis Island, Henry H. Goddard classified 60 percent of Jews as morons,” and called for “stricter immigration laws,” then one of the key demands of the eugenics movement. Despite such attacks, there was collaboration between Reform Jews and the eugenicists: Rabbi Max Reichler constructed a “Jewish Eugenics,” where he argued that eugenics was found in coded form in biblical and rabbinical laws, which he tried to prove with parts of the Talmud related to marriage and reproduction.

Between 1923 and 1930 the AES vastly increased the popularity of eugenics by competitions at state fairs and by nationwide sermon contests. At state fairs there would be competitions among eugenic, or “fitter” families, the prizewinners to be called “Grade A” and paraded under such banners as “Kansas’ Best Crop.” Second, the AES founded a “Committee on Cooperation with Clergymen” which, in 1927, consisted of 39 liberal Protestants, two Reform rabbis, and two Catholic priests (again, John Ryan and John Cooper). Half of the AES budget would be spent by this committee on monetary prizes for those who preached the best sermons on eugenics. The sermons had to be preached in a church or synagogue on the topic, “Religion and Eugenics: Does the Church Have Any Responsibility for Improving the Human Stock?” By this method, eugenics was propagated from the pulpit as gospel truth to thousands of Americans. Rosen notes that the most common theme in these sermons was “the compatibility of religion and science,” and that most of the preachers were unwary in expressing their regard for eugenics, as when a minister adapted the Good Samaritan Parable by saying that had the Samaritan known about “preventive philanthropy,” he would have stopped the thieves from being born in the first place. One prizewinner was the “staunchly liberal” Episcopal minister Phillips Osgood, who gave a sermon connected with his ongoing advocacy of a Minnesota state law for the compulsory sterilization of the feeble-minded.

In 1928 the AES journal Eugenics had a special preacher’s issue. All the contributors except one expressed their confidence that eugenics and Christianity were compatible. The Catholic priest John Ryan disagreed that “the weaker members of society ought to be left to perish in order that society as a whole may reach a higher average of welfare or achievement,” and warned that this welfare might turn out to be “the welfare of a few supermen, namely those who have been powerful enough to get themselves accepted at their own valuation.” Around this time, in an AES symposium, John Cooper, the other Catholic on its advisory council, pointed out that eugenics was “steeped in the doctrine of superior races.”

Between 1907 and 1922, 18 states passed laws for compulsory sterilization, but they began to be rigorously enforced only after 1922, when ERO spokesman Harry Laughlin published Eugenical Sterilization, a book that became the bible of the movement. In 1924 Laughlin recommended Carrie Buck for sterilization in Virginia. Carrie Buck later sued, and in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its infamous decision in Buck v. Bell. At the time, every liberal or progressive justice on the Court agreed with Oliver Wendell Holmes that it was lawful to sterilize Carrie because she was the “probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring.” Holmes concluded, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” It turned out that Carrie was not an imbecile at all. Never mind, this decision led to the quadrupling of the number of people subjected to compulsory sterilization. By 1941 that number had reached thousands and thousands. Here one cannot help but reflect that a similarly infamous decision on the part of the U.S. Supreme Court has by this time led to over forty million deaths by abortion, another form of the “preventive philanthropy” of the 1920s.

In May 2002 the governor of Virginia apologized to all those who had been forcibly sterilized in his state. A plaque marking the ignominious anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Buck v. Bell decision can now be seen on a roadside in Charlottesville. Rosen calls it “an act of anticommemoration.” One fervently hopes that someday a similar plaque will be found in every state of the Union as the anti-commemoration of Roe v. Wade.

In the 1930s the birth-control movement and eugenics coalesced, just as later in the 1960s the abortion movement began to incorporate both the eugenics and the birth-control movements. Catholics would stand firm against birth control in the 1920s and 1930s, whereas the liberal Protestant clergy and Reform rabbis who had supported eugenics would swiftly become the defenders of birth control. The strong link between eugenics and birth control is undeniable, as Angela Franks has shown in Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy (2005).

As early as 1928 Harry Emerson Fosdick, who had been involved with eugenics, preached to an audience of 1,300 on the benefits of birth control. But that same year in New Orleans, Catholics and evangelical Protestants joined forces and defeated a proposed “compulsory sterilization law.” This alliance was the forerunner of their joint action today against legalized abortion-on-demand. May the victory that followed their alliance in 1928 be repeated soon!

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