Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement
Oxford University Press, USA, 2004
296 pp., $50.00
By Philip Jenkins
Have you ever heard the plea, "I want a church where I don't have to leave my mind at the door"? In other words, I will accept religious teachings so long as they do not contradict the orthodoxies of conventional society, the commonplaces of educated opinion. When that opinion runs flat contrary to traditional or scriptural teaching, then secular orthodoxies win every time. In this view, the Bible was put together by quite ignorant folk, constrained by the unscientific worldview of their benighted times, and Christian practice must jog—or gallop—to keep up to date with new secular insights as they develop. When these insights are grounded in the rhetoric of objective science, their claims to allegiance become imperative. That, more or less, has been the justification for many changes in church life over the past few decades, especially in matters of gender and sexual orientation.
All of which gives a powerful relevance to Christine Rosen's thoroughly researched study of the eugenic movement that gained such ideological power in American thought between about 1900 and 1940. In its essence, eugenics meant encouraging the breeding of "good" human stock, while discouraging or preventing the spread of the bad seed that caused such grim consequences as crime, mental deficiency, sexual perversion, insanity, alcoholism, epilepsy, or vagrancy. All were aspects of "degeneracy" that apparently had a close connection to each other—at least they all seemed to manifest in the same degenerate blood-lines. Proper eugenic policy, it was hoped, might deal with a large share of the nation's poverty problem.
Rosen shows the immense influence that eugenic thought had within America's religious bodies, chiefly the mainline Protestant churches, but also among Jews and even some Roman Catholics. Liberals and modernizers, including some of the best-known religious paladins of the era, pleaded for the churches to accept wholeheartedly the implications of eugenic teaching, to support appropriate ...