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Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement
Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement
Christine Rosen
Oxford University Press, 2004
296 pp., $59.00

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By Philip Jenkins


Bad Seed

Why did so many American churches embrace eugenics?

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Editor's Note: This review appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Books & Culture. Advances in biotechnology in the decade since then make it even more timely, alas, than when it was first published.

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 legislation, to catch up with insights of science and enlightenment. In short, the churches should join the modern world.

Reformers, however, found themselves challenged by antediluvian reactionaries, who rejected the whole process of intellectual modernization, and who even suggested that eugenic doctrines might pose real dangers to civil liberties. Hard though this may be to credit, the reactionaries were so blinkered as to suggest that eugenics itself might be a passing fad, which future generations would dismiss with a shudder.

In retrospect, of course, the reactionaries were exactly right on virtually every point. Now, eugenic opinion came in many shades, and only extremists used the terrifying language of extermination and "lethal chambers." Most advocates were content to eliminate bad seed through sterilization, forced or voluntary. The great majority of eugenicists were neither proto- or crypto-Nazis, and most supported the movement as a means of combating intractable social ills. But even with the best intentions, eugenic arguments were fatally weak at several critical points, and intelligent contemporaries should have known far better than to accept them.

Above all, eugenic theorists did not know the mechanisms of heredity, which were not understood until the 1950s, so they could not hope to achieve the kind of social and biological engineering they sought. Moreover, the evidence advanced to support eugenics was marked at every stage by poor logic and, occasionally, by flat-out fraud. Multi-generational studies of legendary "bad families" like the Jukes and Kallikaks demonstrated an almost willful neglect of the potent social factors contributing to crime and social dysfunction. And so much of the intelligence testing that was used to evaluate human groups exhibited massive methodological flaws, which tended to discriminate on the grounds of class and race.

The ready credence given to eugenic arguments must be explained by the scientific basis that they provided to social prejudices. A eugenicist not only knew that people of his race and class were literally the best in the world, but had science on his side as well. And this same science justified, or actually demanded, the use of draconian legal measures to coerce and restrain the poor, the deviant, and the disturbed. Being the crown of creation is a tough burden, but someone has to bear it.

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