In 1883, Francis Galton, a British scientist and cousin to Charles Darwin, invented the term “eugenics,” which he derived from a Greek word meaning “good in birth.” Galton sought to employ the powers of modern science to harness the unruly creativity of nature. “What nature does blindly, slowly, ruthlessly, man may do providentially, quickly, and kindly,” Galton confidently argued.
To the devoutly religious, Galton's program for human improvement should have seemed blasphemous. His words suggested that human beings could usurp God's role. Especially disturbing to religious thinkers was the growth of eugenics organizations that advocated mass sterilization of the “feebleminded” and birth control programs that would prevent the weaker members of the human species from reproducing.
Certainly the Catholic Church regarded the eugenicists with suspicion, if not outright condemnation. (That came in 1930, in Pope Pius XI's encyclical about family planning.) Catholic teaching affirmed natural law and the dignity of the individual as defined by Saint Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274). To presume to interfere with the divine order of nature, to decide which human beings could reproduce and which could not, defied Church doctrine.
Similarly, most other conservative Christians —especially evangelicals and fundamentalists—reacted with horror at the idea of scientists—or any secular body of human beings—interfering with family life in such drastic and dangerous ways. Indeed, eugenicist organizations aspired to a power over family planning that the Church saw as its province. On the face of it, then, eugenics and virtually all forms of religious belief would seem poles apart.
Yet, as Christine Rosen demonstrates in Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement, during the first two decades of the twentieth century, eugenics commanded the attention and sometimes the enthusiastic support of religious leaders. Most of them—Protestants, Jews, and even a few Catholics—were progressives or liberal reformers. They responded to eugenics as simply a movement aimed at human betterment. In most cases, these clergyman had little grasp of the fundamentals of science, and so their sermons emphasized the positive outcome eugenics promised rather than the means that would achieve that laudable goal.
Otherwise well-educated ministers also saw eugenics as a way to assert their modernity and show that their churches were relevant to contemporary society. This was a period when writers such as Bruce Barton wrote books about Jesus (The Man Nobody Knows, 1925), which suggested that if Jesus were alive in the twentieth century, he would be a businessman and a eugenicist. Eugenicists such as Albert Edward Wiggam traveled the United States with a missionary zeal—lecturing with a charismatic power that rivaled the style of evangelists such as Billy Sunday.
Moreover, the eugenicists were keen to make common cause with those ministers who seemed susceptible to persuading their flocks to adopt the new “scientific” view of human improvement. The word “scientific” has to be put in quotation marks here, because the eugenicists’ claims that they would be able to improve the hereditary characteristics of the human race were false. By the 1920's, geneticists had demolished the eugenicist argument, although it took a full decade more for the bogus and dangerous aspects of eugenics to become apparent to certain clergyman and others.
In retrospect, Rosen points out, eugenics obviously seems like a terrible idea. Laws passed in the 1920's that permitted the sterilization of the so-called feebleminded engendered crimes for which state governors are still apologizing. The very idea that heredity could be controlled through sterilization or birth control seems unscientific, to say the least, as well as immoral.
However, at the...
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