International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement

by Christine Rosen

Introductory Essay by V. V. Raman

In 1883 Francis Galton called for “encouraging the reproduction of the fittest specimens of humanity and… preventing that of the unfit “[5]. In Preaching Eugenics, Christine Rosen recounts the impact of that call on American history in the first few decades of the twentieth century as scientists and religious leaders took it increasingly seriously. Eugenicist William E. Kellicott declared in 1910 that “the church could easily become a powerful factor in eugenic practice” [52]. And some in the church pressed for eugenic policies. For good or bad, the practice of health certificates prior to matrimony, for example, was inspired by the eugenic movement: they required attestation by a physician that the engaged couple were “normal physically and mentally, and have neither an incurable nor communicable disease” [53]. Many Catholics were opposed to this and most eugenicists were not enthusiastic about it either. But the American Breeders’ Magazine was for it: eugenics would result in producing better human beings who would be more amenable to religious education.

During the first World War, there were ‘Race Betterment’ conferences. Eugenics allied itself with other movements: anti-alcoholism, anti-prostitution, anti-immigration, and so on that were often led by clergy. “A tide of degeneracy is rolling in upon us” [87] warned one minister. “If you turned Hell upside down, you will find ‘Made in Germany’ stamped on the bottom” [95], screamed another. Some eugenicists were afraid the descendants of the Mayflower families were becoming a vanishing minority, others declared the melting-pot project was an absolute failure. There were debates about the race of Jews.

In the 1920s the American Eugenics Society was educating the clergy on the importance of eugenics. It organized eugenics sermon contests with prizes for the best. ”The AES declared that eugenics is an ally, not a foe of religion” [135], Eugenicists recognized that ministers were “the sentinels at the gates which lead to the minds of the masses of citizens” [135].

Not all religious leaders embraced eugenics. Eugenicists were generally in favor of sterilization, birth control, and abortion. So Catholic theologians continued to be suspicious of the eugenic movement. One of them (John M. Cooper) questioned its Nordic presuppositions, and felt that the clique controlling the AES “wasn’t little short of being a crowd of ‘nuts’ [143]. The British Catholic convert G. K. Chesterton published the 1922 critique Eugenics and other Evils. Even the sciences seemed to be moving away from certainty (with the newly emerging quantum mechanics being widely discussed) and geneticists began to question the underlying deterministic assumptions of eugenics.

By the 1930s the movement began to slowly wither in America. But “the impulse to control nature and to improve the species was not quenched in the 1930s” [181]. Hitler’s agenda revealed the terrible things that the eugenics movement had accomplished in Nazi Germany. He was not only for breeding better human beings (Aryans) but also for exterminating bas ones. The entire movement, inspired by science and misguided by religion turned out to be “an error so profound as not to be forgotten” [181]. Rosen ends the book with a rhetorical question: “How much can and should we do to improve the human condition, and at what point might our improvements undermine the very things that make us human?” [188].