Death Duties

The role of religion in the rise of eugenics.
Wesley J. Smith
The Weekly Standard
July 26, 2004
Print ArticlePreaching Eugenics
Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement
by Christine Rosen
Oxford University Press, 296 pp., $35


EUGENICS--now, there's one of those words that has a dated, distant sound: a remnant of Victorian arrogance that got taken up by the Nazis and made an excuse for murder. But that is ancient history. We would never stoop to such evil. We have learned better than to think some people have lives not worth living.

Or, at least, we're too embarrassed to call it "eugenics" any more. The movement got its start from the English statistician Francis Galton in the second half of the nineteenth century. Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, became convinced the human race was degrading because the birthrate among "unfit" people was high. To remedy this crisis, Galton, inspired by Darwin's theories and Gregor Mendel's work in genetics, proposed that society take control of human evolution and save the race through a "positive eugenics" in which eugenically superior people would be encouraged to mate and procreate bountifully.

Eugenics--the word means "good birth"--quickly crossed the Atlantic finding fertile soil among the American elite. But American eugenicists concluded that more drastic measures were required than merely promoting eugenically proper marriages to accomplish the cleansing task the Eugenics Movement had set for itself. Funded abundantly by progressive philanthropic foundations such as the Carnegie Institute and led by biologist Charles Davenport--a forgotten figure, but one of the real villains of the twentieth century--American eugenicists developed a theory of "negative eugenics," in which the unfit were to be prevented from procreating by the state.

"Unfit," in this context meant people with congenital disabilities or supposedly genetic failings such as alcoholism or sexual immorality. And the movement was successful enough that many state governments legalized involuntary eugenic sterilization, a violation of human rights that was given the explicit sanction of the Supreme Court in the notorious 1927 decision Buck v. Bell. Between 1908 and 1960, some seventy thousand Americans were involuntarily sterilized.

Much has been written, and well, in recent years about this scandalous era, most recently by Edwin Black in his splendid War Against the Weak. In her interesting new history Preaching Eugenics, Christine Rosen focuses instead on the little known and shameful promotion of eugenics by a surprisingly large number of American ecclesiastics. Take, for example, the Reverend Washington Gladden, a leader in the "Social Gospel" movement, who asserted in 1926 that Christianity "must be a religion less concerned about getting men to heaven than about fitting them for their proper work on earth." Christians who agreed--mostly within mainline Protestantism, as it happens--found it surprisingly easy to support the eugenics movement's attempt to promote social virtue by controlling procreation as part of their overarching embrace of "progressive" social reform. Those who believed the first duty of Christians is to save souls tended to oppose eugenics as a threat to the lives of the weak and vulnerable, an unwarranted interference with the sanctity of marriage, and a pernicious assault on the intrinsic preciousness of human life.

Before reading Rosen's Preaching Eugenics, I had assumed the churches resisted eugenics almost uniformly--and no doubt been subjected to withering criticisms from modernist public personages, academics, and members of the science establishment, the primary boosters of the pseudoscience from the late nineteenth century on. But, as Rosen ably demonstrates, history is rarely that simple.

The Social Gospel movement, led mostly by Congregationalist and Unitarian ministers, grew rapidly in these years among mainline Protestant churches. The Social Gospel reconceived Christianity as being less about faith and salvation, and more about, as Rosen writes, "ushering in the Kingdom of God on earth through [social] reform and service."

Many Social Gospel adherents viewed eugenics as God's plan to reconcile the truths of science with the Bible. Toward this end, Bible verses were reinterpreted and found to contain what had theretofore been secret eugenics messages. Thus, in one minister's sermon, Noah's flood was God's own eugenics policy for eliminating a human race that had degraded and become inferior. Others insisted that Christ's Parable of the Talents was actually about improving the population: In eugenics exegeses, "Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him," took on a whole new meaning.

While some notable leaders of the broader eugenics movement kept their distance from all things religious, the American Eugenics Society recognized the importance of church leaders in selling eugenics theory to average Americans. Toward this end, the society appointed the Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick, whose radio program, National Vespers, reached two or three million listeners each week, to its advisory council. Securing the endorsement of one of the nation's most famous preachers, Fosdick's endorsement was a major coup for eugenics.

THE AMERICAN EUGENICS SOCIETY'S Committee on Cooperation with Clergymen also sponsored eugenics sermon contests, open to all ministers, priests, rabbis, and theology students. The sermon had to be preached to a regular congregation in a church or synagogue, and the minister had to take up the question, "Religion and Eugenics: Does the church have any responsibility for improving the human stock?" The prizes ranged up to $500, a hefty sum in the mid 1920s.

Many lay popularizers of eugenics also appealed to religious traditions to promote their agenda. The most notable, it seems, was Albert Edward Wiggam, who traveled the lecture circuit promoting eugenics as "the final program for the complete Christianization of mankind." Wiggam even rewrote the Ten Commandments, in which "The Duty of Eugenics" replaced "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." The "Duty of Scientific Research" supplanted the proscription against making graven images, while the "Duty of Preferential Reproduction" replaced "Thou shalt not kill."

Resisters of such evil movements often receive too little attention in histories of this kind. And indeed, Rosen gives religious opponents of eugenics--mostly evangelical Protestants and Catholics--far shorter shrift than she does religious boosters. G.K. Chesterton offered the most scathing assessment of eugenics, she tells us. Unfortunately, Rosen devotes only two paragraphs to his critique. I would like to have seen more. Pope Pius XI's encyclical from December 31, 1930, was highly critical of eugenics sterilization and marriage bans, and complained that eugenicists had forgotten "men are begotten not for the earth and for time, but for heaven and eternity." In 1932, entering the fray from the left, Reinhold Niebuhr added his considerable influence to the opposition, publishing Moral Man and Immoral Society, which pointedly challenged liberal Protestants' uncritical embrace of science and eugenics as the primary sources of solutions to social problems.

Within the next few years, the tide shifted, and eugenics in America ebbed. Once World War II was over, and we had clear revelations of the extent to which eugenics theory had undergirded the Holocaust, eugenics became thoroughly discredited.

All the time I was reading Rosen's Preaching Eugenics--learning the extent to which religious leaders supported a movement that, in a most unchristian way, victimized the weakest and most vulnerable--I kept wondering: Did these supporters of eugenics ever repent? Many of these advocates lived well beyond World War II. It would have been very interesting to learn what these mostly well-intentioned religious leaders thought about their past advocacy in later years.

Another thought kept popping into my mind while I read the book. Rosen describes a "clear pattern" of religious leaders' supporting eugenics "precisely when they moved away from traditional religious tenets."

Recent years have seen a rebirth of eugenic thought, with advocacy for eugenic abortion, human cloning, and the drive to learn how to "enhance" the human genome. This phenomenon seems to be repeating itself in the contemporary divisions among churches over social issues such as abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and therapeutic cloning--agendas that, like eugenics, undercut belief in the sanctity of human life.

CONSIDERING THE HISTORY of liberal religion's embrace of eugenics, this "new eugenics" once again threatens the vulnerable with the pernicious notion that some human lives have greater moral value than others. Christine Rosen's Preaching Eugenics could not be more relevant.


Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His next book, Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World, will be published in the fall.