From Peter Hawarth:
Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I, the Lord thy God as a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. –Exodus 20:5-6 KJV
This passage from the Mosaic Law served as the preaching text in a 1926 sermon submitted to the American Eugenics Society as part of its multi-year “Eugenic Sermons Contest” series. Now available online, select sermons from this series shock the modern reader with clergymen’s enthusiastic embrace of the eugenics movement in the USA. Such “strange bedfellows” as the Protestant, mostly mainline denominational clergy and the well-funded eugenics movement bespeak the complexities of the history of eugenics. In this essay I offer samples from three distinct religious traditions as they encountered the claims of eugenics enthusiasts. I argue that a religious thinker’s attitude toward the authority of science, relative to the authority of tradition, is a stronger indicator of support for eugenics than the individual’s political persuasion. If the thinker’s attitude toward science was deferential, even reverential, that individual was far more likely to support policies such as involuntary sterilization of the feebleminded. If, however, the person privileged an ancient source of authority, such as scripture (conservative Protestants), or natural rights tradition (Roman Catholics), that individual was far less likely to support the eugenics agenda. This is not to say that citation of the Bible was absent on the part of any of these thinkers, but that the relative weight or authority accorded the Bible differed depending on the weight accorded eugenics as science.
The anonymous author of the sermon mentioned above tied the biblical text into a scientific reading, indeed a distortion, of that text as follows. “God is warning most solemnly that the iniquity of the fathers will run in the blood of the coming generations,” the clergyman declared, “and is pointing out that terrible law of heredity, so clearly established now by scientists, that blood will tell.” The preacher went on to list what we now recognize as a standard bill of fare in eugenics literature, namely “criminality, insanity, idiocy, tuberculosis, alcoholism, and other vices.” These maladies and social problems, today explained by a wide range of causes both genetic and environmental, this religious orator tied to biology. He went on to warn of the “strong corruption” that “inhabits our germ-plasm,” with the tendency to “leap from parents to children, damning the offspring before it is even born.”
This embrace of eugenics was not merely evident among clergy, but among their theological educators as well. Dean of the Chicago Divinity School, Shailer Mathews wrote regarding many of his former students preaching in pulpits and teaching in seminaries by the late 1930s: “It is probably correct to say that generally they represent a realistic view of religion and I like to think that our emphasis upon a scientific approach to contemporary individual and social needs has helped forward a morally vital rather than a merely doctrinal conception of Christianity.”  Mathews edited the 1924 volume entitled Contributions of Science to Religion, in which the chapter promoting eugenics was authored by Charles B. Davenport, President of the American Eugenics Society. Mathews himself wrote of the corruptions of human nature as “those passional elements which humanity shares with other animals.” Mathews suggested that such elements were what “Augustine had in mind when he spoke about original sin.” For Mathews, the great ancient moralists such as Plato, Paul and Augustine lacked science, and this led them “to very imperfect and sometimes grotesque explanations of the facts.” Elevating science to something akin to a theological truth, Mathews added: “But it is not hard to see how sympathetic Augustine might have been with our modern knowledge of evolution and eugenics.”
Christine Rosen’s fine study of clergy support for eugenics notes that support for eugenics was drawn predominantly from the progressive side of the spectrum. Rosen points out that “no Protestant fundamentalist ever joined the eugenics movement, and by 1937, the two Catholics who had been members of the A[merican] E[ugenics] S[ociety] . . . had long since departed over eugenicists’ support of compulsory sterilization, birth control, and the liberalization of divorce laws.”
Today’s political divide between conservative and liberal forces is unhelpful when we look back to eugenics in the Progressive era. Economic conservatives such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were enthusiastic financial supporters of the eugenics movement—but so were left-leaning radicals such as Margaret Sanger. Eugenics had multifaceted support across the political spectrum of its time, in large part because of its backers’ portrayal of it as good science. Opposition to eugenics, by contrast, was drawn from wellsprings more deeply rooted in traditions that often predated the American experiment. Biblical norms for procreation in marriage and notions of natural human rights provided the counterweight to eugenic social policies. Still, this counterweight was not sufficient to keep the majority of states from enacting involuntary sterilization laws by the late 1930s.
Historians of the eugenics movement make a distinction between positive eugenics, or the increased reproduction of those regarded by elites as “fit” or of “good stock;” and negative eugenics, the restriction of the procreation of those whom elites regard as “unfit” or of “inferior stock.” Eugenics of both varieties had social policy implications, but negative eugenics had the tendency to engender the stronger opposition in debates over, for example, involuntary sterilization in state-run institutions.
I now turn to examine a brief sampling of the debate over eugenics as interpreted by a progressive Protestant, a conservative Protestant, and a Roman Catholic during the 1920s and 30s. I have tried to select individuals who engaged in sustained arguments over eugenics, rather than isolated editorials. I include some analysis of how the authority of science could be counterpoised to the authority of tradition in these arguments.
Progressive Protestant Support of Eugenics
John Lewis Gillin (1871-1958) received the A.M. at Columbia University in 1903, and the B.D. from Union Theological Seminary in 1904. Gillin was ordained a minister of the Church of the Brethren. After acquiring a Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1906, he taught at Ashland College (Ohio), and the University of Iowa. Appointed to the Sociology faculty at the University of Wisconsin, he served until his death in 1958.
Gillin authored numerous books in the field of sociology between 1926 and 1933. His position on eugenical sterilization shifted during this period. Writing in 1926 Gillin seemed wary of the legalization of involuntary sterilization. He allowed for a limited application of sterilization policy in some rare cases. In 1927, however, a significant national event occurred that influenced an important transition in Gillin’s thought. The United States Supreme Court issued its infamous Buck v. Bell decision, permitting involuntary sterilization across the land, accentuated by Justice Holmes’ oft-quoted “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Gillin’s writings on sterilization thereafter show a marked hardening of attitude toward the problem of the feeble-minded.
In Social Problems (1928), Gillin authored a chapter entitled “The Problems of Poverty.” In this chapter, his earlier reticence or nuance on the question of involuntary sterilization had vanished. Now Gillin was enthusiastic about the practice, as evident from the following passage:
The feeble-minded can be handled from the eugenic point of view only by some method that will prevent their reproduction. They can be segregated into institutions and colonies where the higher grades can make their living and some of them can be trained for certain vocations in which they can make their way on parole. Greater numbers could be let out into society after being properly trained if they were sterilized. A great deal of prejudice, however, exists against sterilization, and it is not making the headway it deserves. However, just recently the Supreme Court of the United States has decided that sterilization laws relating to the feeble-minded are constitutional. In this country we have attempted to take care of the insane by hospitals for those that may be curable and asylums for the chronic cases. No widespread effort has been made to sterilize the insane who have a history of hereditary insanity. This should be done or they should be kept in an institution where they cannot reproduce.
For Gillin, the rights and prerogatives of society took precedence over the rights of the individual, at least insofar as the object was the feeble-minded person. This was a common view among social reformers in the heyday of eugenics, given the assumption that eugenics was good science and therefore good social policy.
Conservative Protestant Opposition to Eugenics
Walter A. Maier (1893-1950) was a highly popular radio preacher and theologian of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod in the 1930s and 40s. He was also editor of The Walther League Messenger, a magazine devoted primarily to issues affecting youth and young adults. As a Harvard-educated biblical scholar, Maier was keenly aware of social trends, including the eugenics movement. Maier was willing to allow marriage restriction for “epileptics, feeble-minded or insane persons” based not merely on science, but on the basis of biblical authority for the quarantine of lepers in Leviticus 13:46. When eugenics went beyond the ideals of public health, however, Maier voiced alarm. Maier opposed the suggestion of laws “to enact processes for the breeding of better human beings which have been patently borrowed from the stock farm.” He noted that “the study of genetics, the science of heredity” was still “in its formative stages.” Wary of using genetic determinism to evaluate individuals and families, Maier feared the rise of tyranny under the banner of eugenics. He also saw the emphasis on heredity as too one-sided. “Eugenics quite overlooks the fact that while heredity is a powerful factor it is not the only decisive element in matters of the health and happiness of children.” He cited the home environment, parental guidance, and divine blessing as vital elements in the raising of healthy children.