Eugenics and Christianity

written by David Shudy, Graduate Certificate of Christian Studies student

This past January I became enthralled with the potential connection between eugenics and Christianity when watching Ben Stein’s documentary on academic freedom titled Expelled.  At the time, I was registered to take CH 502 – History of World Christianity II.  Dr. Joe Thomas was teaching the class and graciously allowed me to entertain my curiosity about any connection between eugenics and Christianity.  The result was an extensive research paper that led me down a deep rabbit trail, producing fascinating answers and still more fascinating questions.

The word ‘eugenics’ comes from the Greek word ‘eugenes’ which means ‘well-born.’  In the name of that one word, families would be torn apart, fundamental human rights would be trampled on, and whole nations would be energized to prevent the ‘unfit’ from continuing – either by segregation, sterilization, or mass murder.  How such terrible consequences could come about from one simple word is a witness to the truth of the adage, “ideas have consequences;” and in this case the consequences were intentional.

In the 1860’s, the mathematician Francis J. Galton’s (1822-1911) love of observing patterns led him to the conclusion that through time, many accomplished, talented, or otherwise noteworthy people were descendents of the same families.  Galton, who practically invented both fingerprinting and meteorology, considered himself to be a member of one of these prestigious families – after all, the eminent naturalist Charles Darwin was his cousin.  Believing that greatness ran in families, Galton proposed that qualities such as intelligence, strength, and even moral uprightness were heritable.  Thus the basic idea of eugenics was born – the concept that it is possible to improve the intellectual, physical, and moral state of the human race by only allowing the most ‘fit’ individuals to procreate.

Encouraging ‘fit’ individuals to reproduce is called positive eugenics, whereas discouraging ‘unfit’ individuals from reproducing is called negative eugenics.  Many of the destructive practices that would later result from the selective breeding plan Galton proposed stemmed from the negative half of the eugenics movement.  The United States pursued eugenics with fervor.  Ultimately, many countless numbers of people from ‘inferior’ nations, such as those in Southern and Eastern Europe, would be banned from coming to the US through eugenic anti-immigration legislation.  Worse yet, some 60,000 US citizens deemed ‘unfit’ would be forcibly sterilized, many of whom were poor children abandoned or otherwise under-cared for by their parents.  Forced sterilization was a eugenic practice made legal by the tragic 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell.  One cannot help but well-up with tears while reading accounts of those who were prevented from having children.  One sterilized Virginia man smiled through his tears as he read a greeting card from his stepchildren, “they called me daddy.”  A woman sterilized without her knowledge of the procedure wept as she explained to reporters how her husband divorced her because of many years of fruitless attempts at childbearing.

Eugenics had strong ties to religion – specifically Christianity – ever since its advent in the late 19th century.  Galton realized that the tremendous sacrifices required of individuals by voluntary participation in a eugenic program would only be possible through fervent devotion to eugenics as a civil religion.  Religious leaders would indeed provide their support to Galton’s race-improving movement, sometimes even laying aside their pulpit duties to take up leadership roles in societies like the Eugenics Records Office or the American Eugenics Society.  Overwhelmingly, the largest section of religious support for eugenics came from the liberal/modernist wings of all Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish denominations in early 20th century America.  During the same time period, conservative Christians tended to oppose the eugenics movement, yet unfortunately, they did little in the way of fighting against eugenics.  Years before the Nazis put eugenics into devastating practice, those few Christians who did speak out against the race-improving movement became prophetic in their denunciations.

The average person knows very little about America’s involvement with eugenics (although eugenics has been getting media attention lately – CNN recently covered North Carolina’s proposed reparations to victims of forced sterilizations).  The reason for a lack of knowledge concerning eugenics seems to be due to the fact that very few high school curricula cover the topic (an interesting situation deserving of investigation in itself).  Yet there are many voices that agitate for the re-implementation of eugenics today.  Prenatal genome sequencing technology currently available is capable, and does, enable eugenics on a far more impressive scale than eugenicists of a century ago could have imagined.

May the atrocities carried out in the name of eugenics never be forgotten, never be repeated, and always guarded against by those who name themselves after Jesus Christ.

A good book on the connection between eugenics and Christianity:

Rosen, C. Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement.Oxford University Press : New York, 2004.

A good book on the history of the eugenics movement in the United States:

Black, E. War Against the Weak: Eugenics andAmerica’s Campaign to Create a Master Race. Four Walls Eight Windows : New York, 2003.

“A Word from Urbana Seminary” welcomes David Shudy to our blog this week.  David is a first year student at UTS with a strong interest in apologetics.  David will send you the full paper if you are interested in learning more about the relationship between eugenics and Christianity in the early 20th century.  His research holds many lessons for the church today as we grapple with our own culture.