Christian eugenics

Christian Eugenics

A con­servative Christian blog repeated the malicious trope that atheistic Darwin­ism was to blame for the forced steriliza­tions of the feeble-minded performed from the 1920s until the 1980s. Sixty thousand citizens in 35 states were steri­lized. In my native North Carolina, the only state that gave social workers the power to designate people for sterilization, there were an estimated 7,600 sterilizations per­formed between 1929 and 1974, some without the victims’ consent or even knowledge.[i]

Was atheistic Darwinism really to blame? The charge may sound superficially credible if you know only part of the story. After all, Francis Galton, father of the eugenics movement, who coined the term eugenics in 1883, was Charles Dar­win’s half-cousin. Moreover, we’ve all heard of Social Darwin­ism, the idea that we shouldn’t waste money to aid the sickly or elevate the poor. It’s best, accord­ing to Social Darwinists, to let the unfit die off rather than drag down society’s high achievers. This harsh attitude was cham­pioned by Oswald Spengler, Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Nietzsche, Herbert Spencer, Andrew Carnegie, and Adolf Hitler.[ii]

Social Darwinism was a form of classism and racism that drew no support from biological evolution properly understood. In contrast, evolu­tion—properly understood—teaches that all humans are relat­ed. Every time you greet another person, it is a family reunion.

Darwin acknowledged biological arguments for eugenics pro­grams, but he re­jected such policies on moral grounds.[iii] The codiscoverer of natu­ral selection, Alfred Russell Wallace, spent much of his life penning vociferous rebuttals of Social Darwinism.

The eugenics movement of the 1920s was not founded on wide­spread public acceptance of evolutionary theory. Most Americans scoffed at evolutionary theory. In 1924, North Carolina Governor Cameron Morrison, as ex officio chairman of the State Board of Ed­ucation, banned a biology textbook from the pub­lic high schools merely because it discussed evolu­tion.[iv] Reli­gious constituents, who began around 1920 to identify as fundamentalists, were irate that man­da­tory school attendance laws, strictly enforced only after World War I, meant that their children were exposed to evolu­tionary infi­delity.

Aimee Semple McPherson, the most popular radio-evangelist of the 1920s (the decade during which 60 percent of Ameri­can house­holds bought radios), vehemently denounced evolu­tion and demand­ed that we instead place a Bible in every public classroom.[v] Accord­ing to his­torian Colin Woodard, the 1920s stand out as a per­iod during which anti-evolution activists were prevalent across the entire United States.[vi]

The infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee took place in 1925 and the evo­lutionists lost, thereby con­firming the ille­gality of teaching evolution in public schools. In­cidental­ly, Clarence Darrow, the agnostic lawyer who argued the evo­lutionist side in that trial, protested the eugen­ics movement as racist.[vii]

A Gallup poll conducted as late as 2012 revealed that only 15 per­cent of Americans believe in evolution without any divine interven­tion. This includes deists and pantheists as well as atheists. About 10 percent of Ameri­cans qualify today as atheistic evolutionists.[viii] The percentage of atheistic evolutionists in Amer­ica in the 1920s, when the eugenics laws were enacted, is difficult to determine, but was probably between 2 and 4 percent.[ix] If every atheistic evolutionist in the nation favored the eugenics program, they could not have enact­ed it without first convincing a large percentage of Christians that the eugenics laws were in line with Christian doctrine.

Many Catholics, including G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936), spoke against eugenics laws. Catholic policies have always tended to propa­gate more Catholics, teaching that “it is always intrin­sically wrong to use contraception [including sterilization] to prevent new human be­ings from coming into existence.”[x]

It was Protestants who most favored eugenics laws. The Wom­an’s Christian Temperance Union and other women’s clubs labored in every Southern state to establish public eugenic institu­tions.[xi]

The United Methodist Church, in a rare but admirable move, apolo­gized for its role in supporting the eugenics movement. Here’s an ex­cerpt from that apology:

 

Ironically, as the Eugenics movement came to the United States, the churches, especially the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the Episcopalians, embraced it. Methodist churches around the country promoted the American Eugenics Society “Fitter Family Contests” wherein the fittest families were invariably fair skinned and well off. Methodist bishops endorsed one of the first books circulated to the US churches promoting eugenics. Unlike the battles over evolution and creationism, both conservative and progressive church leaders endorsed eugenics.[xii]

 

The ugly spirit of the eugenics laws traces back as far as 1790, when Congress passed America’s first naturalization law, limiting U.S. citizenship to “free white persons.”[xiii] The 1920s brought the ex­pansion of the Christian cross-burning Ku Klux Klan to nearly five million members, its all-time high. An average of 32 lynchings occurred per year during the decade of the 1920s.[xiv] The Klan’s eugenics pro­posals, more aggressive than those passed by most state legisla­tures, provid­ed for euthanasia. The Klan emphatically de­nounced evolutionary theory and still does to this day.

In 1920, Louisiana banned whites from marrying Native Ameri­cans or African Americans (believed, based on a racist reading of Gen­esis 9:20–27, to be cursed de­scendants of Ham[xv]). In 1921, race riots by blacks in Tulsa, Oklahoma provoked a violent white backlash, resulting in an estimated 250 blacks being killed.[xvi] In 1923, the Supreme Court ruled that a Punjabi Hindu man wasn’t entitled to the privileges afforded to whites.[xvii] The same year, blacks were for­cibly loaded onto railroad freight cars and removed from Mitchell County, North Carolina.[xviii] In 1924, Virginia passed, on the same day, a steri­lization law and a law making it a felony for a white per­son to marry a non-white person.

Most states banned interracial marriage. In 1928, Senator Cole­man Blease of South Caroli­na pro­posed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to out­law interracial marriage uniformly across the nation. The racism directed against blacks was so blatant that in 1923 a candy maker in Portland, Oregon publicly advertised a chocolate candy called “nigger’s toes.”

The 1920s was also a time of intense anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, and anti-Chinese sentiment. According to the historian Peter Watson, “[in] the 1920s…a fresh wave of xenophobia and the eugen­ic con­science hit America…”[xix] Americans fell prey to an epidemic fear of the in­flux of for­eigners, especially those who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

The reactionary patriotism of the 1920s was spurred by anxiety that the American character was under assault. On Flag Day in 1923, the federal flag code was established, prescribing etiquette for folding the flag and raising it on a flag pole. Like the status of being a tradi­tional, God-fearing, white American, the flag was sacro­sanct. The words “my Flag” in the pledge of alle­giance were changed to “the Flag of the United States,” prodding immigrants to renounce loyalty to their birth countries. The Emigra­tion Quota Act of 1921 and the Im­mi­gration Act of 1924 halted the immigration of people from south­ern and east­ern Europe.

Americans were ap­palled by families in eth­nic ghettos liv­ing off the government dole and by the vast numbers of children housed in orphanages. Wealth in­equal­ity peaked. Whereas, in 2014, the public was incensed that the wealth­iest 1 percent owned 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, during the 1920s they owned a whopping 51 per­cent.[xx] It was an era of big business and government corruption. Organized crime escalated, owing largely to the prohibition of alco­hol. Prohi­bition had been enacted in 1918 to keep families stable and, particu­larly in the South, to keep alcohol away from rowdy blacks.

To give you the flavor of the times, let me briefly recount an inci­dent that occurred in North Carolina in 1929. Ben Wells was a labor organizer trying to get a union started at a textile mill near Charlotte. Fifteen members of an anti-union mob physically hauled him away and beat him. They beat him so severely that the anti-union judge would not let him appear before the initial inquiry. Ben Wells was later prohibited from testifying against the men who beat him because he was an atheist. Atheist testimony was deemed untrust­worthy and was not admissible in court. Even though the union was not on trial, Carl Holloway, a former striker, was permitted to testify that he quit the union “be­cause of free love, association with negroes, and religion… They taught us there was no God…”[xxi]

The “Red Scare” of the 1920s was a panicked public reaction against a small group of American communists, a few of whom were violent anarchists who opposed the industrial elites. By “small” group I mean about one tenth of one percent of the country’s popu­lation.[xxii] To Americans keen on distinguishing between “us” and “them,” these communists were emphatically categorized as “them.”

In the early 1920s, Henry Ford published a four-booklet volume titled The International Jew, promulgating the myth of a vast Jewish con­spiracy against Christ, Christmas, and Christianity. Anything even slightly exotic or outside the norm became suspect. In Eu­rope, this mindset gave rise to Fascism, virtually synonymous with rightwing Catholicism. This socio-political movement in Europe culminated in the Jew­ish concentration camps of the late 1930s and 1940s.

In the United States, the handsome Midwesterner Warren G. Har­ding was elected President in 1920 on the Republican ticket, hav­ing campaigned to “return to Normalcy.” In 1922, Sinclair Lewis published Babbitt, a novel that satirized the shallow, conformist nature of American mid­dle-brow cul­ture, in which peo­ple were cautioned not to stand out from the crowd. The highest flattery was to be patted on your back and told, “You’re a regular guy.” By the end of the 1920s, Sigmund Freud had written his book Civilization and Its Dis­contents, in which not fitting into society was taken as a marker of a psychologi­cal defect.[xxiii]

The 1920s was a time of intense hostility toward atheists, evolu­tion­ists, and anyone who wasn’t a gainfully employed, properly complected Protestant. Not sur­prisingly, poor blacks and Native Americans were dis­proportionately repre­sented among the steriliza­tion victims. In 1945, one U.S. sena­tor urged the sterilization of all Japanese held in the internment camps, and some did get steri­lized.[xxiv]

The forced sterilizations performed across America were the prod­uct, not of godless Darwinism, but of Christian majority-backed racial and ethnic bigotry in collusion with a clique of misguided left­ists intent on social engi­neering. Though some of those leftists were athe­ists, public support for the eugenics programs came over­whelmingly from Protestant Christians.

Whenever the topic of forced sterilizations comes up for public discussion, modern Christians exhibit selective amnesia. The 1987 rejection of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork elicited the following protest from Dinesh D’Souza:

 

When senators harangued Bork about state laws requiring forced sterilizations and other such atrocities, Bork should have replied, “Senator Kennedy, your question presumes a profound lack of faith in the American people. Do you imagine that the American people lack the good sense to pass laws under which they can live? In which state do you expect forced sterilization laws to pass?”[xxv]

 

The last sterilization in the United States was performed in Oregon in 1981, only six years prior to these coldly astigmatic re­marks by D’Souza. When the ugly history of sterilizations isn’t being purged from public memory, it’s being so effectively distorted that the tiny sliver of the population who were atheists receive the blame.

I have highlighted the example of forced sterilizations, not to exculpate any atheist who was party to this moral out­rage, but to illustrate that the same religious factions that now assume the mantle of moral superiority have engaged in, and are still engaged in, a dishonest propaganda campaign to deny the widespread Christian support for eugenics and to blame it on atheists.

Let me add a personal anecdote to illustrate the pernicious eugen­ic mindset. When my three sons were young boys, I stood alongside them in front of the local Wal-Mart store, waiting for their mother to finish shopping. A wiry redneck fellow nodded at my boys and then vigorously shook my hand, “Nice to see white people raisin’ families. God bless you, sir.” He walked away before the content of his state­ment sunk in. His assumption about my views on race and religion speaks volumes about our society. He would never have shaken my hand if I were black or if he knew me to be the author of the book Religion Refuted.

 

[i] “North Carolina Senate Denies Funds for Sterilization Victims”, (ABC News, reported by Carrie Gann, Courtney Hutchinson, and Susan James, June 22, 2012), www.abcnews.go.com/Health/WomensHealth/north-carolina-senate-blocks-compensation-sterilization-victims-eugenics/story?id=16628515

[ii] Adolf Hitler argued for cultural evolution. He banned the teaching of biological evolution, denied all but micro-evolution, and misconstrued it as supporting the obsolete hierarchical concept of “higher state of being.” (Mein Kampf, p. 223)

[iii] In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote, “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick, thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.”

[iv] William S. Powell, “The Evolution Controversy”, North Carolina through Four Centuries, (University of North Carolina Press, 1988), Reposted at www.ibiblio.org/uncpress/ncbooks/evolution/evolution.html

[v] During the period between the two world wars, the Catholic priest Charles Coughlin hosted a radio program heard regularly by one in ten American families. In the years leading up to World War II, Coughlin issued increasingly ferocious anti-Semitic rants. His followers held mass rallies, stockpiled weapons, and beat up Jews.

[vi] Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, (Penguin Books, NY, 2011), p. 272.

[vii] Clarence Darrow, “The Eugenics Cult” (The American Mercury, Volume VIII, Number 30, June 1926) www.dododreams.blogspot.com/2011/09/reprint.html

[viii] 2004 BBC poll

[ix] Extrapolated from figures listed under heading “Atheists In America” (FreeThoughtPedia, cited 9/3/2013), www.freethoughtpedia.com/wiki/Percentage_of_atheists#Atheists_In_America

[x] Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, “Birth Control” (Catholic Answers: To Explain & Defend the Faith, 8/10/2004, Cited 11/15/2015), http://www.catholic.com/tracts/birth-control

[xi] Edward J. Larson, Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South. (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1995). p. 75.

[xii] “An Apology for Support of Eugenics (81175-C2-R9999)” (United Methodist Church, cited 1/1/2014), www.calms.umc.org/2008/Text.aspx?mode=Petition&Number=1175

[xiii] Paul Lombardo, “Eugenics Laws Restricting Immigration” (University of Virginia), www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay9text.html

[xiv] University of Missouri–Kansas City, law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/lynchingyear.html

[xv] Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, (Penguin Books, NY, 2011), p. 202.

[xvi] New York Times, “As Survivors Dwindle, Tulsa Confronts Past”, A. G. Sulzberger, June 19, 2011.

[xvii] Reference is to the case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. For more information, see Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, The Triple Package, (The Penguin Press, New York, 2014), p. 99.

[xviii] lasvegassun.com/news/2006/jul/14/blacks-chased-from-their-homes-in-americas-ugly-pa/

[xix] Peter Watson, The Modern Mind, (Harper Collins, New York, 2001), p. 250.

[xx] Time Life, The Roaring Twenties: The Decade That Changed America, p. 10.

[xxi] “North Carolina Judge Won’t Allow Atheist’s Testimony Admitted in Court” (skeptican.org, cited 12/5/2013) www.skepticism.org/timeline/september-history/8659-north-carolina-judge-wont-allow-atheists-testimony-admitted-court.html

[xxii] C. N. Trueman, “The Red Scare in the 1920” (The History Learning Site, 5/22/2015, Cited 12/6/2015), http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/modern-world-history-1918-to-1980/america-1918-1939/the-red-scare-in-the-1920/

[xxiii] As Karl Popper observed, Freud failed to make psychology resemble a genuine science. Freud’s social alienation of dissidents echoed the religious practice of ostracizing dissenters. Puritans used “shunning.” Dissents in Jehovah’s Witnesses get “disfellowshipped.” Scientologists shame their dissidents as “suppressive persons.”

[xxiv] “Inside Story Americas – Forced sterilization: Time for compensation?”, Aljazeera, 6/23/2012 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pyiVuYAznk)

[xxv] Jan Crawford Greenburg, Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court, (The Penguin Press, New York, 2007), p. 52.

 

2 comments for “Christian eugenics

  1. March 26, 2017 at 5:04 pm

    R Squared (religionrefuted)

    overall, a well-researched article…considering its huge scope!

    just a couple of concerns/questions

    1. you mention Alfred Russel Wallace’s rebuttal of eugenics, however Wallace did not share Darwin’s belief that the ‘human mind’ was a product of evolution. ergo I am not sure that Wallace’s views of human dignity would represent those of a typical Darwinist. (Didn’t Darwin believe natural selection alone formed the mind) Do you line up more with Wallace or Darwin with regards to the evolution of the human mind?

    2. you fail to mention the key role Darwin’s son Leonard played in promoting eugenics. Did the senior Darwin ever protest that, or disown his son?

    3. you mention Clarence Darrow as an opponent of eugenics…..however an NPR article
    (http://www.npr.org/programs/disability/ba_shows.dir/children.dir/highlights/bsmovsti.html)
    quotes Darrow as advocating:
    “”chloroform unfit children, show them the same mercy that we show beasts that are no longer fit to live.”
    With ‘opponents of eugenics’ like Darrow, who needs ‘proponents’? 🙂

    • Dan
      April 6, 2017 at 9:19 am

      Item 1. Wallace did indeed reject Darwin’s view that the mind, as well as the body, is a product of evolution. Darwin said Wallace was making a big mistake by not applying evolutionary principles consistently. You suggested that Wallace’s views of human dignity may have differed from those of a typical Darwinist. I agree that they differed, but perhaps not quite in the way you had in mind. Wallace was the typical evolutionist of his day in the sense that the majority of evolutionists in America believed in God. In fact, most 21st century evolutionists believe in God. Wallace was atypical of evolutionists of his day in that his religion was outside the mainstream. Perhaps you meant to suggest that evolutionists like Darwin, who are nonbelievers, may have a different view of human dignity than do those who are religious. If this is what you meant, then the question concerns, not so much the influence of evolution on one’s view of human dignity, but the influence of atheism on one’s view of human dignity. That’s an interesting question. I am aware of some stats that suggest that religious believers are more prone than atheists to embrace retributive justice over reformative justice, to express more favorable opinions of corporal punishment and the death penalty, and to be slightly more prone to violence and xenophobia. Those nations, particularly the Nordic states, where religion is less prevalent today, tend to be among the world’s most peaceful and prosperous nations. I would never propose that such stats constitute an argument that religion itself is false, but such stats may be pertinent to your concerns over the influence of evolution or atheism on views of human dignity. You asked, “Do you line up more with Wallace or Darwin with regards to the evolution of the human mind?” Darwin.

      Item 2. Leonard Darwin was, as far as I know, the only one of Darwin’s ten children who both grew up to maturity and went on to promote eugenics. I suspect that support for eugenics has always had more to do with one’s perceived place in society than with one’s religious or scientific perspectives. In that respect, I believe that Charles Darwin’s rejection of eugenics reveals his exceptionalism. Leonard was more aligned with the thinking of his day, at least among the upper class. Whether the difference of opinion between Charles and Leonard (or Leo, as he was called) caused any discord, I do not know. All references that I have seen concerning the relationship between the father and son suggest that they remained close until the elder Darwin’s death.

      Item 3. Clarence Darrow’s comment was not made in reference to eugenics, but rather to euthanasia, which he favored. Darrow never, as far as I know, cited any individual’s genetic defects to warrant either prohibiting them from breeding or to justify euthanizing them. His argument was, instead, that we have a moral responsibility to terminate suffering. He argued that a human being, even more so than an animal like a horse or dog, is capable of immense suffering if severely injured as a result of trauma, disease, or birth defect. I think this is a topic that demands us to think in nuanced terms and avoid sweeping moralistic statements. When I was a child, my father once solemnly instructed me to decapitate a congenitally malformed pheasant chick that I had invested several weeks nurturing. He told me that ending the poor creature’s life was the most compassionate thing I could do. That experience has haunted me ever since, and I continue to find the concept of euthanasia repulsive. But I do not believe that Darrow’s compassionate motives were adequately reflected by the article you cited.

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment.

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