On the whole the evangelical mainstream in the decades following the turn of the century appeared apathetic, acquiescent, or at times downright supportive of the eugenics movement. In this article, I argue that the evangelicals often accepted eugenics as a part of a progressive, reformist vision that uncritically fused the Kingdom of God with modern civilization.
In Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity the author makes the case that to a large extent this was an issue of class; the higher orders, generally professing Christians of a sort, favored eugenics, while the lower class victims and their preachers naturally objected. The more progressive churches also often aggressively got behind race-betterment. This is not to deny that secularists such as H. L. Mencken were enthusiastic eugenicists on scientistic grounds; rather, it is to offer that the social realities of the day suggested that a eugenical inclination was the dominant position, one which many of the Christian churches acceded to reinforce their relevance to contemporary society and its ills (it is notable that the Roman Catholic church in Europe was more successful in blocking eugenics in the nations in which it was powerful than the Protestant churches of northern Europe were, assuming the latter were so inclined).1
This brings me to Marcus Epstein’s post, Margaret Sanger and the Eugenics Meme. Epstein is trying to argue against what he perceives to be spurious arguments in favor of a pro-life position. This is not because he supports abortion rights, rather, he does not believe the pro-life position that he adheres to benefits from shady tactics. He notes:
Sanger herself actually opposed abortion. In her autobiography she wrote,
“To each group we explained what contraception was; that abortion was the wrong way–no matter how early it was performed it was taking life; that contraception was the better way, the safer way–it took a little time, a little trouble, but was well worth while in the long run, because life had not yet begun.”
You can read that page of her autobiography yourself. From what I gather Sanger’s position on topics such as abortion were actually complex & contingent; as are those of many people. I think Marcus renders her opinion on this question more stark than it was. But in any case, Marcus goes on:
Let me make it clear. I am not writing this to promote eugenics or Margaret Sanger. What I am saying is that conservatives should not try to win debates by to tenuously tying their opponents to politically incorrect views held by people who died years ago.
Some of the changes in racial attitudes since then have been positive. However, reading out everyone who’s views are not in line with our present day thinking is what leads to renaming schools named after Columbus and Washington.
Tracing the original sins of progenitors of social movements is a tricky thing. In the heat of battle these sorts of arguments are efficient; but in the long term they erode the credibility you need to sustain a principled case. The coarseness of such tactical maneuvers also tends to elide the subtly and nuance in the opinions of your fellow humans.
1 – Note that in 1936 96% of Germans were confessing Christians; they paid the church tax levied upon those who were adherents of the mainstream Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic church. The leading Nazis were themselves anti-Christian personally, but the broad masses which brought them to power (i.e., the up to 1/3 of Germans who voted for them at one point) were not. Again, it is notable that Nazis were strongest in Protestant areas.