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  • Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement
  • Saul Lerner
Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement, by Christine Rosen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 286 pp. $37.50.

In her very interesting book, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement, Christine Rosen has written an important, detailed, and rather frightening account of how the American religious community of the early 20th century came to support the eugenics movement. She specifically documents how Protestant, Jewish, and a limited number of Catholic religious leaders contributed to making American eugenics the foremost eugenics movement in the world by the 1920s and sought the creation of a "good society" in America by means of those methods that the eugenics movement advocated: sterilization, immigration restriction, incarceration, intelligence testing, and statistical analysis applied to the racial/ethnic/genetic backgrounds of families. Underlying the assumptions on which American eugenics rested were racism, bigotry, pseudo-science masquerading as science, the assumption that many immigrants and lower socio-economic level Americans could not be assimilated into U.S. society, and a quasi-religious zeal to inflict eugenics on the people of the United States and, thereby, create a master race in America. The American eugenics movement became the model used by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, who turned their zealousness for eugenics as the means of preserving the health of the nation into, first, the murder of the disabled, and, subsequently, the brutalization and murder of millions of innocent men, women, and children in the final solution.

Rosen's book is very much a part of a significant recent interest by the scholarly community in the study of the American eugenics movement, its influence in the United States, and its world-wide (or European) influence. In the United States, religious leaders, politicians, businessmen, scientists, philanthropic foundations, corporate sponsors, and others supported the effort to create a master race in the United States. All of this is well documented in such accounts as Edwin Black's The War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race (2003). Rosen's book adds much to the Black book and other accounts by describing in detail religious support of eugenics, a matter to which Black gives much less attention.

As strong advocates of the importance of ethical behavior, according to Rosen, liberal religious leaders were significantly influenced by the growing importance of the concept of "charity" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and by the development of the "Social Gospel" movement. Committed to religious charity, they participated in many social reform and progressive activities in this period. Many were also troubled by foreign immigrants [End Page 182] flooding to U.S. shores and raising fears and deep concerns on the part of America's political, cultural, economic, and religious leaders. As supporters of modernity, seeking to make their respective religions relevant to the twentieth century, liberal clergymen also became advocates of science and believed that science, including evolutionary biology, could help in bringing human progress and perfectibility. The Reverend Oscar Carleton McCullough (1843–1891), for example, minister to the Plymouth Congregational Church of Indianapolis, Indiana, produced "one of the first eugenic family studies in the United States" and sought "the merger of Protestant Social Gospel theology and eugenics" (p. 27).

Moreover, there was a tendency for advocates of eugenics and its related "branches" to seek biblical support for their particular reform. Almost from the outset of the eugenics movement in America, there had been an easy association between religion and eugenics. In 1907, in an attempt to effect God's will while resolving major social problems, the State of Indiana passed the first sterilization law in the United States. Other states of the nation were not far behind Indiana in approving sterilization legislation and, while California eventually became the nation's leader in the campaign to sterilize the unfit, by mid-century some sixty thousand Americans had been deemed unfit or too dangerous to be a part of the nation's gene pool and had been sterilized (pp. 47–8). This was accomplished with the specific approval of the Supreme Court of the United States which...


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