PBS’s American Experience recently aired a two-hour program about eugenics: “The Eugenics Crusade: What’s Wrong with Perfect?”. It is well worth watching.
Eugenics is the textbook example of the problem with placing unquestioning trust in the latest scientific consensus. When Christians raised moral questions about embryonic stem cell research, they were admonished not to let faith stand in the way of progress and science.
Interestingly, Christians were viewed similarly when they raised objections to eugenics.
And it was when these self-identified liberal and modernist religious men abandoned bedrock principles to seek relevance in modern debates that they were most likely to find themselves endorsing eugenics. Those who clung stubbornly to tradition, to doctrine, and to biblical infallibility opposed eugenics and became, for a time, the objects of derision for their rejection of this most modern science.
Christine Rosen, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 5.
Interestingly, the American Experience documentary did not identify this aspect of eugenics history. It did not distinguish between the social gospel ministers who embraced eugenics (Rosen, 17) and the conservatives who opposed it.
Indeed, the documentary makers framed the issue differently. They repeatedly emphasized that the proponents of eugenics promoted their ideas with religious fervor. Eugenics became to them a religion. The connection between religion and eugenics can even be seen in the title: “The Eugenics Crusade.” On the one hand, I have no problem with framing false ideologies in religious terms. They often are religious in nature. On the other hand, the documentary closed by claiming that better science debunked eugenics.
By eliding the religious opposition to eugenics, and by framing proponents of eugenics in terms of religion, the documentary created a narrative arc in which science triumphed over religion rather than presenting a narrative in which religious wisdom, if heeded, could have prevented oppression in the name of scientific consensus.
The worldview of the program also appeared in its handling of abortion. Abortion was never mentioned in the program. Margaret Sanger did make a brief appearance, but she was presented merely as promoting birth control. Her connection with eugenics, even specifically racist eugenics, was presented as a pragmatic way to promote the liberation of women through birth control. So instead of investigating the link between eugenics and abortion, the documentary seeks to distance them from each other.
The program does accurately convey the degree to which eugenics was in the mainstream of educated opinion for significant period of the early twentieth century, and it intends for viewers to be aghast that such ideas, and their implementation, were accepted so widely by Americans. I can only hope that in a future generation a PBS documentary on abortion will expect its audience to be aghast that abortion was mainstream.
I think this documentary is worth watching, but watch it with an awareness of how the creators’ worldview has shaped, and distorted, the story being told.