Certain kinds of religious leader gravitated toward eugenics in the early twentieth century, ministers anxious about the changing culture but also eager to find solutions to its diagnosable ills. Theirs was a practical spirituality better understood in terms of worldviews than theologies. Many of the religious leaders who joined the eugenics movement were well-known, even notorious, for their lack of coherent doctrinal vision; of one Congregationalist advocate for eugenics it was said, “He is not a theologian in the ordinary sense, for he loves flowers more than botany.” Of another, a well-known Baptist minister, one critic noted the impossibility of constructing even a preliminary image of his beliefs: “No painter who ever lived could make a picture which expressed the religion of the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick.” These were preachers who embraced modern ideas first and adjusted their theologies later. Theirs were the churches that had naves and transepts modeled after gothic European cathedrals—as well as bowling alleys. 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.
Christin Rosen, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 5.
The evidence yields a clear pattern about who elected to support eugenicstyle reforms and who did not. Religious leaders pursued eugenics precisely when they moved away from traditional religious tenets. The liberals and modernists in their respective faiths—those who challenged their churches to conform to modern circumstances—became the eugenics movement’s most enthusiastic supporters. Theologically, these men were creative, deliberately vague, or perhaps even, as their critics contended, deeply confused. In terms of solving social problems, however, their purpose was clear: They were dedicated to facing head-on the challenges posed by modernity. Doing so meant embracing scientific solutions.
Christin Rosen, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 184