Christian Responses to the Eugenics Movement

Christian Responses to the Eugenics Movement March 27, 2018

After Charles Lindbergh returned to America in 1927, he was showered with gifts from an admiring public. One of the oddest of these honors came from a group of fellow Minnesotans: a bronze token inscribed “In Recognition Of His SUPERIOR HEREDITARY ENDOWMENT.” An accompanying note explained:

The thing next to his air plane that made possible Col. Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic Ocean was his possession of strong qualities of mind and character inherited from his ancestors. The Minnesota Eugenics Society wants to arouse in young people a pride in better heredity and thus begin human betterment at its foundation.

When the Minneapolis welcoming committee declined to present Lindbergh with this gift, society president Charles F. Dight tried to go over their heads — to Lindbergh’s mother. “The importance of a good heredity is the thought,” he wrote, “in the mind of the Minnesota Eugenics Society, and for the possession of this by your son, you as his mother are of course to be honored more than he.”

Charles Fremont Dight, ca. 1930
Dight ca. 1930 – Countway Library of Medicine

It doesn’t seem that Evangeline Lindbergh proved to be all that sympathetic: the bronze memorial never came into her son’s possession. Instead, it disappeared until after Dight’s death, when it found its way to the Minnesota Historical Society with the rest of Dight’s papers. But coming across mentions of that curio last week in the Lindbergh Family Papers reminded me just how mainstream eugenics was in the 1920s.

Dight, after all, was a prominent (if eccentric) physician and medical school professor who had once served on the Minneapolis City Council. Though he was unable to convince the Minnesota State Fair to host a “Fitter Family Competition,” in 1925 the state legislature did pass a eugenics law. Over 2,200 “feebleminded” Minnesotans were forcibly sterilized over the next two decades, more than three-quarters of them women. (Such procedures continued even after World War II.) Dight wished that the law would have applied to more than the institutionalized, as later equivalents did in the Third Reich. In a 1933 letter, he wished success to Adolf Hitler, hoping that Nazi efforts would “advance the eugenics movement in other nations as well as in Germany.”

In his will, Dight left $100,000 to the University of Minnesota “to promote biological race betterment, better human brain structure and mental endowment by spreading abroad the knowledge of the laws of heredity and the principles of eugenics.” In 1941, three years after the doctor’s death, the University duly established a genetics institute named for Dight.

It may horrify us today, but Minnesota was far from unusual in the 1920s in embracing the argument that the human species could be improved through scientific breeding on the one hand and forced sterilization (or worse) on the other. Eugenics drew support not only from xenophobic nativists but from progressives (and socialists like Dight) who saw it as a means of social reform. The same month that Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Virginia sterilization law, with Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. concluding for the majority that “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The lone dissenter was a Minnesotan named Pierce Butler, to the apparent dismay of Holmes, who had hoped that Butler would “have the courage to vote with us in spite of his religion.” Butler was a Roman Catholic, a member of the Christian church that most successfully spoke out against eugenics throughout the twentieth century.

So argues historian Sharon Leon in her 2013 book, An Image of God. She cites an issue of the Jesuit magazine America that came out exactly one week before Lindbergh landed in Paris. Appalled by the reasoning of Holmes and the other justices, the editors based their objection

on the fact that every man, even a lunatic, is an image of God, not a mere animal, that he is a human being, and not a mere social factor. To care for the dependent with sacrifice, foresight and charity, is a work which ennobles the individual, and is a source of vigor for the State. To care for them with a surgeon’s knife and nothing else and then to stamp this method as “enlightened” shows how far we have wandered from the concepts of humanity and of Christian civilization.

Three years later, Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical that condemned eugenics along with abortion and contraception. He didn’t appeal so directly to the Imago Dei; instead, he warned that laws like those in Virginia and Minnesota showed the wish of “the civil authority to arrogate to itself a power over a faculty which it never had and can never legitimately possess.”

Rosen, Preaching EugenicsBut not all Christians opposed “race betterment,” as historian Christine Rosen painstakingly documents in her 2004 book Preaching Eugenics. While Michael Gerson might wish that conservative Christians in the 1920s “had chosen to object to eugenics rather than evolution, to social Darwinism rather than Darwinism,” Rosen argues that “eugenics flourished in the liberal Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish mainstream” precisely because of those religious Americans’ enthusiasm for evolutionary science. She concludes that “in eugenics they found a science whose message moved effortlessly from laboratory to church.”

The American Eugenics Society (AES) even organized a clergy advisory council that counted Harry Emerson Fosdick among its members. His participation in that group was both “token” and “notable” to Rosen. She suggests that Fosdick, whose own statements on eugenics were “frustratingly vague,” may have been “marking his distance from the Fundamentalist critique of science” by affiliating with the American Eugenics Society. Whatever his motivation, Fosdick’s “endorsement was a promotional coup for the AES.” (He later put more distance between himself and that group.)

The title of Rosen’s book alludes to the “eugenics sermon contest” that the AES inaugurated in 1926. From the hundreds of Protestant and Reformed Jewish entrants, Rosen opens with yet another Minnesotan: Rev. Phillips Endecott Osgood, rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis. “We see that the less fit members of society seem to breed fastest and the right types are less prolific,” Osgood told parishioners that Mother’s Day. “Until the impurities of dross and alloy are purified out of our silver it cannot be taken into the hands of the craftsman for whom the refining is done…. Grapes cannot be gathered from thorns nor figs from thistles.”

(Osgood may have been paraphrasing the AES’ Eugenics Catechism, not just the Sermon on the Mount. “Does eugenics contradict the Bible?”, that document asked. “The Bible has much to say for eugenics. It tells us that men do not gather grapes from thorns and figs from thistles.”)

Indeed, independent scholar Gary Phelps points out that Rev. Osgood was an outspoken ally of Dr. Dight. In February 1929, as the Minnesota Eugenics Society (unsuccessfully) lobbied the legislature to create a state eugenics director empowered to help identify new candidates for sterilization, Osgood wrote to Dight:

The ounce of prevention which will make unnecessary the pound of cure, the removal of a sin against posterity, the ideal of a better thoroughfare for the human spirit, for the removal of unfitness in the process of racial development, — all these things would induce us promptly and enthusiastically to pass this measure.

If you want me to speak on the matter as you have kindly hinted, I shall be very glad to if I am available, but I do not want any accident of my own absence from town to prevent the expression of my strong conviction that this bill is necessary and wise and Christian.

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