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Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement

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With our success in mapping the human genome, the possibility of altering our genetic futures has given rise to difficult ethical questions. Although opponents of genetic manipulation frequently raise the specter of eugenics, our contemporary debates about bioethics often take place in a historical vacuum. In fact, American religious leaders raised similarly challenging et With our success in mapping the human genome, the possibility of altering our genetic futures has given rise to difficult ethical questions. Although opponents of genetic manipulation frequently raise the specter of eugenics, our contemporary debates about bioethics often take place in a historical vacuum. In fact, American religious leaders raised similarly challenging ethical questions in the first half of the twentieth century. Preaching Eugenics tells how Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders confronted and, in many cases, enthusiastically embraced eugenics-a movement that embodied progressive attitudes about modern science at the time. Christine Rosen argues that religious leaders pursued eugenics precisely when they moved away from traditional religious tenets. The liberals and modernists-those who challenged their churches to embrace modernity-became the eugenics movement's most enthusiastic supporters. Their participation played an important part in the success of the American eugenics movement. In the early twentieth century, leaders of churches and synagogues were forced to defend their faiths on many fronts. They faced new challenges from scientists and intellectuals; they struggled to adapt to the dramatic social changes wrought by immigration and urbanization; and they were often internally divided by doctrinal controversies among modernists, liberals, and fundamentalists. Rosen draws on previously unexplored archival material from the records of the American Eugenics Society, religious and scientific books and periodicals of the day, and the personal papers of religious leaders such as Rev. John Haynes Holmes, Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, Rev. John M. Cooper, Rev. John A. Ryan, and biologists Charles Davenport and Ellsworth Huntington, to produce an intellectual history of these figures that is both lively and illuminating. The story of how religious leaders confronted one of the era's newest "sciences," eugenics, sheds important new light on a time much like our own, when religion and science are engaged in critical and sometimes bitter dialogue.


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With our success in mapping the human genome, the possibility of altering our genetic futures has given rise to difficult ethical questions. Although opponents of genetic manipulation frequently raise the specter of eugenics, our contemporary debates about bioethics often take place in a historical vacuum. In fact, American religious leaders raised similarly challenging et With our success in mapping the human genome, the possibility of altering our genetic futures has given rise to difficult ethical questions. Although opponents of genetic manipulation frequently raise the specter of eugenics, our contemporary debates about bioethics often take place in a historical vacuum. In fact, American religious leaders raised similarly challenging ethical questions in the first half of the twentieth century. Preaching Eugenics tells how Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders confronted and, in many cases, enthusiastically embraced eugenics-a movement that embodied progressive attitudes about modern science at the time. Christine Rosen argues that religious leaders pursued eugenics precisely when they moved away from traditional religious tenets. The liberals and modernists-those who challenged their churches to embrace modernity-became the eugenics movement's most enthusiastic supporters. Their participation played an important part in the success of the American eugenics movement. In the early twentieth century, leaders of churches and synagogues were forced to defend their faiths on many fronts. They faced new challenges from scientists and intellectuals; they struggled to adapt to the dramatic social changes wrought by immigration and urbanization; and they were often internally divided by doctrinal controversies among modernists, liberals, and fundamentalists. Rosen draws on previously unexplored archival material from the records of the American Eugenics Society, religious and scientific books and periodicals of the day, and the personal papers of religious leaders such as Rev. John Haynes Holmes, Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick, Rev. John M. Cooper, Rev. John A. Ryan, and biologists Charles Davenport and Ellsworth Huntington, to produce an intellectual history of these figures that is both lively and illuminating. The story of how religious leaders confronted one of the era's newest "sciences," eugenics, sheds important new light on a time much like our own, when religion and science are engaged in critical and sometimes bitter dialogue.

30 review for Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement

  1. 5 out of 5

    Max

    Informative!!! did not realize how many american religious officials bought into eugenics. specifically, liberal american religious officials. This is a history that I’ve never heard discussed by anyone involved in any of the many groups where it happened, which sucks, bc the underlying attitude of condescension and dehumanization that motivated the embrace of eugenics is often totally still a thing in charity

  2. 5 out of 5

    Chris Warneke

    This book was rather disturbing, but interesting to read. The eugenics movement is a terrible mark on U.S history, but it's interesting to see what drew people (even religious people) to it. This book was rather disturbing, but interesting to read. The eugenics movement is a terrible mark on U.S history, but it's interesting to see what drew people (even religious people) to it.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Alex Stroshine

    Few faddish phenomena have strained society's trust in science as eugenics. Although it may be argued by scientist's most ardent advocates that eugenics is not real science but "pseudoscience," as historian Christine Rosen recounts, eugenics was a widespread cultural fixation that had the support of many scientists including Francis Galton and Charles Davenport. In "Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement," Rosen explores how the leaders of these movements came t Few faddish phenomena have strained society's trust in science as eugenics. Although it may be argued by scientist's most ardent advocates that eugenics is not real science but "pseudoscience," as historian Christine Rosen recounts, eugenics was a widespread cultural fixation that had the support of many scientists including Francis Galton and Charles Davenport. In "Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement," Rosen explores how the leaders of these movements came together as (often skeptical) allies. As the title suggests, this book focuses exclusively on the "leaders," i.e. the intellectuals among eugenicists and clergy who campaigned for eugenics. As such, little attention is given to the common man. Although Rosen clearly condemns eugenics, she notes that we must be aware of the context in which the movement arose. For instance, eugenicists decried the First World War because they believed in took away the prime men, thereby weakening the germ plasm pool of the best future generations. Eugenicists genuinely thought they were improving the human race through subjecting it to scientific methods. Rosen also notes the incredible increase in the rise of people in institutions who were sterilized: "In 1917, approximately 1,422 people in institutions were sterilized; by 1941, that number had reached 38,087" (p. 150). Heredity studies also played a large role in eugenics, with advocates conducting many family studies in order to determine why certain ethnicities seemed less-than-ideal for the gene pool. Indeed, it startles the modern mind just how much eugenicists drew parallels between the breeding of livestock and human beings, as Rosen notes, "There is no little irony in the fact that farm girls would soon be yearning to be flappers - and the flapper embraced, as part of her modern sensibility, a movement that applied the breeding techniques of the farm to her fellow citizens" (p. 82-3). Like prize-winning pumpkins and pigs, eugenically ideal families won the Fitter Family Medal. Eugenicists worked to educate the public about positive and negative eugenics and and would later find themselves allying with the sterilization and birth control movements. The eugenics movement tenuously courted religion. Some eugenicists were eager to use the pulpits of the nation to spread their eugenicist views (the American Eugenics Society hosted several sermon competitions in which clergy were supposed to deliver eugenics-themed sermons - the winners being generously rewarded) while others, such as Frederick Osborn, one of the last leading eugenicists, spurned religious involvement. Religion was viewed by the movement as a way for controlling the populace and for shaping and cultivating people who would be exemplars of eugenics values; religion made people moral, industrious, noble, among other things. Religion also played not only a didactic role, but also featured prominently in matters of charity and how to help the downtrodden (many eugenicists rejected classical philanthropy and instead surmised it would be better to prevent the birth of those who would come to depend on charity) and in people's marriage lives; indeed, pro-eugenic clergy often approved of the special marriage certificates eugenicists called for in order to ensure that husband and wife were both "fit." Unlike the non-clerical eugenicists who couched their eugenic convictions in appeals to "science," clergy tended to favour eugenics due to its social factors. Clergy saw eugenics as a means to usher in the Kingdom of God on Earth; even the Roman Catholics, who were vastly opposed to eugenics, saw the means, not primarily the ends (the ideal man) as the fatal error. Significantly, the vast majority of clergy who came to support eugenics were drawn from the theological liberals - modernists (including the liberal luminary Harry Emerson Fosdick), Reformed rabbis and several prominent Roman Catholics (although Catholics also comprised the most vocal opposition to eugenics). Many advocates of eugenics supported it like a religion. Rosen writes that Charles Davenport's eugenics was "a REPLACEMENT for organized religion" and that it was "complete with creed (hereditary science), sanctuary (the laboratory), texts (family studies) and...high priests" (the eugenicists themselves) (p. 94). Leon F. Whitney even composed a "Eugenics Catechism." The Catholics that had tepidly supported eugenics swiftly withdrew their support entirely once the eugenicists got into bed with the sterilization and birth control movements (largely due to their natural law convictions). In return, eugenicists complained the Catholics (along with Protestant fundamentalists) were hindering "progress." Interestingly, the Catholic priest Francis J. Connell would give a speech to the American Eugenics Society in which he declared that the Catholic Church's moral teachings were superior to scientifically-oriented eugenics and a "promotion of true eugenics" (p. 179). The book ends abruptly, although Rosen makes it clear that the eugenics movement entered a decline during the Great Depression (this, to me, is a little ironic; you'd think eugenics enthusiasm would rise as impoverished, unemployed Americans jealously watched others succeed and survive - but then perhaps they were worried THEY'D be considered the inferior members of the human race?). Geneticists eventually became vociferous critics of eugenicists and their own discipline would flourish while the latter would fade. The Second World War and Adolf Hitler and Josef Mengele's machinations would expose the horrors of eugenics to the world. However, Rosen sagely notes that even today, with our often uncritical acceptance of technology, a new form of eugenics is ascendant. It may not be as harsh as sterilization or segregating "races" so that they do not mix, but our capacity for "positive eugenics" is increasing, as evidenced in research and breakthroughs in "designer babies." After finishing this book, readers are left to ponder an important question: like the eugenicists of the early twentieth century, have we in the twenty-first century be too naive and uncritical in adopting science and technology to "improve" the human race? As science and technology allow us to fiddle with our baby's genetic makeup or transition from being a female to a male, will we be blindsided by the consequences of our actions? In this brave new world, Christine Rosen offers us a glimpse of the past that will hopefully give us wisdom for our present and future.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Carolina

    Rosen explores the various tensions between the scientific and religious aspects of the eugenics movement of the early 1900's and presents solid evidence and research on all of the people involved. Her only fault is a structural one, a lack of global coherence. The chapters are not divided into subsections and no headings or subheadings are given other than the chapter's title, which makes it very difficult to survive reading 30-page walls of academic text and comprehend exactly what the point o Rosen explores the various tensions between the scientific and religious aspects of the eugenics movement of the early 1900's and presents solid evidence and research on all of the people involved. Her only fault is a structural one, a lack of global coherence. The chapters are not divided into subsections and no headings or subheadings are given other than the chapter's title, which makes it very difficult to survive reading 30-page walls of academic text and comprehend exactly what the point of the chapter was.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Michele

    Eye Openin information of historical eugenics in the US - a must read~

  6. 4 out of 5

    Chris Reilly

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mark

  8. 5 out of 5

    Wes Allen

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mary Elizabeth

  10. 5 out of 5

    Darrick Taylor

  11. 5 out of 5

    Lucas Pastis

  12. 5 out of 5

    G.T. Burns

  13. 5 out of 5

    Michael Wehmeyer

  14. 4 out of 5

    Michele Davis

  15. 4 out of 5

    Kelly O'Donnell

  16. 5 out of 5

    Anne

  17. 4 out of 5

    Радостин Марчев

    Не успях да стигна по-далеч от глава 2. Темата е интересна и авторът изглежда е изследвал добре, но изложението ми е убийствено скучно. Така че се предавам.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Matthew B

  19. 5 out of 5

    Tonya Miller

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ivan Clark

  21. 4 out of 5

    George Sherwood

  22. 5 out of 5

    Brandon

  23. 5 out of 5

    Melanie

  24. 5 out of 5

    Emmanuel Isaiah Smith

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jude

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jack Stephenson

  27. 5 out of 5

    Lara Torgesen

  28. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jose

  30. 4 out of 5

    E.

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