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The Eugenics Roots of Evangelical Family Values

Although they have different beliefs, eugenicists and evangelicals have historically worked together to further a joint agenda.

There is another, lesser known source of inspiration for modern white evangelicals and Dobson, in particular: eugenics. And this specific history helps to explain how procreative, heterosexual marriage became enshrined as the single-most important moral duty for some evangelicals—one that believers are enticed to pursue from a young age and then to perform at all costs, including physical and psychological harm.

Eugenics, a program to improve the “quality” of the human population, gained popularity in the early twentieth century, when more than 30 states enacted laws authorizing the forced sterilization of the “unfit”—poor, disabled, immigrant, and otherwise socially undesirable persons. Eugenics and evangelicalism have long been thought to be antithetical, as evangelicals largely opposed sterilization. (As Christine Rosen explains in Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement, evangelicals were not inclined to support any practice that grew out of bogeyman Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, nor were they as enthusiastic about social reform as were the liberal Protestants who endorsed eugenics—their focus was on saving souls.) But the evangelicals-versus-eugenics framing is too simple. Evangelicals fervently supported other eugenics programs, including anti-miscegenation laws, stringent immigration restrictions, and even so-called “responsible breeding.” The Rev. Billy Sunday once ranted about the last at a 1917 revival, citing the famous case studies of the “Juke” and “Edwards” families to stress the impact of heredity. (Eugenicists claimed the pseudonymous Jukes were a long line of criminal degenerates, while the descendants of the revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards were virtuous and well-bred.) A New York Times writer marveled that “the scientific aspect of his sermon … overshadowed the denunciations of sin.” Sunday, after all, had a reputation for rebuffing modern science.

Evangelicals even more firmly embraced eugenics after World War II, as sterilization advocates shifted focus to the other side of the eugenics coin: “positive eugenics.” Positive eugenics aimed to increase the breeding of the “fit” (able-bodied, middle-class whites), providing a far more respectable face for the movement, which had become imperiled by scientific criticism and the rise of the unpopular Nazi party. This modernized form of eugenics gelled with racist notions of Christian dominion, which avowed segregationist and eugenicist R.J. Rushdoony would popularize in the 1960s and 70s.

One positive eugenicist who particularly shaped religious conservatives was Californian Paul Popenoe, a central figure in my recent book, The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt. Popenoe had been one of the most prolific advocates for the segregation and forced sterilization of people whom he deemed to be “waste humanity,” even inspiring leaders of the Third Reich before the time came for him to rebrand as a defender of patriarchal, procreative marriage. In 1930, Popenoe, an atheist, opened the American Institute of Family Relations (AIFR) in Los Angeles to improve marital harmony and remove what he thought to be obstacles to white reproduction, such as rape, masturbation, pornography, female frigidity, and feminist yearnings. Over the next several decades, Popenoe counseled white couples on the importance of strict gender-norms and same-race marriage, training psychologists, clergymen (many Baptist and Mormon), and youth group leaders—his new allies in the racial betterment project—to do the same. According to Hilde Løvdal Stephens, author of Family Matters: James Dobson and Focus on the Family’s Crusade for the Christian Home, he instructed counselors to use “heredity” and “interpersonal compatibility” as codes for race, especially when his views on race began to go out of vogue.