The role of religion in America’s early 20th century eugenics movement is an important example of the relationship of science and religion.

Today we often think of religion and science as antagonists, as they were in the Scopes or “Monkey” Trial in 1925. This antagonism developed in a significant way, however, only with the popularization toward the end of the 19th century of the Darwinian understanding of nature, which many thought incompatible with the Bible’s account of creation.  Still, even as antagonism grew between evolutionary science and creationist faith, science – or pseudo-science – and religion were allies in another episode. This was the eugenics movement that flourished in the United States for roughly the first three decades of the 20th century.

Religion and eugenics – the effort to improve the gene pool of a population – is the theme of the month for May 2017 because of a court case decided 90 years ago this May, about two years after the Scopes trial, that played an important role in the eugenics movement.

Buck v. Bell

Photograph of Carrie Buck and her mother Emma Buck at the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Lynchburg, Virginia. Courtesy of M.E. Grenander, Department of Special Collections, State University of New York at Albany.

On May 2, 1927, the Supreme Court decided the case Buck v. Bell. Carrie Buck, a young woman who had given birth out of wedlock to a daughter, was deemed “feebleminded” by the State of Virginia. The state concluded that both Buck’s daughter and her mother, Emma, were  also feebleminded. John Bell, the Superintendent of the state home in which Buck lived, an institution for epileptics and the feebleminded, signed papers to have Buck sterilized to prevent her again passing on her feeble mind and wayward conduct to another child. Buck was not adequately informed about the procedure she was to undergo.

From the beginning, Buck’s sterilization was intended to be a test case. State Courts had invalidated sterilization laws around the country. Supporters of eugenics and sterilization sought a Supreme Court decision that would prevent State courts blocking sterilization and other eugenic measures. Buck’s guardian, appointed by those intending to sterilize her, took her case to Virginia state courts and eventually the Supreme Court. The lower court decision, finding no grounds to block the sterilization, was based on falsehoods about and inadequate examination of Buck and her child. In the appeals process that followed the original court decision, the courts did not revisit the facts. The Supreme Court decided that nothing in the U.S. Constitution prevented Virginia from sterilizing Buck. Eight of nine justices joined in the decision, written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, perhaps the preeminent jurist of the time. Holmes’ decision contained the now infamous remark, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

The Eugenics Movement

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1902.

Carrie Buck’s treatment by Virginia and the courts was possible because eugenics was a popular idea in the United States in the early 20th century. The public good, it was argued, required removing from the population genes thought to cause immoral, criminal or anti-social behavior, or low intelligence. A variety of organizations arose to lobby for eugenics measures and legislation to enforce them. “Better baby” contests took place at state fairs and other venues, as did “fitter family” competitions. Beginning with Connecticut in 1896, states passed laws requiring medical exams before issuing marriage licenses to make sure the unfit did not reproduce. Indiana passed the first compulsory sterilization law in 1907. Prominent Americans – among them Theodore Roosevelt, Stanford University President David Starr Jordan, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Margaret Sanger – supported the eugenics movement, as did such organizations as the National Federation of Women’s Clubs and the National Conference of Charities and Corrections.

Better Baby contest at the Indiana State Fair, 1931. Indiana State Archives.

Eugenics gained popularity because it appeared to offer a scientific, and thus respectable, response to perceived problems. Science had been an authority in American life since the Founding, with statesmen-scientists like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson advancing the cause of both freedom and knowledge. The new science of eugenics seemed well suited to deal with new problems some Americans thought the country faced at the turn of the century. These problems were changes in American demographics seen through the lenses of racial and nativist ideas. The popularity of eugenics coincided with a wave of immigration that brought to the United States poor people with “un-American” customs and habits – Italians and eastern Europeans, including Russian Jews – in greater numbers than before. At the same time, industrialization and increasing wealth created social upheaval and lowered the birth rate of “old stock” Americans. The gene or gene theory had only recently been discovered. As often happens with new scientific ideas in the hands of popularizers, “genes” were thought to explain more than they really did. In the enthusiasm of discovery, they were thought to offer a solution to the array of social problems associated with changing demographics that were supposedly threatening the survival of America and its Anglo-Saxon or Teutonic race.

Religious Justification of Eugenics

Many Protestant ministers and religious organizations, and some reformed Jewish rabbis  and Catholic priests, were swept up in the eugenics craze. Generally speaking, the more liberal or progressive a minister or a denomination, the more likely he or it was to support eugenics. This was true because eugenics was a progressive cause.

“Pastors for Eugenics”: An announcement by Pastors of their and their colleagues’ efforts to make medical certificates of good health a requirement for marriage ceremonies. The New York Times, June 6, 1913.

Why did progressives and religious progressives support eugenics? From the beginning, progressives in the United States saw reason and science as allies in the struggle against the ancien regime of monarchy and the superstitions (as they saw them) that supported that regime. As Jefferson wrote in his last letter, “all eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.” Paradoxically, but not surprisingly, science would become as time passed a kind of unquestioned authority replacing the authorities of the ancien regime.

Religious progressives shared this prejudice in favor of science. They felt a need, therefore, to keep up with what science taught. In the 19th century, virtually all American Protestants believed science and the Bible were compatible because they believed God was author of both nature and revelation. As Darwinian thinking gained influence, Progressives continued to hold this view. While other Protestants, believing that evolution threatened the account of creation in the Bible, became more skeptical of science – some defending a literal reading of Genesis – progressive Christians remained committed to a post-millennialist view of history. Human efforts, they believed, could regenerate human life, bringing about a golden age, after which Christ would come again. Eugenics seemed an important tool in this regenerative effort.

The progressive religious embrace of eugenics was also prompted to some degree by the eugenicists’ criticism of Christian charity: it helped keep the unfit alive and reproducing, thus weakening the gene pool. Hence, supporting eugenics was a way for Christians to balance their commitment to charity, although it also undermined that commitment. Eugenicists and other progressives also courted ministers and priests in hopes of removing religious objections to their plans. Some proponents went so far as to present eugenics as a kind of religion, and some ministers accommodated this view by reshaping their Christianity along eugenic lines.

Eugenics always had its critics. Some governors refused to sign eugenic legislation. Not every state legislature passed such legislation. In addition to more conservative Protestants, Catholics and their clergy largely opposed eugenics. The one dissenting justice in Buck v. Bell was Pierce Butler, a Catholic. (As an institution, the Church spoke against eugenics in 1930 in the encyclical or Papal letter Casti connubi.) The Church based its opposition on its understanding of natural law, as expressed by Thomas Aquinas. (One Catholic journal Americanized the Church’s traditional teaching by saying that medical certificates for a marriage license violated the “laws of nature and Nature’s God.”[1])

If religious support for eugenics and sterilization seems incomprehensible, we might recall the then ongoing – and longstanding – effort to rid America of drunkenness. If science offered a more effective method  to bring about this and other reforms necessary to fulfill God’s plan for humankind, why not use it? Those who opposed eugenics did so because of a commitment to the core Biblical teaching – stronger than faith in science or hope for the millennium – that every individual, as the bearer of a soul specially created by God in God’s image, had unique value.

Aftermath of the Eugenics Movement

By 1930, and even more so as the decade progressed, improved understanding of genes and heredity made clear that much of what the eugenics movement preached was misleading and unscientific. In addition, with eugenics as with all fads, familiarity bred boredom. Still, the Buck v. Bell decision gave new life to the sterilization movement. Thirty-one states had such programs, often adopting the language of the Virginia legislation that the Supreme Court approved, which had been drafted by a lawyer to increase its chances of meeting legal scrutiny. Sterilizations increased and did not cease until the 1960s. (The sterilization program in North Carolina lasted until 1977.[2]) California, a leading Progressive state, sterilized about 20,000 people, a third or so of the almost 70,000 individuals sterilized in the United States. Eugenics and forced sterilization in America provided important precedents for the Nazis.

As for the relationship between science and religion, the case of eugenics suggests the danger of making science an authority at the expense of the fundamental understanding at the heart of revealed religion.



Suggestions for Further Reading

Adam Cohen, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck (New York: Penguin Press, 2016)

Paul A. Lombardo, Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)

———, ed., A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011)


[1] Christine Rosen, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenic Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 65.

[2] Kim Severson, “Thousands Sterilized, a State Weighs Restitution,” New York Times, December 9, 2011.