Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2011 - THE NEWCOMBE FELLOWS: 1981-2011
Melissa J. Wilde CN ’01 Traces the Culture Wars in American Religion
During the 20th century, Melissa Wilde CN ’01 observes, the politics of sex and gender became a dividing line in American religion. Her forthcoming book, Creating Heaven on Earth: Birth Control, Eugenics and Belief in the Social Gospel 1920-1935, examines the roots of this division in denominations’ positions on birth control in the 1930s.
Dr. Wilde, associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, has previously written on Vatican II, a moment of liberalization for Catholicism worldwide, and on other key moments of reaction within religious organizations to larger social change. In her latest work, she examines how religious groups’ early stances on birth control in the 1930s—in some way, she argues, the beginning of the culture wars between religious liberals and conservatives—can be traced to their stances on eugenics and their belief in the social gospel.
During this interwar period in the U.S., Dr. Wilde explains, eugenics had a different focus than did Europe’s largely anti-Semitic eugenics movements in the years before the Holocaust. American groups, she says, “primarily focused on curbing Italian American and Irish American fertility,” as these ethnic groups were not then considered part of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant mainstream. Eugenicists also successfully advocated for and passed involuntary sterilization laws for criminals and the mentally incapacitated in many states. However, once eugenicists suggested sterilization of non-criminals or incapacitated persons, they found their public support dwindling and began to focus on birth control.
The American Eugenics Society, perhaps the biggest organization associated with this movement, spearheaded an active campaign among American religious groups, says Dr. Wilde. “They held competitions for the best sermon on eugenics in 1926, 1928 and 1930; they had a Committee on Cooperation with Clergymen; and they worked to get the support of basically mainline Protestants for two reasons—they knew that those mainline Protestants were WASPs who were threatened by differential fertility and they also were aware that they needed religious support for their movement’s legitimacy.”
Dr. Wilde examined 32 of the largest and most important American religious groups in 1926, which together represented about 90 percent of church members in the U.S. at the time. “I found that half of those groups had strong connections to the American Eugenics Society and/or professed a strong belief and support for eugenic principles in their periodicals,” Dr. Wilde says, “but not all of those who believed in and supported eugenics ended up liberalizing on birth control. For a belief in eugenics to actually result in liberalization, they needed to also believe in the social gospel movement.” This movement, she explains, “believed Jesus would not return to the earth until humans fixed it. So people who believed this [therefore] believed it was their responsibility to eradicate poverty and fix the problems that were within human control.”
Many progressive Protestants fell into this category; most, but not all, also believed in eugenics as a means of reducing poor populations and, with them, social problems. Those who believed in both eugenics and the social gospel were generally the liberalizers on birth control; those who believed solely in eugenics without a commitment to social gospel typically supported birth control reform unofficially, while those who believed in the social gospel but not eugenics remained silent on the issue of birth control. Dr. Wilde found that about a quarter of the denominations—including the Catholic Church—did not believe in eugenics or the social gospel. These groups openly criticized the liberalization of birth control.
“My hunch,” Dr. Wilde says, “is that [some groups] stayed silent [on the issue] largely because they had a sense of alliance with the early liberalizers. They had previously been active with them in causes like abolition and temperance, but they didn’t like eugenics so they decided that if they couldn’t say anything nice, the best recourse was to say nothing at all.” As a result, while a new openness to birth control found its way into many mainline groups, the connection with eugenics was not always overt, and it ultimately faded over time.
Once Dr. Wilde finishes her book on birth control reform within the American religious field, she plans to move on to research on religious responses to abortion, divorce and homosexuality during the 20th century. “Birth control is the beginning of the timeline of issues of sexuality, sex and gender that divided the American religious field,” she says. “I see homosexuality as the other end point. I am trying to get both end points clear before I figure out what happened in the middle. I really want to see what groups switched sides, who has been consistently progressive, who went from being conservative to being progressive, and vice versa.”