Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Modern" American Idols Part II: "Yea I Have a Goodly Heritage"

The quote from the opening title is from Psalm 16, the King James Version. It is also the inscription on a medal from the 1920s, which American families could receive by proving their genetic stock was appropriate for a "Fitter American Family" (if you follow the link, see Fitter Family Contests on the left index). The fascist-realism artwork of the "Fitter American Family" on the medal has to be seen to be believed.

It turns out that a government that is big enough and arrogant enough to tell a business what is "fair" competition or "fair" wages, big enough and arrogant enough to tell railroads where they can allow African Americans to sit, is also big enough and arrogant enough to tell Americans whether or not they will be allowed to retain what Monty Python has called "their naughty bits". Welcome to a part of American history that I had very little realization of until doing research for these posts: the Progressive-Era fascination with eugenics. Who was I to know that my grandparents might have been attending a state fair in Oklahoma trying to win one of those "fitter family" medals. (Clearly, given my height, eyesight, and tendency to bronchitis, giving them a medal would have been a mistake.) And who would have guessed that the social reformers of the Progressive Movement and Social-Gospel Protestantism were right in the thick of all of this.

Just a few months ago, the American Economics Association distributed a commemorative calendar for the 125th anniversary of the AEA. On the inside cover is a profile of Richard T. Ely, one of the founders of the AEA and a prominent economic Progressive and Social-Gospel Christian. You get a tenor of the origins of the AEA when the AEA calendar highlights his quote in the founding report:

"We hold that the doctrine of laissez-faire is unsafe in politics and unsound in morals, and that it suggests an inadequate explanation of the relations between the state and the citizens."

As we will see, the Progressives weren't kidding about not being laissez-faire in the realm of moral "relations between the state and the citizens".

Fast forward to 1995, and the Journal of Economic Perspectives, published by the same AEA, features the article "Eugenics and Economics in the Progressive Era," by Tim Leonard of Princeton University. He details the strong support the eugenics movement received in the Progressive branch of the economics profession, including several AEA Presidents. What I had never seen before was the connection between the Progressive push for minimum wage legislation and eugenic policies. Free-market economists opposed minimum wage legislation because of the reduction in employment it produced among low-skilled workers. According to Leonard (p. 213), Progressive economists supported the minimum wage precisely because it would lead to unemployment among the unskilled: "Columbia's Henry Rogers Seager, a leading progressive economist who served as president of the AEA in 1922, provides an example....'The operation of the minimum wage requirement would merely extend the definition of defectives to embrace all individuals, who even after having received special training, remain incapable of adequate self-support.' Seager (p.10) made clear what should happen to those who, even after remedial training, could not earn the legal minimum: 'If we are to maintain a race that is to be made up of capable, efficient and independent individuals and family groups we must courageously cut off lines of heredity that have been proved to be undesirable by isolation or sterilization....'"

I wonder why they didn't feature Seager's quote on the AEA calendar.

Also, because lobbying for the minimum wage has always been one of the hallmarks of Social Gospel Protestantism, this caused me to wonder what they felt about the eugenics connection. That's when I discovered a book published by Oxford University Press, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement by Christine Rosen (1994). Rosen argues that it was overwhelmingly the liberal, Social Gospel, "modernist" branch of Protestantism that participated in the eugenics movement, while opposition was largely concentrated in the conservative wings of Protestantism, Catholicism, and the Jewish Community. Perhaps the most bizarre event Rosen described was an organized "eugenics sermon contest" sponsored by the American Eugenics Society on Mother's Day (!) 1926 in which hundreds of Protestant ministers from virtually every mainline denomination competed. Rosen quotes what must have been a medal-winning sermon from Rev. Phillips Endecott Osgood [I'm not making that up], rector of the large St. Mark's Episcopal congregation in Minneapolis: " 'We see that the less fit members of society seem to breed and the right types are less prolific,' Osgood preached, but he emphasized that a practical solution to this problem was at hand. 'Taking human nature as it is and not ignoring any legitimate emotion or tendency, eugenics aspires to the refiner's work.'"

One liberal Protestant pastor who was on the Advisory Council of the American Eugenics Society (Rosen, p. 116) was Harry Emerson Fosdick, a "Northern" Baptist pastor active in Presbyterian pulpits and probably America's most outspoken advocate of turning Christianity from a religion of (what modernists would see as) "superstition" into a religion of "progress." Fosdick was also about to launch a civil war in the Presbyterian Church, a war which would eventually be won by the "Modernists," by his sermon "Shall The Fundamentalists Win?" which, I promise, will be the topic of Part III of this series on modernism and rationalism in the church.

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