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Sometimes referred to as “population control,” other times “better breeding,” eugenics has been seen as a religious solution to social ills, and sometimes a new religion unto itself.

Eugenics and Religion: An Introduction

Popularized by British statistician Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911) around 1883 (Trombley 1988; McLaren 2014), eugenics policies and practices use hereditarian principles to eliminate “unfit” humans for the sake of protecting white, upper-middle-class morality (McLaren 1990; Stote 2015, 35). Eugenic teaching and ideologies have been prevalent in various institutional, social, and political settings but under-theorized in the study of religion. As Diane B. Paul, John Stenhouse, and Hamish G. Spencer argue, there is now a need to “return religion to the agenda of eugenics . . . to integrate religion, eugenics, and race with network-oriented imperial histories,” specifically in contexts of Protestant and Catholic understandings of Christianity.

Eugenics has been engaged extensively from political studies, legal studies, and historiographical perspectives that relate closely to many conversations in the realms of reproductive justice and human rights. Religion has been treated mainly as an institution that impacts social mores, legal frameworks, and social structures but not something with direct connections to eugenics. However, a limited collection of secondary literature has emerged, drawing conclusions about the involvement of the Christian church (especially Protestant groups) as promoters of eugenics ideology (Normandin 1998; Durst 2002; Leon 2013; Rosen 2004; Moore 2007; Lombardo 2012; Baker 2014a, 2014b). Our contribution here is to link the evidence of religious actors’ eugenic activity with their political activity, thereby establishing “eugenics” as a keyword for political theology. When eugenics is examined through a socio-historical lens that focuses on the reification of religious ideals through the “church’s” close affiliation with the “state,” eugenics falls within the purview of political theology. 

The task of scholars of political theology and critical theory is to track religion-relevant aspects of eugenics while linking two scales of analysis: 1) the nexus of policies, perspectives, and practices that have informed eugenics movements through an imbrication of the “state” and “church,” and 2) the personal/interpersonal aspects of eugenic pathologization (medicalization, coercive sterilization, etc.), which must be understood in terms of embodied and affective experiences of pain, isolation, and sexuality. In this entry, we survey four theoretical approaches that are useful for doing this work: transnational network theory, biopolitical theory, affect theory, and secularization theory. 

Transnational Networks and Eugenics

Paul, Stenhouse, and Spencer’s insistence on locating eugenics within broader networks of power points to the transnational nature of eugenic practices and ideologies. Challenging commonly held assumptions that World War II and Nazism were hallmarks of eugenic nationalist programs, they reveal that eugenics moved throughout a “highly-interconnected British world” at its outset. Discussions of hereditarian defects began in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Britain and British colonies. Both the acknowledgement of the transnational nature of eugenics and its pre-Nazism naissance require a reassessment of previous socio-historical perspectives on the movement. This shift rests in a recalibration away from vertical networks of power flowing from the British imperial center outwards to the colonial peripheries, toward horizontal models of power that emphasize social and political currency within and across the colonies themselves.

Paul, Stenhouse, and Spencer call for introducing a variant of Network Theory within the study of eugenics, one that recognizes the distinct models of governance in the colonies in terms of race and space. This perspective emphasizes that the project of settler colonialism is a facet of the grander imperial endeavor to acquire power, including two main eugenics-relevant strategies: an active intent to claim resources through the erasure of Indigenous life and the positing of scientific discovery as vital to “progress” and “civilization.” As Donna Haraway writes, “[imperialism] is the silent, if deeply constitutive, axis in Victorian debates on ‘man’s place in nature’” (144).

For British settler colonies, these debates confirmed hereditary power through European bloodlines, and buoyed a celebratory attitude towards expansion. The power to act on “this politics of race” (Gilroy 2003, 7)was conferred earlier by the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of Papal Bulls, or decrees, between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which declared land that was not colonized by Christians as uninhabited. This concept of Terra Nullius justified a legacy of enslavement and assimilation that the colonies continue to grapple with. Religion as an institution thus authorized techniques of racialized governance at the same time as it supplied the cultural logic (European supremacy in the chain of earthly being) and affective motivation (reverence for science) to sustain that governance.

Tracking eugenics as a religiously authorized tool of governance naturally leads into biopolitical questions about identity coding in global “modernity.” 

Eugenics and Biopolitics

“Biopolitics” is often referenced as a backbone to understandings of the weaponization of the body for political means (Foucault 1978; Agamben 1998; Esposito 2008). As such a weaponization, eugenics is of great biopolitical significance. Galton distinguished two streams of eugenic ideology: negative eugenics, relying on the prohibition of reproduction within “undesirable” populations, and positive eugenics, relying on the promotion of reproduction within “superior” populations (Kelves, 1985; Roberts 1997; Stern 2005; Harris-Zsovan 2010; Guenther 2016, 220). In both cases, Françoise Vergés writes, “bodies were used . . . as tools to serve the interests of the state,” relegating reproductive capacities to an exploitable source of both labor and control over perceived societal degeneration. 

If understood from a Foucauldian perspective, (nineteenth century) biopolitics works as a means of guaranteeing state hegemony through heteropatriarchal hierarchization. However, we must add other “assemblages” into our conception of biopolitics to comprehend the reach of eugenical violence, including hierarchies of religion and race. 

Alexander G. Weheliye draws on the work of Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter to understand racialization “as a set of sociopolitical processes of differentiation” (5). Silvia Federici challenges Foucauldian “biopolitics,” arguing that his account relies too heavily on how power is deployed instead of how the power occurred (15) and overlooks a feminist history that predates his narrative. Necropolitics, Achille Mbembe’s notable intervention into the realm of biopolitics, complicates this biopower narrative through his theorization of the “living dead” to analyze the “contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death.” Mbembe’s necropolitics, Weheliye’s emphasis on “assemblages,” and Federici’s feminist critique create access points for a complex analysis of eugenics as a form of political violence that has taken place, in large part, through religious actors and institutions. 

Eugenics gained the attention of religious communities and their leaders in the late nineteenth century and continued to influence them throughout the twentieth century. The “modernizing” or “progressive” sects of Protestantism, Reform Judaism, and liberal Catholicism demonstrated a particular interest in eugenics promotion, application, and debates. These communities emphasized how their theologies authorized eugenic ideologies of human development and moral progress (Normandin 1998; Rosen 2004; Moore 2007; Springer 2012; Baker 2014a, 2014b). Indeed, eugenics has derived its normative force in this regard from religious logics as they intersected with gendered (heteropatriarchal) and racializing (Anglo-Saxon supremacist) logics.

Thus, among the most drastically affected by eugenic systems of power have been racialized communities and women and gender-diverse people, though white cis-hetero men could be deemed unfit based on disability and mental illness. Broadly speaking, Anglo-Saxon-Christian-centric ideals of femininity drive the positive program of eugenics (Green, 1975; Stote 2012, 118-119; Stote 2015, 29; Simpson 2017), while Anglo-Saxon-Christian-centric ideals of stock fitness drive the negative program. In these ways, eugenics exerts a normative force, positioningreproductive morality and responsibility as an “index of society’s strength” (Foucault 1978, 146). In eugenics, gendered manipulation of sexuality and reproduction has been central to the process of establishing what Lisa Guenther terms racialized “stock purity” (220).

Political theology presents a possible milieu through which eugenics can be understood as a web of interrelated pressures to achieve an idealized humanity. Thinking through eugenics as a biopolitical strategy highlights that eugenics is a gendered religio-racial phenomenon for which we need a biopolitical discourse that comprehends the vast array of “assemblages” facilitating political violence against racialized, gendered, and other non-normative bodies. 

Affect Theory and Eugenics

The central role of the body in eugenics demands consideration of the deeply personal and intimate dimensions of dispossession of power and bodily autonomy experienced by non-normative bodies (those falling outside of a white, able, middle-class existence). We should pay attention to physiological and material effects and affects of eugenics on persons who experience this form of violence, but we should also highlight the role of affect in hegemonic structures that conduct eugenic violence.

Sara Ahmed’s understanding of “affective economies” can be used in a political theological study of eugenics. In “affective economies,” specific feelings get “stuck” onto specific circumstances, resulting in the perpetuation of certain feelings that enable constraints for individual and collective action. For example, Ahmed points to “hatred,” where experiences of fear and disgust work on and through the identification of certain bodies as deserving of fear and thus eliciting fear-based physical responses (revulsion, trembling, avoidance). 

When “affective economies” are engaged in the study of eugenics, three things can happen:

1) We can recognize that the colonizing, civilizing, Christianizing, and other religious, cultural, social, and political projects described in the previous two sections constitute not only a transnational biopolitical arrangement but an affective economy fuelling eugenic identification of specific bodies as deserving retribution and “correction” (Mahmood 2005, 2009; Schaefer 2015, 2019). To the extent that this affective economy still has any currency, so, potentially, do eugenic ideologies, policies, and practices.

2) The eugenic association of emotion and feeling with “primitiveness” can be understood as a complex aspect of Western structures’ discouragement of analysis of the emotional and bodily experiences of persons targeted by eugenics. The eugenic affective economy is ordered by a hierarchy of knowledge and power that disavows its own emotionality, while associating emotion with the “primitive past” (Ahmed 2015, 3) of colonized Indigenous and racialized people, as well as women’s closer-to-nature “primitivity.”

3) The type of religion that authorizes various eugenical forms is clearly one that associates itself with a forward-looking, scientifically consilient trajectory of religious change.

Following this third point, we must therefore also attend to a complexly intertwined and influential source of political ethics and affects in eugenics: secularization.

Secularization and Eugenics

Permutations of the secular are an important facet of eugenics to be explored in light of critical theory and political theology. Eugenics coincides with the shift marked in Talal Asad’s (2003) understanding of secularity: a changing vernacular surrounding scientific discovery coincided with the scientist-as-expert, where faith and belief remained but were redirected toward the tenets of evolutionary theory. As John Hedley Brooke shows, there was thus no hard “break” in religion with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. At the time of its publication, James Haag, Gregory Peterson, and Michael Spezio write, “science was becoming increasingly professionalized and, in order to raise the status of science,” a certain kind of “religion . . . was being repudiated” in favor of another (25).

Galton himself desired for eugenics to become a “secular religion” “introduced into the national conscience” (emphasis ours; quoted in Rosen 2004, 6). In fact, Galton (1907) saw “no impossibility in Eugenics becoming a religious dogma among mankind” (quoted in Trombley 1988, 31). His follower, George Bernard Shaw (1905), founder of the British Fabian society, further articulated eugenics’ soteriological function through religio-biological means: “There is no reasonable excuse for refusing . . . the fact that nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilization from the fate that has overtaken all previous civilizations” (quoted in Trombley 1988, 32).

Christine Rosen writes that these eugenicists’ impulses required “preachers . . . to convince their flocks that they could still offer effective solutions to social problems while also continuing their more traditional spiritual ministries,” and they succeeded for a time (13). Then, as now, thinking about eugenics raises questions of contested moral governance: who benefits and who is harmed by population-level incentives and interventions around reproduction and health as well as family structure? Thus, considering eugenics in light of processes of religious change (weak secularization), conditions of secularity and ideologies of secularism are vital to grasp the extent to which the movement infiltrated, and benefited from, social and political systems of power.

Concluding Thoughts

The tangible affiliation of “religion”—especially the Protestant Christian variety—with eugenic ideology and popularization can be felt through the movement’s transnational networks of governance and knowledge exchange. Its effects are inextricable from processes of religious change in these networks, including shifting relationships between “church” and “state.” When we put the “religious” dimensions of the eugenics movement into conversation with the critical theoretical lenses of transnational network theory, biopolitics, affect, and secularization theory, eugenics emerges as a meaningful and under-researched force of political theology.

Annotated Bibliography:

Augustine, Sarah. 2021. The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery. MennoMedia. 

Augustine (Pueblo) provides a current discussion of the lasting impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery, engaging in a re-framing of North American colonization that emphasizes the devastation of Indigenous cultures, land, and sovereignty. Augustine explores how the Doctrine of Discovery, through biblical authority, scripture, and law, has contributed to the systemic assimilation, and in some contexts annihilation, of Indigenous peoples in North America. 

Galton, Francis. 1892 reprint (1869). Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences. London, UK: Macmillan. 

Although Galton’s work in and of itself retains distasteful, disproven, and destructive content, it cannot be ignored as an inaugural work within the eugenics movement that demands critical study. Galton’s writing is considered to have inspired most, if not all, conceptions of eugenics in a “Western” context.

Paul, Diane B., Stenhouse, John, and Hamish G. Spencer. 2018. Eugenics at the Edges of  Empire: New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and South Africa. Palgrave Macmillan. Kindle

Paul, Stenhouse, and Spencer’s anthology developed from a 2015 conference, “Eugenics in the British Colonial Context,” at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Contributors consider the historical and lasting impacts of eugenic thinking throughout many corners of the British colonized world.

Rosen, Christine. 2004. Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement. Oxford Scholarship Online. 

Focusing specifically on the early twentieth century, Rosen approaches eugenics through a religious lens. Rosen emphasizes that influential social arguments promoted and preached by eugenicists have been informed not only through political, legal, and scientific means but also through concerns for social morality and cohesion that have been taken up in religious contexts.

Stote, Karen. 2015. An Act of Genocide: Colonization and the Sterilization of Aboriginal Women. Black Point, NS and Winnipeg, MB: Fernwood Publishing.  

Karen Stote addresses the underrepresentation and undermining of Indigenous women’s reproductive health within larger frameworks of reproductive medical history and justice. Stote’s work challenges a compartmental approach to understanding the continuing history of coercive sterilization policies and practices in so-called Canada, instead asserting that coercive sterilization processes are inherent to the larger settler colonial project. Through eugenic policies and practices, the “Canadian” government enacted (and continues to enact) genocide against Indigenous women’s bodies, achieved through a web of reproductive controls and obstetric violence.


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