Thursday, February 07, 2008

Progress and Reproduction

~from First Things, a look at the book Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction
Early twentieth-century images of a better, more progressive family were hammered out against the backdrop of worse, poorly planned, usually nonwhite poor families. The unspoken implication: Fail to space your children properly and become white trash, to be pitied in coffee-table reading all over America. No mother should be subject to the sort of pressure that comes from the relentless drive for effortless perfection in the nuclear family. Indeed, none can be. “It takes a village to raise a child,” one senior academic jokes here. “And I’ve hired a village.”

Hall presses further to argue that the success of eugenics (later renamed genomics) in the United States prior to World War II was largely due to the blessing pronounced on it by mainline Protestant Christians. She makes this argument with the religious equivalent of Parents and National Geographic: the Methodist-run Together: A Midmonth Magazine for Methodist Families. Its depiction of bright-eyed carefully spaced families of four or five (not more!) in its annual “Methodist Family of the Year” contest demonstrate what a bishop called the “religious obligation” of “proper spacing of children.” In retrospect, this looks not a little like the American Eugenics’ Society’s Fitter Family contests. Hall laments, “My own church has been responsible for baptizing the divide between children perceived as chosen and children perceived as just occurring through default.” Mainliners’ eager embrace of eugenics came from their desire to offer a “truly relevant theology” and to “distinguish themselves from the ‘backward’ Christian creationists.” Hall’s judgment is unrelenting on this point: “These preachers attained their sophistication at the expense of the vulnerable. They leveraged the lives of others to establish their own strength.”

Hall’s book stands as an open question to her and my Methodist colleagues, who champion the language of “responsible” and “planned” parenthood still. Will we similarly leverage fidelity to the gospel for relevance? When scientists openly opine that a future is coming in which it will be a “sin of parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease,” will we stand idly by again—or even bless the new revolution as it sends new victims to the gallows? And just when we think we’re getting comfortable with her condemnations of the politics of death, Hall reminds us that her economic vision is bracingly nonprogressive: “Protestant millionaires [supported] the eugenics movement but [did not] rethink significantly the patently exploitative labor Methodist by which they made their wealth.” The drive for economic progress and standing in the middle class can be death-dealing, as vignettes told here of abortions sought to maintain upscale lifestyles make clear.

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