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Journal of Religion and Violence

Volume 2, Issue 2, 2014

Invoking Religion in Violent Acts and Rhetoric

Leif C. Tornquist
Pages 308-332
DOI: 10.5840/jrv2014224

'This Mighty Struggle for Life': Modernist Protestant Ministers, Biopolitical Violence, and Negative Eugenics in the 1920s United States

Over sixty thousand Americans were sterilized in states that enacted sterilization laws during the first four decades of the twentieth century. American eugenicists supported these laws as part of a negative eugenics crusade to purify the white racial body. Many modernist Protestant ministers also publicly advocated these laws, endorsing them as an effective means for eliminating white degeneracy, enhancing the presence of God in the life of the race, and advancing God’s kingdom on earth. Drawing from pro-eugenic sermons and other writings by modernist ministers, this essay explores the role that modernist Protestantism played in publicly sanctifying the biopolitical violence of sterilization and in shaping a popular religious discourse that bolstered negative eugenic initiatives. The first section of the essay broadly contextualizes modernist Protestantism as an evolutionary discourse of Christian civilization. The second sketches the development of modernist evolutionary theologies during the nineteenth century. The third focuses on Protestant ministerial support for negative eugenics during the 1920s, demonstrating how modernists popularized sterilization as part of an evolutionary struggle against degeneracy and for the kingdom of God. The essay concludes by arguing that modernist Protestantism was an important religious discourse through which negative eugenic thought and practice found popular expression.

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