Why do views of contraception continue to divide American religion? My book, Birth Control Battles demonstrates that the answer to this question is not what anyone would expect. Rather than being a result of varying views of women or feminism, education or even politics, Birth Control Battles demonstrates that racialized concerns about fertility determined which groups first supported birth control nearly 100 years ago and continued to do so well into the second half of the Twentieth Century.
Listen to Wilde discuss Birth Control Battles on these podcasts:
The key moment began circa 1930, when American religious groups were first riven by an issue of sex and gender. The issue was one that continues to create controversy to this day: birth control. Back then, however, the debate was not about women’s rights, privacy, or even the proper role of sex (in marriage, or society). Instead, the debates about birth control focused on the future of “our race,” and on the implications of Catholic and Jewish immigrants’ greater fecundity vis a vis White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestants – a situation that was often referred to as “race suicide.”
The suicide part of “race suicide” was intentional. The term was promoted by eugenicists who wanted to emphasize that White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestants were voluntarily allowing themselves to be outbred. By the mid-1920s, almost half of America’s most prominent religious denominations professed support for the white supremacist principals of the eugenics movement and deep concern about race suicide. Between 1929 and 1931, nine of them rather suddenly began proclaiming that birth control, rather than being a sin as was commonly and, until very recently, understood, was actually a duty (for less desirable groups).
This first wave of reform was the focus of my article with Sabrina Danielsen, “Fewer and Better Children: Race, Class, Religion and Birth Control Reform in America” (American Journal of Sociology, 2014). “Fewer and Better Children” won three national awards: two from the American Sociological Association – the Charles Tilly Best Article Award from the Section on Comparative and Historical Sociology and the Distinguished Article Award from the Section on the Sociology of Religion as well as the Distinguished Article Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Another article about this first period of reform, which is currently in progress, explores the importance of the other key factor, besides a belief in race suicide, which determined which groups ultimately supported birth control reform and which did not. That factor was the social gospel movement. In a paper titled, “Who were the Social Gospelers? Race, Class and Religion on the Eve of the Depression,” Tessa Huttenlocher (a graduate student in Sociology) and I engage the literature on religious social movements to explore the factors that predicted which religious groups believed in the social gospel movement and which did not. We find that social gospelers tended to be both more urban and more economically privileged than the groups that were less supportive of the movement.
Birth Control Battles, expands on the necessarily truncated story told in these articles in both greater depth, and over a much longer period of time. In doing so, it demonstrates that groups’ early stances on birth control had long lasting and largely unacknowledged consequences. Both the book and a related paper that I coauthored with Kajaiyaiu Hopkins (a Penn undergraduate and sociology major) “From Eugenicists to Family Planners: America’s Most Prominent Religious Birth Control Advocates.” (2018, Family Planning. Edited by Zouhair Amarin) demonstrates that the groups that liberalized on contraception in the 1930s continued to promote birth control well into the 1960s.
Over time, America’s religious promoters of contraception moved from a concern about Catholic and Jewish immigrant fertility to a focus on the poor in the Third World and Blacks in inner cities. Eventually, debates about contraception no longer hinged (openly) on concerns about other peoples’ fertility. But, by this time, groups’ identities as sexual progressives or conservatives had crystalized, and most, especially progressives, had forgotten the reasons behind their initial stances – much less how those reasons ultimately shaped their take on issues of sex and gender today.
In the end, the story of America’s religious Birth Control Battles is a story of how America’s religious groups’ varied beliefs about race, class, capitalism, America, manifest destiny, and yes, fertility, especially whose was desirable and whose was not, ultimately shaped the divisions we take for granted today. In telling this story, Birth Control Battles establishes that while many have assumed that openness to contraception is but a part of being a religious progressive – the reverse is actually true. Groups were moved to liberalize on contraception because of their racial and class positions. Although, certainly, some of the groups that liberalized early on birth control were already progressive, others were not.
This fact is explored in greater detail in a paper (coauthored with Hajer Al-Faham, a graduate student in Political Science) titled “Believing in Women?” (Religions). It examines America’s most progressive religious groups’ views of women between the first and second waves of the feminist movement (1929-1965) – a time of relative quiescence regarding women’s rights. We find that some groups do indeed have a history of outspoken support for women’s equality. However, we also find that other prominent progressive were virtually silent on the issue of women’s rights. Thus, we conclude that birth control activism within the American religious field was not clearly correlated with an overall feminist orientation.
Everything from census and archival data, to more than 10,000 articles, statements, sermons and treatises from more than 70 secular and religious periodicals (gathered with the help of more than 60 research assistants over the years) ultimately form the data used in Birth Control Battles and my related projects. With a sample that includes groups ranging from Mormons to Methodists, from Southern Baptists to Seventh Day Adventists to the Society of Friends, from Reform Jews to the Reformed Church in America, to historically Black groups like the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and every major denomination in between, Birth Control Battles tells a story like none other.