Melissa Wilde on “Birth Control Battles: How Race and Class Divided American Religion”

By: Katarina Huss

As the US approaches the 2020 presidential election and the Senate clashes over a new Supreme Court appointment, issues of reproductive justice are vitally important to US politics. Political conversations about reproductive rights are greatly influenced by religion, and religion seemingly has come to define conservative and progressive groups. However, even within religion, conservative and progressive religious groups are divided on issues of sex, gender, and reproductive rights. For religious groups that are progressive on issues related to reproductive justice, what does it mean to be progressive in conservative spaces? When and why did religious groups in America become divided on reproductive justice?

On October 1, Dr. Melissa Wilde, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, posed these questions during her presentation for the UT Austin Department of Sociology’s Colloquium Series. During the colloquium, Dr. Wilde presented findings from her recently published book “Birth Control Battles: How Race and Class Divided American Religion.” The book examines the history of American religious liberalization on contraception in the 1930s and the effects of this liberalization. Through this research, Wilde demonstrates that despite the modern centering of women’s rights in the reproductive rights conversation, religious groups’ support for contraception was historically linked to white supremeist views on race and immigration. Wilde uses this research to urge sociologists to consider religion alongside inequality and social structures, a concept Wilde terms complex religion.

Below are a few takeaways from Dr. Wilde’s presentation:

1. Early religious liberalization on contraception was linked to religious group support for eugenics, fear of race suicide, and belief in the social gospel movement. Wilde studied 31 religious groups that composed 90% of American religious membership in the 1920s and found that nine religious groups broke from the existing religious consensus on contraception and liberalized their stance between 1929 and 1931. The liberalized groups did not have the highest birth rate nor was their memberships’ use of contraceptives a major religious concern prior to this moment. Half of the groups that liberalized were not feminist and not all of the progressive religious groups of the time period liberalized.

Through extensive archival research, Wilde found that the nine religious groups chose to liberalize due to racialized concerns. At the time of liberalization, there was a large birth rate differential between native white women and immigrant women, specifically Catholic and Jewish women. While many religious groups were concerned about the birth rate differential and race in America, Wilde argues the nine early liberalizers all supported eugenics, feared race suicide, and believed in the social gospel movement. The combination of all three elements explains why only the nine groups were part of early liberalization.

Wilde explains that at the time of liberalization, the American Eugenics Society promoted the idea that Americans could “engineer” a better race by encouraging desirable parents to have children and discouraging undesirables from having children. Eugenicist groups in America were pursuing policy that forced involuntary sterilization of Catholic women as a strategy to limit Catholic births. The eugenicists soon realized they could not get the legislation to sterilize every Catholic woman. Eugenicists turned to contraception as a way of discouraging “undesirable” women from having more children.

Supporting eugenics alone was not enough to prompt religious groups to change their stance on contraception. In addition to eugenics, some religious groups feared that native white women were not having enough children to support their population, thus creating race suicide. Wilde found documents stating that “every marriage must have a minimum of three children to fulfill social obligation to maintain the population.” Among groups that believed in both race suicide and eugenics, liberalization on contraception seemed to be a way to limit birth for some women rather than convincing congregations to have more children. In addition to eugenics and race suicide, the religious groups that were early liberalizers also believed in the social gospel movement. This movement, broadly, believed it was the duty of all Christians to decrease class inequality. Gospelers saw contraceptives as a way to alleviate poverty for poor immigrants. The theory easily merged with ideas about eugenics and race suicide.

Based on this understanding, Wilde broadly sorted religious groups during the time of early liberalization into four categories: early liberalizers, silent supporters, critics, and the silent, based on their belief in eugenics, race suicide, and the social gospel movement. Early liberalizers, the nine that liberalized by 1931, all supported eugenics, feared race suicide, and believed in social gospel. These beliefs explain why the groups would choose to liberalize on contraceptives. Wilde classifies religious groups that believed in the social gospel movement but did not fear race suicide as silent supporters of liberalization. These groups never officially liberalized but supported the decision. Religious groups that did not believe in the social gospel and did not fear race suicide were critics of liberalization. Finally, religious groups that did not fear race suicide, but believed in the social gospel movement were silent. These groups were reluctant to identify the racism implicit in the social gospel movement.

Wilde’s findings show how religion is historically connected to issues of race and class in America so profoundly that the history of contraceptive liberalization is explained by eugenics, race suicide, and the social gospel movement, all of which are racialized perspectives on society.

2. Later religious group liberalization on contraception was still informed by racialized beliefs, but the early liberalizers are distinct from later liberalizing groups. After World War II, there was less conversation around liberalizing contraception in religious groups and a shift away from eugenics. Some other religious groups that did not liberalize maintained that it was not their place as religious institutions to endorse or recommend contraceptives. Wilde found that religious groups that chose to liberalize on contraception after WWII, especially in the 1960s, were still informed by racialized ideas about demographics. However, these religious groups were more concerned about population explosion outside of the US. The groups focused on the necessity for contraception in “third world” countries. This further supports Wilde’s claims about religion and race and class in America, but there is also a difference, even in modern politics between these later liberalizers and the nine early liberalizers. There is a lasting legacy for early liberalizers in the U.S. The early liberalizers and their unofficial supporters, as classified by Wilde’s research, are the religious progressives of modern politics. Wilde states that the United Church of Christ, for example, advocates for contraception as a right and has been advocating for contraception in the U.S. for nearly a century. It is significant that these groups remain the seeming progressive religious groups in conservative spaces on topics of sex, gender, and reproductive rights. It is also important that while we understand them as progressive, there is a history of these progressive religious groups that is not about women’s rights or justice.

3. Religion should not be taken for granted as a social fact. Rather, sociologists must recognize the ways religion is linked to race and class.
Wilde’s book and other research makes an important contribution to the field of sociology. Wilde argues, as a sociologist of religion, that religion has been taken for granted as a social fact and sociologists have misunderstood how it still intersects with class and religion. Wilde’s research suggests that complex religion reveals the effects of religion on sex, gender, and politics. Complex religion recognizes the way that religious institutions are intertwined with inequality and intersect with social structures of race and class. As Wilde’s research exemplifies, religion is historically linked to whiteness and class in America and remains highly segregated. She argues that religion can be used as proxy for class in America, and in different historical contexts religion can be either whitening or darkening for religious and ethnic groups in America. She argues that the importance of her research is in how it theoretically highlights an understanding of religion as it intersects with class and race in ways that are important to modern politics. The research does not necessarily map onto all modern religious debates about reproductive rights and religion, but it should exemplify the important role that religion still plays in the US and how religion is connected to other issues in society.

Katarina Huss is a graduate student in the UT Austin Sociology Department

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