Birth Control Battles

How Race and Class Divided American Religion

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Melissa J. Wilde
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , December
     2019.
     280 pages.
     $85.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780520303218.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The intersection of religion and birth control would not itself be surprising to historians of 20th-century Catholicism, for example, for whom Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae is a central text, or to legal scholars following the Court’s free exercise jurisprudence and the lively debates since the 1990s over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, of which 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. decision is a significant chapter. What may be surprising, though, to readers of Melissa J. Wilde’s superb book, Birth Control Battles: How Race and Class Divided American Religion, is not just how deep this history runs through the more familiar categories of analysis of sex and gender but rather how deeply intertwined it is with class and race developments from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Wilde argues that, from the 1920s to the 1960s, various religious groups’ positions on the legality and desirability of the use of birth control was not strictly about their views on gender equality and women’s reproductive rights, but was more deeply connected to two other factors: first, the depth of their support for a white supremacist notion of race suicide in the face of increasingly diverse immigration before the 1920s, and second, the degree to which they participated actively in the social gospel movement. The author uses the concept of “complex religion”—that is, the idea that “inequality is complex and constituted via many social structures” (3)—to draw attention to how religious organizations’ perceptions of race and social class influenced their positions on birth control and to demonstrate how religion has often been neglected as a category of analysis alongside the more familiar categories of class, gender, race, and sex. Wilde argues convincingly that race and religion were mutually constitutive in early to mid-20th-century debates over birth control policy and that birth control was rendered a “racial project” in the hands of those the author describes as the earliest liberalizers on the issue (5).

Birth Control Battles is a model of historical sociology that should appeal to audiences from both constituent fields. Wilde begins the book’s substantive analysis in 1926, a sensible choice since this year served, as many religious studies scholars will likely know, as one of the final times that the US Census Bureau collected extensive data on American religious groups. Blending expert use of Census data with her creation of an exceptionally deep, broad, and rich database of religious opinion on birth control over several decades, drawn from thousands of periodical articles produced by over thirty denominations, Wilde is able to analyze mainstream pronouncements on birth control representing four major categories among these religious communities: early liberalizers, unofficial supporters, critics, and those officially silent on the subject.

The author presents a compelling case for the insufficiency of theological modernism in explaining early support by a denomination for the legality of birth control. At the same time, anti-immigrant sentiment and belief in Anglo-Saxon racial superiority were also not by themselves enough to explain which groups supported birth control most strongly. Wilde demonstrates convincingly that it is only when scholars account for both a group’s belief in an impending racial degradation of the American nation and its support for the social gospel that seemingly unusual interdenominational and interreligious alliances on the birth control question make sense. Belief in an impending racial degradation was driven, in these denominations’ view, by the continuing immigration of allegedly inferior Catholics and Jews to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and by their geographical proximity to immigrant communities. This intersection of support for eugenics and race-based immigration restriction with a strong pattern of social activism is what allowed Episcopalianism, Methodism, Reform Judaism, and the Society of Friends to emerge as early liberalizers on birth control, and it also made it possible for Catholicism, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Orthodox Judaism, and the Southern Baptist Convention to array themselves on the opposing side. Many other groups that stayed silent on the debate before mid-century may have supported the social gospel but were distinctly uncomfortable with or staunchly opposed to the sort of eugenicist, racist thought animating many of the liberalizers’ pronouncements in favor of forced sterilization for those they deemed inferior and undesirable.

In the second half of the 20th century, Wilde explains, the openly eugenicist language of early birth control liberalizers became untenable after World War II. This rationale for birth control was replaced by support for family planning and responsible parenthood, influenced by growing concern over overpopulation. The author points out, though, that there was still an underlying racism and classism supporting this shift toward population concerns, with both early and later liberalizers on birth control moving their emphasis away from immigrants and instead toward those living in developing countries and Black people in American cities. Wilde argues perceptively that in the 1960s, religious birth control advocates “promoted contraception out of a concern about other people’s fertility” (194). They were not demanding birth control for their own denominations but were instead campaigning for increasing contraception for those living in poverty both inside and outside the United States. The urban poor became the objects of religious reform rather than active subjects in the course of their own lives.

After the introduction of the birth control pill, more American religious groups began publicly supporting contraceptive use among their own members. The latest liberalizers on birth control were less likely to support population control than were the earliest liberalizers and instead “emphasized that economic growth, not access to contraception, seemed to be a more effective form of birth control,” providing evidence for continuing divisions between birth control supporters over the social control that may have inhered in a focus on the parenting practices of those afflicted by poverty (202).

Wilde’s Birth Control Battles is a thoroughly enlightening and impressively researched book that sheds important light on the historical debates over contraception between a large array of American religious groups and on the development of these same groups’ intersectional social identities in the mid-20th century. Her monograph is a landmark contribution to scholarship on modern American religion and politics with a critically important perspective on the roots of contemporary and ongoing debates over reproductive rights, religious freedom, and privacy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William S. Cossen is a faculty member at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology in Lawrenceville, Ga.

Date of Review: 
January 12, 2022
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Melissa J. Wilde is a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

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