Are Evangelicalism’s Theological Beliefs Coherent with the Eugenic Philosophy that Lent Support to Mass Incarceration?

Jason S. Sexton
Tuesday 5 July 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Mass incarceration arose as a late twentieth-century cultural phenomenon in the West, most prominently in the United States, where more people were becoming imprisoned at higher rates than ever before in the history of civilization, with black, brown, and poor people bearing the brunt of the burden (Hernández, Muhammad, and Thompson 2015). This happened at the same time that Evangelicalism was rising to great prominence in light of post-WWII American affluence (Stanley 2013), with Evangelicals and prominent Evangelical leaders also significantly engaged in prison work, or prison ministry (Griffith 2020). Recent legal scholarship has argued that mass incarceration can be directly linked to forms of eugenic thinking appearing in American law and policy from the country’s founding to the present (Appleman 2018; Simon 2020). But was this eugenic thinking also operative within Evangelicalism and supported by its particular theological beliefs in ways that led them to offer support for the racist mass incarceration building project with their own particular brand of eugenic thinking?

This puzzle addresses its question by first explaining what eugenics is, and then by presenting three particular sets of belief systems strongly operative within post-WWII Evangelicalism—the ideologies of Individualism, Dispensationalism, and Covenant Theology—and what each of these systems of thinking entails with relevance to eugenic thinking. The discussion section then explains the nature of eugenic philosophy as it continued covertly after eugenics per se became unpopular in the post-WWII era. Additionally, for focus on particular exemplars within this moment of North American Evangelicalism, especially important for their active involvement in prison work and ministry, the discussion highlights the theologies of both Billy Graham and Chuck Colson and their various assumptions.  

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Eugenics

Eugenics is pseudoscience. It is part of a historical and ongoing phenomenon in the history of scientific genetic research, law, and policy, as well as part of a racist worldview when applied to human beings.

Designated both in terms of so-called “positive” and “negative” eugenics practices, the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century eugenics movement can be defined in its historical context as “an international effort to use science and medicine to justify limiting the reproduction—and existence—of individuals deemed to be of an inferior racial stock while promoting the reproduction of those thought to be racially superior” (Obasogie 2014). After the Nazis adopted eugenics for their ends, the post-WWII Nuremberg trials precipitated the rejection of scientific knowledge gained through violent experiments on humans, which also meant a large rejection of eugenics practices. Following two UNESCO statements on race in 1950 and 1951, both social and natural scientists broadly agreed that theories about hereditary differences between “races” that animated Nazi ideology were untenable and based on faulty science.[1]

Yet eugenics did not entirely go away, most clearly seen in ongoing genetic research on non-human living things. It endured, quietly performed in academic research under the guise of different terms, and yet also continued on humans with covert governmental institutional practices (e.g. the sterilization of women prisoners), and perhaps most notably in the popular public imagination, which some scholars believe has played “a major role in maintaining the myth of innate racial differences” (Fuentes 2012, 109). To understand how these practices proceeded, the notions of positive and negative eugenics remains useful, although conventional. Initially drawing from Francis Galton, positive eugenics was understood as that which would increase the proportion of individuals with desirable traits and characteristics, while negative eugenics was seen as that which would decrease the presence of those with undesirable traits and characteristics. This resulted, positively, in the active social and genetic engineering practices intended to improve individuals and society. Negatively, this led to social engineering practices intended to eliminate what is detrimental within humans and their gene pool.

2.2 Late Twentieth-Century Evangelical Theological Beliefs

2.2.1 Evangelical Individualism

A transdenominational movement working within and alongside different Christian groups with often conflicting and contrasting ecclesiologies, Evangelicalism developed while its inherited theologies morphed and hybridized as their ecclesiology took a back seat to other priorities. This led one theologian to conclude that Evangelicals “have never developed or worked from a thoroughgoing ecclesiology” (Grenz 2002, 22). As such, the lack of a substantial ecclesiology meant a thin tradition to work from, giving way to an individualism that supplants more collective considerations. Yet it is within ecclesial space that persons stand as “called out” participants in the life of a community of redeemed and transformed individuals. With a quasi-decisionalism, those who have repented and believed thereby demonstrate —even on some accounts through the power of a transformed individual constitution (see 2 Corinthians 5:17) that goes straight down to the molecular and genetic levels[2]— what can happen through the strong action of personal repentance and faith that accompanies conversion. These attitudes were exemplified in the harsh sense in the preeminent figure of the movement Billy Graham (1918-2018), whose ministry presented a tough preaching not only of the law, accompanied by law-and-order rhetoric, but also of the gospel—for conversion (Griffith 2020).

This Evangelical individualism often shows little regard for communal life and formation, personal and corporate accountability, and collective social responsibility. It often prevents acknowledgment of systemic and structural ills. In particular, the problems with American society are seen as caused by individuals, but not by otherwise by imbalanced systemic structures (like racism), but rather by lacking education and financial advantage of particular individuals, and further failing to acknowledge how these systems (education, finance) were also infected by systemic racism. Prominent Evangelical leader and founder of Prison Fellowship, Chuck Colson (1931-2012), held this view, and aimed to address “crime” in the lives of individuals in order to work for a restored social order. Colson believed the issues of crime in American cities were “less structural and institutional than behavioral” (Griffith 2020, 209). In his view, systemic historical issues did not need to be addressed, even while new potential challenges to the current system should be, thus maintaining a priority and affirmation of the status quo, and focusing on individuals within the current system, which in the case of modern America means the status quo of white supremacy (Jones 2020).

2.2.2 Dispensationalism and Supersessionism

Evangelicals in North America found support for maintaining white superiority through their respective theologies and largely supersessionistic ideologies, affirming that non-Jewish Gentile believers replaced or superseded the Hebrew people in the first century at the coming of Jesus Christ. One of these sets of theological ideologies, Dispensationalism, developed this especially well in the twentieth-century, with its elaborate economic reframing of events and peoples throughout history. As much as anything, Dispensationalism is a view of history that became a populist sensationalist theology—largely neither that of the expert nor a professional theology but rather a lay-theology—helping to exacerbate divisions between science and faith, addressing and incorporating the knowledge of the debunked eugenics science on the basis of a relatively coherent, authoritative and fundamentalist “biblical view” of things, such as with the difference between races as having a biblical basis.

Proceeding with this conceptual basis of the Bible-as-authority meant that its theology surpasses science by order of priority, and consequently there is then little need for examining empirical evidence or accounting for methods since the system of Dispensationalism already provided a hermeneutic reflecting what “the Bible says,” a phrase frequently used in Billy Graham’s popular evangelistic preaching. The populist mentality, however, created an ongoing and increased cognitive dissonance between Dispensationalists and their understanding of the natural world, breeding an anti-intellectualism and a reductionist America-first politics. But by pointing to the institutions they built, Dispensationalists were able to continue to legitimize their views, and the theology underpinning them that in turn rubber-stamped their ethics, flowing from the contemporary culture, and including the eugenic thinking that their system of theology supported.

2.2.3 Covenant Theology and the Elect

The more decidedly Calvinistic brand of Evangelicals maintain a form of what has been called covenant theology for their theological system (see Horton 2006). This system identifies special salvific blessings reserved only for “the elect” or “covenant” people, including the covenant family. This is the locus where divine favor flows at the will of sovereign grace allotted especially for the chosen. As such, this understanding maintains the status of the covenant family as Israel in a divinely-chosen and spiritual sense. The collective blessing includes the chosen children of believers who become holy through the principle of covenant succession, commemorated in infant baptism (Horton 2011). The notion of the covenant family, then, serves as conceptual ground for a kind of negative eugenic logic by default, because the particular kind of redemptive blessings are reserved only for the elect, and not for those outside the chosen covenant family, the unredeemable destined to bear only the curse and judgment.

This penal anthropological outlook coincides with a strong traditional eschatological doctrine of eternal conscious punishment, which seems not only necessary for developing the kind of punitive apparatus that the United States created with mass incarceration, but also limits redemptive and transformative possibilities for the non-elect or, put crudely, the losers (Ferguson 2014, 112). These will go to a place where they will receive, what David Bentley Hart terms the measured “cruelty of which our own imaginations are capable” (Hart 2020). Thus punishment rendered for crimes committed against the chosen—by those apparently not chosen—are especially fitting amid the kinds of cultural conditions that nurtured America’s ongoing eugenic logic, reenforced by and reciprocally also reenforcing particular theologies at work.[3]

3. Discussion

The emphases inherent to the ongoing eugenic thinking that flowed from the eugenics movement appear to be largely present within the emphases operative in Evangelicalism, as described above. As eugenic thinking has continued to be expressed in attitudes in law and culture more widely, it appears that Evangelicals have also contributed to this thinking with their similar and shared sets of cultural assumptions. That theological emphases and modes of theological reasoning yielded outlooks that reenforced, or perhaps even helped give rise to, this mentality can help bring some clarity to the present situation.

The punitive apparatus of the modern prison, and the criminal justice system more widely, is an example of the inextricability of church and state, the religious and secular (Sullivan 2009; Dubler and Lloyd 2020), which may mean that religion and theology may be more responsible for mass incarceration than previously understood. A modest conclusion about the matter might be that American Evangelicals inherited the baton of post war American populist religion, and together with it they also inherited the ubiquitous eugenic logic present before eugenics became unpopular after WWII. This may explain why, when it came to discussions of eugenics, although displaying earlier racist sentiments in some of his work with Prison Fellowship (Griffith 2020, 254-56), in his engagement with culture Chuck Colson would later direct his attention to positive eugenics (with practices he deemed posing a potential threat to society) rather than mass incarceration as a eugenic practice (which had already created a real societal threat). Accordingly, he displayed cognitive dissonance on the matter, with no substantial critique of the prison, which was consistent with Evangelicalism’s attitude as reflected in Billy Graham’s punitive and penal outlook.

What this further highlights is the rationale behind Evangelicals’ sentiment for punition, including their support for policing practices like the “broken windows” theory (i.e. state policing should target places already showing evidence of disrepair) for addressing community disorder, which Colson favored. The state, then, ought to deal with the “criminals,” miscreants, and the irredeemable, which Colson saw as largely encased in a flawed worldview. His remedy for this societal problem is not the gospel, however, but state policing and social control. He moreover viewed individual improvement coming about through moral decisions buoyed by state action. The lack of coherence in his view comes across further in his coauthored book, How Now Shall We Live?, wherein while addressing the matter of worldview he raises the question of whether science (and, presumably, Darwin) can save us. Taking this as “nothing less than a vision of redemption, a surrogate salvation, a substitute for the kingdom of God, setting up science as the path to utopia,” Colson detects a lurking Mendelian scientific utopianism with its aim of “creating a new and improved race” (Colson and Pearcey 1999, 246-47).

In his discussion of genetics and human aspirational progress Colson never directly mentions eugenics (he was, incidentally, born two years before Hitler rose to power), and yet critiques with great alacrity the social and genetic engineering possibilities that can be called positive eugenics. Colson’s perception of the attempt to improve or remake human nature genetically through genetic research, and genetic engineering and altering, he claims, “would strip people of their dignity and reduce them to commodities.” For Colson, the issue was about human dignity and the fear that both improvement or degeneration—both good or evil—could equally emerge from these efforts advanced by anthropocentric science. In semi-Augustinian fashion, he concludes: “The faith that we can save ourselves through science can be sustained only if we shut our eyes to the human capacity for barbarism” (Colson and Pearcey 1999, 248). And yet, the reckoning with the eugenic logic already at work in the modern prison, or against the poor, disabled, and people of color, is never explicitly part of his concern. He chooses, instead, to ignore the wider culture’s negative eugenic logic and instead focus on individual morality that can be improved in no way through modern “scientific optimism” but rather through “a change of heart” (Colson and Pearcey 1999, 250) that comes about through individual moral choice abetted by the state’s punitive social structures.

This is not a new idea, and Colson is not alone among religiously affiliated people and especially fundamentalists who possess higher punitiveness based on their perceptions of crime’s cause and its prevalence (Seto and Said 2020). But that Colson can take such a position as detailed above highlights an important omission. His effort at rejecting positive eugenics begs the question since it suggests that theology—or rather theological conceptual tools at work in the state’s affairs—can trump all science, and thus has no necessary accountability to empirical evidence (e.g. that science provides no biological basis for racial differences; or that social attitudes maintain real racist structures) or for its methodological framings and commitments (like a precommitment to scientific racism), or to other contrasting claims (like tacit or else explicit commitments to eugenic thinking). Instead, as a leading example of Evangelical thinking, his approach is reduced to a fundamentalism that gives no regard for its own sins, since the notion of biblical superiority or a “Christian worldview” still settles all arguments with regard to other forms of knowledge, whether scientific, systemic and structural, or otherwise. What this does, in turn, is create ongoing cognitive dissonance toward the natural world, toward an educated and informed democratic politics, and often with an artificial wedge driven between people of faith and the scientific community (Darnovsky 2018, 478; Warren 2021).

As problematic as Colson’s clear racism was at points, he never seems to have quite reckoned with it, nor with the complicity and support of mass incarceration and the great damage it has continued to do to American society. With his own particular privilege he was able to draw deep from within to effect a better situation for himself after his own bad moral choices led him to federal prison for seeking to engineer the maintaining of political state power for a President who believed in “a hierarchy of races” (Naftali 2019). And then after pulling himself up by his own bootstraps through Jesus at a time when pronouncements accompanied by the “under God” rhetorical, juridical, and political device were employed to unlock state power (Redding 2020, 111-14), he believed others had this ability as well.

 A similar mentality was seen in Donald Trump’s self-references to his abilities own “good stock,” and possession of good genes, which he has credited for his health and success for years (Beckwith 2017). When he contracted Covid-19, his optimistic outlook was not based on scientific knowledge or health care, but rather on his genetics (Nguyen 2020)—a quintessential or perhaps super-human already present. Of course, if the common story about eugenics today were true, such a thing should no longer exist after Nazi Germany’s failed efforts to create the super-human race, with their increased trust in the pseudoscience of the day leading them from eugenics to euthanasia. Yet if one’s genes can hypothetically withstand the attack of a pandemic virus, perhaps this is what the social Darwinists were looking for to take the human race forward, driving humanity toward success as a result of some providentially-bestowed genetics that can level the playing field so that all the right individuals might make the correct moral decisions and thus advance the myth of endless betterment for the human race, never mind the others.

The idea of “the elect” or “the chosen” furthermore worked well in the popular and political arena used by Donald Trump in campaign speeches which had special salience with some Calvinistic communities that supported Trump strongly during his initial campaign for office. It seemed to make sense for Evangelicals to look to an ideal figure to latch onto in hopes of securing beneficence for their communities, and in turn the opposite for other communities. Since at least Billy Graham, Evangelicals have sought this state political power to support their ideals, and with Donald Trump this was no different (Kidd 2019, 144-46). But the assumptions of eugenic logic appear especially in links between, on one hand, a chosenness whereby faith may be experienced individually or else by covenantal family inclusion and participation. On the other hand, a retributive outlook stands for others who do not experience the privilege of chosenness, and perhaps cannot. In short, a penal outlook is what results—even in punitive penal policies—for the non-chosen, or the damned.

4. Conclusion

The history of eugenic thinking accounted for above, including what is seen in the contemporary world from Evangelical perspectives, raises several important matters that warrant careful consideration. The theological conceptual categories of ecclesiology and anthropology can help to analyze the situation, which considered prominent theological features within Evangelicalism, including the theological systems of Dispensationalism and Covenant theology, as well as the focus on individualism, and how this worked in the views of representative figures like Billy Graham and Chuck Colson. This exploration could have more directly asked questions like, “How did various understandings of sin, redemption, and theological anthropology inform post-war eugenics philosophy that helped build mass-incarceration?” Or even, “Does Prison Fellowship’s soteriology cohere with the new eugenics and the eugenic-logic of mass incarceration?” But the focus remains on whether North American Evangelicalism’s latter twentieth-century eugenic logic gave support for the rise of mass incarceration and was also consistent with Evangelical theological beliefs? It appears that the answer is yes, even though many Evangelicals would not wish this to be the case.

A question remains, of course, about whether the theologies operative during the rise of mass incarceration were merely accidental or else actively contributing factors that programmatically helped effect the mass incarceration building project. A relative confidence in divine providence theologically seems to have shielded their complacency, even while intensely fighting other political battles amid efforts to build their own institutions together the many other significant building projects happening throughout the United States and Western world in the post-WWII moment of unprecedented cultural affluence.

On the other matter related to this puzzle’s question of whether Evangelicals also more widely inherited the pseudoscience or else the more powerful cultural and theological logics that had an already-established posture toward science that reenforced prejudicial (racial, eugenic, etc.) fundamentalist notions already embedded within their theology, a tentative conclusion can be reached. If the former—Evangelicals inherited the eugenic pseudoscience—then theology gave a boost to this eugenic thinking, perhaps without it having been realized, with special significance as the pseudoscience of eugenics became widely unpopular and yet persisted below the surface for many, including Evangelicals.

My current findings make no necessary judgment about malicious or even evil intent among Evangelicals who maintained an active eugenic logic, although further research may indeed reveal that what was intended with a lot of twentieth century theology was intended to deliberately propagate racist eugenic perspectives on humanity. The commitment to an anti-intellectual fundamentalism and respective theological logics that created Evangelicals’ cognitive dissonance toward science that then enables a greater trust in pseudoscience (and conspiracy theories), which in turn reenforces stronger eugenic logics that are anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-disabled, and anti-criminal (rather than anti-crime), corresponds precisely with the kind of theological anthropology and economic system that requires something like mass incarceration for its existence.


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[1] The definition note in the Oxford English Dictionary acknowledged: “Developed largely by Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911) as a method of (supposedly) ‘improving’ the human race, eugenics was increasingly discredited as unscientific and racially biased during the 20th cent., especially after its doctrines were adopted by the Nazis in order to justify their treatment of Jews, disabled people, and other minority groups.” “Eugenics, n.” OED Online (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), [accessed September 11, 2021].

[2] See the bizarre thinking by Evangelical prosperity preacher Jesse Duplantis who, negatively, argued that “People are genetically altered to accept welfare.” Jonathan L. Walton, “Stop Worrying and Start Sowing! A Phenomenological Account of Ethics of ‘Divine Investment,’” in Katherine Attanasi and Amos Yong, eds., Pentecostalism and Prosperity: The Socio-Economics of the Global Charismatic Movement (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 119. Thanks to Gabriel Raeburn for this citation.

[3] For an account of antebellum Calvinist prison reformer Rev. Louis Dwight of the Boston Prison Discipline Society and how he held his theology of punishment together with a changing Calvinism at the time, see Graber (2011, 88-95).

Cite this article

Sexton, Jason S. 2022. Are Evangelicalism’s Theological Beliefs Coherent with the Eugenic Philosophy that Lent Support to Mass Incarceration?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 11).

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Jason S. Sexton
Email: [email protected]

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