Pro-life conservative evangelicals erupted into unanimous jubilation at the news of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. But while united in their celebration, they are divided in their vision for the future of the pro-life movement and unaware of its past.
Karen Swallow Prior tweeted, “Our work now is just starting: We must help and support moms, dads and babies. Love them all — and in so doing making abortion unimaginable.”
In an opinion piece for the New York Times, she argued, “We are our brother’s and our sister’s keepers, and it does take a village to become who we are.” In that spirit of community, she recommended a number of whole-life approaches, including a public policy agenda the Southern Baptist Convention recommended at its 2022 meetings that includes “alleviating hunger and strengthening low-income families.”
But a closer look at the SBC’s public policy agenda shows it also highlights adoption, discrimination against LGBTQ people, and support for faith-based schools.
Many people balked at her statement, including Kristin Du Mez, who asked Prior directly, “If this support wasn’t there to actually *prevent abortions* (small-scale pregnancy crisis centers and free diaper coupons if you attend Bible study not withstanding) why should we expect conservative Christians to step up now?”
And given the anti-social-justice rhetoric coming out of men like John MacArthur and Voddie Baucham as well as evangelicalism’s track record of dismissing social concerns as being “woke,” “CRT,” or “big government,” it’s understandable that many would be skeptical of Prior’s vision.
The Gospel Coalition published one piece saying that whole-life approaches are “little more than a lazy slander of the pro-life cause,” that they “distort pro-life priorities,” and are too exhausting even for Superman, among other things.
They published another piece claiming overturning Roe v. Wade “is a story about God. He has heard our prayers and used our efforts, and he has done a great work.” Italicizing the words “he” in an article celebrating the taking away of women’s rights seemed odd.
“The pro-life conservative evangelical visions for moving forward after Roe v. Wade would seem to be to an attempt to convince evangelicals to embrace social action to a degree they never have before.”
Then they published another article that claimed: “As the church applies a robust ethic of each person’s dignity, it requires us to care for individuals holistically. The church’s involvement in adoption and foster care are good examples. Contrary to the criticism that Christians only care about the issue of life up until the moment of birth, a recent study concluded believers are nearly three times more likely to adopt than the general public.”
So the pro-life conservative evangelical visions for moving forward after Roe v. Wade would seem to be to an attempt to convince evangelicals to embrace social action to a degree they never have before, to demonize supporting mothers and babies as “lazy slander,” to offer theological thoughts and praises about the topic, or to promote sexual discrimination, adoption and Christian education.
When personal desires are hijacked by socio-political power
When we found out in January 2009 that we were having a miscarriage after a number of years of hoping for a baby, Ruth Ellen and I began to consider pursuing adoption more seriously. Like many young conservative evangelical married couples, we longed to be parents as a way to love the vulnerable. And adoption seemed to be a great way to fulfill our desire to be parents while reflecting our theology that God had adopted us.
Little did we know, however, that as good as our intentions may have been, we also were being influenced by an evangelical adoption industry that had been shaped for decades by theologies of patriarchy and white supremacy.
“Although slavery and adoption may seem like totally different pictures of the gospel, both converged through patriarchy and white supremacy in the worlds of evangelical education and adoption.”
Two of our favorite theologians at the time were John MacArthur and John Piper. While MacArthur believes slavery is the heart of the gospel, Piper believes adoption is the heart of the gospel. And although slavery and adoption may seem like totally different pictures of the gospel, both converged through patriarchy and white supremacy in the worlds of evangelical education and adoption.
But to understand how education and adoption may play a role in conservative evangelicalism’s strategy for the future, we need to reflect on how they were formed in the past.
The fear of ‘race suicide’
At the dawn of the 20th century, leaders in the United States noticed the falling birth rate of Western nations and began to discuss the problem of “race suicide.” President Roosevelt warned of this looming danger, writing in a letter to pastor Franklin C. Smith in 1911: “To advocate artificially keeping families small, with its inevitable attendants of pre-natal infanticide, of abortion, with its pandering to self-indulgence, its shirking of duties, and its enervation of character, is quite as immoral as to advocate theft or prostitution, and is even more hurtful in its folly, from the standpoint of the ultimate welfare of the race and the nation. … You say that your ministry lies among well-to-do people; that is, among people of means and upper-class workers. I assume that you regard these people as desirable elements in the state. Can you not see that if they have an insufficient quantity of children, then the increase must come from the less desirable classes?”
“Can you not see that if they have an insufficient quantity of children, then the increase must come from the less desirable classes?”
Roosevelt also was concerned about how progressive religious journalism was covering his fear of fewer white children being born, complaining: “To me the most horrifying part of this movement is to find nominally religious journals like the Independent containing articles by women and clergymen, apologizing for and defending a theory of conduct which, if adopted, would mean the speedy collapse of this republic and of western civilization. The action of the Independent in this matter was a scandalous offense against good morals and a cause of shame to men of real religious feeling.”
The themes of patriarchy and white supremacy paired with the fear of feminism and non-white people were laying the groundwork for what would be considered the American biblical family.
How eugenics shaped the American family
In an article subtitled “Eugenic Mythologies and Internet Evangelism” published in The Journal of Legal Medicine, Paul A. Lombardo explains how eugenics began in 1873 as a way of saying that “physical, mental and moral deficiencies were based in heredity and were passed down predictably within families from generation to generation.”
Just as John MacArthur argued that the inhabitants of Africa were destined by God to be perpetually a servile people to European and Jewish families due to the curse of Canaan in Genesis 9, the promoters of eugenics argued that the intergenerational poverty of Black families was proof that Black families were under the curse of Exodus 20:5, where God promised to visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” A fear spread of “problem families, seemingly infected with bad heredity that explained their social failure over many generations” that was evidenced in “moral evil and social dependency” and was used to promote eugenic political policies, Lombardo explained.
Elisha Harris was a secretary of the Prison Association in 1871 and used the Exodus 20 curse as reasoning to “trace the descent of a criminal family … ‘to the third or fourth generation.’” The New York Times said of Harris, “We can all feebly appreciate the importance to the public of the care and education of a single pauper child.” Regarding one particular child, the New York Times editors said, “The child could … have been placed in some honest farmer’s family, provided with schooling,” with the potential of becoming “a mother of honest men and virtuous women.”
The famous evangelist Billy Sunday bought into eugenics, often preaching against “one God-forsaken, vicious, corrupt man and woman to breed and propagate and damn the world by their offspring,” and arguing that “children have a right to be born cleanly into the world and not be ‘damned into the world before birth by a predetermined heritage of blight.’”
“Children have a right to be born cleanly into the world and not be ‘damned into the world before birth by a predetermined heritage of blight.’”
In his article, Lombardo shows how supporters of eugenics believed “a society of ‘sound individuals’ would stabilize the state; ‘a clean physical race’ could be the first step to reform.”
How eugenics shaped ‘the biblical family’
In a piece titled “The Eugenics Roots of Evangelical Family Values,” Audrey Clare Farley —adjunct professor of U.S. history at Mount St. Mary’s University — shows how evangelicals promoted positive eugenics after World War II in order to “increase the breeding of the ‘fit’ (able-bodied, middle-class whites), providing a far more respectable face for the movement.”
One leader of the evangelical eugenics movement, ironically, was an atheist named Paul Popenoe, who founded the Los Angeles-based American Institute of Family Relations in 1930 with the goal of strengthening families by removing “what he thought to be obstacles to white reproduction, such as rape, masturbation, pornography, female frigidity, and feminist yearnings.” Farley shows how Popenoe promoted complementarian gender distinctions and prohibited inter-racial marriage and homosexual relationships, while training pastors and psychologists to follow his patriarchal, white supremacist, homophobic vision.
One psychologist Popenoe influenced was James Dobson, who served as Popenoe’s assistant, a detail Farley notes was conveniently not mentioned in Dale Buss’s book, Family Man: The Biography of Dr. James Dobson.
Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, has been the single most influential figure in shaping the modern American evangelical view of biblical family values through a daily radio broadcast, books, films and online content.
In a Los Angeles Times article titled “Child’s IQ Depends on Mother” from 1968, Mary Barber identified Dobson as the “assistant director of Popenoe’s American Institute of Family Relations.” In the article, Barber says “Dobson pointed out that everyone is a victim of some degree of impoverishment but the barren surroundings of a ghetto probably is the worst for providing intellectual growth for children.”
In another 1976 Los Angeles Times article titled “Husbands Advised to Change Priorities,” Dobson told wives not to cage their husbands, to be quiet and not “run him down,” while admitting his views of gender distinctions “may sound chauvinistic.”
Dobson also applied what he learned at Popenoe’s AIFR in a 1972 article titled “A Successfully Defiant Child Lacks Respect.” In the Daily News-Post column on parenting, he said “there’s no substitute for spanking” and that if a little child doesn’t obey immediately, then “mother tweaks the little muscle between his neck and shoulder.”
Dobson still was touting Popenoe’s teachings as late as 1994 in an article titled “Men, Women Differ in Every Cell of Their Bodies,” where Dobson named Popenoe and then went on to parrot Popenoe’s views of gender and sexuality.
Popenoe’s influence not only included Dobson and the millions of evangelicals Dobson shaped.
Popenoe’s influence not only included Dobson and the millions of evangelicals Dobson shaped. He also wrote for Ladies’ Home Journal, was a guest on conservative evangelical shows, and was cited in Herbert Miles’ Sexual Happiness in Marriage, J. Allan Peterson’s The Marriage Affair, and in Tim and Beverly LaHay’s The Act of Marriage.
Given his father’s atheism, Popenoe’s son David told the Institute of American Values, “My father was no more religious than ever, but (evangelicals) were his new professional and ideological allies and protégées.”
To that Audrey Clare Farley added, “Such history reveals how fears of racial decay have shaped the conservative imagination of morality.”
Education as the vehicle for eugenics
As patriarchal, complementarian, homophobic, narratives of eugenics shaped conservative evangelicalism over the decades, their demand for more children grew.
One such movement was the “Quiverfull movement.” As Kristin Du Mez details in Jesus and John Wayne: “Quiverfull women had a critical role to play in birthing an army of God; the culture wars needed as many soldiers as possible. Outbreeding opponents was the first step to outvoting them, and in their reproductive capacities, women served as ‘domestic warriors.’”
Du Mez pointed out that the Quiverfull movement began gaining national traction in the homeschool movement as the Duggar family grew in popularity due to their TLC show 19 Kids and Counting. Combining the reproductive capacities of women with educating children, the Quiverfull movement “would provide combatants in the war against Islam.”
In an interview with Baptist News Global, Audrey Clare Farley explained how conservatives have tapped into the fear of race suicide and turned to eugenics through education.
“It is important to understand that character education has historically been tied to eugenics.”
“It is important to understand that character education has historically been tied to eugenics. In the early 20th century, the high-water mark of the eugenics era, some racial purists asked if it was possible to form respectable (read: white) citizens by molding their character. Most believed it was impossible. Those with ‘bad genes’ — that is, the poor, disabled, immigrants and people of color — could not be made into noble citizens. Character education was really for those who were well-bred. It would help to make the naturally ‘fit’ even stronger.
“Scholars have placed Bill Gothard and Dr. James Dobson within this tradition. Both men targeted conservative white Christians with their ideas about discipline and ‘biblical’ family values, which were meant to form citizens who could fight evil, secular culture. But, of course, neither Gothard nor Dobson explicitly rejected people of color, and so those BIPOC children who were subjected to their programs were essentially urged to adopt worldviews with roots in segregation and eugenics.”
One of the most popular strategies conservatives are using today, and one that was highlighted in the SBC’s 2022 public policy agenda, is the issue of school vouchers.
Farley explains: “The rise of school vouchers is part of this project. Conservatives proclaim that vouchers enable disadvantaged students and those of color to access a better education. But the right’s goal is to bankrupt public schools and divert tax dollars toward academies that indoctrinate youth with rightwing politics — the very politics that have stalled racial progress in education and beyond.”
And as child liberationist theologian R.L. Stollar points out, for many evangelicals, homeschooling is the perfect option for training these culture warriors because “48 states have no protections for at-risk homeschooled children. These states have fallen into line with … ‘total parental sovereignty,’” giving parents absolute power that has resulted in “child abuse and trafficking.”
The Birth Dearth
Eugenics received another boost in 1987 through Ben Wattenberg’s book The Birth Dearth. Ellen Goodman wrote in the Washington Post at the time: “Wattenberg is a demographer for the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute and no slouch in the pop sociology division. He builds his thesis on one indisputable fact: Today, with little warning, the total fertility rate of American women has dropped to 1.8, slightly below the replacement level.”
“The major problem confronting the United States today is there aren’t enough white babies being born. If we don’t do something about this and do it now, white people will be in the numerical minority and we will no longer be a white man’s land.”
Wattenberg argued that “The Birth Dearth is due to low fertility among the middle and upper middle class.” He said, “The major problem confronting the United States today is there aren’t enough white babies being born. If we don’t do something about this and do it now, white people will be in the numerical minority and we will no longer be a white man’s land.”
He was especially concerned that a decreasing white population would lead to no longer being able to “support the defense systems which are the basis of national power and security.”
Goodman interpreted, “He outright says that it’s women who hold the fate of the Western world in their hands. Or, more precisely, in their wombs.”
Wattenberg offered three potential solutions. He said we could pay women to have babies, but that unfortunately “we would have to pay women of all colors to have babies.” He said we could increase immigration, but that unfortunately most of the immigrants would be non-white people. So he argued that the third and best option was to stop abortion. “Remember that 60% of the fetuses that are aborted every year are white,” he said. “If we could keep that 60% of life alive, that would solve our birth dearth.”
Evangelical family (culture war) planning
In June 2020, Kevin DeYoung entered the fray. He wrote an article called “It’s Time for a New Culture War Strategy” — seemingly ignorant of the entire culture war strategy his movement had been using for the previous century. He was very upset that the Supreme Court defined sex to include “sexual orientation and gender identity.” And just like the homophobia that had permeated the eugenics movement, DeYoung had enough.
DeYoung has been one of the most vocal leaders against social justice, joining the likes of Owen Strachan, John MacArthur and Voddie Baucham.
He said: “Here’s a culture war strategy conservative Christians should get behind: Have more children and disciple them like crazy. Strongly consider having more children than you think you can handle. You don’t have to be a fertility maximalist to recognize that children are always lauded as a blessing in the Bible.”
After arguing against birth control, DeYoung said: “Do you want to rebel against the status quo? Do you want people to ask you for a reason for the hope that is in you? Tote your brood of children through Target. There is almost nothing more counter-cultural than having more children.”
“There is almost nothing more counter-cultural than having more children.”
Then with the stroke of prophetic vision, he concluded, “The future belongs to the fecund.”
To be fair, he did briefly mention loving God, people and the truth. But the thrust of his article was not about love, but about getting your wife constantly pregnant with a ton of babies.
The positive eugenics of evangelical adoption
Just as eugenics attempted to shift toward a “positive” message after World War II, the evangelical adoption movement attempted to shift toward a more positive branding in 2007, led by the likes of Rick Warren. As Kathryn Joyce notes, “Promoting adoption would help rebrand U.S. evangelicals from moral scolds to children’s champions.”
In the spirit of DeYoung, one evangelical leader said evangelicals should “get as many people in the church to adopt and adopt as many kids as you can.”
The way these adoption agencies spoke negatively of the birth mothers and families mirrored the way the promoters of eugenics spoke negatively of minority mothers and families through the 20th century. And as Chrissy Stroop detailed, the result of this missionary project was “corner-cutting and human-rights abuses” that would lead to “severe trauma that can never be erased.”
Farely told BNG “There is absolutely a connection between the ideas of Popenoe, Wattenberg, DeYoung, and some proponents of evangelical adoption: All view the family as a means to promote whiteness. For Popenoe and Wattenberg, the goal was very explicitly to outbreed people of color. For DeYoung and many adoption proponents, an acceptable outcome is rearing children who carry water for whiteness as culture warriors. In the latter scenario, a Black or brown child can be made to support the racist politics and theology of white evangelicalism, which have so devastated communities of color around the globe that families within those communities are forced to give up their infants to more advantaged — and in many minds, deserving — families.”
“There is absolutely a connection between the ideas of Popenoe, Wattenberg, DeYoung, and some proponents of evangelical adoption: All view the family as a means to promote whiteness.”
This is bigger than evangelicalism
To be fair to evangelicalism, the problems here are much bigger than evangelicalism. Unfortunately, the leaders of conservative evangelicalism like to present themselves as preaching the objective universal truth outside of culture revealed by God in the Bible. But they are seemingly unaware how their supposedly objective truth is culturally situated in a broader culture of white supremacy.
Farely pointed to other Christian groups as well: “In the last few decades and especially the last few years, white Catholics have also taken pains to induct children of color into the logic of white supremacy. Beyond crusading against BLM and CRT, many bishops, priests, school leaders and parents have pushed the narrative that racism is a spiritual problem, rather than a social one. As religion scholar Matthew J. Cressler has demonstrated, this narrative can be traced to Catholic segregationists. When throwing bricks at civil rights activists failed to stop desegregation, white Catholics appealed to a supposedly God-ordained division between the spiritual and political realms. As in Protestant circles, then, the rhetoric of colorblindness only emerged as a means to obstruct Black advancement. Yet Catholic children today are taught this way of thinking flows from the gospel.”
With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, evangelicals are focusing on assimilation by adopting babies and educating them into their vision for the world. They believe this strategy is going to save the eternal souls of babies and win a culture war they are waging.
But while young couples should be encouraged and equipped to care for the vulnerable, they need to realize that doing so within the adoption and education industries of evangelicalism is promoting a patriarchal, complementarian, homophobic, physically and spiritually abusive narrative of white supremacy that has been forged by presidents and pastors alike for more than a century.
Rick Pidcock is a 2004 graduate of Bob Jones University, with a bachelor of arts degree in Bible. He’s a freelance writer based in South Carolina and a former Clemons Fellow with BNG. He recently completed a master of arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five children and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder. Follow his blog at www.rickpidcock.com.
What has John MacArthur actually said about race, slavery and the Curse of Ham? | Analysis by Rick Pidcock
Kristin Du Mez explains white evangelicals and abortion on NPR show; Ed Young preaches Mother’s Day sermon on abortion
‘Our Father’: A quiverfull of racism and anti-reproductive rights | Opinion by Erica Whitaker