It has become fashionable in some theological and political quarters to eschew the term libera l in favor of progressive . The linguistic victory for conservatives by which the former term is now radioactive leaves Jim Wallis’s Sojourners and my own employer, Christian Century , fishing for new terms.

Amy Laura Hall, a United Methodist clergywoman and theological ethicist at Duke Divinity School, is determined to wrest that term away also. Her new book, Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction (Eerdmans), aims to show that the powerful narrative of “progress” in twentieth-century American Protestantism is linked indelibly with eugenics, abortion, Hiroshima, racism, sexism, psychotropic drugs for kids, and the triumph of a neoliberal economics that grinds the heads of the poor (or, better even than Amos’ language, keeps them from ever existing). This avowedly “pro-life feminist” has hopes that her and other mainline churches in America will reject their “willed amnesia” in the face of past sins and undertake the “hard, contextual work of memory.”

Few institutions take kindly to whistle blowers, even when the actual perpetrators are long gone and their heirs can justly claim no truck with their predecessors’ sins. My primary question for Hall (disclaimer: she is a friend) is whether there is a mainline liberal church around that is still willing to turn and be saved. Yes we incessantly use the language of repentance over past misdeeds, from slavery to the Iraq War, as these are demanded by various pressure groups whom no one wants to bother to challenge. But these statements of repentance take the form of the legislative agenda, not the bent knee and sleepless night. I can easily see us Methodists apologizing for this at our General Conference in April, before returning to another legislative item that will bore us no less.

Hall’s primary form of data is the advertisement. She includes contemporary ads that are recognizable enough to all of us: one for a hospital announcing a “childbirth center” that is “as stylish as you are.” Another for the ADHD medication Strattera that gushes, “Welcome to Ordinary,” and depicts a smiling boy, father’s arm around his neck, at the end of an hour-long mess-free family dinner. Another, less recent but deeply American, is a GE ad announcing a Disney-sponsored exhibit called “Progressland,” at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, with a smiling nuclear family striding confidently toward the futuristic dome.

Hall sees unspoken menace in such images. The birthing center promises women they’ll find “something perfect to take home.” But what if such a woman “Ended up with a baby who was, well . . . common, or unique in a way some might not consider the right sort of unique ?” With abortion rates for Down syndrome, detectable in utero with amniocentesis, hovering around 90 percent, we know what almost always happens to a “distinctly unexpected fetus.” The promise of “normalcy” from the Eli Lilly Corporation leaves unaddressed whether our entertainment-saturated culture is responsible for kids’ inability to concentrate, which leads in turn to the widespread prescription of the most powerful drugs legally available to children of all ages. The picture of GE-produced progress in the Atomic Age was part of a massive propaganda campaign to disassociate the atom from the carnage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and reassociate it instead with the promise of futuristic leisure in the form of better consumer products.

Hall dissects hundreds of such images in this book, from articles, books, and films, as well as advertising. Early twentieth-century images of a better, more progressive family were hammered out against the backdrop of worse, poorly planned, usually nonwhite poor families. The unspoken implication: Fail to space your children properly and become white trash, to be pitied in coffee-table reading all over America. No mother should be subject to the sort of pressure that comes from the relentless drive for effortless perfection in the nuclear family. Indeed, none can be. “It takes a village to raise a child,” one senior academic jokes here. “And I’ve hired a village.”

Hall presses further to argue that the success of eugenics (later renamed genomics) in the United States prior to World War II was largely due to the blessing pronounced on it by mainline Protestant Christians. She makes this argument with the religious equivalent of Parents and National Geographic : the Methodist-run Together: A Midmonth Magazine for Methodist Families . Its depiction of bright-eyed carefully spaced families of four or five (not more!) in its annual “Methodist Family of the Year” contest demonstrate what a bishop called the “religious obligation” of “proper spacing of children.” In retrospect, this looks not a little like the American Eugenics’ Society’s Fitter Family contests. Hall laments, “My own church has been responsible for baptizing the divide between children perceived as chosen and children perceived as just occurring through default.” Mainliners’ eager embrace of eugenics came from their desire to offer a “truly relevant theology” and to “distinguish themselves from the ‘backward’ Christian creationists.” Hall’s judgment is unrelenting on this point: “These preachers attained their sophistication at the expense of the vulnerable. They leveraged the lives of others to establish their own strength.”

Hall’s book stands as an open question to her and my Methodist colleagues, who champion the language of “responsible” and “planned” parenthood still. Will we similarly leverage fidelity to the gospel for relevance? When scientists openly opine that a future is coming in which it will be a “sin of parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease,” will we stand idly by again¯or even bless the new revolution as it sends new victims to the gallows? And just when we think we’re getting comfortable with her condemnations of the politics of death, Hall reminds us that her economic vision is bracingly nonprogressive: “Protestant millionaires [supported] the eugenics movement but [did not] rethink significantly the patently exploitative labor Methodist by which they made their wealth.” The drive for economic progress and standing in the middle class can be death-dealing, as vignettes told here of abortions sought to maintain upscale lifestyles make clear.

Hall is courageous enough to break out a genuine explicative in mainline liberal circles¯the “h” word. No less a term than heresy is appropriate to describe the theology latent in ads like those from the hospital, Lilly, and GE, with their story of progress, blessed by the church. Mainline churches have pursued a theology of “ Justification by meticulously planned procreation ” (emphasis original), exemplified in a mid-century conference at which Methodists pronounced the Christian family “the hope of the world.” The idolatry of the family, now prevalent more often among Southern Baptists and the La Leche League, was once a Methodist hallmark as well.

John Wesley’s early Methodists were indeed once guilty of “ecclesial miscegenation,” preaching to one and all, banding whosoever comes into societies to pursue holiness, but in America they “doubled back” on this heritage, and became gatekeepers on the divide between “normal” and not, offering at best charity across the divide at a “safe, albeit prayerful, distance from others .” Methodists should have known enough to resist promises of an effortless eschaton promised by nuclear power, for only Christ can bring the eschaton’s erasure of pain and grief.

Apologists for the Human Genome Project who now piously intone DNA’s finding that “we are all alike” give nothing more than a hackneyed version of Galatians 3:28. Scientists themselves are unlikely candidates to break the patterns of racism by eschewing gated communities and segregated private schools. In a riposte to the standard Forrest Gump“like lament about adopting babies, “You never know what you’re going to get,” Hall thunders back that indeed we do: Every child is conceived in the imago dei , every child is one for whom Christ died, everyone (Methodists hope, even if Calvinists demur) has a place being prepared at the eschatological banquet. Christians should know this and “plan” their families accordingly¯messily, profligately even. It may have taken degrees at Emory and Yale and tenure at Duke to see it, but Hall can close with an altar call like this: “The call to be a Christian has become, for me, a call to risk seeming like just the sort of backward, crazy, Holy Spirit-inspired white girl that my grandmothers hoped I would progress beyond.”

The book has fascinating detours and twists and turns on the way to that blessed destination. Part of its greatness is it never falls into the closed rhetoric of academe and aims to be accessible even in the local church (the pictures will help). It’s the sort of book that threatens not only to change our vocabulary but to make us better people: Cognizant that there is only one child on whom the hope of the world hangs (a Barthian theological bassline keeps the riffs coherent throughout), we can relieve ourselves and our children of the burden of meticulously planned greatness. (One interlocutor even accuses Hall here of being against piano lessons!) More important, we can associate our children with those on whom our grandmothers would have frowned, in light of the coming Kingdom. Maybe God has not abandoned the mainline church after all. Now if anyone out there is listening . . .

Jason Byassee is assistant editor of Christian Century . His most recent book is Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine (Eerdmans).

Resources

Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction by Amy Laura Hall

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