I recently finished listening to One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson. It is a fascinating look at one busy summer which included a catastrophic flood of the Mississippi river, Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo crossing of the Atlantic (and the failed attempts of a few others), Babe Ruth’s record-setting season, a widely publicized murder trial, the invention of television, a highly anticipated boxing match, and a variety of other events of historic interest. Bryson’s writing is always brisk and informative. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It did, however, prompt some thought both about how little things change and also about how blind we can be to our own era’s problems.
We have a tendency, I believe, to idealize the past. Conservative Christians can be particularly prone to this giving the impression that the whole world was Christian and holy prior to the 1960s. What Bryson shows, however, is that the 20s were no era of Christian family values. Tabloids purveying salacious material were booming. The trial of a woman and her lover for the murder of her husband captured the nation’s attention in a way quite similar to the celebrity escapades of today. And the politicians of the day were regularly engaged in corruption and relational improprieties. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
And things have changed. Though Bryson avoids editorializing much throughout the book, he shows a noticeable and justifiable disdain when writing about some of the eugenics rhetoric of the era. For a brief, sad period, many across the cultural spectrum were calling for the forced sterilization of those deemed unfit to reproduce, principally criminals and the insane, in an effort to improve the population and purge it of “undesireables.”*
While Bryson’s discomfort with this way of thinking is justified and would probably be shared by most of his readers, it is more than a little ironic that we live in a society in which doctors routinely advise parents to abort babies with Downs Syndrome or other birth defects. The arguments are different but the result is the same.
There is no Golden Era of the Church or humanity. Each age shows both the glory of humanity’s imaging of God and the shame of human depravity. Looking carefully at the past can help us see ourselves and our tendencies more clearly.
*Amy Laura Hall chronicles the unfortunate collaboration of the church in this movement in her book Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction.