Secular Suicide: Will Birth Rates Determine the Victor of the Culture Wars?

I ran across this article in USA Today, by liberal columnist Phillip Longman. We often hear about declining birth rates in secularized Europe. Most such articles and books note that birth rates in the United States have declined much less dramatically and remain above replacement levels. But to Longman the most notable feature of birth rates may be the disparity within the United States.

Childlessness and small families are increasingly the norm today among progressive secularists. As a consequence, an increasing share of all children born into the world are descended from a share of the population whose conservative values have led them to raise large families.

Today, fertility correlates strongly with a wide range of political, cultural and religious attitudes. In the USA, for example, 47% of people who attend church weekly say their ideal family size is three or more children. By contrast, 27% of those who seldom attend church want that many kids.

Longman concludes that the disparity will lead to far-reaching changes.

This correlation between secularism, individualism and low fertility portends a vast change in modern societies. In the USA, for example, nearly 20% of women born in the late 1950s are reaching the end of their reproductive lives without having children. The greatly expanded childless segment of contemporary society, whose members are drawn disproportionately from the feminist and countercultural movements of the 1960s and '70s, will leave no genetic legacy. Nor will their emotional or psychological influence on the next generation compare with that of people who did raise children.

But even if the secuarlists and the leftists are not bearing many children, might not they influence the children of the religious and conservatives so as to perpetuate their belief systems? Kind of like the borg who reproduce through assimilation. Not according to Longman.

Why couldn't tomorrow's Americans and Europeans, even if they are disproportionately raised in patriarchal, religiously minded households, turn out to be another generation of '68? The key difference is that during the post-World War II era, nearly all segments of society married and had children. Some had more than others, but there was much more conformity in family size between the religious and the secular. Meanwhile, thanks mostly to improvements in social conditions, there is no longer much difference in survival rates for children born into large families and those who have few if any siblings.

Tomorrow's children, therefore, unlike members of the postwar baby boom generation, will be for the most part descendants of a comparatively narrow and culturally conservative segment of society. To be sure, some members of the rising generation may reject their parents' values, as often happens. But when they look for fellow secularists with whom to make common cause, they will find that most of their would-be fellow travelers were quite literally never born.

I am not sure that Longman has effectively countered this point. Afterall, if enough children who are raised in typical conservative families go to college and abandons their religions or adopt a more liberal political ideology, then birth rates will not play king maker in the so-called culture war afterall. While the broader culture of their state or city may be more conservative, the more immediate culture of their college and peer group may challenge their traditional beliefs.

I think, however, that this effect -- though no doubt real in many cases -- will not be sufficient to remedy the disparity in birth rates. Polls show that most evangelicals have attended college, with a quarter obtaining degrees and another quarter obtaining graduate degrees. That is a lot of evangelicals who "survived" college with their religious beliefs intact. That is also a lot of well-educated evangelicals sending their children to college. The caricature of the religious and sheltered child going off to college to face new ideas that they have never encountered does not seem to apply anymore (if it ever really did).

Additionally, enrollment at Christian colleges is surging. From 1994 to 2000, colleges affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (which can fairly be described as of a conservative bent) saw their enrollment jump by 71%, or by more than 800,000 students. Other religious schools saw enrollment increase by a less dramatic but still strong 27%. The growth rate at public universities, on the other hand, was around 13%. Thus, more and more children raised in devout homes are choosing to go to Christian colleges. Obviously, Christian students sent to Christian colleges are not in danger of being deconverted by the secularist establishment.

So, while I do not dismiss the possibility of mass "defections" of Christians who go to college, I do think that it is far from inevitable and may be more wishful thinking on the part of secularists than present-day reality. Nevertheless, this does highlight the importance of raising up Christian children not only of good moral character, but also of strong mind.

One consideration that I believe Longman overlooks in his article is his failure to account for immigration. While the U.S. birth rate is near replacement levels, its population is growing. This is mostly due to immigration from predominantly Catholic countries, though a significant portion includes Christians from Korea and Middle Eastern nations. Latino immigrants to this country are largely Catholic, but according to Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom, their children will be at least 30% evangelical Protestants. Those many who remain Catholic will be more culturally conservative than secularists and leftists, though they may be politically liberal on some important ecomonic issues. Therefore, it does not appear that immigration patterns will prevent the lower birth rate of secularists from eventually decreasing their numbers, though it may counter some of the "conservative" trend of Longman's birth-rate analysis.

This discussion is, of course, speculative. We work with demographics and statistics because we do not know the future. They have their shortcomings and often fail to account for some variables and misjudge others. Still, the case does seem to be a good one that the Christian value on family and children will have a practical affect on American culture and even politics. Already, so-called "Red States" have gained political representation because, in part, of higher birth rates. There are some illustrative comparisons from the 2004 Presidentical Election. In 2004, President Bush carried the 19 states with the highest birth rates while Senator Kerry carried the 16 states with the lowest birth rates. Moreover, President Bush had a 20 point advantage over Senator Kerry among married parents.

The divide is real. Religious Americans, including recent immigrants, are having many more children than their secularist compatriots. But, there appears to be one question whose answer will govern the impact of this fact. Are they going to retain the faith and values of their upbringing in large enough numbers to maintain the advantage the birth rate seems to give to religious Americans? There are some promising indicators, but ultimately the answer rests in the hands of the millions of Christian parents across the country and how effective they are in raising and equipping their children.


BK said…
Excellent piece. I would, however, suggest that many of the Christian colleges are Christian in name only. Some of the ELCA sponsored colleges, for example, are teaching a very secularized brand of Christianity which fits in very well with the view of Jesus taught by such ignominious scholars as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The late, great Ronald Nash wrote an excellent book on this subject exposing how many of the colleges that call themselves Christian are only vaguely Christian in any orthodox sense of the word.
Sleep-Deprived said…
This is a great piece Chris. I'm baffled though by the "progressive" mindset. If they were truly progressive, wouldn't their ideals be leading to betterment and expansion of society, and not its extinction?

Thank goodness everyone didn't buy the liberal ideas about not having children, or having only one child. I wonder where they will go from here? I sure hope I don't someday hear something to the tune of "since I didn't have any children-and you have four-, you have to impart couple of yours with my ideology so we can keep things even and fair."

What a shocking wake-up call - that a life lived mainly to oneself doesn't have much of a future.
Weekend Fisher said…
About 6 months ago I was at a funeral (friend's mother) at a small country church. I noticed that I was the only practicing Christian on our pew. I also noticed I was the only one with children on our pew. If someone's philosophy says there's no reason to value life, why have children?

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