Dec. 16, 2019
Here in the United States, we are not having enough babies to replenish our population.
In the latest numbers from the CDC, there were just under 3.8 million births in 2018, down 2 percent from the previous year. This marks the fourth year in a row that births have declined in the U.S. The current rate of 1.7 births per 1,000 women is well below the 2.1 births needed to maintain a steady replacement level.
The decline in U.S. births mirrors a global decline since the 1950’s, which has seen the birth rate plummet from 4.7 to 2.4 over the last 70 years. Many secular commentators point to a handful of factors to explain why this remarkable decline is happening in America, including a lack of “suitable partners” for women and “economic instability.”
A Society’s Survival Depends on Its Values
But some secular writers are beginning to grow skeptical of these mainstream explanations that barely skim the surface of what’s really going on. In a fascinating recent piece in The New York Times titled “The End of Babies,” Anna Louie Sussman asks, “Something is stopping us from creating the families we claim to desire. But what?” She points to an intriguing study showing that in almost every European country as well as the U.S., the number of children that women want is well above the number of children they actually have. While Sussman does explore a bit of the standard excuses that many secular liberals give for not having kids, including climate change and economic inequality, she eventually hits on the root of what fertility hinges upon: the values that a society has.
For communities that do not hold to secular values, Sussman notes that low fertility is not a problem:
Where alternative value systems exist, however, babies can be plentiful. In the United States, for example, communities of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, Mormons and Mennonites have birthrates higher than the national average.
Why is this? Sussman’s next paragraph is key:
Lyman Stone, an economist who studies population, points to two features of modern life that correlate with low fertility: rising “workism” — a term popularized by the Atlantic writer Derek Thompson — and declining religiosity. “There is a desire for meaning-making in humans,” Mr. Stone told me. Without religion, one way people seek external validation is through work, which, when it becomes a dominant cultural value, is “inherently fertility reducing.”
Perhaps unwittingly, Sussman has hit upon a transcendent truth: When we lose sight of God, we begin to lose our bearing on what it means to be human. When this happens, it becomes easier to overlook the essential building blocks that provide meaning, purpose, and continuity to our humanness: the institution of marriage (which is in steep decline) and the children that naturally result from this union.
Faith Casts Out Fear
After reading Sussman’s article, one can’t help but come away with a strong sense of the anxiety that so many in our culture carry with them when it comes to marriage and family. Her piece is peppered throughout with the worries and fears of those she interviews: “Young people say, ‘Having children is the end of my life’”; “If I become 50 or 60 and I don’t have kids, I know I’m going to hate myself the rest of my life”; “Everything is super expensive.” Sussman herself is not immune to this anxiety. She has convinced herself, rather sheepishly, that she must save $200,000 before she has a child. Why? Because she is single and plans to have a child via in vitro fertilization (IVF), and this figure is “an acknowledgment of the financial realities of single parenthood, but also the arithmetic crystallization of my anxieties around parenthood in our precarious era.”
Without getting into the troubling aspects of IVF, I’d love to be able to reassure Sussman and her fellow worriers, “It’ll be okay! God will provide!” One of the greatest benefits of faith is that it casts out fear of the unknown. For what does Christ himself tell his followers in the gospel? “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:26-27)
Even still, I must admit that I often forget Christ’s words. I struggle with many of the same fears that Sussman describes. As a husband and father myself, I often worry about finances and my ability to support and provide for my wife and our two young boys as they grow up, as well as any future children that God might bless us with. But guess what? God has provided for us. He always does. He is always faithful. I have found that the more I trust in God’s providence, the more my worries and fears fade away. For God, who is “Perfect love,” “casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
The Birth of a Child is the Rebirth of Hope
It is clear that the declining birth rate is intimately connected with anxieties about having kids that permeate our culture. When a society largely rejects religious values, it loses its ability to have hope in the future, most profoundly illustrated by the birth of new life. When God is forgotten, the world becomes a complicated, intimidating, and “precarious” place, as Sussman says, one which can seem inhospitable to rearing children.
But despite all this uncertainty and anxiousness, the desire for rebirth still lingers within us. In the candid and heartfelt conclusion to her article, Sussman can’t help but admit her own yearning to pass on the legacy of her father, with an implicit longing for motherhood:
But as I reflected on the immaterial gifts I like to think I inherited from him, it became clear I craved genetic continuity, however fictitious and tenuous it might be. I recognized then something precious and inexplicable in this yearning, and glimpsed how devastating it might be to be unable to realize it. For the first time, I felt justified in my impulse to preserve some little piece of me that, in some way, contained a little piece of him, which one day might live again.
Not even liberal New York Times columnists, it seems, can escape the primordial urge to pass on our humanity, to indeed “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).
An important lesson can be drawn from all of this for believers. When we work to spread the gospel, we are working to dispel worldly fear and break open hearts toward openness to new life. For the birth of every child is the rebirth of hope, the hope bestowed by a Creator who gives us the gift of life, smiles upon us, and calls us “good.”