New York Times columnist Ross Douthat took some heat a couple of weeks ago when he wrote a column decrying the sagging birth rates in the U.S., which have hit an all-time low. The heat came from Douthat's characterizing the demographic devolution as "decadent."
He took time to write a lengthy blog post defending his use of the term a few days later. His argument is that a generation that denies society the good fruits of a growing population - especially when that generation is so materially fortunate - is the very definition of decadent.
I'm inclined to agree. When I looked into the numbers from Pew, I can't say I was surprised. We've known for a while that marriage is on the decline in the U.S. And more and more millennials are decoupling the notion of marriage from parenthood. A relatively small swath - 34 percent - think unwed couples raising children is a bad thing for society, compared with 45 percent of older generations.
In short, our generation's views on marriage, parenthood, and family seem awfully scrambled.
It's hopeful, though, to think about how young Christians fit into all this. The Church has traditionally understood the hand-in-hand nature of marriage and childrearing and has always encouraged the strength of families. Put simply, the family is the best institution for instilling a whole host of societal goods into growing generations. But when I look around at some Christian couples, I do have to admit I see more and more putting off childbearing, either indefinitely or permanently.
Before I go much further, let me clarify something: My intention isn't to chastise, or ridicule anyone, or encourage hasty decisions no one but a husband and wife ought to make. My intention, rather, is to ask a question and make us more aware of the cultural liturgies (to borrow language from theologian James K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom) that influence us each day.
More numbers from Pew show a definite correlation between the state of the economy and how many babies a society has. Since our recession began in 2008, birth rates have continued to drop. This makes sense. So many times I've heard couple say they want to put off childbearing until they have a higher-paying job, until they get their loans paid off, or until they are sure their kids will have access to a more prosperous future than they have. And when these questions can't be resolved to one's liking, often times childbearing is seen as a disposable choice, like whether or not to buy a particular car.
But underlying this notion is a tacit materialism that sees the quality of one's life dependent upon one thing: economics. The more capital one has - or the access to capital and opportunity, at least - the better one's life is, automatically. Put another way: "If my kids can't be as comfortable as I was growing up, or have as many comforts as I have now as an adult, or force me to give up some of my comforts, then having kids isn't worth it." I don't think very many of us would come right out and say this, but sometimes our actions do the talking for us. Sometimes they do it without us realizing it. C.S. Lewis once said the most dangerous ideas aren't the ones being argued, they're the ones going un-argued - just assumed. This is one such example.
Knowing the truth of the Gospel enlightens us to the sweeter things in life - including the realization that the creation of the world itself was a miraculous act of love and kindness. If God is good, if He is the very definition of all the descriptors we use when talking about Him, then creating a world with whom He could share all that is a supreme act of benevolence and love. It was especially loving in light of the sin and brokenness we wrought, which, by the way, He has promised to fix for us. Remember that whole Christmas thing?
So even if hard economic times befall us, even if a great deal of economic uncertainty meets us, and even if our kids aren't guaranteed the material comforts we had growing up, is that reason not to bring new people into the world to share God's love and the love of parents? Is that following God's example of creation, even with the knowledge that we would mess things up?
Do we young Christians consider the prospect of childrearing only in economic terms ? I fear, if we're being honest, too many of us would have to answer yes. I've written before about my background and the fact that I am now the father of two very young boys. But there was a time when I stiff-armed the idea of having kids with the best proverbial Heisman pose I could muster. I wanted to wait until we owned a house, until I had a better-paying job.
But my persistent and loving wife kept gently reminding me that trying to control all those circumstances wasn't living life faithful to God's promises. And it forsook God's numerous proclamations that children are a blessing. And I slowly came to realize that treating children only in economic terms harshly distorts their identities as image bearers.
Douthat and others will continue to debate the implications of a declining birthrate and what public policy can do to stem the tide, as they should. I just wonder whether the church can demonstrate that questions about when a married couple should have kids need not only hinge on a W-2.