Culture Friday: Falling birth rates

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Friday, the 15th of November, 2019. We’re so glad you’ve joined us today for The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

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Now on to Culture Friday. 

Maybe you’ve heard that birth rates in the United States have fallen to all-time lows. What may surprise you is that this isn’t just an American or even European problem. Fertility is plummeting all over the world. Japan, China, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Mexico, Malaysia—all are having fewer babies. Some nations have even started paying families to have more.

Among wealthy nations, almost all birth rates are now below replacement levels. Meaning women aren’t having enough children to replace themselves and a father. One standout exception: Israel.

Researchers warn fewer babies mean demographic trouble in the future. A shrinking workforce hurts economic productivity. It hurts consumer spending. More older people means fewer young people to finance government programs like social security and medicare.

BASHAM: Trevin Wax joins us today for Culture Friday. He’s a theologian, a blogger, and author. His books include This is our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel.

So Trevin, I recently saw a tweet from W. Bradford Wilcox, the sociologist and director of the National Marriage Project. He half-jokingly said, “I know it’s been a newsy three years. But folks, this matters a lot more than the latest DJT drama.” By which he meant President Trump. 

And it seems like a good point. We’re all so busy arguing about petty intrigues, we’re missing a story likely to have more impact on all our lives in the future than just about any other. 

So to start the discussion with a firm foundation, what Biblical principles can we apply to this subject?

TREVIN WAX, GUEST: Well, I think we have to start where the Bible starts and you can’t even get through the first chapters of Genesis without this understanding that God created human beings in His image and that the creation mandate in Genesis 1, for example, is that we be fruitful and multiply and that the images of us filling the earth with image bearers of God—people who bring worship to God. The more people there are that are worshipping the one true God, the more glory He’s receiving. And so it’s this—all throughout the scriptures you see this emphasis on the importance of children, of family. 

And even among, especially among Israel, what happens in Genesis 3 when you have the first human beings, Adam and Eve, they both fall into sin. But then you have God already making the promise that he will bring someone along who will crush the serpent’s head. Right? And you’ve already got this understanding that through one of the descendants of Eve, there will be this serpent crushing. 

And so throughout all the Old Testament you see this hope and this promise that the redeemer is coming, the redeemer is coming. 

And that’s what makes infertility and challenges in conceiving all throughout the Old Testament particularly challenging because it’s adding narrative tension to the idea that we’re waiting for this savior to come. And at the same time, the creation mandate is waiting to be fulfilled. That’s how we think about this from a Biblical perspective.

REICHARD: It’s funny, Trevin, because researchers also find that the link between wealth and fewer babies doesn’t just happen on the macro level. It happens on the micro level too. The more prosperous a household is, the fewer children they’re likely to have. 

So what do you think this tells us about our priorities in life?

WAX: Well, it is interesting to look at that link. I don’t know what all it says about every particular case because I—obviously there are all sorts of different factors that go into that. And there may be all sorts of reasons that are not really able to be seen on a survey with quantitative research like you could if you were sitting down having conversations with people, more qualitative research.

But I will say that there tends to be this correlation, anyway, that we see where the desire for more earthly goods can suppress the natural sensibility that humans tend to have where we want to pass on something to the next generation. And where we find some sort of meaning and significance in family and the generations coming behind us and having kids and then grandkids and then great grandkids. 

I think wealth and prosperity and flexibility with travel and job and all sorts of other things can suppress that natural human instinct to want to have a legacy through your family.

BASHAM: It’s interesting that you mention qualitative versus quantitative—a recent Gallup poll showed the number of children women say they want has pretty much been stable since the early 1980s. 

In fact, the number of Americans who say they’d like more than three children is up even as our birth rate is at its lowest point in over 30 years. This makes me wonder about the role birth control might be playing in this. 

Do you think evangelicals treat this subject too lightly? Is there something we can learn on that from Catholic doctrine?

WAX: Well, this is an interesting question. Let me put it this way: until about 100 years ago, there was no wing of the Christian church in any form whatsoever that countenanced birth control. 

And so all I will say—and I realize a lot of evangelicals have a lot of different perspectives on this based on our view of what Scripture would explicitly or implicitly teach. But when you ask that question, I do think we need to step back and pause and ask questions—hard questions—about what our Catholic friends would say is a contraceptive mentality that is all throughout our society. 

And we also should ask the question—if for 1,900 years the Christian church was unanimous in its view of this issue, then might we ought to rethink, perhaps, the ease with which we have turned that over in many evangelical circles?

Again, I’m pressing the question. I’m not giving the “here is the answer from on high” kind of answer here. But I do think there’s something for us to step back and consider regarding this question and more thinking, deeper thinking on these issues is required of us, I think. Not less. And not reactionary sort of without even thinking, flinching and reflexively going to a position that we may hold. I think deeper thinking on these issues is important. 

REICHARD: Now, I want to talk about women who choose to be childless, or who cannot bear children, or for whatever reason don’t have children. Sometimes there’s this feeling in Christian circles that something’s awry. But the Bible doesn’t actually say so as far as I’ve studied. Trevin, what do you think?

WAX: Well, I think there are lots of different reasons that families may be childless, and I don’t think this is a one size fits all blanket—all reasons are either OK or no reason is OK. This is the mandate for every single person. 

What you do find, though, is with this question there is a sense in which the Bible fully understands and leans into the pain that families feel, that women feel in particular, when they’d love to have children and are unable to have children. And so the Bible really leans into that kind of pain. But it recognizes that pain not by saying, oh, you know what, having children isn’t everything. That’s not the most important thing in life. It leans into that pain by recognizing there is a legitimate good here that comes along with marriage and is one of the fruits of marriage.

And when it’s missing—and I have friends who have not been able to have children, and they’ll be the first to tell you that that’s a heartache, that’s missing, because there is something very good in this. 

And as Christians I think we don’t increase sympathy for those who are unable to have children by saying that it doesn’t—that there is no pain there or to try to minimize the good of what that is. Instead, we walk through with faith trusting in the sovereignty and the love of God and then seeking other ways in which we pour our lives into others, into the children in our churches, into the next generation that’s coming up. 

There are all sorts of ways that we as the family of God can be fathers and mothers and grandmothers to people and because of the beauty of the Christian faith, it’s not merely a biological family. It’s a family that is brought together by the blood of Jesus.

BASHAM: Trevin Wax is a theologian, a blogger, and author. His books include This is our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel. It’s Culture Friday, Trevin, thanks!

WAX: Thank you for having me.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

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