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Once More on Faith and Fecundity

A little more than two months ago I accomplished an online feat that had (thankfully) eluded me up to that point. I wrote a blog post that managed to make almost everyone upset. For one shining moment, a wide array of digital tribes came together in unity! They all agreed that they really didn’t like my article on fighting the culture war by having more children.

I write about it somewhat tongue-in-cheek now because two months is an eon when it comes to online controversy. These things flare up quickly and then usually disappear. My friends will joke, “Remember that piece you wrote that everyone hated?”

But I don’t mean to make light of every critique the article received. There were several thoughtful comments and questions, a few of which I hope to address in a moment. I rarely write a follow-up article to something I’ve posted. It tends to keep the controversy going, without changing anyone’s mind. And yet, in this instance, after giving the ordeal 10 weeks to settle down, it seems like a brief response might be helpful.

Culture War

A number of readers objected to the language of “culture war” in the article. I admit that this objection caught me by surprise, but I gather that the phrase is less common in other parts of the world. In America, the term is ubiquitous and has been around for a long time (cf. James Davison Hunter’s 1992 volume, Culture Wars, the Struggle to Define America: Making Sense of the Battles over Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics). I chuckled when one person on Twitter said I was “literally ISIS,” as if I were calling for an army of bullet-clad kids in battle fatigues or was insisting on another Children’s Crusade.

As I hope was clear from the first two paragraphs, my blog post was prompted by the Gorsuch-penned Bostock ruling and its redefinition of sex. Too many conservatives (and liberals are guilty of this as well) have operated on the conviction that every election is the most important of our lifetimes, and that every election portends tremendous cultural victories if our side wins and society-crushing defeat if our side loses. My aim was not to discount the importance of elections and Supreme Court rulings. Rather, my goal was to underscore the relative greater importance of having children and raising them to the glory of God.

Singleness and Infertility

When the post came out in June, amid the numerous critiques, I also heard from people—some I knew, many I didn’t know—who thanked me for the article and said, in so many words, “I hope you don’t apologize just because everyone is mad at you.” I don’t disagree with anything I said in the article and am still glad I posted it. Having said that, if I could go back two minutes before hitting “publish,” I would add one more sentence about singleness and infertility. I’ve talked about these themes in personal ministry and from the pulpit on many occasions. I tried to be sensitive to these realities by saying: “I understand that many couples will be unable to have all the children they want to have. We have to allow for God to work in mysterious ways that we would not have planned. And yet, in so far as we are able, let us welcome new life and give our children that best opportunity for new birth.” In hindsight, a sentence about God-glorifying singleness and the pain of infertility would have made my point clearer and made my general exhortation to have more children less likely to be misunderstood.

Some were particularly bothered by the line, “The future belongs to the fecund,” taking it to be a crass dismissal of anyone who doesn’t pump out a boatload of babies. I’d like to think most people did not read it that way. I was trying to make the incontrovertible point that the future state of this country—and indeed, of the world—is profoundly shaped by who is having babies and how many they have. This is why Philip Jenkins has argued that “the future of world Christianity is African” (not a bad thing!), and that the global crash in fertility rates “is one of the most significant trends facing the world in the coming century.”

Birth Control and Babies

Which brings me to my last point, and here I want to double down on the exhortation I made two months ago. Last year, the total fertility rate in America fell to 1.7 (the number of children a woman will have in her lifetime), a historic low and well below the replacement rate of 2.1. The significance of our plummeting level of fertility cannot be overstated—both as a prediction about the future and also as a reflection of the present. Here’s Philip Jenkins in an earlier article:

Such a precipitous fertility drop has sweeping implications, especially as it has occurred in such a short period—just in the past decade or so—and recent changes have attracted intense attention from economists, planners, and politicians.

As yet, however, observers of U.S. religion have shown little concern or interest—which is curious since, worldwide, a move to very low fertility has been an excellent predictor of secularization and the decline of institutional religion. Fertility and faith travel closely together. Present demographic trends in the United States are the best indicator yet of an impending secular shift of historic proportions, even a transition to West European conditions. This is, or should be, one of the most significant and newsworthy developments in modern American religion.

I fear that when it comes to our ideas of sex, family, and children, Western Christians in the last century have been much more shaped by the culture than we have shaped the culture. The church has been a thermometer more than a thermostat. After a 30-year delay, the United States has moved decisively toward the secularizing trajectory that has been the norm in Europe for decades, and the decline in fertility is both cause and also effect of that trajectory. As Jenkins says in his new book, “we are in the early stages of an authentic religious and cultural revolution” (98).

Certainly, the widespread availability of birth control is part of the explanation. I admit my wife and I have never been entirely comfortable with birth control (and we have the 15-passenger van to prove it!). But as a pastor I have also told couples on occasion that birth control made sense in their situation. I’m thinking of cases of extreme poverty or real concerns about the woman’s health, her age, or serious problems with previous pregnancies. I am not a fertility maximalist. Nevertheless, the way the Bible encourages fruitful multiplication (Gen. 1:28) and celebrates olive shoots around the table (Ps. 128:3) leads me to agree with John Frame that the use of birth control requires a high degree of proof.

The problem in most churches is not with couples having babies thoughtlessly, but with the unthinking adoption of societal norms and values. Even if birth control is permissible in some situations, any honest observer would have to conclude that birth control among Bible-believing Christians is an assumption much more than an exception. Most premarital couples are on the Pill before they even start their prescribed counseling. Most Christians give little thought to the birth control methods they use, figuring that everything except the morning-after pill must be ok. Christians give even less thought to the rightness or wrongness of birth control in general, even though for most of church history, Christian theologians stood against taking life after conception and against preventing life before conception.

Conclusion

In closing, let me reiterate that I wish I had done more in my initial post to highlight those who are glorifying God in singleness, showing the love of Christ in adoption, or simply trusting God with hard providences in their lives. Those weren’t the people I was meaning to tweak.

I do mean, however, for Christians to consider whether our approach to career, to family, and to a covenantal understanding of the faith is the result of prayerful, biblical, and theological reflection or the result of the invisible pressures and assumptions of the world we inhabit. It is likely that in the future the only couples having lots of children—which at this point is three or more—will be religious couples. I hope that evangelical Christians will be well represented among them.

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