Oh my. Folks at The Washington Post have just published an interesting story about non-religious large families that raises all kinds of questions. If you thought journalists had run out of valid new angles for coverage of the whole Pew Forum "none" phenomenon, this piece will convince you otherwise.
Nevertheless, there is a religion-angle problem -- maybe two -- in this story, which ran under the headline, "Stop assuming that families with lots of children are religious."
For starters, the Post team did a pretty good job of telling readers what parents such as Timothy and Kyla Buller do NOT believe. However, the story makes little or no attempt to describing what they DO believe. Hold that thought.
The story also managed, creating an LOL moment for this GetReligionista, to combine two of this blog's least favorite nasty and shallow labels into one all-purpose journalistic insult. Here is what that looks like:
As younger adults elect “none” as their religious preference more and more often, the number of large “none” families in the country may well rise.
But if large non-religious families are getting more common, Tracey Stoner hasn’t noticed it yet. “It’s hard to find support as a large family that’s not religious,” she said.
Raising seven children who range in age from 6 months to 16 years old, Stoner has sought advice in Facebook groups for large families. But the members seem to be “95 percent Christians,” she said, often with fundamentalist ideologies.
You got it! The Post managed to use both the journalism F-word and an ISIS-era application of the word "ideology" at the same time! Yes, indeed, all of those large-family Christians are really, really bad people.
Now does everyone remember what the Associated Press Stylebook says about journalists abusing this particular F-word? As I have noted in the past:
The powers that be at the Associated Press know this label is loaded and, thus, for several decades the wire service's style manual has offered this guidance for reporters, editors and broadcast producers around the world.
"fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. ... However, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.
"In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself."
Now, it is safe to assume that online forums for large families do, in fact, contain quite a few parents who would happily and accurately identify themselves as "fundamentalist" Protestants. However, the odds are very good that these groups also contain lots of Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Pentecostal Christians and parents embracing other brands of religious belief.
So does the journalism F-word apply to all of them? The Associated Press Stylebook says "no."
Meanwhile, what does the word "ideology" mean, if you look it up in several online dictionaries? Here is a typical definition:
ideology ... a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.
Now, to be blunt, is it highly likely that all of those religious believers are having large families for economic and (you knew this was coming) political reasons? Wouldn't it have been more accurate to have said that they were motivated by their "conservative religious beliefs" instead of "fundamentalist ideologies"?
I mean, isn't the whole point of this Post report that studies show that many, but not all, parents who have large numbers of children -- let's say four kids and up -- are motivated, to one degree or another, by religious faith?
The irony is that, other than that random insult, the Post report does a pretty good job of mapping this terrain. Let's walk through that, step by step. At the top of the story there is this:
The Buller family goes out to dinner once a week. When they pass by other tables, “their eyes kind of speak volumes,” Kyla Buller said. “You can see them counting.”
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. That’s right. Seven kids in the Buller household.
“There’s a lot of people that just assume,” Buller said. “They say, ‘Oh, you must be churchgoers. You must be religious.'”
The Bullers are like many parents in the U.S. whose decision to have large families has nothing to do with God. They’re not Catholics who oppose contraception, Mormons who see it as a sacred duty to procreate, members of the Quiverfull movement or other evangelical schools of thought that encourage large broods.
These families don’t subscribe to any particular religious tradition. But by choosing to have many kids, they’ve found themselves confronted with a lot of assumptions about their faith.
And then that opening anecdote is backed up with this solid chunk of summary material:
... In today’s America, the only religious group that is far more likely to have large families is Mormons. The Pew Research Center provided data to the Post, based on its 2014 Religious Landscape Study, on the “completed fertility” of Americans of all religions -- in other words, how many children a person has ever had by the time he or she is 40-59 years old.
Fifteen percent of all U.S. adults have had four or more children, Pew found. This data was not broken down by income, education or other factors that significantly affect childbearing.
Members of some religious groups are a little bit more likely to have had at least four children: 17 percent of evangelical Protestants had at least four kids, and 18 percent of Catholics. Some are a little bit less likely: 9 percent of mainline Protestants had at least four children, and 12 percent of Jews. The Mormons are by far the outlier: 46 percent of Mormon adults have had at least four children.
So how do the non-religious stack up compared to religious people? Not so differently. Twelve percent of “nones” -- the rapidly growing group of Americans who identify their religion as “nothing in particular” -- have had at least four children.
To sum that up, "nones" are more likely to have large families than, let's say, Episcopalians or liberal Presbyterians.
That is a very interesting hook for a story.
The Post report also does a fine job of describing some of the practical details of life in these large families, including all of the stupid and even insulting questions that they hear from people who think it is unwise to have so many children. Many of these rude comments, of course, center on the fact that onlookers assume that only religious people have lots of kids.
But what inspires these essentially secular or vaguely spiritual parents to have lots of kids? In other words, all people have belief systems of some kind. What do these parents believe?
Maybe that material will be included in a future report.
In the end, here is the lesson readers should learn from this Post story: It is very rude, when meeting parents with a flock of children, to ask them, "Don’t you know how they’re made?” or "Do you have a TV?"
Instead, Post readers should kindly ask these parents, "What are you, a bunch of fundamentalist ideologues?"