America's baby bust: What's religion (or lack thereof) got to do with it?

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Here’s a religion story that some enterprising Godbeat pro really needs to do. (If somebody already has, please share the link with me.)

I’m talking about the role of faith — or lack of faith — in Americans having fewer and fewer babies.

The “baby bust” trend is the subject of an article in the latest edition of The Economist.

The gist is this:

Soon after the great recession hit America, in 2007, the birth rate began to fall. Many people lost their jobs or their homes, which hardly put them in a procreative mood. But in the past few years the economy has bounced back—and births continue to drop. America’s total fertility rate, which can be thought of as the number of children the average woman will bear, has fallen from 2.12 to 1.77. It is now almost exactly the same as England’s rate, and well below that of France.

Although getting into Harvard will be a little easier as a result, this trend is bad for America in the long run. A smaller working-age population makes Social Security (public pensions) less affordable and means the national debt is carried on fewer shoulders. America could admit more immigrants to compensate, but politicians seem loth to allow that. The baby bust also strikes a blow to American exceptionalism. Until recently, it looked as though pro-natalist policies such as generous parental leave and subsidised nurseries could be left to those godless Europeans. In America, faith and family values would ensure a good supply of babies.

Ah, faith and family values. Please tell me more.

To its credit, The Economist offers a bit more insight on that angle:

Some religious conservatives fear that a broad cultural shift is under way. According to Gallup, a pollster, the share of Americans who never go to church has risen from 10% to 27% since 2000. That could be connected to falling fertility. Churches tend to be in favour of children—more so than the other places where people hang out on the weekend, such as gyms and bars.

Back in September, Forbes noted:

(R)eligion matters:  nonreligious women have lower fertility rates than religious women (1.5 completed fertility for nonreligious women vs. 2.6 children for fundamentalists, 2.2 for Catholics, and 2.0 for mainline Protestants); since the levels of nonreligious women are growing, one would expect declines in childbearing rates.

Of course, GetReligion’s own Terry Mattingly has addressed this topic repeatedly. And click here for another post containing information about religious faith and demographics, including a link to this long Weekly Standard quote that pretty much says it all:

... In a world where childbearing has no practical benefit, people have babies because they want to, either for self-fulfillment or as a moral imperative. "Moral imperative," of course, is a euphemism for "religious compulsion." There are stark differences in fertility between secular and religious people.

The best indicator of actual fertility is "aspirational fertility" – the number of children men and women say they would like to have. Gallup has been asking Americans about their "ideal family size" since 1936. When they first asked the question, 64 percent of Americans said that three or more children were ideal; 34 percent said that zero, one, or two children were ideal. Today only 34 percent of Americans think that a family with three-or-more children is ideal.

But on this question there are two Americas today: a secular population that wants small families (or no family at all) and a religious population that wants larger families.

Religious affiliation is part of the story, but the real difference comes with church attendance. Among people who seldom or never go to church, 66 percent say that zero, one, or two children is the ideal family size, and only 25 percent view three-or-more children as ideal. Among those who go to church monthly, the three-or-more number edges up to 29 percent. But among those who attend church every week, 41 percent say three or more children is ideal, while only 47 percent think that a smaller family is preferable. When you meet couples with more than three children today, chances are they're making a cultural and theological statement.

So what’s the potential story? I’d love to see to a journalist interview religious leaders and adherents of various faith groups on the topic. I’d be really curious to know if any faith leaders are, in fact, urging their flocks to have more sex — and babies.

Meanwhile, another number is down, too: the number of abortions.

As the Washington Post reported last week, fewer U.S. women are having abortions than at any time since Roe v. Wade. As is the case with the overall baby bust, improved access to birth control is cited as one reason — among several — for the declining number of abortions.

Who knows — there just might be a religion angle, too, on the birth control trend. You think?

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