This week the National Center for Health Statistics reported that out-of-wedlock births in the United States have climbed to an all-time high, accounting for nearly four in 10 babies born last year. As long as the link lasts, here’s an AP report published in the online edition of the Atlanta Constitution. What’s interesting is that this surge in unwed mothers does not appear among teen-aged girls, whose out of wedlock births dropped last year to the lowest level on record. “Instead, births among unwed mothers rose most dramatically among women in their 20s,” Mike Stobbe, AP Medical writer reports.
Most of the commentary I’ve seen so far among conservative Christians focuses on how these statistics point to the continuing diminution of the nuclear family. This statistic joins another one – that mom-dad-child households have now dropped below 50 percent of all households in America – and, both together show that those chicken-littles who predicted such an outcome for the sexual revolution of the previous generations were not, after all, exaggerating.
On the other hand, I do not find anyone speculating on how these statistics point to the wholly unknown territory of a nation populated by people whose “cradle culture” informs their own expectations of family life (or its absence). In family life, as in other areas, like begets like. Weak families have begotten weaker families, which beget broken families, which beget no families at all. For reasons expounded by an increasing number of both conservative and liberal commentators, the end of all this is death – not the killing of people already living (though, of course abortion does that by the millions each year), but in the simple failure to have any children at all.
Among conservative commentators, Mark Steyn has engagingly made this case numerous times, as in his C. D. Kemp lecture in August 2006, in which he summarized the demographic statistics of secularist Europe with these words:
Seventeen European nations are now at what demographers call “lowest-low” fertility – 1.3 births per woman, the point at which you’re so far down the death spiral you can’t pull out. In theory, those countries will find their population halving every 35 years or so. In practice, it will be quicker than that, as the savvier youngsters figure there’s no point sticking around a country that’s turned into an undertaker’s waiting room. So large parts of the western world are literally dying – and, in Europe, the successor population to those aging French and Dutch and Belgians is already in place. Perhaps the differences will be minimal. In France, the Catholic churches will become mosques; in England, the village pubs will cease serving alcohol; in the Netherlands, the gay nightclubs will close up shop and relocate to San Francisco. But otherwise life will go on much as before. The new Europeans will be observant Muslims instead of post-Christian secularists but they will still be recognizably European: It will be like Cats after a cast change: same long-running show, new actors, but the plot, the music, the sets are all the same. The animating principles of advanced societies are so strong that they will thrive whoever’s at the switch.
Are there any counter-currents? Yes, and you will find this discussed on the cover-story of Prospect Magazine for November 2006. Eric Kaufmann, in “Breeding for God,” points to the demographics of faith, viz. that those who have a stable, forward looking faith reproduce, while secularists of no faith at all stop reproducing. Among the sociologists of religion he cites is Rodney Stark:
In his remarkable book The Rise of Christianity, the American sociologist of religion Rodney Stark explains how an obscure sect with just 40 converts in the year 30AD became the official religion of the Roman empire by 300. The standard answer to this question is that the emperor Constantine had a vision which led to his conversion and an embrace of Christianity. Stark demonstrates the flaws in this “great man” portrait of history. Christianity, he says, expanded at the dramatic rate of 40 per cent a decade for over two centuries, and this upsurge was only partly the result of its appeal to the wider population of Hellenistic pagans. Christian demography was just as important. Unlike the pagans, Christians cared for their sick during plagues rather than abandoning them, which sharply lowered mortality. In contrast to the “macho” ethos of pagans, Christians emphasised male fidelity and marriage, which attracted a higher percentage of female converts, who in turn raised more Christian children. Moreover, adds Stark, Christians had a higher fertility rate than pagans, yielding even greater demographic advantage.
Stark, of course, is not the only one to point to the demographics of faith. Phillip Longman has riled the liberal establishment by pointing to the same factors at work in the American electoral system, where blue-state liberals are failing to reproduce, while red-state conservatives are having more babies and generating more conservative voters.
So far as we can tell at this point, the future is mixed. If the Church and its householders continue to embrace the values and lifetyle of the world, America too will begin its demographic death spiral in the next generation or two. On the other hand, if those with faith in the future and a God who guides it do as the demographers report they have always done, there may be a renaissance of Christian orthodoxy in America by the end of this century.