Americans Are Having Fewer Children, and Christians Are No Exception

Lily Jones Howard grew up in a church in southern California with a burgeoning children’s and youth ministry. The church held afternoon and evening AWANA clubs and ran separate junior high and high school youth groups. She compares that to the church she and her husband and two children attend now. The median age of members, she guesses, is about 65 or 70. “The pastor has said explicitly that children are the lifeblood of the church,” Howard said. The congregation makes an effort to welcome young families like hers.

In the near future, an increasing number of American evangelicals may find themselves with church experiences like the Howard family’s for one principal reason: evangelicals with children are slowly becoming harder to find.

Americans in general are having fewer children today than they did two generations ago. Spiking after World War II, the fertility rate declined to around two lifetime births per woman in the ‘80s and has hovered there since, according to the Pew Research Center. Evangelicals, however, had maintained higher than average fertility rates until recently, according to University of Oklahoma sociologists Samuel Perry and Cyrus Schleifer.

Perry and Schleifer analyzed data from several decades of the General Social Survey (GSS) and found that, between 1972 and 2016, conservative Protestants went from having six percent more children than mainline Protestants to roughly the same number. Painted in broad strokes, what this means is that evangelicals now seem to be having about the same number of children as anybody else in America.

Demographers, politicians, and pundits are all concerned about head counting as the 2020 US Census approaches on top of a presidential election. Some are concerned about the economic and social burdens of an aging population, while others worry about each new person’s carbon footprint.

Evangelicals also weigh seemingly conflicting concerns. Some see God’s command in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply” as paramount, while others glean from the creation story a responsibility to steward creation, which might mean having fewer children.

How does having children fit into a broader vision of God’s kingdom? What values are informing—and what values should inform—our decisions around family size?

Declines Across the Board

Perry and Schleifer set out to explore how differences in religious commitment and belief might intersect with denominational affiliation in influencing childbearing decisions. Taking 44 consecutive annual samples of around 1,500 people who had completed their childbearing years (ages 45 and over), they compared the number of children born to Catholics, mainline Protestants, and conservative Protestants. Then they asked how factors like biblical literalism and regular church attendance affected family size.

According to their results, fertility has declined across Christian denominations, from an average of 2.7 children ever born in 1972 to 2.3 in 2016. The researchers looked at the effect that church attendance and a more literal view of the Bible had on a person’s family size. If mainline Protestants and Catholics attended church regularly, childbearing slightly increased. However, among conservative Protestants fertility rates declined regardless of attendance levels.

Perry surmises that this difference has to do with how evangelicals define themselves. “If you’re evangelical, you’re already pretty conservative,” he said. Church commitment and taking the Bible more literally come with being an evangelical. Within mainline Protestants and Catholics, however, there is a noticeable split between liberal and conservative types. Regular church attendance and belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible among these two groups, Perry said, indicate more traditional values, which correlate to higher fertility.

Economist Lyman Stone contends, however, that people who are more religious are still having more babies than others. “When you look at specific beliefs or religious behavior—religious people are becoming more distinctive. We’re not seeing this huge turn. There is still some fertility decline, but it’s far more modest,” he said.

Stone, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, points to a single survey: the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey (PRLS). Evangelicals averaged 2.3 children born, about 8 percent higher than the 2.1 national average. The Pew survey used a much larger one-time sample (over 35,000 adults) compared to the survey Perry and Schleifer used, which could make it a more accurate estimate of recent fertility rates.

Despite different outcomes, both Perry and Schleifer’s research and the Pew survey are in line with recent headlines: People are having fewer babies. Evangelicals are no exception.

The “Mainstreaming” of Evangelical Christianity

Mandy Cobb and her husband struggled for years to conceive and underwent multiple fertility treatments. Their son’s birth in 2015 was traumatic, including an emergency C-section and ICU stays for both mother and baby. They won’t be having more biological children for health reasons, and while adoption has been discussed, Cobb said, it would probably just be one. “Having more than two or three would alter my mental sanity.”

Cobb is a full-time working mother, coordinating a radiation program for a technical college in Georgia. “I absolutely love what I do,” she said. Knowing that she wants to keep working, having a lot of children doesn’t make sense financially. “The more kids I have, the more I’d be working to pay for childcare,” she said.

While Cobb’s story can’t be reduced to sociological trends, it offers a glimpse into how evangelicals’ thoughts around childbearing are changing.

In the latter 20th century, evangelicals began shifting from their separatist, fundamentalist roots and engaging more across society. The changing role of women, said Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins, is one of the biggest factors influencing downward fertility trends. Research shows an inverse correlation between women’s educational attainment and family size. As evangelical women like Cobb increasingly work outside the home, it changes their calculus around family size.

Another related factor is marital status and age at marriage. Evangelical marriage rates dipped from 59 to 55 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to Pew. They follow the pattern of Americans as a whole, marrying at later ages and sometimes foregoing marriage and children altogether. Delayed marriage, Stone said, may explain much of the fertility decline in the past two decades, as married women have more children than unmarried women.

This all points to the larger trend Perry identified—the “mainstreaming” of evangelicals since the 1970s. Simply put, evangelicals are absorbing many of the values of the surrounding culture, which itself is becoming less religious (26 percent of American adults identified as “nones” in 2019, up from 17 percent in 2009).

Changing Views on Children

Victoria Riollano and her husband live in Northern Virginia and have six children, from ages one to 12. Her family gets plenty of stares when they leave the house. “Once you get to three, people start looking at you like you have three heads,” she said. As their numbers grew, Riollano felt called by God to stand up for her family, rather than accept the assumptions. When people remark, “You have your hands full,” she replies, “I’m so blessed,” or “Yes, but they are good helpers,” pointing to the older children. She doesn’t want her children to get the message that they are a nuisance, which is how she felt growing up as one of two children.

For Riollano, raising children is an integral part of her calling as a Christian. She goes back to Genesis 1:28, when God blessed Adam and Eve and told them to, “Be fruitful and multiply.” “That’s part of our commitment to God. Children are for keeping the name, the legacy alive,” she said.

Riollano contrasts her view to that of her generation, which she said sees children as optional, having them “if it’s convenient for me.” Indeed, views of children have changed dramatically from past generations, when children were integral to the family economy, whether as farm hands or wage earners.

The widespread availability of contraception has also changed how we think about childbearing. A century ago, noted the Baylor researcher Jenkins, everyone had about the same number of children, regardless of religion, because they didn’t have options otherwise. While some forms of contraception were available earlier, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the use of reliable, long-term birth control such as the Pill and IUDs became commonplace.

“Protestants jumped into the contraception and birth control movement with two feet,” said Wheaton College theologian Emily McGowin. “We didn’t think a lot about what we were buying into.” It’s no surprise to McGowin that we are still struggling to articulate a consistent, faithful vision for children and families. Theologically, “it’s going to take a good hundred years to actually come to terms with this,” she said.

In the meantime, declines in fertility rates bring new urgency to these questions: Why have children? What are families for?

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Source: Christianity Today