Religion ghosts? New York Times says America's biggest economic issue is demographic decline

Things were looking good for the Episcopal Church in 1966, when its membership hit 3.6 million — an all-time high. Then the numbers began to decline, year after year and decade after decade. At the moment, there are 1.6 million or so Episcopalians.

Why is this happening? Episcopal Church leaders have been asked that question many times, because it’s a valid and important question.

No one has ever given a more concise — bold, even — answer than the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, when she said down for a “State of the Church” chat with the New York Times Magazine soon after her 2006 election as national presiding bishop. Here is the crucial exchange:

How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children? 

No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

In other words, her critics said, Episcopalians are too smart to have lots of babies (unlike Catholics and Latter-day Saints) and, besides, most members of this flock have theological reasons not to procreate.

What we have here is a classic example of the formula that I keep writing about here at GetReligion, which I state this way, offering a third factor to a familiar equation: Doctrine equals demographics equals destiny.

That brings me to this new headline at the Times:

America’s Biggest Economic Challenge May Be Demographic Decline

Slower growth in the working-age population is a problem in much of the country. Could targeted immigration policy help solve it?

Here is the rather sobering overture:

For many years, American economists have spoken of Japan and Western Europe as places where the slow grind of demographic change — masses of workers reaching retirement age, and smaller generations replacing them — has been a major drag on the economy.

But it is increasingly outdated to think of that as a problem for other countries. The deepest challenge for the United States economy may really be about demographics. And our understanding of the implications is only starting to catch up.

A new report from the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington think tank funded in large part by tech investors and entrepreneurs, adds rich new detail, showing that parts of the United States are already grappling with Japanese-caliber demographic decline. ...

Once again we are in very familiar Times territory, with a story similar to the coverage that I critiqued last year in a post with the headline, “New York Times asks this faith-free question: Why are young Americans having fewer babies?

Let me be clear: No one would argue that economic, ethnic and educational issues do not play a role in population growth and decline. No one would deny that immigration trends have to be addressed in coverage of this issue. The question I am raising, again, is this: Why do so many journalists ignore the fact that religious faith and practice is another key factor in discussions of demographics?

Let’s stop and think about this. Can you name a nation much more secular than Japan? Or let’s consider France. What parts of this European nation’s population are growing? What parts are in numerical decline? Does this have anything to do with post-Christian French culture? How about rising numbers of first- and second-generation Muslim families?

It’s clear that this new Times piece is primarily about immigration and economics. I get that. The issue is whether the editors who shaped this piece ever considered whether or not religious faith might be part of this story.

Let’s look for clues:

… Demographic change doesn’t hit everywhere equally. Besides the inevitable effect of the extra-large baby boom generation hitting retirement age and stepping away from the work force, decisions by working-age people can accentuate or lessen the impact of that underlying shift.

Many younger workers move to bustling urban centers on the coasts, leaving smaller cities and rural areas behind. Immigrants bolster the labor force but also disproportionately go to those same big coastal cities.

Let’s see: What do we know about religious trends among young Americans, especially in elite urban zip codes?

Later, there is this rather dry statement:

Policies to encourage American families to have more children would help over the long run by increasing the supply of potential workers in the future. So could efforts to ensure that even struggling cities have the kinds of amenities young families desire, particularly good schools.

This long and totally faith-free feature ends with this rather ominous summary:

Demography may be the most powerful economic force of them all, and for much of the United States, the trend lines, for now, are pointing in the wrong direction.

So that’s that. Life is basically a matter of politics and economics, even when we are talking about marriage, families, babies and things like that.

So, once again, let me end with some material that I have quoted many times from a Weekly Standard (RIP) magazine) article, with this headline: "America's One-Child Policy." Yes, this is long. Please read carefully:

... 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.

Now, here is a final question: What percentage of the American population is — according to Gallup polls over the years — making a serious attempt to practice some form of traditional religious faith? That would be somewhere around a third of the population.

What is the percentage of Americans, in the poll referenced above, that think the ideal family has three-plus children? That would be 34 percent.

Nothing to see here. There are no religion ghosts to study. Move along.

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