Birth Rate

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

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

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:

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Your weekend think piece: Doing the math (think demographics) in post-Christian Europe

Your weekend think piece: Doing the math (think demographics) in post-Christian Europe

Just when you thought it was impossible to find another new layer of meaning in the brutal murder of Father Jacques Hamel, who was slaughtered at the altar of a French church dedicated to the memory of the first New Testament martyr St. Stephen, columnist Ross Douthat of The New York Times dug a bit deeper.

This Sunday piece ran under this headline: "The Meaning of a Martyrdom." In it, Douthat -- a pro-Catechism Catholic, to one of my own pushy labels -- reflects on the current debates about whether Hamel was or was not a martyr for the Catholic faith. This also happened to be the topic of my Universal syndicate column this past week. Click here to check that out.

But in the midst of that discussion, Douthat made this blunt observation, noting that Europe, and our world today in general:

... is not actually quite what 1960s-era Catholicism imagined. The come-of-age church is, in the West, literally a dying church: As the French philosopher Pierre Manent noted, the scene of Father Hamel’s murder -- “an almost empty church, two parishioners, three nuns, a very old priest” -- vividly illustrates the condition of the faith in Western Europe.
The broader liberal order is also showing signs of strain. The European Union, a great dream when Father Hamel was ordained a priest in 1958, is now a creaking and unpopular bureaucracy, threatened by nationalism from within and struggling to assimilate immigrants from cultures that never made the liberal leap.

This reminded me of a sobering Catholic News Agency piece that ran recently at Crux about a blast of statistics from Catholic pews, pulpits and altars in postmodern Germany. To be blunt about it, Catholicism in Germany is not producing new babies or new believers, according to findings released by the German bishops' conference.

Check this out:

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Pod people: Sometimes editors really need to do the math

I have never been much of a math guy, but sometimes you have to see the numbers written on the walls. For example, what essential thread runs through the following religion-beat stories? I am not arguing that this math hook is the only factor at play in these stories, but that this X-factor is a key piece in these puzzles.

* Nationwide, the Catholic church has been forced to close many of its parishes, especially in urban areas, along with their schools — due to falling numbers in pews and desks.

* The Southern Baptist Convention has experienced a consistent, even if relatively small, decline in membership numbers. Baptisms have continued to decline. Meanwhile, the denomination’s work with Latinos and African-Americans provides a crucial boost.

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