babies

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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Friday Five: Fading way of life, 'Submarine Churches,' Chick-fil-A flash mob and more

Friday Five: Fading way of life, 'Submarine Churches,' Chick-fil-A flash mob and more

This week in Friday Five, we've got closing churches. We've got "Submarine Churches." We've got serpent-handler churches.

We've even got a church — flash mob style — at a Chick-fil-A.

I bet you just can't wait!

So let's dive right in:

1. Religion story of the week: The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had a fascinating piece this week on how a way of life is fading as churches close.

The "first in an occasional series written by Jean Hopfensperger" explores how "Minnesota’s mainline Christian denominations face unprecedented declines, altering communities and traditions celebrated for generations." 

2. Most popular GetReligion post: Editor Terry Mattingly's post titled "New York Times asks this faith-free question: Why are young Americans having fewer babies?" occupies the No. 1 spot this week.

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New York Times asks this faith-free question: Why are young Americans having fewer babies?

New York Times asks this faith-free question: Why are young Americans having fewer babies?

Here's something that I didn't know before I read the rather ambitious New York Times feature that ran with this headline: "Americans Are Having Fewer Babies. They Told Us Why."

Apparently, if you ask young Americans why they are not choosing to have babies -- even the number of babies that they say they would like to have -- you get lots of answers about economics and trends in what could be called "secular" culture.

That's that. Religion plays no role in this question at all.

For example: In a graphic that ran with the piece, here are the most common answers cited, listed from the highest percentages to lowest. That would be, "Want leisure time," "Haven't found partner," "Can't afford child care," "No desire for children," "Can't afford a house," "Not sure I'd be a good parent," “Worried about the economy," "Worried about global instability," "Career is a greater priority," "Work too much," "Worried about population growth," "Too much student debt," etc., etc. Climate change is near the bottom.

You can see similar answers in the chart describing why gender-neutral young adults are choosing to have fewer children than "their ideal number."

Now, what happens if you ask people why they ARE choosing to have children? If the question is turned upside down, do issues of faith and religion show up?

It's impossible to know, since it appears that -- for the Times team and the Morning Consult pollsters -- religious questions have nothing to do with the topic of sex, marriage (or not) and fertility. Hold that thought, because we'll come back to it.

So what do Times readers find out about the reasons people give to have more children, even more than one or two? While it appears that no questions were asked about this issue, it's clear some assumptions were built into this story. This summary is long, but essential. Read carefully:

“We want to invest more in each child to give them the best opportunities to compete in an increasingly unequal environment,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies families and has written about fertility. At the same time, he said, “There is no getting around the fact that the relationship between gender equality and fertility is very strong: There are no high-fertility countries that are gender equal.”


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Question for savvy reporters: Spot link between Toys R Us crisis and sobering trends in many pews?

Question for savvy reporters: Spot link between Toys R Us crisis and sobering trends in many pews?

OK, here is a kind of think-about-it post that has been rumbling around in my mind for quite some time.

More and more, I am seeing stories about American religion that are linked to a very basic set of facts: Religious movements that (a) make converts, (b) have higher birthrates and (c) retain a high percentage of their young people have a better chance of thriving or surviving than those that do not.

All together now: #DUH. That's so obvious.

Well, if that is so obvious, why aren't more journalists asking questions about these trends when reporting some of the most important stories in American life and around the world?

Like what, you say? As noted many times here at GetReligion, this is clearly a factor in the declining number of Roman Catholic priests in America, as well as the painful closing of many religious schools. Note all the coverage of aging flocks in old-line Protestant denominations, the so-called "Seven Sisters." Are these factors relevant in the battles inside the United Methodist Church?

I've given this a name, as a twist on the old "demographics is destiny" slogan. That would be "doctrine is destiny." And, as I said, it's not just America. Look at the way birthrates are reshaping Italy. See this post: "Doctrine is destiny reference, concerning Italy's many churches and crashing birthrate." And that stunning new Benedict XVI Centre study on young people in Europe?

Now, it would be important to show that this affects many areas of life in America and elsewhere -- not just religion. Thus, I noticed this recent Washington Post "Wonkblog" piece about the decline and fall of a beloved chain in American commerce: "Toys R Us’s baby problem is everybody’s baby problem."

Here is the overture, leading to a blunt thesis:

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Doctrinal questions? Chicago Catholics have fewer marriages, babies and, well, priests

Doctrinal questions? Chicago Catholics have fewer marriages, babies and, well, priests

The big Catholic news out of the Archdiocese of Chicago -- the nation's third-largest diocese -- has become shockingly normal, perhaps so normal that journalists aren't even asking basic questions about this trend anymore.

The Chicago Tribune put one of the big numbers right up top in its latest report, noting that the Chicago archbishop -- a man closely identified with the tone of the Pope Francis era -- is now facing a crisis that will literally cost him altars. How many churches will he need to shutter? The current estimate is 100.

It's hard to keep Catholic church doors open without priests:

A radical overhaul in the nation's third-largest Roman Catholic archdiocese could shutter many of the Chicago church's houses of worship by 2030 as it reckons with decaying buildings and an expected shortage of priests, the church's chief operating officer confirmed Friday.
Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich told priests and advisers in meetings in recent weeks that the shortage -- an estimated 240 priests available in 2030 for the archdiocese's 351 parishes -- could necessitate closings and consolidations. The archdiocese governs parishes in Cook and Lake counties.

So what are the basic questions here? Yes, obviously, there is the question Catholic leaders have been asking for several decades: Where have all the seminarians gone? Why is a larger church producing fewer priests?

Looking at the hard-news coverage of the Chicago crisis, other questions leap to mind (or to my mind, at least). People keep saying that the "demographics" of the church have changed. This is true, but that only raises more questions that link demographics and doctrine. Hold that thought.

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Your weekend think piece: Demographics are destiny, the liberal Jewish edition

Your weekend think piece: Demographics are destiny, the liberal Jewish edition

On the surface, there is no religious component to the following question: "Why do some people choose to have children, while others do not?" The same thing is true if you ask, "Why do some people choose to have more than 2.1 children, while others do not?"

But if you know anything about polling linked to demographics, you know that it's impossible to answer those questions in real life -- in a majority of cases around the world -- without running into religious beliefs and practice. Look at it this way, if one Catholic family has one child and another has seven, the odds are very high that family No. 2 goes to Mass way more often than family No. 1.

Several years ago, The Weekly Standard (yes a conservative journal) did a highly fact-driven think piece -- "America's One-Child Policy" -- that contained the following paragraph that remains as relevant today as when it was written:

... (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.

So here is the thesis statement that I think, on many stories linked to contemporary religion (think coverage of the declining number of Catholic priests in North America), journalists need to think about.

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In Catholic schools: Demographics is destiny, so is doctrine

In Catholic schools: Demographics is destiny, so is doctrine

Not that long ago, I wrote a post about religious faith and mathematics that turned into a "Crossroads" podcast. The post talked about a number of hot stories and trends on the religion-news beat -- think thinning ranks in the Catholic priesthood, for example -- and then boiled things down to this statement: "Demographics is destiny and so is doctrine."

One of the other stories mentioned was this:

... Sometimes you have to see the numbers written on the walls. ...

* 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.

This leads me to a timely story that ran recently in The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., and was also picked up by Religion News Service. The oh-so familiar headline proclaimed: "Catholic schools fight to keep doors open as future dims." The lede was intentionally nostalgic and to the point:

NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) Suzanne Alworth remembers the glory days of Catholic schools: classrooms taught by nuns packed with close to 40 children in blue-and-white plaid uniforms.

But 35 years later, Alworth’s high school, Immaculate in Montclair, where she graduated in 1979, is fighting to stay open. The school is $900,000 in debt, enrollment is less than half of the building’s capacity and the Archdiocese of Newark will close its doors if it can’t come up with a plan to boost enrollment and improve its finances, said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

“It was a complete surprise when they decided to close the school,” Alworth said. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep this school open because I believe in its mission.”

Like I said, it's a familiar, but very important story.

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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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Pearls before Net commenters (or a Godbeat gem)

A reader sent along this story in the Washington Post headlined “Parents accept daughter’s rare illness as’‘God’s will’” with a note:

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