Saints by Numbers

Will the Religious Inherit the Earth?

"Christianity is not a fertility cult!” This was the message heard from numerous Protestant and Catholic pulpits in the early 1960s, as a broad revulsion toward the American baby boom of the prior decade set in among progressive theologians and preachers. Spurred on by fear of a global “population explosion,” the worries of these Christian innovators actually rested on real developments among mere Christians. While the mainline Protestant churches of the 1930s and 1940s had warmed up to the practice of birth control, Evangelical Protestants had held back, still faithful to the old Christian consensus regarding the sinfulness of contraception. As a result, they had shown fertility rates significantly higher than those found among the contracepting liberals.

American Roman Catholics had also exhibited unusual behavior. During the 1920s and 1930s, overall Protestant and Catholic fertility rates had significantly converged, while both headed downwards. During the baby boom, though, they diverged again. While the total fertility rate of non-Catholic Americans was an average of 3.15 children born per woman in 1951 and 3.14 in 1961, the comparative figures for Catholics were 3.54 and 4.25. More dramatic was the return of the large Catholic family. In 1952, only 10 percent of Catholics under age 40 reported having four or more children, a number close to the Protestant figure of 9 percent. By 1959, the Protestant figure was unchanged, but the Catholic figure had soared to 22 percent.

Christian Reproductive Consensus

Now, it is correct to say that Christianity is in no way a “fertility cult,” least of all in the usual pagan expressions of that phrase. All the same, Christianity is unique among the world’s religions in the great attention it gives to the birth of a baby and the consequent maternal-infant bond.

Moreover, the early Christians proved to be remarkably fruitful. While their pagan Roman neighbors practiced contraception, abortion, and infanticide, allowed for easy divorce, and had a preponderance of males (due to female infanticide), the new Christian movement strongly opposed abortion and infanticide, discouraged birth control and divorce, and had a high proportion of members who were women in their fertile years. Religious sociologist Rodney Stark concludes that “a nontrivial portion of Christian growth was due to superior fertility.” Christian numbers rose from a mere handful of followers in a.d. 40 to six million by the early fourth century, when the Mediterranean world effectively became theirs. And there is that peculiar passage in First Timothy (2:15), much reviled by the feminists, in which Paul teaches that “women will be saved through bearing children.”

Also pronounced was the reproductive consensus that had been a constant feature of Christianity—until the mid-twentieth century. The welcome of children in abundance and the opposition to contraception, abortion, and infanticide survived Christian divisions on other matters in the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. As the Anglican author Richard Fagley wrote in 1960: “For all practical purposes, the ethos of Wittenberg and Geneva and Canterbury was as strongly pro-fertility as that of Rome.” That same year, an Orthodox representative to the World Council of Churches emphasized that his church still held “that parents have not the right to prevent the creative process of matrimonial intercourse; also, that God entrusted to them this responsibility for childbearing, with full confidence that his Providence would take care of material and other needs.”

Demographic Transformation

Attention to the fertility effects of religious faith has been revived in recent months by Eric Kaufmann’s book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. A Reader in Politics at Birkbeck College, the University of London, Kaufmann describes himself as a secular liberal. All the same, he argues that “religious fundamentalists are on the course to take over the world through demography.” He defines “fundamentalist” broadly to include Jews, Christians, and Muslims around the globe who take their beliefs seriously enough to allow scriptural teachings on marriage and procreation to influence their behavior.

Examining current population trends, Kaufmann concludes that the future of the human race most probably lies with groups, now on the cultural margins, that are still faithful to God’s command, “Be fruitful and multiply.” He points to the Old Order Anabaptists (e.g., the Amish and the Hutterites), American Mormons, Ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Jews, Salafi Islamists, Laestadian Lutherans (found in the Finnish, Swedish, and Canadian northwoods), and “Quiverfull” Protestants as the future of the human race. (Some anecdotal evidence suggests that he could have added in “Latin Mass” Catholics as well.) With fertility rates of between four and nine children born per woman, and in the general context of tumbling global fertility, these groups are already expanding their size relative to the earth’s population. If compounded over another four generations, the transformation would be staggering.

Kaufmann does skillfully deconstruct the modern myth that secular liberalism is on the march and will dominate the future. Instead, he argues, “We have embarked on a particularly turbulent phase of history in which the frailty of secular liberalism will grow ever more apparent.” Liberalism, like fascism and communism, is another victim of the “ideological exhaustion” of the age, no longer able to inspire self-sacrificing behavior. Meanwhile, the liberal values of pluralism and tolerance suck the life out of “moderate” religion, while allowing fundamentalist subcultures to grow. As he nicely summarizes: “Secularism, like DDT, wiped out much of its opposition but also gave rise to new, resistant strains of religion.”

His closing words are stunning:

It will be a century or more before the world completes its demographic transition. There is still too much smoke in the air for us to pick out the peaks and the valleys of the emerging social order. This much seems certain: without [a new secular] ideology to inspire social cohesion, fundamentalism cannot be stopped. The religious shall inherit the earth.

The Last Liberal Trump Card

Might Kaufmann be correct? Possibly so. If high-fertility religious groups continue to procreate at current levels and if they successfully transmit their values to the largest share of their young, his prediction should hold true.

This scenario also underscores the great—even absolute—importance of defending religious liberty in our time. The last “liberal” trump card is to abandon toleration and instead to reach aggressively into “fundamentalist” communities and seize their children, either directly, or indirectly through the imposition of an alternate worldview. Legal barriers to this ideological invasion must be strengthened; if accomplished, the larger transformation just might happen . . . much as it did occur in the fourth Christian century.

—Allan Carlson, for the editors

Allan C. Carlson is the John Howard Distinguished Senior Fellow at the International Organization for the Family. His most recent book is Family Cycles: Strength, Decline & Renewal in American Domestic Life, 1630-2000 (Transaction, 2016). He and his wife have four grown children and nine grandchildren. A "cradle Lutheran," he worships in a congregation of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. He is a senior editor for Touchstone.

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