Yet another hand-wringing article about falling American birth rates came out this week. Despite the fact that market proponents usually love to tell us that the magic of markets is precisely that they can adjust to anything, the authors of this article – as with most such articles – seem deeply concerned about the economic effects of the fewer babies phenomenon: “perhaps most damaging would be declining markets and a hobbled economy in which governments are forced to tax the shrinking workforce to pay for the soaring retirement and health expenses of an increasingly doddering population.” The zombie apocalypse, for this generation, is turning out to be an apocalypse of under-fertile women and needy old people.
Occasionally Christian pro-natalists will jump on statistics like these as more evidence of America’s culture of death. But unlike for Jews, “be fruitful and multiply” was not always a given command for Christians. One of my favorite passages from the New Testament is from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. “Concerning virgins,” reads 1 Corinthians 7, “it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am.” It’s certainly not a sin to get married, he says, “but those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.” Paul rightly foresaw a lot of suffering coming down the pike for early Christian communities, and didn’t see any reason for people to increase that suffering exponentially with family complications. It made a lot of sense, really. After all, which would you prefer: to be martyred, or to be martyred after watching your spouse and children be martyred? In any case, Paul also didn’t see much point to having kids, since “this world in its present form is passing away.”
Of course, the known world didn’t actually pass away, and most Christians kept getting married (the better to control their sexual urges) and kept having children (the result of said sexual urges). But a number of early Christians took Paul’s teaching to heart and decided not to marry. Women, in particular, found marriage to Christ a welcome alternative to the likely prospects of subjugation to a husband and early death by childbirth. Singleness and childlessness were thus not merely tolerated among the early churches; a case can be made that they were actually the preferred form of Christian discipleship. (Indeed, the Protestant Reformers took pains to undo this powerful tradition.) Economists could no doubt explain this behavior as the rational “group suicide” of an oppressed people who had grown weary of serving the Roman Empire.
Which leads us to the real trouble with virgins: they don’t make good subjects. You can’t build an empire (or a religion) when young women, such as the much-ignored Thecla, refuse to marry and bear children. Child-free adults can be fearless about challenging the status quo, while those with children to feed are much more reliable supporters of the established order. “An unmarried woman is concerned about the Lord’s affairs,” wrote Paul, “but a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world.”
I can’t help thinking of Paul when considering the near hysteria in some sectors over America’s falling birth rate. Christians, it seems to me, have no business worrying about such an issue. This is not because humankind is a cancer or deadly virus upon the earth. On the contrary, humankind is “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and humans – individually and collectively – have the potential for great good. I am often frankly astonished at the miracles of which humans are capable, and such capabilities are worth celebrating. But it doesn’t therefore follow that all of us should be furiously procreating to make sure the world doesn’t run out of humans; at 7+ billion of us, it seems fairly certain humankind will live on (assuming we don’t destroy the earth). Christians need not feel a duty to have “quivers full” of children because, at least in theory, the church has replaced the biological family as their primary community.
Instead, Christian decision-making around children should center on what kind of people we want to be. Traditionally, Christianity has called for qualities like hospitality, inclusiveness, compassion, generosity, and peacemaking – all of which may or may not coexist with parenting. Does having children make you more self-centered, paranoid, nationalistic, acquisitive, or xenophobic? Then you probably shouldn’t do it. Does having children make you more compassionate toward all people everywhere, each one of whom has hopes for their own (and their children’s) flourishing? Then it’s probably a good idea. But it’s important to remember that parenthood is not the only way to foster solidarity with one’s fellow humans; biology can divide us just as easily as unite us.
Finally, it is not Christianity’s concern whether America can “project power” or “preserve its place in the world,” dependent as that place is upon military and economic shock and awe. From a Christian standpoint, there is no competition between American children and Chinese or Pakistani or Nigerian children. All of us are humans, and thus ineluctably tied together in our flourishing. (No doubt many Buddhists, Muslims, or atheists would say the same.) As Christians love to say, “For God so loved the world” – not just the USA or Italy or Israel. With more than seven billion of us around, there is an abundance of opportunity to spread the love. People concerned about falling birth rates could more constructively spend their energy loving the neighbors they already have.