Thursday, June 27, 2019
Thursday, June 27, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, June 27, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Cultural Christianity in Retreat: Understanding the Impact and Meaning of Declining Church Attendance
“Cradles, Pews and Shifting Politics.” That was the headline in Tuesday's edition of The Wall Street Journal. Gerald F. Seib writes the Capital Journal column and he wrote, "Sometimes the most important trends, the ones with enormous social and political consequences are unfolding in plain sight. New data show two of them are underway right now: Americans are going to church less often and we are having fewer babies."
Now that's a stunning lead paragraph but it's not really stunning news. What is really interesting is that Gerald Seib has put the two together. He writes a politics column, after all, for the Wall Street Journal and he sees a political impact from the reality that Americans are having fewer babies and they're going to church less often.
He writes, "These two trend lines receive relatively little notice but their social and economic significance is so broad, they are worthy of discussion at this week's Democratic presidential debates and beyond."
He continues, "The steady long-term decline in church attendance is confirmed in the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Just 29% of Americans now say they attend religious services once a week or more often. That is down from 41% in 2000. At the same time," he writes, "the share of Americans saying they never attend religious services has risen to 26%, almost double the 14% who said so back in 2000."
Let's just look at the math again. We're told that 29% of Americans say they attend religious services once a week or more. Twenty-six percent say they never attend religious services. That's just a three-percentage-point distinction.
But then Seib continues, writing, "The rise in churchlessness is most dramatic among young Americans among those aged 18 to 34. The rate saying they never attend religious services previously was no different from the national rate; now the share of these younger Americans who never attend religious services has more than doubled to 36%."
Now, this is basically consistent with what's been reported over the last several years in major research instruments, such as the reports from the Pew Research Center. The indication has been that the number of Americans that registered no religious affiliations are about 20% or one out of five, but among millennials and younger Americans, even those aged under 39, we're looking at about a third of the population or about 33 to 34% and that's just under the number given here, 36%.
Seib says that all of this points to seismic social changes in the United States. He writes, "For generations, churches and synagogues were among the main institutions around which Americans organized their lives. More than just houses of worship, they had been places," he writes, "where Americans unite, find identity and often educate their children. The decline of such communal bonds alters how many Americans identify themselves and find like-minded compatriots."
Well, there's a lot of truth there, sociologically. Of course, Christians begin with the theological definition of the church, the church established by Jesus Christ, who said, "Upon this rock, I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Do these data indicate that the gates of hell are prevailing against the church? The answer is no.
What we are witnessing in the United States more than anything else is the evaporation of cultural or nominal Christianity. The likelihood is that when you look at the number of Americans who actually identify as believing Christians, even though the number may be somewhat smaller than in recent decades, the main evacuation has been amongst those who were casual attenders or rather superficial believers, those who may have for reasons of social or cultural significance identified with organized religion, and perhaps they even did what the culture said then should be done: went to church and took their children to church. The culture is no longer saying that, and the people who received their marching orders from the culture are now marching elsewhere.
But as I said, Gerald Seib writes a political column for the Wall Street Journal, so why is he talking about church attendance when his main beat is politics? Well, he gets right to it: "Politically, declining church attendance is a serious warning for Republicans. In the 1950s and 1960s," he writes, "there was no particular partisan division on this front between Democrats and Republicans." He cites his authority here, Republican pollster, William McInturff, and he conducts the Journal/NBC poll along with a Democrat, Jeff Horwitt.
"Starting in 1980 though Ronald Reagan as a presidential candidate brought religious conservatives directly into the Republican coalition where they have not just remained but become a core element." And Seib then goes on to say that there is a partisan distinction that can be numerically documented.
He says, "Republicans are far more likely to say they attend religious services at least once a week (36%) than are Democrats (23%)." In numerical terms of political research, that is a very big distinction. Between 36% and 23%, that could make or break an election. He then continues saying that "conservatives are more than twice as likely as liberals to report weekly attendance." Again, that's very consistent with what we have known before and that is that secularization and political liberalization tend to go together.
We've seen the secularization as well as the liberalization of the Democratic Party. We have seen the opposite trend in the Republican Party. But Seib goes on to warn that even though Republican slippage in church attendance is less, it's still happening. But then he gets to the other issue. Remember he said that there are two big political and social trends that are having big impact.
The second is the decline in America's birth rate. He says that it is equally dramatic and "similarly profound for society." He writes, "The National Center for Health Statistics reported a few weeks ago that the number of babies born in the US last year fell to a 32-year low. Meantime," he writes, "the general fertility rate, defined as the number of births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44, fell to the lowest level since the start of federal record-keeping."
He goes on to say this fits a larger pattern that is true not only of the United States, but elsewhere. Births in the United States have fallen in 10 of the past 11 years. He went on to say that, "The birth rate fell precipitously in the recession of 2007 but surprisingly, it has never recovered." And he gets to the point here: "This trend has enormous economic as well as social effects. A declining birth rate means Medicare and Social Security will become even harder to finance over time as fewer new Americans enter the workforce to finance the retirement needs of their elders."
He warns of dire consequences: "With fewer babies growing into schoolchildren, some schools may close and school boundaries redrawn. The nation's higher education infrastructure, already under enrollment and financial pressure, may have to be revamped." He goes on to say there will be other changes, but he also looks at the changes behind the changes.
He understands that behind all of this is a radical redefinition of the experience of the average woman in the United States. She is more educated than previous generations. She is entering the workforce and staying in the workforce for most of her adult lifetime. She is investing in education and delaying marriage. She's having a difficult time finding a suitable mate to marry. She is marrying, if she marries, later and having married later and being involved in the workplace, she is intending to have fewer children. That means that declining fertility rate. It means that we are looking at fewer and fewer babies. It also looks at the fact that there is no likely recovery in this pattern.
But Gerald Seib's most important concern is political and he says that these issues are going to have such impact that politicians in both parties ought to be talking about them. He says these issues ought to be a part of America's 2020 American presidential election debate. But let's also face the fact that as Christians look at these very same facts, we have very different concerns.
It's not that we're unconcerned with politics. It's just that that has to take back seat or for that matter, a seat way in the back to far more fundamental concerns. What does this tell us about the redefinition of human life? What does this tell us about the expectation of the average individual, male or female? What does this tell us about marriage? What does it tell us about the society? What does it tell us about the future of the church?
Well, here's where even as Gerald's Seib points to these two developments, he doesn't seem to understand that they are not merely correlated. They're not merely coincidental. There is a cause-and-effect relationship here that many have been looking at very carefully. It's not an accident that a lower birth rate and higher rate of secularization tend to go together.
That raises the question: which produces which? Does an increase in secularization and a change in that worldview lead to fewer babies? Or does the experience of having fewer babies contribute to the pattern of secularization? In one sense, it is impossible to separate these two issues entirely. It's impossible to answer that question cleanly, but there is good reason to believe that both of these factors are at work. But one probably explains more than the other.
Mary Eberstadt of the Ethics and Public Policy Center just in recent years has written a book entitled How the West Really Lost God, and she makes the very provocative and convincing argument that larger families produce deeper religiosity. That's just stated as a sociological fact, but we as Christians understand that there is a theological dimension that's far more important.
That is to say that in the experience of a family, the so-called nuclear family or natural family, in which there is a mother and a father and then there are children and that means siblings, those children tend to grow up more likely to identify with high levels of religious activity and deep levels of religious belief. Why?
Well, there probably will never be an intellectually satisfying sociological explanation for this. Sociology is simply unable to answer the question. But, theologically, I think Christians can quickly come to the conclusion that when a family displays in a very graphic way the reality of God's intention in creation, in marriage and the family, then this tends to have a theological effect upon the children, perhaps even far beyond that intended or understood by the parents.
This really is a very interesting argument, and Mary Eberstadt backed it up with not only convincing argument, but a lot of detail in evidence. But we also come to understand that regardless of whether it is the secularization that produces the lower birth rate or the lower birth rate that produces the secularization, it's not an accident that the two phenomena are happening together. These two trends are very much related.
Even as Gerald Seib and the Wall Street Journal are stepping back to say that's going to have a big political impact, our concern is not the political impact, but the impact that is spiritual, the impact on individual human beings. And of course, the fact that what we are seeing here is a reversal of the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28, in which God said to the man and to the woman, the conjugal union as husband and wife, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth." That “fill the earth” was to fill the earth particularly with human beings, the unique image-bearers of God.
Empty Pews and Empty Cribs? A Look at the Relationship Between Increasing Secularization and the Falling Birth Rate
When it comes just to the birth rate in the United States, the evidence is very daunting. Anthony DeBarros and Janet Adamy writing for the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago summarize the decline this way: "The total fertility rate, an estimate of the number of babies a woman would have over her lifetime, has generally remained below the replacement level of 2.1 since 1971. Our fertility rate falling further below replacement level means that without enough immigrants, the US could see population declines and a workforce too small to support a growing segment of retirees."
I'll back up and say again, this is primarily an economic argument. Christians understand there are far more important issues than economics. It is also interesting to note that this article published in the Wall Street Journal about the dip in the birth rate—and furthermore the word "dip" really doesn't fit the article, once you understand it, it's really a decline 10 of the last 11 years—you come to understand that one of the reasons they offer is contraceptive use. "The expanded use of long-acting contraceptives is another force driving down births."
Now that should be obvious, but it's often not considered in the moral context that it demands here. And furthermore, the issue is global. The Financial Times of London recently offered an article focused upon Japan. The headline of the article by Gillian Tett: “Japan Looks Forward to a Robot-Filled Future.” Japan is suffering demographically to such an extent that it is having to consider developing robots to assist the elderly in nursing homes. That's no longer just a narrative that might have been invented as a plot for science fiction. This is headline news now.
But next we turn back to the United States. Caitlin Gibson wrote another article published in The Washington Post. This one is truly fascinating. The headline: “The Rise of the Only Child, How America is Coming Around to the Idea of ‘Just One.’”
Gibson writes, "Families are shrinking and improvements in gender equality have made childbearing more of a question than a given. As Gen X and Millennial women prioritize personal and career goals, as couples marry and start their families later in life, more parents find themselves mulling the logistical, financial, and philosophical possibilities of a smaller family. What would it mean for them if they had only one child? What would it mean for their offspring?"
Now just to look at the basic math here, if two parents have one child and that becomes the norm, the population over time will be cut in half and though many appear not to recognize this, this would put the entire future of the society at risk. The Washington Post article actually begins by reciting the history of the only child in the United States, pointing out that there's a lot of negative judgment about the context of having an only child. Only children are explained as being likely to be more selfish and to also experience more social aberrations, to be troubled misfits.
Where does that come from? She puts the blame upon Granville Stanley Hall, a child psychologist, and the first president of the American Psychological Association. That was back in 1892. In 1896 he wrote of only children in these words: "Being an only child is a disease in itself."
But what Gibson doesn't seem to recognize is the fact that having only one child was really not a decision possible for most previous generations of married couples. If they were indeed a married couple living as married couples do, then especially in the early years of their marriage, they were likely to have not just one, not just two, but many children or at least several children.
But that takes us back to our previous conversation about the link between secularization and a fall in the birth rate. We're looking here at the fact that we see once again that these issues are not unrelated. That means if we do understand how these two issues are related, then an increase in the number of single-child homes, not to mention childless homes, is likely to indicate an even more rapid spread of secularization and a more rapid increase in the number of Americans who identify as secular.
Once again, I think Christians, if we think about this, can understand at least a part of what's going on. The experience of being a parent is fundamentally different than what we have known before. The experience of becoming a parent and receiving the gift of life, of looking at wonder at this baby, the experience of the understanding of what's at risk in the raising of children, the investment in the next generation, all of this is far more likely to make sense within a theistic worldview.
Furthermore, it is likely to reinforce a theistic worldview. The experience of raising children and educating them, disciplining them, helping them to come to understand reality, helping them to be shaped in character—all of this also fits far more comfortably, far more naturally, in a theistic worldview and it's likely to reinforce that theistic worldview.
The experience of living without children and outside the context of the natural family is also understandably something that is likely in many cases to reinforce a basic secularism or an inclination towards not going to church, not being religiously involved, not identifying in any way with organized religion.
All of these trends have the attention of economists and sociologists and demographers and yes, as we saw in the beginning, those who are interested in politics. But for Christians, we ought to be even more interested, more invested, and also more understanding.
He Stands! The Heartwarming Story of Charley, the Boy Who Had Spinal Surgery in the Womb
Next we turn to an article that fills my heart with wonder and gratitude. It was an article that appeared in the front page of the Science Time section on Tuesday's edition of The New York Times. The article's by Denise Grady. The headline, “A Boy Stands Tall.” The subhead, “Spinal Surgery in the Womb Minimized Nerve Damage Caused by Spina Bifida.”
Grady begins telling us about Charley Royer, age 17 months, who has "such a swift strong kick that putting a pair of pants on him can turn into a wrestling match. His mother doesn't mind," says Grady. "Far from it. 'Things that might annoy other parents, I'm so thankful for,' said Lexi Royer, his mother. This child who crawls around the house chasing a Yorkie named Bruce and proudly hauls himself upright against the couch," we are told, "wasn't expected to do any of this. Before he was born, doctors predicted that he would be paralyzed from the waist down. Prenatal testing found that he had a severe spinal defect and might need breathing and feeding tubes, leg braces, crutches, a wheelchair in lifelong treatment for fluid buildup in his brain. The condition, spina bifida, occurs when tissue that should enclose and protect the spinal column does not form properly, leaving part of the spine uncovered and nerves exposed."
We're told, "About 2,000 children a year are born with spina bifida in the United States." We are also told, "Surgery to repair the defect can be performed after a child is born, but the results are often better if it can be accomplished before birth."
So you might remember that we actually knew of Charley before. Sometime before, but we didn't know he was Charley. He wasn't named Charley yet. The New York Times, when he was a six-month-old baby in the womb, that is a sixth-month-gestated fetus, The New York Times covered graphically and beautifully the prenatal surgery that took place inside the womb on Charley. And we saw the wonder of seeing the womb illuminated with surgical lights, not from the outside but from the inside.
We also saw what was revealed in that article. Charley, who wasn't yet named Charley was referred to over and over again as a baby. Why? Because he, the baby in the womb who was experiencing the surgery, was undeniably a baby. We also looked at the fact that in another context, The New York Times could turn around and talk about another baby at the same exact point of gestation and just use the word "fetus," avoiding altogether using the word "baby."
What we saw there negatively is the fact that a confused society now confers the word "baby" on an unborn child when that baby is wanted or is the object of wonder, as in this surgery that took place inside the womb. But we've also seen that for Christians, there is no such distinction.
But this is one of the most encouraging articles. We are taken now to Charley when he's 17 months old. And as the headline says, he is a boy who stands tall. He has not yet walked on his own, but the doctors believe that he will just a bit more slowly than other children at the same age.
The magnificent and miraculous surgery took place and even when Charley was first born, even in the delivery room, he began moving his legs. They were told that he might experience physical and cognitive disabilities, but as his mother said, "He's on track with everything, Speech, fine motor, cognitive, except for gross motor, which we expected."
The toddler has experienced what's described as "a big language explosion" of late. "He can now name his toys, his stuffed animals and, of course, Bruce, his friend the Yorkie." The article just reminds us how special Charley was when he was in the womb, what a special baby he was.
But the biblical worldview reminds us that the same is true of every single baby in the womb. Every one of them deserving the full protection and dignity of life. But when we see an article like this in The New York Times, we will celebrate it.
The Miracle of a Mother’s Milk: Yes, Milk Declares the Glory of God
I will do the same and invite you to do the same with another article published in the same Science Time section of Tuesday's edition of The New York Times. The headline of this article: “Breast Milk is Teeming with Bacteria. Good.”
That surprising headline comes in an article written by Apoorva Mandavilli. "In the earliest days after birth, millions of bacteria make their home in a baby's body, in the skin, mouth, and especially the gut. These immigrants," that means these bacteria, "come from the birth canal." They also come from other secretions from the mother. Also from "her skin and mouth as she holds and nuzzles the baby and perhaps even from the placenta," although that's not exactly well understood.
"The colonizing microbiome can have a far-reaching impact on the baby's health. Studies have suggested, for instance, that the populace of a baby's microbiome in the first two years of life may predict later risk of obesity." Not to mention, as the article makes clear, a likely resistance against all kinds of illnesses, a general increase in the baby's health and opportunities to thrive, all coming from the experience of breastfeeding.
And the article's subhead includes these words: "Bottled breast milk may not nourish the microbiome the way breastfed milk can." So let me summarize what this article tells us. It tells us of medical research indicating that a baby needs this nourishment of bacteria. It's actually healthy. Thus the headline, “Breastmilk is Teeming with Bacteria. Good.”
But we also find out in this article that medical authorities now believe that this comes not only from the milk but also from the experience of a baby nursing from its mother. In that relationship and even in that physical act, there's a transfer not only of nourishment but also of bacteria.
The article also raises the possibility that the bacteria might go back and forth in a symbiosis between the mother and the baby. It also tells us that there are bacteria that are communicated from the mother and her baby just from the skin-to-skin contact. And as the article makes clear, it turns out that's important for the baby. It increases the baby's health. The baby actually needs those bacteria.
Now here's the big worldview significance that you might not expect. The article attributes this wonder to evolution. One doctor says in the article, "We actually think there's a sort of evolutionary mechanism here, which basically causes bifidobacterium to grow faster. The fact that the bacteria can sense human hormones and react to those hormones, I think that's pretty fascinating."
Just a few paragraphs later, we are pointed to the milk and we are told that it contains “a unique mélange of hormones, antibodies and bacteria, a brew," says the report, "that presumably evolved to meet the needs of the child." So here's an amazing article about the amazing reality of breast milk and we are told that it points to the amazing process of evolution.
Evolution explains this. Isn't that amazing? Except it doesn't actually seem plausible. As we look at this, we understand that behind this article is a secular worldview and the only way that secular worldview can account for anything is evolution. And evolution, we are told, is so wondrous that it has produced this. But is that even plausible?
Christian, just ponder for a moment a much easier, simpler, and more magnificent explanation. A sovereign Creator God, created the cosmos to His glory, and in the complexity of that cosmos, He created one creature in His image and He gave to that creature everything the creature needs including mother and father, including nourishment that comes by nursing, and with the miracle of the fact that it just so happens that exactly what that baby needs is what the mother gives.
We know now with modern knowledge even more of that miracle than did people in previous generations. We know that amongst those gifts the baby needs and the mother gives is bacteria, period. Good, period. And we know that the explanation of that is God, period. Great, period. Creator, period. Glorious, period.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing, Lord willing, period.