briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, November 25, 2019

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Monday, November 25, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Why Are Fewer Babies Being Born? A Warning in the New York Times From Eleven Years Ago Proves Even More Dire Today

The headline of the article in the New York Times was a simple declarative statement: “The End of Babies.” The author of the article was Anna Louie Sussman. Interestingly, she’s identified as “a writer on gender reproduction and economics.” This article we are told was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Now let’s think about that for a moment. The Pulitzer Center, well the Pulitzer name is one of the most esteemed in all of journalism, but this is a center for crisis reporting. So as the reporter is identified, we are told that this article is supposed to represent a crisis. And this is where Christians understand if we ever were to know of a crisis, that crisis would be described in this statement: “The End of Babies.”

Now, before we even look at the argument and the analysis, let’s just remind ourselves of something. The Bible begins in its very first chapter, Genesis 1:27-28, with revealing to us the fact that God made us. That God made us male and female. That God made us in his image, and that God made us to reproduce — be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

So if Christians are looking at this headline, “The End of Babies,” we understand we really are looking at a crisis. And as you look at the article, we really are looking at a crisis. This is by no means the first time we have discussed this crisis on The Briefing, but the occasion this time is this massive article that took two full print pages in the New York Times, and the fact that even the New York Times now has the candor to run an article about the end of babies.

The article by Anna Louie Sussman, begins by looking at Denmark in the fall of 2015, when she tells us, “A rash of posters appeared around Copenhagen, one in pink letters, laid over an image of chicken eggs asked, ‘Have you counted your eggs today?’ A second, a blue tinted closeup of human sperm inquired, ‘Do they swim to slow?’ The background to the emergence of those posters and Copenhagen had to do with Denmark’s plunging birth rate. The fact that in that nation, as in others, as we shall see, the birth rate has now fallen far below the replacement rate. And that is leading to a demographic crisis in Denmark. So much so that the government and the larger society has responded with campaigns to try to bring up the issue of human reproduction with the people of Denmark.

But it’s also interesting to note that as the story begins in Denmark, it begins and one of the most liberal and one of the most technologically advanced and economically rich nations on earth, one of those nations and societies that has a massive welfare system, including all kinds of benefits for parents, and in particular for women who work.

And thus the article takes a crucial turn when Sussman writes, “If any country should be stocked with babies, it is Denmark. The country is one of the wealthiest in Europe. New parents enjoy 12 months paid family leave and highly subsidized daycare. Women under 40 can get state funded in vitro fertilization. But Denmark’s fertility rate at 1.7 births per woman, is roughly on par with that of the United States. A reproductive malaise has settled over this otherwise happy land.”

Now just think about that term as one of several we’re going to look at very closely, “a reproductive malaise.” That is a fascinating combination of terms. The birth of a baby, the expectation of a baby has been such an issue of personal and cultural celebration throughout human history that it hardly needs explanation. Just think about the tradition of birth announcements. Think about the even more recent emergence of gender reveal parties and videos. And think about the fact that that celebration is all about having a baby, not not having one.

Furthermore, another constant throughout human history is the fact that there has been grave anxiety at the individual level, and of course at the level of couples, beyond that, at the level of entire civilizations about not having children. As the Bible makes very clear, children are a treasure. They are gifts and they are also the future, not only of a family but of a civilization. It is very interesting to note that the very same newspaper, the New York Times, in its Sunday magazine, 11 years ago — that’s more than a decade ago now — it ran a massive article by Russell Shorto that asked the question, “No Babies?”

Notice that progression in just 11 years. From asking the question, “No babies?” to the declarative statement, “The end of babies.” Shorto went first, not to Denmark, but to Italy, and that’s very interesting, because Italy had been considered throughout most of recent European history, as one of the most baby-centric of all cultures. The traditional explanation about family size was that family size increased as you went further south in Europe. Shorto began by looking at one small Italian village that evidently was already then becoming far smaller. He mentioned two numbers, four and five. Four, the number of babies that had been born during the previous year, and five, the number of children who had entered the first grade.

But the issue, as Shorto understood, is larger than the little village of Laviano in Italy. Shorto wrote, “Demographically speaking, Laviano is not unique in Italy or in Europe. In fact, it may be a harbinger. In the 1990s European demographers began noticing a downward trend in population across the continent and behind it a sharply falling birth rate. Non-number crunchers,” he said, “largely ignored the information until a 2002 study by Italian, German, and Spanish social scientists focused the data and gave policymakers across the European Union something to ponder. The figure of 2.1, he said, is widely considered to be the replacement rate. The average number of births per woman that will maintain a country’s current population level. At various times in modern history during war or famine,” he makes clear, “birth rates have fallen below the replacement rate to low or very low levels.”

But the researchers who are looking at the data in this 2002 report saw something new. “For the first time on record, birth rates in Southern and Eastern Europe had dropped below 1.3.” For the demographers, this number had a special mathematical portent. At that rate, a country’s population would be cut in half in 45 years, creating a falling-off-the-cliff effect, from which it would be nearly impossible to recover. These researchers “invented an ominous new term for the phenomenon, lowest low fertility.”

So the first term we looked at as being rather explosive was that term, “Reproductive malaise.” The second is, “Lowest low fertility.” Fertility rates that are so low, they are lower than those experienced in previous generations under the conditions of war, or plague, or famine. Shorto later in the article asked the question as to whether this is actually a disaster. He wrote, “To many, lowest low fertility is hard evidence of imminent disaster of unprecedented proportions.” He cited Letizia Mencarini, a Professor of Demography at the University of Turin in Italy who said, “The ability to plan the decision to have a child is of course a big success for society, and for women in particular. But,” she said, “if you would read the documents of demographers 20 years ago,” and remember that would now be 31 years ago, “you would see that nobody foresaw that their fertility rate would go so low. In the 1960s the overall fertility rate in Italy was around two children per couple. Now it is about 1.3. And for some towns in Italy, it is less than one. This,” she said, “is considered pathological.”

Even later in the article, Shorto cited researchers for the RAND Europe research. group who said, “Demographers and economists foresee that 30 million Europeans of working age will disappear by 2050. At the same time, retirement will be lasting decades as the number of people in their eighties and nineties increases dramatically.” He went on to summarize, “The crisis, they argue, will come from a triple whammy of increasing demand on the welfare state and healthcare systems, with a decline in tax contributions from an ever smaller workforce.”

Now from a Christian perspective, there’s a poverty there, first of all, even in the horizon of consideration. Our first consideration can’t be merely economic. But as in so many other cases, the economic situation here points to the bigger picture.

Part II

The Implications of a Religious Worldview on the Falling Birth Rate: Why the Birth Rate Crisis Is a Deeply Spiritual and Theological Problem

It’s interesting that in that article in the New York Times magazine 11 years ago, Shorto recognized that some of the explanations to this question, “Where are all the babies?” must be spiritual. In a very interesting paragraph, though, he wrote this: “The broad answer to the where are all the European babies question thus begins to suggest itself. Accompanying the spectacular transformation of modern society since the 1960s, notably the changing role of women with greater opportunities for education and employment, the advent of modern birth control, and a new ability to tailor a lifestyle, has been a tension between forces that in many places have not been reconciled.” Well, the appearance of the article in recent days in the New York Times declaring, “The End of Babies”, indicates that there has not been any reconciliation after 11 years. And furthermore, the situation that looked bad 11 years ago, is now remarkably worse.

And we’re also living in a time in which so many of the people around us are unwilling even to recognize that we are in a crisis. That the situation is increasingly rightly described as pathological. Looking at the two articles together as bookends, separated by 11 years, one of the things we note is that when Russell Shorto wrote his article, the societies around us were coming to the conclusion that there must be structural economic impediments to women having babies, and thus there must be economic answers. And there were many who came back and said what is required is an expansion of the welfare state and government benefits, the provision for women to have paid family leave, and furthermore for there to be extended daycare.

But the article that appeared most recently, 11 years after the first one, comes back and says, “Well, if that was the case, then Denmark ought to be the place where those trends were reversed.” But it didn’t happen. Even after all of that massive social investment, even with a society trying to make it as economically as easy as possible for women to have children, they are still not having children in anything close to what is required by the replacement rate. As Anna Louie Sussman wrote in that most recent article, “It’s not just Dane’s. Fertility rates have been dropping precipitously around the world for decades in middle income countries, in some low income countries, but perhaps most markedly in the rich ones.”

So there’s something very important for us to know. If you’re going to try to explain this fall off in the birth rate by mere economic terms, you’re going to have to explain why the rich countries aren’t having babies, just as people in the poor countries are not.

In Sussman’s article, we encounter yet another one of these terms we need to note. This one is “underachieving fertility.” She writes, “There is many answers to this question as there are people choosing whether to reproduce. At the national level, what demographers call underachieving fertility finds explanations ranging from the glaring absence of family friendly policies in the United States, to gender inequality in South Korea, to high youth unemployment across Southern Europe. It has prompted concerns about public finances, and workforce stability, and in some cases contributed to rising xenophobia.”

Well, there’s an awful lot there to unpack, and more than we actually can in The Briefing today, but you will notice that no one who is looking at this data honestly is saying, “There’s nothing here to worry about.” Indeed, almost everything described in this article offers another reason to worry.

Later in the article Sussman writes, “It seems clear that what we have come to think of as late capitalism, that is not just the economic system, but all its attendant inequalities, indignities, opportunities, and absurdities has become hostile to reproduction. Around the world, economic, social and environmental conditions function as a diffuse, barely perceptible contraceptive. And yes, it is even happening in Denmark.”

That is a very interesting list of words, but some of them don’t actually fit her argument. Those would include the words “inequalities” and “indignities,” because even in the next paragraph, she points out that you’re not just looking here at falling birth rates where you would have extreme economic inequality, but as she points out in the very next sentence that wouldn’t explain Denmark, and Denmark is where she begins the story. It appears actually that it is another word in that series she offered, that turns out to be most morally important, and that is the word “opportunity.” Especially where there is greater wealth, there is greater opportunity to think about just about anything other than the responsibility of reproduction.

She cites a Danish authority who said, “Parents say that children are the most important thing in my life. By contrast, those who haven’t tried it, who cannot imagine the shifts in priorities it produces, nor fathom its rewards, see parenting as an unwelcome responsibility. Young people,” she said, “say having children is the end of my life.” Hold onto that thought for a moment. But I want to point to the next paragraph as the ultimate exhibition of political correctness leading to delusion.

She writes, “There are to be sure many people for whom not having children is a choice. And growing societal acceptance of voluntary childlessness is undoubtedly a step forward, especially for women. But,” she says, “the rising use of assisted reproductive technologies in Denmark and elsewhere — in Finland,” she says, “for example, the share of children born via assisted reproduction, has nearly doubled in a little more than a decade.” She says, “It suggests that the same people who see children as a hindrance, often come to want them.” Notice the apparent incoherence in that statement.

She says or thinks that she must say that voluntary childlessness is a great thing as a lifestyle choice, and it is great, especially for women. But within the next paragraph, she writes about the extent to which many women change their minds later — she doesn’t even question the morality of the first conclusion — they change their minds later and turn to assisted reproduction, because later in life, beyond their peak fertility, they decide they do want to have children after all. But by the time they decide that they’re going to have one, or at the most two children. And furthermore, even as all this assisted reproductive technology is extraordinarily expensive, it is also quite conditional. In many cases, it doesn’t actually produce the desired baby.

But in perhaps the most important paragraph Anna Louie Sussman writes “In a secular world, in which a capitalist ethos — extract, optimize, earn, achieve, grow — prevails, those cues are increasingly difficult to notice. Where alternative value systems exist, however, babies can be plentiful. In the United States,” she says, “for example, communities of Orthodox andesitic Jews, Mormons, and Mennonites have birth rates higher than the national average.”

Now, implied in that paragraph is that those who buy into the prevailing economic and lifestyle picture of the larger society, they’re likely to have fewer babies, while those who are held to a theological worldview are likely to have more babies. That is extremely significant. It’s extremely important to recognize that it was Sussman herself who used the word “secular” in the article.

In the next paragraph, she writes, “Lyman Stone, an economist who studies population, points to two features of modern life that correlate with low fertility, ‘rising workism,’ a term popularized by The Atlantic writer Derek Thompson, and ‘declining religiosity.’

Stone said, “There is a desire for meaning making in humans. Without religion, one way people seek external validation is through work, which when it becomes a dominant cultural value is inherently fertility reducing.” Well there’s a fourth term. “Inherently fertility reducing.” Consider also this paragraph: “There are those who have always sought to lay the blame for declining fertility in some way on women, for their individual selfishness in eschewing motherhood, or for their embrace of feminism’s expansion of women’s roles. But the instinct to explore life without children is not restricted to women. In Denmark, one out of five men will never become a parent, a figure that is similar in the United States.”

Listen to this next paragraph closely: “Anders Krarup is a 43-year-old software developer living in Copenhagen, who recently rediscovered his love of fishing. Most weekends, he drives to the Zealand Coast, where he communes with the sea trout. When he’s not working at his startup, he meets friends for concerts. As for a family, he’s not particularly interested.” In his words, “I’m feeling very content with my life at this moment.””

And consider this statement: “Mads Tolderlund Lind is a legal consultant who works outside of Copenhagen. At age five, he was struck with wanderlust when he saw an advertisement for Ayers Rock in Australia. He eventually resolved to visit every continent in his lifetime, and today at age 31 has just Antarctica to go.”

“In his view, people have children either because they truly want them, because they fear the consequences of not having them, or because it is the “normal thing.” None of these reasons apply to him. He said, ‘I have so many other things that I want to do.’”

Sussman then sites Trent MacNamara an Assistant Professor of History at Texas A&M University, who says it’s not merely about economics or politics. He says the economic conditions are only part of the picture and that what may matter more are in his words, “The little moral signals we send each other based on big ideas about dignity, identity, transcendence, and meaning.”

Now note that what we have in that explanation from the professor at Texas A&M University is essentially spiritual, which means we understand it is essentially theological. That’s the bottom line of the most important Christian analysis. We’re looking at a theological shift that has produced an ominous demographic shift. There has to be a deeper explanation than politics or economics. No one’s arguing that those don’t matter, but that would not explain the falloff in the birth rate in wealthy and in impoverished countries, and middle income countries as well. Economics are a part of the picture, but Christians understand economics actually only reveal the big problems.

Economics does not reach a most fundamental level necessary to explain all of this. And Christians understand that the Bible does not present an explanation of the human condition, or of any human problem that is primarily political, economic, sociological, psychiatric. No, everything is eventually traced back to a theological route. And thus when you look at a secularizing society, or even a secularizing world, you are looking at a world that is going to be increasingly distant from that imperative given in Genesis to reproduce, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.

And we’re also looking at a situation that wealth does buy the opportunity to fill one’s life with something other than what God indicates as most fundamental. That would include, of course, devotion to Christ and service to Christ. It would include the responsibility of marriage and family, and yes, the responsibility of bringing children into the world, and then raising those children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. And it would include the understanding that we are not only robbing ourselves of opportunity, we are robbing an entire society, or all global societies in this pattern of a future.

Part III

Why Are Deaths of Despair on the Rise in America? How the Breakdown of the Family Has Led to Lonely Deaths

But considering how Christians have to consider all of these issues together and then get down to the most fundamental level, I want to raise a very different article. But then again I think you will understand how it is related. In this case, the article’s by Kay Hymowitz who is the William East Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She’s also a contributing editor of City Journal. She wrote an article recently in the Washington Examiner entitled, “A Nation Dying in Despair, and Family Breakdown Is Part of the Problem.

She writes about all the statistics that we now see about despair in America. This despair shows up in various epidemic form, in the abuse of opioids and also in a very market reduction in life expectancy in the United States. This is the last time, the last moment when we would expect to see a decline in life expectancy after it’s been going up decade after decade. But the most ominous sign here is that many of these deaths are the so-called “deaths of despair.” They are entirely avoidable deaths that are explainable by people ending a desire to live. Not only in suicide, but in other forms of behavior that also lead to a reduction in life expectancy.

But William East Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Kay Hymowitz writes, remember her title was about a nation dying in despair and family breakdown as part of the problem. She writes, “We’ve known for a long time that unstable family life related to divorce, missing fathers and communities with large numbers of single mother households can be bad for kids. Deaths of despair are a red flag warning that all these disruptions are similarly hard on adults.” She continues, “The only 32% of the population, unmarried and divorced men, account for a stunning 71% of opioid deaths. Emile Durkheim, one of the godfathers of sociology,” she reminds us, “found a link between suicide and family breakup over a century ago, and the same link remains today.”

“Divorce increases the risk of alcoholism for both men and women. So does checking single for marital status on government documents.” She goes on to say, “These numbers shed some light on why deaths of despair are concentrated among those with lower incomes. Higher income folks are more likely to marry and to stay married. They have closer, more sustained relationships with their children, relatives and in-laws. In recent years, despite its one time reputation as stalwart family traditionalist, the white working class has diverged from its more affluent counterpart. As of 1980, about three quarters of white working class adults were married. That was very similar to the 79% of high-income adults, but by 2017 the working class number had fallen to only 52%.”

Now it is interesting, extremely telling that one of the most vulnerable populations on earth turns out to be middle aged and older white men, who have been divorced. Hymowitz cites demographers in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences who wrote, “Evidence is accumulating that the legacy of divorce and remarriage has a long reach, straining intergenerational relationships, and suppressing the support that divorced parents, step-parents, and remarried biological parents might expect from their children in later life.”

Christians will understand this as part of the picture, but a big part of the picture. And we will understand that what we are looking at here, once again, is a demographic pattern that has to have a moral explanation. And behind that moral explanation, there has to be a theological explanation. And thus the moral explanation becomes very clear, and to her credit, Kay Hymowitz isn’t shy about getting to the point. Divorce has horrifying consequences. The breakups of families, in general, will have horrifying consequences. And we will add to that the absence of marriage, and the breakup of marriage and the absence of children.

All of this will have long-term effects on the entire population. And what we see here as well is that those effects are not only to be found amongst the children of divorce, but as we now know, among the divorced themselves. And this presses us back to the more fundamental theological issue as to whether or not we truly believe that the gifts that God has given us in creation of marriage and family are really so fundamental. And the fundamental answer has to be, yes indeed they are.

The New Testament does make clear, as Christians understand, that there are those who are given the gift of celibacy and thus they are given the gift of service to the church, and to the world for the cause of the Great Commission, and all Christians are to honor them. But at the same time the Bible also makes clear, even in the New Testament, that the expectation is that the vast majority of us are to get married, should get married. Once we are married, we should stay married, and when we are married should have children. We should honor all those who say, “I believe that God has called me to serve the cause of Christ and the gospel in such a way that I’m going to follow the example of the Apostle Paul in 1st Corinthians 7, I’m going to devote my life to the gospel in this way.”

It’s quite another thing to consider that recent article in the New York Times telling us that some people, including in this case, some young men, aren’t getting married, and they don’t plan to have children because they’d rather be traveling or fishing. And we’ll add in conclusion that at least part of the problem, is that many of these young women, and even more young men, are simply not really growing up at all.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.r

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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