J.D. Vance, author of the best-seller memoir (and subsequent film with Glenn Close) “Hillbilly Elegy,” is now running for a Senate seat in Ohio. While campaigning, he made news a week ago by saying we ought to consider a policy whereby people who have children cast not only their own votes, but they also cast the votes of their children until they are 18 years old. His point is this would be a way to “give the people with the most stake in the future for our country” the most say in shaping that future. Vance is running as a Republican and, by the way, he is a convert to Catholicism.
As you might have guessed over the years, I myself am not a Republican. All the same, some of the points Vance is making about what our country does and (mostly) doesn’t do to foster healthy families, are valid and deserve to be front and center in 2022 and 2024. I think perhaps he goes a bit over the top with ad hominem argument when he complains that too many liberal Democrats in office don’t have any kids and, for this reason, their views on policy are suspect, or worse. I’m not sure the demographics of our politicians in office support that general observation. Nonetheless, in terms of the liberal Democrat intellectual establishment, there may well be merit to his concerns. Professors and authors are not likely these days to have a large number of children, or any children at all. There is indeed a potential blind spot there that can obscure the views of the “liberal elite.” They also tend to be nonreligious, as everyone knows.
In relation to all this, the University of London scholar Eric Kaufman has shown in his now famous book, “Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the 21st Century” (London, 2010), that all societies that lean toward secularism, agnosticism and atheism have fertility rates that are below replacement level — and often times seriously below replacement level. This is true for all the countries of Europe and Russia (and China by force), as well as Australia, Canada and the United States. Replacement level is an average of 2.1 births per woman during reproductive lifespan, this measurement is the so-called “Total Fertility Rate” (TFR). Here in New England, Vermont is, by many standards, the least religious state in the U.S. and Vermont also has the lowest Total Fertility Rate of any state in the U.S., tied with Rhode Island, coming in at 1.5 births as of 2019 (as per the CDC report available online). Kaufman’s book shows a clear connection between countries’, states’ and subgroups’ religious practices (or lack thereof) and their fertility rates.
When I was still teaching college students, I was constantly surprised at how almost none of them realized the complications that arise when fertility rates fall below replacement level. Europe is living through these complications right now. The TFR for the European Union is 1.5 with Italy and Spain coming in at only 1.3 births. This means that Italy’s and Spain’s fertility rate is almost 50% below replacement level. Without significant immigration, they will not be able to hold their economies and social programs together through the coming decades. Having a decreasing population may sound great at first blush, but living through it is something else. Whole towns and regions become depressed and die; the market for goods and services shrinks each year; children in some towns are completely absent; old people outnumber the young. A world without a healthy next generation is a very sad place.
No doubt about it, having children is very hard work and very expensive. As any parent who has done the job well will tell you, it is the hardest job there is. It is even harder in a society such as the U.S., which is highly individualistic, has almost no programs to encourage and assist middle-class families, and is a country in which the extended family system is not especially functional.
People who live entirely by secular values, who are nonreligious, have a lower fertility rate than those who are religious — almost no matter what religion. In the U.S., atheists and agnostics have a TFR of 1.6 and 1.3, while Catholics and Evangelicals have 2.3, with Mormons having the highest, 3.4 (see the Washington Post, May 12, 2015).
Also, as Kaufman explains in detail in his book, the world population as a whole is becoming more religious and the demographic directions are clear. Even simplistic, vulgar Darwinism establishes the point: Whoever reproduces best wins out in the end — it’s not just “survival of the fittest” after all. Worldwide, Christians have a TFR of 2.6 and Muslims have 2.9 — meaning Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion at the moment, but both are growing. These two religions are followed by over 50% the world’s people today and by 2050 over 60% of the world will follow these religions and 15% will follow Hinduism — only a little over 10% will be unaffiliated (as per Pew Research Center figures).
Those who would like to see the world’s (and America’s) population fall dramatically and quickly, are going to be disappointed. Thankfully, in no small degree due to the influence of religions, the U.S. and the world rate of population growth will not fall off a cliff. World population will be decreasing slowly and steadily, coming to a permanent plateau at 10-11 billion worldwide population in 2100 (as per the United Nations’ mid-level estimate). This is within current estimates of our planet’s carrying capacity, and continued improvement in human ecology is extremely likely during the next 80 years.
Vance makes the point that, of course, it’s possible to keep the U.S. population stable through immigration, but he also makes the point that it would be less stressful culturally to achieve population stability the old-fashioned way, through keeping our TFR at 2.1 births. However, to do this, it might well not be enough to count on religious motivation alone, since the U.S. is also experiencing tendencies toward religious non-affiliation and secularism in general. He argues (and he almost sounds like a Democrat here) that we need to think about serious, outside-the-box improvements in our state and federal policies that foster, encourage and support people’s willingness to have children. And to do so in ways that encourage stable marriage and responsible parenthood.
Today, around 40% of births in America are to unmarried women. In the European Union, it’s over 50% and in France, over 60%. My point is not prudish disapproval. My point is much more serious: The point is that children are paying a price for the breakdown of the family. For example, the worldwide suicide rate for people 15-29 years old is 7.4 per 100,000, but in the U.S., it is 14 per 100,000, almost double the world average. This is tragic.
Religion can help with many things. Helping to foster a healthy birth rate and healthy families are two of those things. Helping to prevent suicide is another (see Medill News Service, Northwestern University, July 5, 2017). Those who are in a rush to rid the world of religion need to reconsider that stance and its repercussions.
A culture without God and children is a dying culture — no matter how affluent and how progressive it may be.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.