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Troubling news about the future of the family in America

Jordan J. Ballor | We need a revival of faith and family

A family visits Rocky Mountain National Park in Grand Lake, Colo. Associated Press/Photo by David Zalubowski

Troubling news about the future of the family in America
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A new report this week from the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) examines the current state of, and possible futures, for marriage and childbearing in America, and the situation is sobering.

The study’s findings turn on three main axes considering the COVID-19 pandemic: economic, religious, and political. The combined picture, as the report puts it, is of a likely future in which there is increasing disparity along these three dimensions: “As the pandemic lifts, the nation is likely to see a deepening divide between the affluent and everybody else, between the religious and the secular, and between Republicans and Democrats in their propensity to marry and have children.”

Economic concerns in the formation of families have long been formative. For thousands of years in agricultural contexts, children represented a primary way to increase the productive power of a household. Only in the modern world has procreation become increasingly optional, a lifestyle accessory that depends more on the desires of the would-be parents than the necessities of survival. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther examined the rationalizations behind hesitancy to marry and have children in the early modern period of urbanization and economic development in his treatment of “The Estate of Marriage.” Indeed, Luther called anxiety about the ability to provide for a family “the greatest obstacle to marriage.”

Religiosity is closely linked to such economic worries. Luther goes so far as to call concerns about God’s willingness to provide for a family the result of a “lack of faith and doubt of God’s goodness and truth.” After all, God has promised to provide for those who trust in him and Christians are taught to pray for daily bread. We are told not to worry about food and clothing since it is the “Gentiles who seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” But putting the kingdom of God first reorients our values and assures us that God will provide, that “all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:32-33).

Where marriage and childbearing are reduced to merely economic or material calculations, it makes sense that many people might judge that the investment and risk are not worth it, in purely economic terms. Numerous proposals try to make the economic arithmetic make more sense, from child tax credits (which have taken on new forms during the pandemic) to legal requirements for family leave. The deeper challenge, though, is that such interventions can only have a limited impact where the decision to marry and form a family is made within a purely worldly frame. Here is an opportunity for Christians to proudly declare the inherent good and worth of marriage apart from pure economic concerns.

Other developed nations that have seen increasing material wealth and correlative secularization have not prevented demographic drop-offs, despite increasingly generous social spending. In this sense, a flourishing society requires not only material security but the spiritual basis for temporal faithfulness and trust in the future. Getting married and attempting to have children are inherently risky enterprises. People choose to have children when they have strong motivations for doing so, motives that must transcend mere economic calculation.

“He who would enter into wedlock as a Christian,” writes Luther, “must not be ashamed of being poor and despised, and doing insignificant work. He should take satisfaction in this: first, that his status and occupation are pleasing to God; second, that God will most certainly provide for him if only he does his job to the best of his ability, and that, if he cannot be a squire or a prince, he is a manservant or a maidservant.” This explains why religiosity is such a strong predictor of openness to a fruitful future: it takes trust in God’s providence to invest the time, treasure, and love necessary to build families.

Children are necessary for a society to flourish, and the demographic trends across the developed world—including the United States—are far from healthy. And a society where only certain groups or subsets of the population have the economic and spiritual wherewithal to pursue such socially necessary undertakings as the formation of families is one that is deeply confused and troubled.

We must work, hope, and pray for revival in the United States. We need a revival of our trust in God to provide for us—and for our children.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.


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I do applaud efforts the governments make (not just USA but other countries as well) to encourage child-bearing. As noted in the article, they recognize that now (as always) one of the great obstacles to having children is the economic fears associated with it. But economic incentives are, to some extent, like the "free trials" for software subscriptions: To give me a 30-day free trial on a product I may pay for over 60 months is a small incentive indeed.

The natural view of the software seller is not to reduce the cost of ownership, but rather that if I try the product for 30 days 'at no risk', I might like it enough to deem the subscriptions worthwhile. That is, they are not trying to reduce the overall cost as much as to get me in the door. And that is true of child-bearing incentives as well. The joys of having children are greater than the perceived one-time obstacle.

But the author points out the key part of this logic: The subscription has to be worthwhile for the incentive to really work.

Part of our challenge today is *lifestyle creep*. The historic model of "growing" the household economically is different today. Many young peoples' first homes are as nice as their parents' final homes. My wife grew up with 5 kids and 2 parents in a four-bedroom house... that is, four bedrooms in 950 square feet with one bathroom. Not once during her growing-up years did she or her family ever lament (or even realize) that was an issue. It does not help that the media suggest that the cost of raising each child is so much portion of a million—building a cultural fear factor that child-raising is a financially disastrous. In fact, we see that having children seems to be more like the widow of Zarephath's supply of oil... there's always miraculously enough (1 Kings 17:8-16).


My wife's church growing up had a clothing "lending library" of sorts. When the youngest child could no longer wear the hand me downs of older siblings, then those clothing items were contributed to a clothes closet. My wife and her sibs contributed to this arrangement and benefited from it as well. You have to wonder what the secularized un-churched world does comparable to this. And from what I've been told the LDS church folks similarly support their members having big families and marrying early too.


My Daddy grew up with 3 "whole siblings". When his father married his mother, they each had kids from prior marriages. I admired Daddy for never calling anyone a "half sister" or "half brother". Nearly all the daughters in Dad's family grew up to have only one child. I don't think anyone ever starved in Dad's 1930s stomping grounds (Paris, Texas) but I'm sure there were times when the pickins were mighty slim. I tend to believe that siblings in large families are not as selfish and perhaps better able to be true "team players" in their later vocational lives and of course in childhood sports! I read some years back that Nancy Pelosi's congressional district holds the record for having the least number of children.


Hopefully without sounding too smug or self-applauding, as a sibling among six and a seventy-year-old father of four and grandfather of 16, I can truly say that as young parents my wife and I never once discussed how many children we could afford nor how many bedrooms we would need ... on the other hand, we are guilty of deciding to stop at four.


I've long said that it takes faith to have children, not money or time. And God truly does bless us for obeying His commandment to be fruitful and multiply; in fact, when He gives us a commandment He prepares a way for us to be able to keep that commandment. Parents who raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord are greatly blessed.