Are You Doing Your Part in the Baby War?

The American family is “under attack,” or so the leaders of the Christian Right have often declared. I’ve come to think that they have a point (even if it often seems they are the ones doing the attacking). These reflections came to mind when I picked up Lauren Sandler’s latest, One and Only: the Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One, released this month by Simon & Schuster.

Why, Sandler asks, are prejudices about “selfish” and “maladjusted” single kids (and their parents) so widespread in our culture, despite much evidence to the contrary? Part of the answer has to do with myths about the happiness of singletons and their families, which Sandler debunks, but the book has a broader scope that makes it worthwhile for anyone interested in government policy and contemporary American culture.

Single-child families are on the rise, particularly in blue states, driven partly by personal choice and partly by economic pressure. Other developed countries such as Sweden, the U.K., and France, witnessing the same falling birthrates, have taken steps to alter the economic equation with paid parental leave, free or subsidized daycare, and other benefits. Here in the U.S., such benefits are in short supply. 

Now here’s where religion factors into the equation. Fundamentalist groups and organizations are especially interested in having their own sect members reproduce, and they supply resources to make that possible. Sandler tells the story of Karma, Steve, and their five children, who receive prodigious assistance from their church in the form of childcare, clothing, meals and other services. “Imagine what Steve and Karma’s family would look like without the help their church has given each of the five times they’ve brought a new child into their increasingly crowded home,” she writes. “They can’t. ‘Yeah, right! It would be impossible!’ says Karma.”

Where do those helpful resources come from? Some are donated by members of the congregations themselves. But a substantial amount come from the government in the form of tax subsidies. One University of Tampa professor estimates that religious entities receive approximately $71 billion dollars per year in tax benefits and exemptions from the government, thus tilting the economic equation in favor of churchgoing families with the effect that they will eventually produce more voters. 

The more babies a congregation can produce, the more a religious entity can, over the long haul, move government policy in one direction. Founder of Seattle’s Mars Hill megachurch Mark Driscoll, whom Sandler wrote about in a previous book, said, “We are in a city with less children per capita than any city but San Francisco….and we consider it our personal mission to turn that around.” What that means for the women in his church, who are instructed to assume a “submissive” role within marriage, is predictable. “My life is much harder, not easier,” says a woman named Judy. “We had originally planned not to have kids, but now we have to do our best to repopulate the city with Christians.”

The religious right consistently promotes policies that defund any kind of government efforts to improve the conditions of working families. They support politicians and policies that strip poor, working and middle class families of social support. Everything from food stamps to public education to health care are on the chopping block, while they encourage expanded government funding for a large panel of “faith-based initiatives” that are ostensibly intended to transfer the social welfare role from the government to religious organizations. In other words, transferring even more public money and power to religious entities. 

Sandler asserts we now have “two Americas,” who “confront the same dire challenge of parenting without state support. The unchurched do it increasingly by having one child, or none. And the churched do it by depending on the resources provided by their faith community.”

Eric Kaufman, author of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? (Profile, 2011), believes that this trend is cause for alarm for those who cherish the secular world. “The more people inherit patriarchal, family-expanding faiths, the more they will determine the character of the world,” he says. Culture wars the world over, he predicts, will be won through a competition of cribs. “Demography,” he tells Sandler, “shapes these big cultural questions. It operates like compound interest.”

I too find much cause for concern in the assault on the modern family. But I’m not quite so sure that it will succeed in its effort to haul us back into the patriarchy of the past. The hitch in the plan, as every parent will tell you, is that not long after the babies leave those cribs, they develop an ability to think for themselves. In spite of their parents’ best efforts, children don’t always behave or vote the way their elders would like. It may be that the future of modernity depends on it.