This just in: Babies are statements of faith

What a surprise. It turns out that demographics do matter.

What a surprise: It seems that there is a link between traditional forms of religion, or at least some of them, and survival and survival-plus birthrates.

If you do the math, it does appear that religious groups that have babies, retain the faithful and attract converts have a better chance of surviving than those that do not. Of course, their tough doctrinal standards may also mean that a smaller percentage of the larger culture chooses to be part of the flock. The flock may be small, yet growing and vital. The issue is not how this flock fares in relationship to the whole culture, but in relationship to other segments of its larger faith flock.

These basic realities are embedded into an interesting New York Times story that pivots on one of the strongest stereotypes in America religion — the size and influence of the Jewish community in New York City. This is also a story with a rather large, logical hole in it.

Back to New York City. There have been some interesting changes. Here’s the top of the story:

After decades of decline, the Jewish population of New York City is growing again, increasing to nearly 1.1 million, fueled by the “explosive” growth of the Hasidic and other Orthodox communities, a new study has found. It is a trend that is challenging long-held notions about the group’s cultural identity and revealing widening gaps on politics, education, wealth and religious observance.

Those findings, contained in the first authoritative study of the city’s Jewish population in nearly a decade, challenges the entrenched image of Jews as liberal, affluent and well educated. Over the last decade wealthy, Ivy League graduates like those on the Upper West Side have increasingly lost population share relative to Orthodox groups, like the Hasidic population in Brooklyn, where college degrees are rare and poverty rates have reached 43 percent.

Wait, you just know that all of this has to influence political realities and that this fact must be reported high up. Keep reading:

Members of these Orthodox groups also have been known to be far more likely to adopt more conservative positions on matters like abortion, same-sex marriage and the Israeli approach to the Palestinians.

At the same time, among non-Orthodox Jews, there has been a weakening in observance of quintessential Jewish practices. Participation in Passover Seders has declined: 14 percent of households never attend one, almost twice as many as a decade ago. Reform and Conservative movements each lost about 40,000 members between 2002 and 2011; nearly a third of the respondents who identified themselves as Jews said they did not ally themselves with a denomination or claimed no religion.

So traditional religious believers are more into traditional religious practices and are more likely to support traditional stances on issues of doctrine and practice. Who would have thunk it?

Now, why is this happening? If demographics are destiny, what is the killer statistic (perhaps the statistic that should have been in the lede or given more prominence than the political comments)? The Jewish, largely secular left remains large and the Orthodox wing is large, and growing. The middle is fading.

So what’s up?

That shift appears quite likely to grow even more pronounced. Now, 40 percent of Jews in the city identify themselves as Orthodox, an increase from 33 percent in 2002; 74 percent of all Jewish children in the city are Orthodox.

So, GetReligion readers, what are the perfectly obvious questions that could be asked in this story, other than how these trends are linked to intermarriage and the creation of interfaith families?

How would you word these questions, in a public news source?

In particular, how would you word the flip side of the most obvious question (about Orthodox birthrates) , the one that would — asked bluntly — sound something like this: Why do liberal Jews have so few children?

Be constructive, yet go ahead and take a shot at a solid, journalistic approach to that question.

The Times article, of course, does not address these questions linking doctrine and demography. I am sure that many readers will be shocked to hear that.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Tommy R

    “How would you word the flip side of the most obvious question (about Orthodox birthrates) , the one that would — asked bluntly — sound something like this: Why do liberal Jews have so few children?”

    Article headline:
    “Chosen Childlessness as a Statement of Faith”

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Here’s another flip-side reporters could look at–but because of their liberal bias most certainly will not: They almost always point to the large size of some Hispanic families and immigration as the reason that the Anglo-white percentage of the American population is rapidly shrinking. Rare is the article that mentions that the Anglo-white part of the population is virtually committing self-genocide through birth control and abortion.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    … It turns out that the most important determinant of how many children you have is your religious beliefs. Mormons are actually way above average in the number of children they have, NOT because their religion forbids contraceptives (it does not), but because they have a positive theology about children being alive in heaven before they are born, and wanting to come to live on earth. Mormon avoidance of sexual promiscuity, alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs, along with family and community support, means that Mormons live longer, too, so their population base grows, and added to that are conversions from other religions.

    The trend of Mormon growth over the last 180 years has been to double about every 20 years or so. If that trend continues another 90 years, by 2100 the Mormons in the US alone could have as many as 100 million members, at a time when US and world population will be declining, and most larger churches are already in declining population.

    Even if the rate drops in half, you still get 50 million Mormons, perhaps 20% of the US population at that time. Sometime in the coming century, I predict there will be a Mormon candidate for president who is also black. Indeed, if Utah Republican congressional candidate Mia Love stays in politics, she could be that candidate in 20 years.

  • sari

    So much missing from this article, starting with a link to the actual study.

    The situation in NYC mirrors that of other communities around the country: the non/barely observant and the very observant ends are growing while the middle is decreasing. No news there.

    Here’s what should have been included:

    Working definitions of Orthodox, hasidic, and, particularly, black hat/yeshivish, especially since many of the last do congregate around specific rabbinic leaders and/or yeshivas, but do not subscribe to chasidische custom.

    Distribution of wealth and percentage employment throughout the various communities.

    Levels of education. In fact, entrenched poverty is beginning to drive male members in all areas of Orthodoxy to seek vocational or higher education, at the very least. Many, many black hat and more generic Orthodox attend Yeshivah University and Touro College or non-Jewish institutions of higher learning. Some yeshivot have dual program arrangements with local universities This is not Israel, which subsidizes Yeshivah and Kollel students. NYC has already begun cutting services to the disabled and the elderly.

    Analysis of why Brooklyn skews so much younger. Do data support higher birthrates alone, or, in addition, do some Orthodox move there from other, more expensive areas, like Manhattan?

    Eastern Parkway should have been identified as Lubavitch territory. 770, the last Rebbe’s residence, has become something close to holy ground.

    So, GetReligion readers, what are the perfectly obvious questions that could be asked in this story, other than how these trends are linked to intermarriage and the creation of interfaith families?

    Intermarriage is more a manifestation of a person’s lack of observance than a causative agent. Those who are more observant take care to avoid situations which might lead to forbidden relationships, just as they avoid dining in restaurants where they might be tempted to eat treif.

    In particular, how would you word the flip side of the most obvious question (about Orthodox birthrates) , the one that would — asked bluntly — sound something like this: Why do liberal Jews have so few children?

    Why do you think that the Orthodox have larger families?

    I’d be careful not to superimpose Christian beliefs when analyzing differences in family size. Judaism allows birth control and, even, termination of pregnancy, at the discretion of one’s rabbi. The halakhah states that the commandment to be fruitful and multiply is a time-related mitzvah incumbent on the man alone; women are exempt. Adherence to the family laws, which prohibit any physical contact during menstruation and the seven days following cessation of flow, means that most women resume marital relations just as they reach peak fertility.

  • Jerry

    Sari’s points are very apt. Cultural influences need to be considered.

    One other comment:

    What a surprise: It seems that there is a link between traditional forms of religion, or at least some of them, and survival and survival-plus birthrates

    Does this apply to Muslims and Hindus? Because there are general implications of traditional forms of religion and birth rates raised by that comment, I almost immediately had that question about other religions.

  • Charles Lee

    If you are studying an isolated group in a small geographic area, you might be tempted to extrapolate your findings to a global level. However, when you expand your view to a higher altitude, there is simply no evidence that religion has much to do with birthrate. An outstanding TED talk link by noted statistician Hans Rosling on this very subject may be found here:

  • sari

    I think that the most traditional segments of any faith group tend to have higher birthrates, either by choice or by lack of education. What’s unique to the Orthodox is the greater financial strain imposed by observance. Kosher food, especially meat and cheese, is much more expensive than non-kosher. Observing the Sabbath and work-prohibited holidays limits educational and job opportunities. Modest clothing no longer trends with the mainstream, and private education, even heavily subsidized, places a huge burden. Add the failure of many religious schools (cheder and yeshivah) to teach marketable (or any) job skills to the boys, and to provide only the minimum required by the state to secular subjects. In many ways, the girls’ schools do a better job of preparing their students for life. In the Old Country, boys were taught a trade and only the most brilliant and the most affluent stayed in yeshivah to study full-time.

    Had the study broken down the Orthodox community into its constituent parts, we might have seen major differences in birthrates, education, income, and attitudes towards child bearing and rearing. I’d also question the whole babies are statements of faith premise and avoid romanticizing a “traditional” way of life that has only recently become traditional. Read through centuries of rabbinic responsa–questions on contraception were very common, even among the Hasidim. We should, instead, look at the cultural shifts, things like wearing large families as a religious badge of pride or seeing children as the ultimate revenge for the Holocaust.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    I find the topic very interesting and Sari’s comments very insightful. I also wonder about how well the religious connection plays out in other cultures and religions. For instance, the Japanese could vanish in the coming decades on account of their low birth rate. Surely in that culture there are some outliers having several children, along with a range of religiosity. It would be an interesting study.

  • Karen V

    It isn’t only the Orthodox segments of Judaism that are increasing. I belong to Brooklyn’s Congregation Beth Elohim which is the largest growing synagogue in the Reformed movement which belies the premise in the article. I was surprised to see it omitted in an article covering NYC Jews. Last year the congregation added 241 households. While there is no pronatalist agenda- people tend to have two or three children-there is a serious effort to bring spouses from interfaith marriages into the fold, whether by conversion or inclusion. There are usually three services every Saturday and one or two on Friday nights, each with a different style or worship but with prayers in Hebrew. Usually one of them has a homily by a 12 or 13 year old bat or bar mitzvah. The synagogue offers Hebrew immersion programs for tots and elementary school children, preschool and afterschool programs, and generally supports families. Tonight high school students preparing for college were invited for a special blessing for their life transition. There is an active young adults group, community discussions, cultural affairs and learning opportunities. Serious Torah study is available to adults and a variety of beliefs are represented as “Israel” means grappling with the truth. We even have a spectrum of formerly orthodox members who were not lost to Judaism when they went off the derech. In this section of liberal Judaism, growth is doing quite well without overshooting a sustainable birth rate.

    One reason not well addressed in the article is that you will find high birth rates in the Orthodox community is because of public assistance. In the Hasidic and Yeshivish communities, a third of families are supported by welfare. My Boro Park clients will often have 8-12 children and find community agencies that help them apply for welfare, food stamps and other supports. In addition Jewish social services like the Metropolitan Council provide funding for kosher meals, rental assistance and other services. If it were not for the contributions of liberal and secular Jews, the Orthodox communities could not maintain their family size, despite their desire to repopulate after the Holocaust.