The New Low Birthrate Moral Panic Evangelicals Are Stirring Up

The New Low Birthrate Moral Panic Evangelicals Are Stirring Up May 7, 2021

Hi and welcome back! In the wake of the pandemic, many countries are experiencing a drop in their birthrate. That won’t be surprising or big news to most of us. Nor would most of us be surprised to learn that American evangelicals themselves aren’t immune to the social forces that influence everyone else’s family planning decisions. But evangelical leaders are certainly upset about all of this. They’re trying to blame the decreasing birthrate on sin and evil ickie straw feminism, instead of taking responsibility for what’s probably actually happening. Today, let me show you the story itself — and then show you how evangelicals are freaking out about it for all the wrong reasons.

bunbuns on the grass
(Aswathy N.) Representative bunbuns.

(… As per normal.)

Jesus Sure is Coy About the Moral Imperative to Have Kids.

Lambchop recently linked us a recent YouTube video about the Rapture. In it, I noticed an interesting little interview.


“The Rapture is Silly and Dangerous,” uploaded January 27, 2021.

Around 4:58 into this video, a young woman says that her beliefs about the Rapture led her to change her family plans. She says:

But because the end was so close, when Fred and I got married we decided that we would postpone having children. [Footage plays of her walking around with a large handmade sign reading in all caps, “I gave up babies.”] So I believe we sacrificed a lot within the organization [of Rapture fanatics].

So in this case, strong belief is exactly what led this woman to delay having children.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists, of course, tend to believe the opposite: that women need to have lots of babies. Or at least some babies. For Jesus reasons. Evangelicals have trouble conceptualizing adult women in any roles except that of wife + mother. Women who don’t get married and make babies make them feel itchy in their mind parts.

For my own part, before I was even evangelical I was already childfree. I knew in my bones that children weren’t for me. After my conversion, I prayed hard about that decision, of course. Jesus always told me in turn that I was fine. I didn’t need to have kids to fulfill whatever plans he had for me. No men around me — not my then-husband Biff, not our pastor, not our friends, nobody — could convince me that Jesus wanted anything different (though it was a huge problem for me that Jesus had told them the dead opposite of what he’d told me). I knew he’d told me otherwise.

I’m sure this young woman prayed the same way I did and got much the same answer.

I’m equally sure that all evangelical women pray about their family planning decisions and get answers that make sense to them.

Gosh, it’s just so weird that Jesus never told any of us that morality itself absolutely required us to breed like bunbuns!

January 2020: Christianity Today Frets About Evangelicals’ Birthrate.

A lifetime ago, back in January 2020, Christianity Today (CT) expressed a big concern about evangelicals’ birthrate.

See, researchers examined data from the General Social Survey (GSS). That’s a huge regular survey of Americans’ habits and lives. The survey-makers then make their data available to researchers. As you’d suspect, then, the GSS is a big deal in sociology circles.

These researchers discovered that not only was the general birthrate in America declining, but it was also declining in evangelical families! Oh noes! In their article about this study, CT wrote:

Painted in broad strokes, what this means is that evangelicals now seem to be having about the same number of children as anybody else in America.

And that represented a problem.

Worse, though, the researchers found little link between evangelicals’ family size and fervor/devotion levels. Mainline Protestants and Catholics who attended church regularly had slightly more children. But evangelicals? Their family size had nothing to do with how often they attended church. And that finding really bothered CT.

In the article, CT discusses evangelicals’ struggles with stewardship and what they see as a divine command to breed like bunbuns. (By the way, stewardship is Christianese. It means the hopefully-responsible handling of one’s resources, just in a Jesus-flavored way.) 

Evangelicals love to imagine that they’re “in this world but not of it,” as the saying goes. In reality, very few differences exist between them and regular American culture. Worse, the few differences outsiders do detect aren’t positive ones.

However, this survey showed them that no, they really weren’t different at all — not in the ways they want, anyway.

The pandemic only highlighted their similarity.

The Shrinking Pandemic Birthrate.

In December 2020, some Brookings scholars predicted that the COVID-19 pandemic (and the economic crisis accompanying it) would result in 300k-500k fewer births in the United States in 2021. The labor market improved unexpectedly, which brought the real number closer to the 300k mark, they thought, but many schools and daycares remain closed, which they feared would push the number higher.

In their paper, the Brookings folks mention a few good surveys on the topic of family planning during the pandemic. One indicates that 34% of American women have postponed or reduced their childbearing as a result of the pandemic. Another finds that European women are doing much the same.

Still another survey noted in that link finds that people are just having less sex — especially if they already have school-age children in the household. And still one more intriguing bit of research indicates that people are performing way fewer searches online for pregnancy-related terms like “ultrasound,” brand names for pregnancy tests, and “morning sickness.”

Then, a couple of days ago, The New York Times (NYT) ran a story that confirmed that yes, the U.S. birthrate declined by 4% in 2020. Much of that decline occurred in December. (In other words, those babies were conceived after the pandemic had fully hit America.) Reuters declared that this was America’s lowest birthrate since 1979.

It wasn’t quite as low as Brookings had feared. But it was still really low. Like, historic-levels low.

(CT and other major Christian sites haven’t weighed in yet on this story. I can’t wait to see what they have to say.)

The Birthrate Has Always Been Linked to Economic Stress.

Every reputable news site I consulted links lower birthrates to economic stress. Employment, finances, and childcare concerns matter to most prospective and current parents.

Since the pandemic’s beginning, parents have voiced increasing concerns about their economic situations. Soon after it began, their children began requiring a lot more time and hands-on care than they had in the Before Times. It’s not just the time demands, though. Many people are still out of work. Others have had to take lower-paying jobs as a result of the pandemic closing their previous workplaces. How will they pay for these children, much less add another mouth to the financial burden they already shoulder?

Adding another baby to that mess must feel like an insurmountable new financial burden. So when anxiety levels about money are high, parenthood takes a back seat. It’s been that way for years now. In the late 00s, I heard something similar in Idaho where I was working at the time. At the time, I personally knew several women who were putting off childbearing until they could better afford it.

In fact, women who had children without that ability got a lot of side-eye. And they got it even from evangelical women co-workers, who perhaps recognized better than their menfolk do that reality often gets in the way of their Jesus roadmap. Most of them recognized that when reality said something drastically different from beliefs, then reality needed to drive the life-car for a little while instead of belief.

(One woman, a mother of four, often told me about all the criticism she got — outright and sotto voce. Her husband suffered from a painful terminal illness and they lived in abject poverty. Despite those setbacks, they just kept on popping out babies. She was incubating #5 when I left that place. A lot of other women in our fundagelical-dominated call center criticized her for these choices. Me, I kept my thoughts to myself on the topic and tried to be kind. She was under huge amounts of stress already.)

Enter Al Mohler, Birthrate Faux-Expert: “The Central Issue is Moral.”

Oh, but evangelicals decided to run in a whole other direction! As usual, it’s all women’s fault!

Al Mohler, a big name in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), has weighed in. You see, he’s decided that “the central issue is moral” with this birthrate decline. Yes, he blathers, “there’s much more going on here than just economics.”

dany and thor faceoff about the birthrate
Spoiler: It isn’t.

In his Daily Briefing yesterday, Al Mohler decided to shoot off his mouth about how women are so immoral nowadays that they don’t want to take a serious financial hit and wreck their lives for Team Jesus. His hysteria is absolutely hilarious:

For example, an indicative woman profiled in the New York Times article was Molly Sharp, a 25 year old, “who works for a women’s health research group at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.” Now wait just a minute, here’s what you need to know, this is the New York Times, and you’re looking at a Manhattan social location, but the woman that is being mentioned in this article is not in Manhattan, but is rather in Johnson City, Tennessee, one of the Tri-Cities of East Tennessee.

The 25-year-old told the New York Times, “I’m far too young to be responsible for a child. I’m still learning about myself and being an adult. There’s just no way I could take on that responsibility of having [a] kid right now.”

OH MY GOD, Y’ALL, NO! NOT A JOHNSON CITY GIRL! ANYTHING BUT THAT! Those MANHATTAN girls (dogwhistle: ickie urban atheist feminists who hate Jesus) might go around recognizin’ that they ain’t ready for motherhood now. But no! THIS was a girl from good ole fundagelical-dominated JOHNSON CITY! OH NOES! 

Our Get-a-Load-of-This-Guy Cam is gonna be busy today. I can tell.

get-a-load-of-THIS-guy cam
Wayne’s World.

(Long ago, I often visited Johnson City. I’m impressed with this young woman! She represents her town well. Good for her! I hope she wears her criticism from this pompous buffoon with pride.)

achievement unlocked
♥♥♥ This is for you, Molly Sharp of Johnson City, Tennessee! Good work! You go, gal! ♥♥♥

Evangelical Guesses About Their Birthrate Decline.

Traditionally and currently, most evangelical writers take the same path Al Mohler did.

Nothing has changed really. In a recent blog post, LifeWay’s writer, Lisa Cannon Green, asks pointedly,

Have you noticed all the babies missing from your church nursery? [. . .] More than 4 million American youngsters simply don’t exist.

GASP! Is it cuz of the Rapture?? Did LifeWay find their clothes all over empty shopping malls?? Or were they BORSHUNED?

(Sweet Lady Mischaracterization! Whatever would TRUE CHRISTIANS™ do without your love?)

And it’s not cuz of EVIL BORSHUN, either, she reveals. That’s at record lows too, no thanks to their culture war against it. No, all those nonexistent babies don’t exist cuz of… the lower birthrate!

[Activating our get-a-load-of-this-gal cam.]

But she didn’t offer any guesses about what leads so many women nowadays to have fewer babies. Instead, she tried to stir up evangelicals’ fear of Muslims outbreeding them. (That’s another and very sinister dogwhistle. Oh, Lady Fear, Lady Racism, and Lady Dread! Evangelicals adore you so.)

Mayyyyybe it’s still a bit soon for evangelicals to get into their feels and then articulate their opinions about this current story. I couldn’t find many talking about it specifically, though I found plenty of evangelicals talking about low birthrates in general from the Before Times.

Evangelical Morality, Decoded.

Often, evangelical demands for “morality” seek to strong-arm other people into doing stuff that runs absolutely counter to their own best interests. But these demands always work to the evangelical moral-panickers’ best interests.

Long ago, I mocked Ross Douthat and other religious leaders for blaming women for not making more babies. Whether they wanted babies for Team Jesus or Team Humanity, they all wanted women to make babies to make themselves feel more comfortable and dominant. At no point did these finger-waggers suggest removing the obstacles (in Christianese, the stumbling blocks) holding women back from breeding more. Instead, they just declared that women were totally selfish and immoral for not doing what these religious leaders wanted.

Similarly, Al Mohler is not comfortable with an America that doesn’t grow with every generation. He especially isn’t comfortable with women delaying childbirth and not fulfilling the life script he envisions for them. So in his world, women who don’t have enough babies to satisfy King Him act immorally. Moral behavior, to King Al, means women behaving irresponsibly to have babies they categorically can’t afford and can’t adequately care for. So he revises human history to declare that his will is the perfect one and they need to get with his — er, his god’s — program.

[Our get-a-load-of-this-idolator cam focuses anew.]

Naturally, Al Mohler prefers to point his finger and shame people for noncompliance than to remove the stumbling blocks causing noncompliance.

That’s always the way it’s been with evangelicals. They’d rather be frustrated lords than successful salespeople. Alas for them, they are in fact salespeople nowadays, not lords (and not even ambassadors). And they are very unsuccessful salespeople at that.

Even more alas for them, even their own flocks care less and less about what a bumbling pack of inept, blustering, bossy salespeople think of their purchasing decisions.

NEXT UP: Covert vs. stated goals, and how we can tell we’re looking at a mismatch with this birthrate panic. See you tomorrow!


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Last thoughts: For years now, I’ve maintained a database of SBC statistics. Every year, I add their current stats to my primitive little spreadsheet. (Whatever Excel knowledge I had has been lost to time, alas, but at least I can capture the basic numbers.) Interestingly, their Sunday School figures used to hover around 7.5M-8M people each year — until the 2012 annual, when they simply stopped publishing that figure. They didn’t publish Sunday School figures for three years. Then, in 2015, they began publishing it again. But I think they revised how they counted, maybe only counting kids this time, because it resumed at 3.7M people. Regardless, it has steadily declined since then. They now sit at 3.2M people in Sunday School as of the 2020 Annual Report. Interesting! We may explore this stat later, but for now I wanted to mention it because it relates.

In the next couple months, I expect us to get a new report for 2021. It will report figures for 2020. I CAN’T WAIT. OMG, I CANNNOTTTTTTT. SBC Annual Reports are like my Christmas. They’re like a marathon of David A.R. White movies. ♫ Soon and very soon, we are going to see a new Annual Report! ♫

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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