This past Sunday, Ross Douthat started a truly astounding conversation about babies, decadence, and the American social conscience. It is astounding because, even amidst much criticism, Mr. Douthat has managed to keep the conversation going in the (deep breath) “mainstream media.” I hope the paleo-conservatives, and especially the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, are all taking notice. A strong but partially appreciative criticism was offered by Matthew Yglesias at Slate, and a qualifying but supportive essay was written by Samuel Goldman. Rod Dreher has made steady commentary throughout the week, with a suggested definition of “decadence,” and a meditation on why it is that “Left” and “Right” wingers cannot seem to get to the actual point. Mr. Douthat also got around to responding to his critics, insisting on a moral imperative for reproduction, and thus on moral grounds for critiquing decadence. All of this is refreshing to see, and it leaves me asking where the orthodox Protestant voice is. The answer to that will likely expose some of the underlying economic and political commitments which force otherwise “family values” thinkers into such a corner.
First, Mr. Douthat’s thesis is that the decline in American fertility, caused by factors peculiar to modernity, will lead to the decline in American power internationally. He adds to this observation that he believes there to be a sort of moral imperative behind fertility and reproduction, though he never quite explains this imperative, what it is and how it is grounded. To allow this obligation to be “crowded out by other goals, other pursuits and yes, other pleasures” is to give in to decadence. As good as this sounds, we can’t help but wonder if everyone is really aware of how deep such reforms will have to go.
Mr. Douthat says that it is “a near-universal law that modernity reduces fertility.” “Modernity” implies a certain ensemble of socio-political, technological, and ethical features, mostly having to do with issues of “reproductive ethics” but also of female employment and civic participation. These are just the most obvious and talked-about issues, however. Adam Smith actually put the blame on “luxury.” In The Wealth of Nations, he writes:
Poverty, though it no doubt discourages, does not always prevent marriage. It seems even to be favourable to generation. A half-starved Highland woman frequently bears more than twenty children, while a pampered fine lady is often incapable of bearing any, and is generally exhausted by two or three. Barrenness, so frequent among women of fashion, is very rare among those of inferior station. Luxury in the fair sex, while it enflames perhaps the passion for enjoyment, seems always to weaken and frequently to destroy altogether, the powers of generation. (Wealth of Nations I.8.36)
Still, the perceptive Mr. Smith is unwilling to connect luxury with wealth, opting instead to leave the term mostly undefined except by contrast with the habits of industrious citizens who will not fall into such, shall we say, decadence. But as we now see, it isn’t only the rich who have weakened “powers of generation,” but rather a good portion of the upper-middle class. Also, as Mr. Goldman pointed out in his rejoinder, it isn’t simply money that is the issue here, but a concept of opportunity and self-determination. America isn’t only the land of greedy capitalists pigs, after all; it is the Land of Opportunity. You don’t just come here to make money– you come here to make yourself. And there’s an attraction in that for people from all over the political and economic spectrum.
In Mr. Yglesias’ critique, one line stands out in particular, “In much of the aughts, the GOP seemed to be pushing an unpopular, elite-focused economic agenda and getting away with it by yoking it to a popular social conservative agenda.” Young Christians have especially noticed this and voiced their complaint by either supporting Barack Obama or the off-the-mainstream Ron Paul. Older conservatives dismiss this as typical youthful idealism, but there is actually something going on here. It is also not clear how long the majority of “conservative” Christian families will go on not noticing, but the current American economy stands at odds with all of a family’s ordinary needs, at odds, in fact, with the very conditions of its normal existence.
In his reply, Douthat says that he can’t really imagine more than six or seven children in the equation for traditionalist Catholics (that is, those Catholics who actually hold to their Church’s teaching on contraception). But one doesn’t have to get even close to those numbers (and they are astronomical numbers in the eyes of most) in order to feel marginalized in American society today. Three suffices. Sometimes two, if they are born very closely together, will do the trick.
And as much as conservative Christians want to promote the family, everyone also knows that people are expected to be able to provide for the family, even to be “prepared” for marriage and children. And everyone knows that this means a job, which means college, which means huge debt and loads of money. All of this keeps marriage out of reach until one’s late 20s. For those conservatives who also believe that men and women should remain abstinent until marriage (an idea not so much outrageous as simply no longer even intelligible to the majority population), the future really isn’t very attractive at all. It’s no wonder that adolescence is extended and “maturity” is pushed back later and later. Is there another choice?
It should be clear that we aren’t even critiquing specific tax plans or government initiatives within the contemporary system. We are talking about the system itself. It assumes, or rather demands, that a citizen be a consumer and therefore a worker, producer, or future worker/producer, and, let’s be honest, it assumes a two-worker household. This affects prices, legislation (indeed, necessary legislation), and even popular and social expectations. We are not yet offering prescription, either. This is all strictly descriptive, and conservatives need to admit it. A bunch of kids and a stay-at-home mom (more about her in just a moment) don’t easily fit within late capitalism. Allan C. Carlson has dedicated his career to chronicling and explaining this dilemma. As he says in his review of Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage, this uneasy relationship between the economy and the family goes back at least as far as the Industrial Revolution:
This upheaval displaced the home as the center of productive activity. It pulled fathers, mothers, and children out of households for work in centralized factories. It thrived on a hyper-individualism that denied the claims of family and community. The historical pageant of the last two centuries has actually been the seeking of ways to shelter families from the full logic of the industrial principle. This quest, not romance, was the true source of the breadwinner/homemaker model: the factories could have the fathers, but not the mothers and the children.
But of course, after WW II, that changed as a matter of deliberate policy. This has all been very well documented, though it is not often publicly discussed. The household has been going out of style for quite some time. To really commit to the Christian household is to give up on a significant part of the American Dream.
To call for more babies then brings up a number of critical responses. One of the most obvious, one which Mr. Douthat also anticipates having to deal with, is that this exhortation seems to fall more heavily on women. Why should they be the ones forced to bear the brunt of this moral imperative? As President Obama so tellingly put it, pregnancy, especially early pregnancy, is a sort of punishment for women. Roe v. Wade, as he also put it on another occasion, allows them to “fulfill their dreams.” Before conservatives recoil in moral outrage, and there is something to be outraged about, they need to actually consider that in our current world (a world whose structure many “conservatives” almost fanatically endorse), however outrageous, these statements might well be true.
To call for more babies is to call for more mothers: more pregnancies, more deliveries, more nursing, and more raising. It is to call for a huge sacrifice on the part of women, to sacrifice their time and energy, but also to sacrifice the ordinary ambitions promoted by our culture. It is to call for women to sacrifice their revenue growth potential and, not incidentally, their figures. And that they might see it this way isn’t their fault. It’s exactly the way our society has set it up. Conservatives need to recognize this and consider the demands and socio-economic modifications that a call for “more babies” will require, as well as all of the inconsistent goals and images currently put out by our culture, by us.
None of this is an indictment of women. To the contrary, these are reflections altogether in sympathy with them. Who set the goals of money, power, and fame? Men need to realize what exactly they are saying when they ask for more babies, and they need to ask themselves whether they are the kind of person a woman could or should trust with such a sacrifice. They also need to ask themselves the hard questions about their own ambition and readiness for sacrifice. A call for more babies is also a call for more fathers.
So obviously this doesn’t sound terribly attractive to the average middle-of-the-political road American. To the various feminists, sexual-egalitarians, and all others committed to breaking down gender binaries, it is the very problem they’ve dedicated themselves to combatting. Mr. Douthat’s “moral obligation” is actually going to directly contradict their mission statement, and so the very obvious question becomes, “What exactly is this moral imperative, and how can we know it?”
The answer is Biblical, a mandate from God which is in our very nature: be fruitful and multiply, which is of a piece with the mandate of dominion, to cultivate the world into glory. Now the mandate of begetting is not binding on every person in the same way or same degree, but it is binding on mankind generally. What this means politically is that is a general obligation in a commonwealth, and the governors of a commonwealth therefore need to frame laws which support the fulfilment of this general obligation.
But being fruitful and multiplying is not a merely biological mandate. Parents have an obligation to rear their children, to cultivate their character and to initiate them in beginnings of spiritual and worldly wisdom, and the State must ensure the conditions of this too. The old language of “three hierarchies” or “three spheres” meant that there was a harmonious relationship between church, state, and family. These three had to coexist and work towards one another’s betterment. The cessation of any legal recognition of “family” as a meaningful jurisdiction has led, not so much to added freedoms and prosperity for the individual, as it has to the absorption of the entire space of “civil society” back into the state. And the cessation of churches truly caring for and promoting the family, through service and proper catechesis, has led to those churches’ own decline.
Mr. Douthat probably has Humanae Vitae and natural law in mind, and if he doesn’t, he should. The argument there, which is a strong one, says that technology must be used in ways consistent with nature, and in the case of reproduction, this means that technology can only be used in ways which aid a generous fruitfulness. And while many Protestants find the extremes of this argument to be overreaching, the overreach can only be slight. Whatever determination one makes on the absolute prohibition of contraception (a discussion too big for us to have here), one engaged with natural law thinking will have to approximate the position that our use of technology is for the purpose of recognizing and enhancing the value of life and creation. Any use which simply hordes goods, wealth, and freedom for a few while excluding others comes under the critique of the decadent.
What we need is a righteous fecundity. It must be realistic but still radical. There is no mythical whitebread prairie to return to. We have to work from where we are with the people we have, and we have to do this with a supreme love and empathy for them. Still, this call can only be radical in that it will require us to give up some of our most cherished goals, visions, and, yes, values. We will have to get homiletic before we can get political.
Rod Dreher put his finger on the big problem today though. This moral framework, call it natural law (or maybe just nature), is at odds with both conservatives and liberals. Mr. Dreher writes:
It’s as if the left holds sexual autonomy to be such an idol that it cannot accept the idea that prescriptive social codes (i.e., “thou shalt not”) informing and governing sexual behavior can be useful and important to building decent lives for the poor and working classes. It’s as if the right were so devoted to the idea of economic autonomy (i.e., a market bounded only by choice) that they cannot or will not see that market conditions really do affect the prospect of family formation.
It isn’t just “as if” this is the case. This is most certainly the case, and it isn’t hard to see the connection between “sexual autonomy” and “economic autonomy.” The priority of the individual and his or her “choice” is basic to both. Mostly unread and irrelevant philosophers and theologians call this the problem of voluntarism (see David Bentley Hart’s “Nihilism and Freedom: Is There a Difference?” and his related “Christ and Nothing”). The point is simple enough: One cannot say both that individual freedom is supreme and that there is a larger moral framework or final cause, to use Aristotelian terms, which dictates the choices and actions of individuals. While social conservatives are quick to point this out in regards to certain moral issues, economic conservatives are much less eager to see it. John D. Mueller is a notable exception, as Pr. Huckaby explored on this site in the past. If there’s a natural law for procreation and recreation, then there’s a natural law for vocation and legislation as well.
Far from being a 1960s blitzkrieg from out of the blue, the philosophy of Progressivism and the American Left can trace a fairly consistent genealogy throughout American history, and it is more closely related to the American Right than either wants to admit. The priority of the individual, the power of ambition, rugged self-expression, and triumph through willpower– these are all the necessary ingredients for what we’ve got today- even though these ideals of individuality and freedom are actually grease for the wheels of a servile corporatist system. Those seeking decadence need look no further. We have met the enemy and he (and she!) is us. The question, and the challenge, is this: once we strip away the contradictory features of late modernity, do conservatives, Protestants, and Evangelicals have a theological, ethical, or political answer to this? And do they actually want one?
Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, Florida. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Trust. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, daughter, and two terriers.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.