Concerning God, sex, worship and babies

Pollsters have been asking Americans questions about God, sex and babies for a long time and the answers used to be pretty predictable. Early in the 20th Century it was easy to predict which flocks of believers would produce the most children -- with Mormons reporting the highest numbers, followed by Catholics, then Protestants and so forth as fertility rates declined. But things changed as the century rolled on and America became more pluralistic and, in elite zip codes, secular.

After Woodstock and the Sexual Revolution, it was clear "what really mattered wasn't what religion you claimed to be practicing, but the degree to which you actually practiced it -- especially whether or not you were in a pew week after week," said journalist Jonathan A. Last, author of "What to Expect When No One's Expecting."

These days, people who attend worship services once a week or more have a sharply different fertility rate from those who avoid religious sanctuaries and "it really doesn't matter what kind of services we're talking about -- Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, Mormon, whatever. What matters is whether you show up."

The bottom line: An activity that encourages people to get married sooner, stay married longer and have a higher rate of happiness while married will almost certainly produce more babies. "When it comes to people having what people today consider large families -- three or more children -- there are two Americas out there," he said, and the division is between those who actively practice a faith, especially a traditional form of faith, and those who do not.

This is crucial information in an era in which declining birth rates affect debates about a wide array of hot-button cultural issues, from Social Security to national health care, from immigration reform to the future of major religious groups.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that U.S. births appear to be leveling off, although the numbers continued to show some decline. While birth rates edged up for women in their early '40s and throughout their '30s, rates kept falling for women in their '20s and among Latinos.

A key factor, Last explained, is "aspirational fertility," or the number of children that parents say they want to have. In the early 20th Century, a clear majority of Americans favored having three or more children. Now, 66 percent of those who seldom or never attend worship services say zero, one or two is ideal, while 41 percent of those worshipping weekly desire three or more children. If a woman frequently attends worship services, it is much more likely she will have a larger family, if that is her goal.

It's hard to pin political or cultural labels on some behaviors that are inspiring so many people to avoid marriage, to marry later, to have fewer children or to have their children later in life. At one end of the cultural spectrum is the 30something male whose solo life remains focused on his Xbox. At the other end is the professional woman working 70-hour weeks while striving to rise in a major law firm, even as her biological clock ticks loudly.

Of course, it also matters that children are expensive. In his book, Last examines a variety of expenses and career realities and concludes that it costs about $1.1 million to raise a single child, with home costs and college expenses higher in prime locations. When living in New York City, San Francisco or Washington, D.C., having two children is "having a lot of children," he said. "What's countercultural in one city is normal in another."

The bottom line is that Americans who choose to have large families are almost certainly making "some kind of theological statement," he said. "They are making countercultural decisions and people just don't keep taking specific countercultural actions without having some kind of purpose, a larger reason for what they are doing. ...

"Think of it this way. At some point, you have to ask: 'Am I the most important -- or even the only -- character that matters in the movie of my life? ... Parents just can't think that way and the more children you have the less you can afford to think of yourself as the center of everything that happens in the world. ... That's a very important lesson to learn about life."

Does marriage have a future?

The slogan on the white t-shirts for kids is short and bittersweet.

The simple blue letters declare, "My daddy's name is Donor." You can buy a baby bib with the same proclamation.

For a self-proclaimed "marriage nut" like David Blankenhorn, it's hard to see this consumer product as a positive statement about modern family life.

Of course, America has been evolving for several decades after the cultural revolutions that changed how millions of people live together, break up, get married, get divorced, have children or some combination of all the above.

Thus, the president of the Institute for American Values keeps hearing this big question: "What is the future of marriage?" It's a logical question, since his most recent book is called "The Future of Marriage." There is no easy answer, however, other than stating the fact that elite opinion makers and academics are convinced that old-fashioned, especially religious, traditions about marriage are fading.

"The smart money says, 'Down the tubes,' " said Blankenhorn, speaking recently at Gordon College, an evangelical Protestant campus near Boston. "The big word is 'deinstitutionalization.' ... It's this notion of redefining marriage into just being a kind of Hallmark greeting card that says, 'We're in love, we have a commitment, oh special us.' That's what marriage is."

This trend can be seen in current definitions of "marriage" -- legal and otherwise. During his two years of research on the question, he ran into several breezy answers to the question, "What is marriage?"

For some people, it is a "unique expression of a private bond and profound love," while others prefer a ''private arrangement between parties committed to love.'' If that doesn't work, try a ''specific relationship of love and dedication to another person" or even ''committed, interdependent partnerships between consenting adults.''

The highest court in Massachusetts, in its majority opinion in 2003 backing gay marriage, strategically called marriage the "exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other" offering "love and mutual support."

This last variation on the theme is crucial, because debates about the future of marriage are now -- like it or not -- part of our culture's bitter conflicts about the legal rights of gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Meanwhile, divorce rates remain high and millions of children are being raised in single-parent homes.

Blankenhorn consistently identifies himself as a Christian and as a political liberal who supports what he calls the "equal dignity of homosexual love" and of gay relationships. In an interview with the conservative magazine World, he bluntly said: "I know that many Christians believe that any sex other than sex between married spouses is wrong. I respect that view, but I do not share it."

However, Blankenhorn also argues that all attempts to define marriage as a vague, private, self-defined relationship will inevitably weaken an institution that -- across a wide range of cultures and faiths -- has emphasized the importance of children being raised by their natural fathers and mothers. Thus, he stressed, marriage has always had a civic and even legal dimension.

Contemporary definitions of "marriage" also strive to avoid two crucial words.

The first, Blankenhorn noted, is "S-E-X. Heat. Lust. Passion. Bodies entangled. Sex, behind closed doors in the bedroom. You know, because in the whole history of the world everybody -- up until about three minutes ago -- has always acknowledged that marriage is the social recognition of a sexual relationship that involves sex."

The second missing word is "children." Anyone who studies history and anthropology, he said, would quickly conclude that discussing marriage without mentioning children would be like having a "long discussion about General Motors and nobody mentioning cars."

But today, individual adults are convinced that marriage is all about them and that this means that they should be able to make their own rules. Thus, the key question is whether Americans believe that the individual couple is bigger than the institution of marriage or that "the marriage is bigger than the couple," said Blankenhorn.

"We have completely forgotten this idea that maybe there is something transcendent, maybe there is something bigger than us that shapes us," he said. "Maybe the vow shapes us. Maybe we don't simply come up with the vow ourselves and say, 'Here's our marriage -- wonderful sexy us.' No, there is something bigger than us that tells us what to be and that big something else is marriage."