Growing up in the 1970s, my teenage years, and then into the 1980s, Western media proclaimed loudly and often that we were in the midst of a population bomb, and that if we weren’t careful the earth would suffocate under the weight of those teeming masses. By the 1980s millions would starve, we were told, because the earth just couldn’t sustain all those stomachs that needed to be fed. Thomas Malthus was alive and well. As Paul Ehrlich’s unjustly famous book’s subtitle put it, “Population Control or the Race to Oblivion.”

As with every other environmental alarmist prediction, this one turned out to be a dud as well: the bomb never exploded. In fact, in the last decade or so we’ve see warnings of the exact opposite problem. Now it seems like a falling fertility rate is more of a danger than too many babies making it alive into the world (I use this phrase, because as we know a lot of babies never make it all the way to birth). I thought this was primarily a problem in capitalist Asia, Russia and Europe, but it seems we have something to worry about in the good old US of A as well. According to Jonathan Last in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal:

For more than three decades, Chinese women have been subjected to their country’s brutal one-child policy. Those who try to have more children have been subjected to fines and forced abortions. Their houses have been razed and their husbands fired from their jobs. As a result, Chinese women have a fertility rate of 1.54. Here in America, white, college-educated women—a good proxy for the middle class—have a fertility rate of 1.6. America has its very own one-child policy. And we have chosen it for ourselves.

Forget the debt ceiling. Forget the fiscal cliff, the sequestration cliff and the entitlement cliff. Those are all just symptoms. What America really faces is a demographic cliff: The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate.

The fertility rate is the number of children an average woman bears over the course of her life. The replacement rate is 2.1. If the average woman has more children than that, population grows. Fewer, and it contracts. Today, America’s total fertility rate is 1.93, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; it hasn’t been above the replacement rate in a sustained way since the early 1970s.

The nation’s falling fertility rate underlies many of our most difficult problems. Once a country’s fertility rate falls consistently below replacement, its age profile begins to shift. You get more old people than young people. And eventually, as the bloated cohort of old people dies off, population begins to contract. This dual problem—a population that is disproportionately old and shrinking overall—has enormous economic, political and cultural consequences.

In the rest of the article he lays out those consequences. Japan is an especially scary scenario most Americans would not like to see repeated here, but Mr. Last is not confident we can avoid their fate.

What fascinates me, being the religious fanatic that I am (in 2013 that means I go to church every Sunday, read the Bible, which I take to be the inspired Word of God, pray for God’s mercy and grace, and radically enough, believe marriage is only between one man and one woman), I can’t help but seeing this issue through the prism of my faith. One doesn’t need religious faith to be convinced that falling fertility rates are a bad thing, but the question I have is as follows: is a pragmatic argument, such as Mr. Last makes so well, enough to convince people to actually change their behavior, i.e. have more babies? This is the challenge philosophers, and regular folks as well, have had over the centuries since God was considered expendable: If we posit the death of God, can human beings muster the will to do what is good for themselves and the species? Nietzsche, a believer in a Godless universe, wasn’t hopeful, nor whatever his faith convictions is Mr. Last.

This gets to what a powerful cultural issue having children, or not, can be. Last puts it very well:

In the face of this decline, the only thing that will preserve America’s place in the world is if all Americans—Democrats, Republicans, Hispanics, blacks, whites, Jews, Christians and atheists—decide to have more babies.

The problem is that, while making babies is fun, raising them isn’t. A raft of research shows that if you take two people who are identical in every way except for childbearing status, the parent will be on average about six percentage points less likely to be “very happy” than the nonparent. (That’s just for one child. Knock off two more points for each additional bundle of joy.)

But then, parenting has probably never been a barrel of laughs. There have been lots of changes in American life over the last 40 years that have nudged our fertility rate downward. High on the list is the idea that “happiness” is the lodestar of a life well-lived. If we’re going to reverse this decline, we’ll need to reintroduce into American culture the notion that human flourishing ranges wider and deeper than calculations of mere happiness.

Good luck with that. Almost everything in our culture conditions us to pursue “happiness.” Unfortunately the meaning of the word to 21st Century Americans is not nearly the same as it was to those in 1776 to whom Thomas Jefferson penned the same word in our Declaration of Independence. First of all, this unalienable right to pursue happiness is given to us by our Creator. Sorry, that just won’t do in our enlightened scientific times. But this is the titanic shift from the pre-modern world of Colonial America to our post-modern one: happiness in our time enthrones the self, whereas our forbearers enthroned happiness in obedience to God.

Of course there have always been plenty of heathens and skeptics in American history, but what I speak of are cultural norms, the zeitgeist, the milieu, the cultural air people breath that determine the mores and values they embrace and believe to be true and worth following. A survey of Super Bowl ads will tell you all you need to know, with an exception or two, about what Americans value, and what those selling them want them to; needless to say not much of Tom Jefferson’s version of happiness to be found.

There is no doubt that the massive change of a pre-industrial agrarian economy to a modern industrial/information society means children are a drain on resources rather than a contributor to them, and thus having children is a much more complicated calculation. Children are expensive! I know, I have only three, but looking back I wish we had more as expensive as they are. This gets to the crux of the issue, one of the most cherished of all values in American culture: choice. Once children became a decision and not an obligation the jig was up.

I’m looking forward to reading Mary Eberstadt’s book, “Adam and Eve After the Pill: The Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution.” It is not hyperbole to say that the pill changed everything, and the typical American would say that it was an unqualified good. The consequences, however, have not proven so unqualified, with falling fertility just the latest example. Of course how one perceives the consequences of sex as another mostly amoral choice will in large part depend on one’s religious convictions, or lack thereof. Last hopes it won’t take religion to convince people of the value of children, but utilitarianism is a thin reed upon which to place the hope of such a radical change.

Something much more powerful and persuasive is the Biblical affirmation that children are a blessing from the Lord, as the Psalmist says (127:3ff):

Children are a heritage from the Lord,
offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.

Blessed is the man, and woman, or in modern parlance happy! But a much deeper and more substantive happy than the one that enthrones self.

Although conservative religious folk tend to have more children than their secularized fellow citizens, even the former have absorbed the spirit of the age and thus have fewer children than in previous generations. And as long as the modern liberal worldview dominates the culture (entertainment, media and education), the celebration of children and the felt obligation to have them will never take hold in the hearts and imaginations of the American people. So let’s change the culture!

Update: You’ll never guess how a liberal might respond to Mr. Last and why.