Faith & Fertility
Darel E. Paul offers an elegant explication of Eric Kaufmann’s complex ethno-political projection of the future (“The Future is Mixed,” November 2019). However, I fear his use of Pierre Manent’s analysis is overbroad and muddles his attempt at pointing a way forward. For example, there’s little exploration of how the role of a nation as a “necessary mediator between the particular and the universal” changes according to the varied compositions of “nations.” Is Russia like France like Catalonia?
Further, while it may be true that Western Europe is slowly becoming like the U.S. (“inegalitarian and multicultural”), the resemblance is skin-deep. Manent’s warning is for European-style states. If “only empires can be multicultural,” then it is fortunate the U.S. is one, because Kaufmann notes multiculturalism, as an ethnic reality, is here to stay.
In fact, given the irresistible “tectonic plates” of demographics, Western Europe is rather unfortunate to lack the particular luck and experience of the United States, born (as George Washington said) an “infant empire.” As Stanford historian Niall Ferguson observed, the U.S. has never been content as a mere nation-state. It has nurtured a perennial imperial streak, if one relatively benign, inward-gazing, and in perpetual denial of itself.
This imperial impulse, along with its nation-of-immigrants history, makes for the U.S.’s strange balance between sulky multicultural imperium and stubborn local attachments. When one throws its relatively high religiosity into the mix, it reminds us that the U.S. is a strange beast that defies easy analysis—American exceptionalism strikes again.
It is noteworthy that two of the groups Paul highlights for their religiosity, the Mormons and Amish, are both U.S.-based. High religiosity is also characterized by a focus on the local community; it leans toward family, and therefore toward school, church, and city councils. The U.S.’s relatively robust federalism, however vitiated by the administrative state, also provides an avenue for local dynamism, and its anti-majoritarian Senate provides a potential avenue for federalist Hail Marys. (See Sen. Josh Hawley’s recently proposed bill, which would shift 90 percent of ten federal agencies out of the Swamp and into Real America.)
Paul writes that we need a “limited society ordered toward material and spiritual sharing, a common good.” As with many intractable problems, finding diagnoses is easy but finding cures difficult. Sadly, it is hard to see an entirely peaceful transition for Europe. But on this side of the Atlantic, we have as good an answer as any in our multicultural empire-republic—if we can keep it.
In his review of Eric Kaufmann’s Whiteshift, Darel E. Paul too readily accepts a long-standing error advanced in Kaufmann’s first book: that differential fertility among the religious must lead to a more religious future. While a consolation to the faithful, the theory is dead wrong.
As just one example, the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study collected data on both fertility rates and conversion histories of Americans. They found the expected higher birth rates for the religious: Mormons around 2.7 kids per woman, Catholics at 2.5, evangelical Protestants at 2.4, the nonreligious around 1.9, et cetera. But using the same data, after accounting for all conversions (though not immigration), Catholicism could expect to shrink by 17 percent in a generation and the mainline Protestants by 10 percent. Evangelical Protestants might grow, but ultimately the nonreligious will grow by at least 21 percent in the next generation. Fertility differentials are too small to offset yawning conversion differentials. Assuming these fundamentals are even approximately stable over time, the nonreligious share of Americans will continue rising indefinitely.
But fertility and conversion rates are not stable, even among the most fecund, evangelistic sects. Mormon fertility has fallen from six kids per woman early in the twentieth century, to a little over three in the 1980s, to about 2.7 today. Even Amish fertility is falling, from around eight kids per woman in the 1950s to just over five today. The truth is that religious fertility differentials are not generally as large, and certainly not as durable, as Kaufmann suggests. In international and historical comparison, fertility differentials turn out to be extremely volatile, putting the lie to the idea that they can reliably underwrite growth despite low conversion rates. Worse, post-2014 survey data from Pew suggests net conversion rates out of Christianity are accelerating.
By any probable reckoning, twenty-second-century Americans will not be a more religious group. But perhaps Americans will experience an unexpected wave of religious revival. Or policies could change, encouraging more marriage and childbearing—experiences that make adults more religious. But most likely, religious folk will be more marginalized in 2119 than in 2019. We are facing not a temporary wave of secularism that will recede in a demographic tide, but an epochal shift that could last for centuries. We should push hard for more favorable policies, of course, but must also prepare our congregations and our children for the worst, with renewed intensity of catechesis, discipline, and mission.
Darel E. Paul’s “The Future is Mixed” has some provocative ideas about the future of demographics and religion in the U.S., but it leans heavily on unfounded optimism about the future of American religiosity. Paul writes that over time, “low-fertility seculars are no match for high-fertility, low-assimilation religious who have already proven themselves immune to the charms of modernity.”
This is a testable hypothesis. But we have the test results, and they’re negative. Christian self-identification is plummeting across the board, according to findings of a Pew Research Survey of U.S. religiosity published on October 17, 2019. It’s falling particularly fast for those “low-fertility secular” whites: The share of white Democrats who say they have “no religion” has nearly doubled in the last decade, from 24 percent to 42 percent. But non-affiliation has also increased dramatically among young black and Hispanic Democrats. Overall, the share of millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) who self-identify as Christian has fallen 16 percentage points in just the last decade. The reasons for this are complex and involve a mixture of politics (rejecting the Christian Right as a proxy for rejecting the Republican party), current events (like the Catholic Church scandals), and technology (the Internet might make it easier to find virtual congregations that don’t meet in a church).
Ignoring these numbers can lead to some strange predictions. “Five thousand Amish a century ago have become 250,000 today,” Paul writes, “and should current trends persist, by the late 2200s half of the United States will be Amish.” The phrase should current trends persist is doing heroic work here. It is a marvelous magic trick to conjure 250 million Amish folk from a base of 250,000 with a brief wave of the trend-extrapolation wand. Grabbing the magical instrument from Paul’s hand, I could probably argue that, should current trends persist, the entire U.S. population will have moved to Phoenix by 2357.
That’s a cheap shot, so I’ll end with a serious point. The splintering of religiosity by party—with the GOP enmeshed with white Protestantism and the Democrats characterized by multicultural secularism—may have serious consequences for the partisan divide. The future is mixed, indeed. The important question that still needs a clearer answer is: So, then what?
Darel E. Paul replies:
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to respond to three such thoughtful and challenging letters. Lyman Stone and Derek Thompson critique Eric Kaufmann’s demographic projections and the speculative futures both Kaufmann and I draw from them. It is important to note that Kaufmann discusses the fertility of what he calls “white fundamentalists” rather than of religious groups generally. He defines such “fundamentalists” as cohesive high-fertility groups who “reject the modern world.” Thus, when Stone highlights fertility and apostasy rates for Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelicals, he largely misses Kaufmann’s focus on smaller, more fertile, and more distinctive groups such as Mormons, the Amish, and ultra-Orthodox Jews. The demographic experience of Israel over the past half-century should convince anyone that rapidly falling religiosity in the West is far from inevitable.
By making this argument—which I think is consistent with Kaufmann’s own views—I am not saying that a West growing more religious in 2119 or 2219 will necessarily look anything like the West of the 1950s. As Thompson points out, an America that is overwhelmingly Christian (and 50 percent Amish!) two hundred years from now is far-fetched indeed. Yet the continuing fertility difference between “fundamentalists” and the irreligious as well as immigration rates from high-religiosity countries are large enough that the Son of Man will surely find faith in the West should he come a century hence. This is unlikely to be a broadly Christian or broadly peaceful future, however. Thompson asks, “Then what?” While Kaufmann sees the West’s future as contemporary Toronto writ large, I fear a super-diverse America could look much more like today’s Lebanon, certainly not a society in which catechesis, discipline, and mission are unnecessary.
This brings me to Brevin Anderson’s optimism that despite mass ethnic transformation and super-diversity, the American “multicultural empire-republic” is the West’s best bet. Along with the signatories to the 2017 Paris Statement, I remain convinced that an empire—lacking a demos and a plane of equality—cannot practice democratic self-government. Perhaps Anderson is right that federalism and localism are superior to “common good nationalism.” Yet the nation is what history has given us, a great community short of all mankind to which Americans as much as Russians, Frenchmen, and perhaps even Catalonians feel bonded. At least for now, it is our signal ground for cultivating simultaneously broad and deep communion.
Choice & Limits
Matthew Schmitz (“Bourgeois Vice,” November 2019) uses my gender change in 1995, of which he disapproves—calling me “he” throughout to signal the disapproval, and making up tales about my family of thirty years of love—as a way to attack my liberalism. The turn is not very gallant of him, and if I were still a man, I reckon I would challenge him to a duel.
Schmitz read a little of Crossing: A Transgender Memoir, with its brief afterword. The rest of my politics and scholarship he gets on the fly. He calls me throughout a “conservative,” which I have never called myself, though willing to chat politely with such folk. The error shows anyway the problem people have trying to force “classical” liberals like me onto the silly spectrum from left to right. The spectrum is only about in what direction a massive state is to enforce illiberal schemes, such as the left’s takeover of free speech (of which he accuses me) and of economic life; or the right’s takeover of bedroom behavior and of irritating foreigners.
There’s the point. Schmitz quotes my afterword: “In a free society shouldn’t they be allowed to? Tell me why not.” Then he says, with rare charity, “This appeal to freedom is powerful.”
It is, though conventional since the Blessed Adam Smith. It is as theological as it is political. I have argued as much in The Bourgeois Virtues and later writings on theology and economics. God, as this no doubt terribly confused Episcopalian (“Catholic lite”) believes, wants humans to be free. Sin, virtue, and salvation make no sense if we are God’s pets in Eden, unable to choose. True liberalism, like science, is perfectly consistent with true religion.
So is changing gender.
university of illinois at chicago
Matthew Schmitz replies:
Deirdre McCloskey accuses me of “making up tales” about his family. If the tales are made up, he is the inventor, for I found them in his memoir. McCloskey has a history of twisting facts to discredit opponents. J. Michael Bailey, whose life and career were unfairly attacked by McCloskey, has a far graver complaint on this score than I.
McCloskey says that I call him “throughout” a conservative. In fact I never do, except in quoting his description (on page 93 of Crossing) of himself and a colleague as “conservatives by academic standards.” Of course McCloskey is not a conservative. This was one of the points of my essay. It’s a wonder that the conservatives who celebrate his work fail to see the one thing McCloskey and I agree on.