Call Me a Natalist

Call Me a Natalist

People know they're not supposed to stare, but sometimes they can't help it. You see, it isn't every day that people in our neighborhood see families with five children, and when they see us all walking down the street--or riding on a sled, like we did today in all the snow--they do tend to stare.

I may be wrong about this, but it's entirely possible that the Rykens are the largest family in Center City. A fair number of children live in our part of the city, but nearly all of them come from families with only one or two kids. In all our years of playing Little League baseball and Park District soccer, we have known only a handful of families with three children--certainly none with as many as five.

There are several reasons for this. One is that housing is so expensive in Center City, and families with more children find it difficult or even impossible to afford a family-sized house. Also, some people still think of the suburbs as a better place to raise children, and relatively fewer families live in the city at all. But I think something more fundamental is at work. Center City Philadelphia is one of the most culturally secular and spiritually liberal communities in the country. The reason we have more children than everyone else is because we have a different worldview, a different theology.

Not long after our daughter Karoline was born, my mother-in-law--who comes from the Midwest, so she doesn't know better--tried to engage one of our neighbors in some friendly small talk. "The Rykens have a new baby in the house," she said. "Oh," said our neighbor, unenthusiastically. "It's always the religious that have more children, isn't it?"

Indeed it is. David Brooks recently explored this phenomenon in an editorial written for the New York Times on December 7, 2004. As Brooks surveyed the differences between the conservative Red States and the liberal Blue States, he noticed that the Red States tended to have larger families. Although birthrates are falling everywhere else in the industrialized world, they are actually rising in one segment of our society--a group that Brooks calls "the natalists." Here is how he describes these families:

They are having three, four or more kids. Their personal identity is defined by parenthood. They are more spiritually, emotionally and physically invested in their homes than in any other sphere of life, having concluded that parenthood is the most enriching and elevating thing they can do. Very often they have sacrificed pleasures like sophisticated movies, restaurant dining and foreign travel, let alone competitive careers and disposable income, for the sake of their parental calling. . . . The people who are having big families are explicitly rejecting materialistic incentives and hyperindividualism. . . . It costs a middle-class family upward of $200,000 to raise a child. These people are saying money and ambition will not be their gods. . . . People with larger families tend to attend religious services more often, and tend to have more traditional gender roles.

Well, call me a natalist, because most of these characteristics apply to me and my family. David Brooks is mainly interested in the politics of natalism, and especially the way it may have affected the 2004 presidential election. But I am more interested in our theology. Why is it that devoutly Christian families, for example, tend to have more children than atheists or agnostics, or even than nominal Christians?

It is because we love children, which not everyone does. It is because we are optimistic about the future and believe it is a wonderful thing to come into a world, however fallen, that God is working to redeem. It is because we are willing to make the sacrifices that having a large family inevitably requires, living for others rather than ourselves. And it is because we believe that raising a godly family is a calling from God.

Going back to the days of Adam, growing godly families has always been part of God's plan for the redemption of the world. God said to our first parents, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth" (Gen. 1:28). Far from limiting population growth, God encouraged the spread of humanity as something that would serve his greater glory. Thus when Malachi prophesied about marriage and asked what God was seeking from the covenant between husbands and wives, he gave a simple answer that is still important for God's people today: "Godly offspring" (Mal. 3:15).

This does not mean that big families glorify God more than small families do. Nowhere does the Bible dictate how many children a family ought to have. We need to be especially sensitive to the heartache that some couples experience in the area of childbirth. Many women lose children to miscarriages. In the providence of God, some couples do not give birth to children at all. We need to understand that a large family is not a sign of godliness. Nor is a small family necessarily a sign of unfaithfulness. God calls us all to glorify him in our own situation, and not to be worried or discontent with something that is not our calling.

But having said all of that, we should all recognize that children are a gift from the Lord, and that godly offspring are a blessing to the world. To be a natalist is to be pro-life, and part of what it means to be pro-life is to pray for children, to welcome them into the church, and to train them to be God's servants.

With this in mind, David Brooks mentions one feature of natalism that should give us cause for concern. He suggests that many natalists are inward-focused, thinking mainly of what is good for their own families, and thus wanting to raise their children in sheltered communities away from danger.

We need to remember that whether they are large or small, our families are not ends in themselves; they are for God. Sometimes I fear that many Christians are becoming too isolated, and that in their desire to treasure family relationships, they are missing out on the opportunity to do something even more important. A Christian family is meant to be a blessing to the world. Godly parents further this purpose by preparing their children to serve God in places of difficulty and distress. We will not accomplish this goal by sheltering them at home, but by teaching them how to be in the world for Jesus. And I think urban Philadelphia is one great place to do that, whatever the neighbors think.