No matter what happens in next week’s election, there are long-term trends that bode well for America. One of them, as I’ve covered many times, is the dwindling of organized religion and the rise of secularism. Another is the country’s increasing diversity and more progressive views among younger generations.
A third one is the large and growing gender gap in politics. Women, especially single women, are far more liberal than men. This wasn’t always the case, and it’s a positive sign that people are rejecting the patriarchal ideologies of the past and voting for a future of greater equality for everyone.
However, many religious conservatives don’t see this in a positive light. One such is an essay by Rod Dreher in the American Conservative with the apocalyptic title, “No Families, No Children, No Future“.
In the essay, Dreher gnashes his teeth and rends his garments over a survey which finds that more and more women are opting out of marriage and childbearing. Ever since 2009, there have been more single women than married women in America, a historical first. But the statistic that appalls him the most is that 30 percent of American women under 25 identify as LGBT. He cites a sociologist from the 1940s (!) who argued that “greater tolerance for and acceptance of homosexuality” was a warning sign of civilizational collapse.
What’s behind this is primarily cultural. We have become an anti-natalist society. And further, we have become a society that no longer values the natural family. We see everywhere disintegration.
…And now we have 30 percent of Gen Z women claiming to be sexually uninterested in men. There is nothing remotely normal about that number. It is a sign of a deeply decadent culture — that is, a culture that lacks the wherewithal to survive. The most important thing that a generation can do is produce the next generation. No families, no children, no future.
Later in the post, he cranks up the hysteria another notch, writing as if the nukes were inbound and he had only minutes to get to a survival bunker:
Thirty percent of women aged 25 and under have no interest in sex with men. If that does not alarm you as a religious traditionalist or conservative, then you might actually be dead. We absolutely must form right now — not tomorrow, right now — communities that socialize our children into the goodness of marriage and family. The broader culture knows what it believes, and it preaches this confidently. The churches are barely pushing back. And it shows.
Dreher’s panic is a bit premature. As his commenters pointed out, LGBT is an umbrella term. That 30% figure includes “B” – as in bisexual – so it’s not necessarily true that a sizable fraction of young women “have no interest in sex with men”. It’s more likely that the apparent rise reflects a greater tolerance and acceptance of sexual fluidity that has always existed. (Dreher grudgingly acknowledges this, but argues that most men wouldn’t want to be with a woman “whose sexual desires are so unstable”, so it’s still bad, you see.)
His preferred solution is what he’s previously dubbed the “Benedict Option”. This is the idea that religious conservatives should flee from a world they no longer control, retreating into their own private enclaves where they can bar the door and pull up the drawbridge. That way, they can raise a new generation in enforced isolation from dangerously subversive ideas like “rights” and “diversity”.
But wait. If you’re in agreement with this and want to form your very own self-sufficient patriarchal commune to churn your own butter and weave your own cloth in peace… what, specifically, are you supposed to teach your kids?
Dreher calls for forming “communities that socialize our children into the goodness of marriage and family”, but there’s a lot that could fit under that heading. Since he views LGBT people with such horror and revulsion, is he saying we should teach kids that being gay is sinful and perverted and wrong, and that same-sex-attracted people should be forced back into the closet for the good of society? (Never mind that lesbian and gay people can and do have babies and raise children.) Should we bring back conversion therapy and sodomy laws?
Or should we go further? Should these Benedict Option communities adopt Quiverfull ideology, forbid education and careers for women, and start teaching girls that it’s a woman’s lot in life to birth as many children as she’s physically capable of bearing? Should they ban abortion and birth control? Should they reinstate arranged marriage and coverture laws? Should they aspire to create a real-life Republic of Gilead?
Dreher is vague about what he wants, so there’s no way to know. However, it’s worth noting that his only prescription is ideological. His proposal consists solely of wagging his finger harder at women – doubling down on his insistence that everyone must be made to want children. But what about structural obstacles? What if the problem isn’t that young people don’t want kids, but that they believe they can’t afford them or won’t be able to care for them?
America, with its scarcity of affordable housing, crushing burden of student debt, and lack of paid leave, flex time and other benefits for new parents, is a case in point. Strengthening the safety net and easing the economic strain on young people could only increase their willingness to start families, yet it’s a solution Dreher doesn’t contemplate. Granted, he argues that European countries with more generous policies also have below-replacement fertility rates, but if this problem is as urgent as he says, you’d think he’d want to throw the kitchen sink at it. How does he know the problem isn’t that European socialism isn’t generous enough?
Along the same lines, Dreher and other natalist conservatives don’t seem concerned about making marriage a more attractive proposition. Even as women have more autonomy than past eras, working women are still penalized for having children in a way that men aren’t. Similarly, married women still do a majority of the household chores. It’s no wonder that more women are opting out of marriage so long as it’s an unequal arrangement where they do more work for less reward.
If religious conservatives are so worried about this, you would think they’d put more effort into demanding that men take up an equal share of parenting duties and household responsibilities. They’d be advocating more rigorous anti-discrimination laws so that women don’t have to choose between family and career. If it’s true, as Dreher says, that “a culture’s structures and norms should be constructed to support” the task of producing the next generation, then these ought to be no-brainer steps.
On the other hand, if what conservatives really care about is protecting patriarchy – the religiously motivated worldview where men hold all the wealth and power and women are submissive, barefoot-and-pregnant helpmeets – then it makes sense that they wouldn’t want to change anything, just redouble their insistence on going back to The Way Things Used To Be, however unrealistic that is.
Finally: It’s true that fertility rates are falling across the Western world, and if this trend continues, many industrialized countries will see their populations slowly shrink in the decades to come. What I have to say to that is: So what? Why is it such a catastrophe if the population decreases? Why does this occasion such knee-jerk panic?
Even though the growth curve is flattening, we’re still on track to reach between 10 and 12 billion people by 2100. Clearly, there’s no danger of humanity going extinct overnight. In fact, a smaller population would be a boon to the planet, which is already stretched to the breaking point by our unsustainable consumption. It would alleviate poverty and reduce inequality by increasing the bargaining power of labor. And it would enable us to put more effort and care into the children we do have, ensuring that no one grows up neglected or unwanted. So, again, why would this be such a bad thing?
Obviously, in some cases, the answer is simple racism: some conservatives are upset because the wrong people, i.e., not white Western Christians, are having the kids. However, another answer, which I think is operative in Dreher’s case, is the belief that marriage and family naturally incline people to conservative political beliefs. Conservatives believe that life consists of duty and hierarchy and submission to authority. People who choose not to get married, or choose not to have kids, because they’re seeking happiness and fulfillment through different avenues are a threat to this worldview. It sends the message that people can do what they want to and not just what they’re taught they’re supposed to.