Toward a Protestant Pronatalism

In 1522, Martin Luther preached a sermon that, like most of his preaching, pulled very few punches. Titled, “The Estate of Marriage,” it leveled a broadside against the cult of celibacy that had come to dominate late medieval Christendom, arguing that it was God’s ordinary will for humanity that men and women, as men and women, come together in marriage and bear offspring. To say anything less was to deny the basics of creation order, to throw the very reality of gender into question:

Let us direct our attention to Genesis 1:27, ‘So God created man… male and female he created them.’ From this passage we may be assured that God divided mankind into two classes, namely, male and female, or a he and a she. This was so pleasing to him that he himself called it a good creation. Therefore, each one of us must have the kind of body God has created for us. I cannot make myself a woman, nor can you make yourself a man; we do not have that power. But we are exactly as he created us: I a man and you a woman. Moreover, he wills to have his excellent handiwork honoured as his divine creation, and not despised. The man is not to despise or scoff at the woman or her body, nor the woman the man. But each should honour the other’s image and body as a divine and good creation that is well-pleasing unto God himself.

In the second place, after God had made man and woman he blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ [Gen. 1:28]. From this passage we may be assured that man and woman should and must come together in order to multiply. Now this ordinance is just as inflexible as the first, and no more to be despised and made fun of than the other, since God gives it his blessing and does something over and above the act of creation. Hence, as it is not within my power not to be a man, so it is not my prerogative to be without a woman.

In other words, to be a man is to be ordered toward fatherhood, and to be a woman is to be ordered toward motherhood. From this standpoint, the recent rise of transgender delusion is hardly surprising. Beginning sometime in the middle of the last century, we began to separate these two ideas, still taking it for granted that men were men and women were women, but treating childbearing as a purely optional extra. Instead of treating childlessness as a (usually tragic) exception, we reframed it as the default, with fatherhood and motherhood constituting an optional add-on, a choice of little moral significance. Deprived of the most essential component of masculinity, some men began to wonder whether they were not in fact women after all, and vice versa. This would not have surprised Luther:

Again, as it is not in your power not to be a woman, so it is not your prerogative to be without a man. For it is not a matter of free choice or decision but a natural and necessary thing, that whatever is a man must have a woman and whatever is a woman must have a man. For this word which God speaks, ‘Be fruitful and multiply,’ is not a command. It is more than a command, namely, a divine ordinance which it is not our prerogative to hinder or ignore. Rather, it is just as necessary as the fact that I am a man, and more necessary than sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, and emptying the bowels and bladder. It is a nature and disposition just as innate as the organs involved in it Therefore, just as God does not command anyone to be a man or a woman but creates them the way they have to be, so he does not command them to multiply but creates them so that they have to multiply. And wherever men try to resist this, it remains irresistible nonetheless and goes its way through fornication, adultery, and secret sins, for this is a matter of nature and not of choice.

Today, of course, we are caught in a feedback loop: having abandoned child-bearing, we are finding it hard to make sense of the reality of gender. And having raised a generation now in a world that takes gender-fluidity for granted, we have a very hard time persuading them that child-bearing makes sense—assuming their preferred form of sexual coupling even allows for it! This feedback loop is quickly turning into a civilizational death trap.

The State We’re In

As of 2024, the only developed country on earth with births above replacement rate (2.1) is Israel (2.9). The US has fallen to 1.7 per woman, which is near the upper end of the spectrum for European countries, which range as low as 1.3 (Italy and Spain). This number, which if maintained would result in a population halving every fifty years, is in turn at the upper end of the spectrum for East Asian countries, where South Korea leads the race for national suicide at an astonishing 0.7-0.9 births per woman, depending on the source. The Left has largely tried to ignore the problem, and contents itself with mocking anyone who dares mention it. This is perhaps unsurprising, since depopulation is precisely what many progressives have long called for as the only real solution to climate change, although few ever paused to consider the real implications of what it would really mean to switch population growth into reverse.

The reality is that we are facing world-historical uncharted territory. Plenty of societies have faced declining population in the past, but until modern times, none of these societies had a very long life expectancy. If population declined, it was because infant mortality was high and middle-age mortality was high; most people worked until they succumbed to disease, and only a small minority spent extended twilit years too old or disabled to work. We have, for the first time in human history, succeeded in creating a society able to keep people alive for a very long time after their most productive years, but unable or unwilling to keep replenishing the human stock with a fresh supply of young, energetic, productive people. Developed societies are thus rapidly on their way to becoming giant geriatric wards or nursing homes; indeed, the fact that today in the US we face a presidential election between a 78-year-old and 82-year-old is perhaps a more apt symbol of our civilizational future than we might like to think.

Thus it is that technocrats the world over are trying every public policy solution they can think of to encourage their citizens to start reproducing again, and even on the Left, more commentators have begun to reckon with the fiscal consequences of a rapidly greying and shrinking society. The favored progressive response has generally been simply to increase immigration, but with birth rates falling the world over, and immigrant women showing a tendency to rapidly assimilate to the fertility norms of the host society, this solution is losing credibility. Often enough, though, politicians who try to grasp the nettle are lambasted from their left flank as reducing women to baby-making machines. Only the Right, it seems, has the gumption to tackle the issue head-on, even if some of the most high-profile recent attempts to do so have been rather cringe.

Thus far, though, conservatives have been deeply divided on whether the problem is to be solved with cash or with culture, as a spirited symposium at FusionAIER this spring on Catherine Pakaluk’s Hannah’s Children demonstrated. According to one theory, the biggest obstacle to more child-bearing for most couples is financial. It is very expensive to raise a child to adulthood in today’s world (roughly $1 million, by most estimates), and with spiralling housing costs, and student loans, many couples simply feel that they can’t afford to have as many children as they would like. In support of such a diagnosis, many point to surveys showing that the average American woman (although there are similar polls in other societies) would prefer to have significantly more children than the average American woman in fact has, as well as polls showing that many couples list budget concerns at the top of the list of why they haven’t had more kids.

All About the Money?

Against such an explanation, it would seem simple enough to point out that the average Westerner today is wealthier than anyone in history, and poverty never seemed to stop women from having children before. Indeed, there is something very close to an inverse correlation between income and fertility on both a contemporary global comparison, and a longitudinal comparison over time. If anything, it would seem, more money means less children. Of course, this immediately needs nuancing; it is not the total income level of a society that matters per se, but the income-to-expense ratio of raising a child. In pre-industrial societies, children are more likely to be net productivity contributors over the total period of their minority; while the very different contours of the modern economy and the happy outlawing of child labor mean that, as just noted, it is now very expensive to add a child to the household. Similarly, in a pre-industrial society, it did not present a significant opportunity cost for a mother to rear children; there were few if any productive opportunities for her outside of the household, and her tasks within the productive household were the sort that were often helped as much as hindered by the presence of children.

This suggests a very plausible explanation for contemporary childlessness: for many young couples, the extra cost of child-bearing seems prohibitive until they become well-settled in their careers, and by that time, while their total income has now risen substantially, so, in turn, has the opportunity cost of the wife dropping out of the workforce, even temporarily. Thus, many procrastinate, worrying about the cost and waiting for the opportune moment; and before they know it, they’re in their late 30s and need IVF to conceive a child at all. If this is true, then it would seem that reducing the financial pinch or reducing the opportunity cost of child-bearing would indeed result in at least a modest uptick in fertility. And the data do indeed suggest that sufficient public investment can generate positive (albeit not sensational) results—at least in Western countries. In East Asian countries like China and South Korea, however, every natalist policy has been mere pushing on a string, with fertility rates continuing to sag in the face of aggressive financial incentives.

For China, this might be explained readily enough by decades of a one-child policy: if cultural norms and expectations determine behavior more than mere economics (as I have always been convinced), then telling your people for decades that they should reduce their child-bearing is going to leave a deep psychological imprint than cannot be easily reversed. South Korea, however, presents a more interesting case, especially as it is one of the most Christian societies in the developed world.

One theory suggests that South Korea is simply the most vivid exemplification of a general explanatory rule: if industrialization really is the game-changer, then it stands to reason that the later and therefore faster a country industrializes, the worse its birth-rate drop-off will be. Note that the claim isn’t merely that the birth-rate will fall faster, in pace with the accelerated rate of industrialization, but that it will fall further. Why? Because slow industrialization at least allows for a gradual adaptation of cultural norms: a society knows that it is good to have children, yet finds itself increasingly in economic conditions that make that more difficult, but it figures out how to adjust, and find ways of making child-bearing still plausible under the new conditions. Thus France, for instance, although the first Western country to see falling birth-rates, leveled off some time ago and is now near the top of the ranks among developed nations. Countries like South Korea, however, had industrialization foisted upon them so rapidly and radically that their social structures were transformed overnight and they had no time to adjust; thus the only way couples knew how to cope with the shock was to stop having children altogether (indeed, in the most industrial part of the country, Seoul, the fertility rate is an almost unimaginably low 0.55 per woman).

Men at Work?

This explanation makes a lot of sense, but I don’t know that it is quite the full story. Could it be that Christianity also has some role to play? This must be parsed carefully, of course, because as just noted, South Korea has actually seen orthodox Christianity become a sizable portion of the population over the past few decades (although it is still only around 25%). But the Christianity in question is of far too recent vintage to have meaningfully shaped the deepest and most basic cultural norms. These remain, for most South Koreans like most East Asians, the product of a thoroughly pre-Christian society, dominated by Buddhism and other traditional religions. Although I am certainly no expert on East Asian traditional society, it is clearly for the most part deeply patriarchal, as indeed most traditional societies are. Tom Holland has persuasively argued in Dominion that for all of feminism’s hostility toward Christianity, in fact Christianity has been the primary and almost the sole historical force for greater equality between the sexes over the past two thousand years.

Thus it is that when South Korean women talk about just why they’re not interested in having children, the battle between the sexes looms large. Here are some excerpts from a recent in-depth BBC story:

When Yejin decided to live alone in her mid-20s, she defied social norms – in Korea, single living is largely considered a temporary phase in one’s life.

But five years ago, she decided not to get married, and not to have children.

‘It’s hard to find a dateable man in Korea – one who will share the chores and the childcare equally.’

This expectation that women take two to three years off work when they have a child is common among women. When I asked Stella whether she could share the parental leave with her husband, she dismissed me with a look.

‘It’s like when I make him do the dishes and he always misses a bit, I couldn’t rely on him,’ she said.

Over in the city of Daejeon, Jungyeon Chun, is in what she calls a ‘single-parenting marriage.’ After picking up her seven-year-old daughter and four-year-old son from school, she tours the nearby playgrounds, passing the hours until her husband returns from work. He rarely makes it home by bedtime.

‘I didn’t feel like I was making a major decision having children, I thought I would be able to return to work pretty quickly,’ she said.

But soon the social and financial pressures kicked in, and to her surprise she found herself parenting alone. Her husband, a trade unionist, did not help with the childcare or the housework.

‘I felt so angry,’ she said. ‘I had been well-educated and taught that women were equal, so I could not accept this.’

Over the past 50 years, Korea’s economy has developed at break-neck speed, propelling women into higher education and the workforce, and expanding their ambitions, but the roles of wife and mother have not evolved at nearly the same pace.

In other words, South Korea, within a 50-year span, went from a situation where child-raising was seen as menial women’s work, which working men were too busy to attend to, to a situation where child-raising was still seen as menial women’s work, but in which both working men and working women were too busy to attend to it. South Korea propelled women into the workplace at breakneck speed, expecting them to conform to a culture of workaholism, while men remained every bit as detached from responsibilities on the homefront as ever.

Now, to frame the problem this way is likely to raise the hackles of many conservatives. Am I suggesting that the best solution for plunging birthrates is more government-sponsored childcare? Or, worse yet, am I suggesting that, like Scandinavian countries, we embrace extremely generous maternity/paternity leave that makes no distinction between mothers and fathers, seeking only to support the “primary caregiver” whoever that may be? Do not such policies simply contribute to the root problem of the interchangeability of the sexes, with which we began, quoting Luther? Without wanting to pronounce on what precisely is the right amount of maternity and paternity leave for companies to offer or governments to incentivize, I will say that I think that any durable natalist policy must recognize the basic asymmetry of the sexes in this regard. Fatherhood is just as important as motherhood, but a father cannot nurse an infant. Nor, however hard he tries, is he likely to have the same instinctive attunement to the physical needs of a crying baby as a mother will. A pro-family policy regime must focus on supporting motherhood qua motherhood, not simply “primary caregivers,” much less giant state-run daycares.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that chest-thumping masculinism is the answer either. Too many young conservatives, tired of the Left’s war on sexual difference, and the pervasive “gynocracy” that labels all masculinity as toxic, has tried to give the culture the middle finger by embracing a vision of masculinity that really is toxic—or at least, pre-Christian. Popular alt-right publications like Man’s World glorify a vision of manhood as strength, power, and domination, with women as weaker vessels not to be honored (as in 1 Peter 3), but dominated. Elon Musk, who has sired at least eleven children with three different women, none of whom he is currently married to, is the poster-child for this kind of manosphere natalism. Luther, however, would have none of this.

Father Hunger

In The Estate of Marriage, he puts his finger squarely on the biggest obstacle to childbearing, and it isn’t economics (although he does mention this concern as well), but simply the drudgery and hassle of it:

Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason (which the pagans followed in trying to be most clever), takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, ‘Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labour at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself? “O you poor, wretched fellow, have you taken a wife? Fie, fie upon such wretchedness and bitterness! It is better to remain free and lead a peaceful. carefree life; I will become a priest or a nun and compel my children to do likewise.”

This Luther takes to be the default attitude of the natural man and woman; he would be entirely unsurprised that, if given the chance to have sex without consequences, most couples would jump at the opportunity and dispense with the hassle of children. All the more so if women were invited, like men, to think of themselves as having a “career,” a calling much higher and nobler than the mean, degrading business of childbearing. To overcome this temptation, Luther calls for a transformation of soul—first and foremost on the part of fathers:

What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It says, ‘O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers. or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labour, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight.’

Luther even anticipates the objection that the manosphere of his own day might lodge: isn’t it “effeminate” for a man to stoop to such women’s work, confusing the God-given differences between the sexes, as if men too were called to the business of childcare?

Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool, though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith, my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but devil’s fools.

Good Christian Men? Rejoice!

In other words, while Catherine Pakaluk is right to argue in Hannah’s Children that a revival of religious faith must be at the root of any sustainable recovery in birth rates, all religions are not created equal in this respect. While all traditional religions recognize the importance of sexual difference, Judaism and Christianity stand alone in also recognizing sexual equality. Thus most traditional cultures, it seems, are forced to choose between maintaining high birth rates by keeping women at home as baby-making machines, or accepting cratering birth rates by integrating women into modern society. Christian societies, on the other hand, at least have the potential to find some kind of modus vivendi with the modern world by recognizing the very real self-sacrifice of parenthood as a shared responsibility of both father and mother. While Pakaluk focuses on the religiously-animated vision of motherhood that animates women who choose to have six, seven, or ten kids, just as important is a religiously-animated vision of fatherhood: a masculinity that is not afraid to change diapers.

Too often, evangelical Protestants have sidelined the vocation of parenthood in favor of a narrowly evangelistic vision of saving souls. But what better way to fill heaven’s halls with shining saints than to bring new souls into the world? Luther concludes his sermon:

But the greatest good in married life, that which makes all suffering and labour worth while, is that God grants offspring and commands that they be brought up to worship and serve him. In all the world this is the noblest and most precious work, because to God there can be nothing dearer than the salvation of souls. Now since we are all duty bound to suffer death, if need be, that we might bring a single soul to God, you can see how rich the estate of marriage is in good works. God has entrusted to its bosom souls begotten of its own body, on whom it can lavish all manner of Christian works.

Brad Littlejohn is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as the President of The Davenant Institute. His most recent publication is The Word Made Flesh for Us: A Treatise on Sacramentology from Book V of Hooker’s Laws (Davenant Press, 2024), and he is the author of Called to Freedom: Retrieving Christian Liberty in an Age of Licence (B&H, forthcoming 2025).


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