The Brethren are concerned with the rates at which LDS couples are having babies. Most recently, Elder Dallin Oaks declared:
Because of what we understand about the potentially eternal role of the family, we grieve at the sharply declining numbers of births and marriages in many Western countries whose historic cultures are Christian and Jewish… In the midst of these concerning trends, we are also conscious that God’s plan is for all of His children and that God loves all of His children, everywhere.
So what, then, can we do as individuals and as a community to increase the numbers of births and marriages among us?
First, it is important to note that this concern about demographic trends is not a flash in the pan. The Brethren have expressed this concern many times in the past. Elder Oaks brought up the declining U.S. birthrate a year before his most recent Conference address, stating:
From the perspective of the plan of salvation, one of the most serious abuses of children is to deny them birth. This is a worldwide trend. The national birthrate in the United States is the lowest in 25 years, and the birthrates in most European and Asian countries have been below replacement levels for many years. This is not just a religious issue. As rising generations diminish in numbers, cultures and even nations are hollowed out and eventually disappear.
Russell M. Nelson raised this topic earlier in 2012, President Packer brought this up in 2003, and other General Authorities have mentioned birth rates for decades. So, this is not likely to be a temporary concern. As a side note, I’d quibble with the description here — according to World Bank data the U.S. rate is not at its lowest, but it is trending lower than it did in the 70s, and most of the West is in a state of sub-replacement fertility. Here is a great tool to play around with comparative fertility data. I don’t have current data on LDS birth rates, specifically, but if I had to hazard a guess I’d say that our rates tend to be a stop or two higher than national average but also tend to follow generalized trends. I take this instruction seriously: our leaders are concerned about declining birth rates, and so I’d like to explore why birth rates are declining and what steps could be taken to increase birth rates among LDS. For purposes of this piece I am taking it as a given that increasing LDS fertility rates is a desirable outcome and a priority. If you don’t agree that we should raise LDS birth rates then I would commend any number of other posts to read.
As for reasons why there are fewer babies being born to LDS families, there are many scholarly articles available that attempt to explain why fertility rates have declined in the last 50 years in Western countries. The general consensus points to a confluence of factors, with available contraception, increased urbanization, changes in female social roles and higher education. Some scholars (but not a general consensus) indicate that declines in religious belief also contribute to declining fertility rates, but it is difficult to tell whether the decline in religious belief is truly a causal factor or merely suffering correlative decline along with fertility rates.
OK, so on to the ideas. It seems to me that there are a number of short-term incentives but there would also need to be some longer term initiatives in order for there to be a lasting effect on fertility rates among Mormons. Some of these ideas are genuinely terrible, others less terrible but ineffective, and maybe (just maybe) some of these might be worthwhile.
1. Perpetual Babymaking Fund
People have babies when they are relatively young, but that also happens to be the stage when couples are likely to have the least amount of disposable income. Couples worrying over their day to day living are, I believe, less likely to have children, let alone have additional children. Older couples with mature children are more likely to have available funds (though this is definitely not a given). How about some sort of cost-sharing between affluent couples and those seeking to have additional children? This could be done on a local level or via a general fertility fund. Couples seeking to have additional children could solicit a stipend from the Bishop to recoup prenatal expenses, cost of births, etc., then some sort of ongoing subsidy.
2. Fertile Discounts
Another economic incentive: simply put, make Church cheaper for people with lots of kids. Reduced tithing obligations, receipt of subsidies, rights at LDS Storehouses, free garments, etc. Along these lines, the Church could offer free BYU tuition to say the 5th child born into each LDS home (or to a child born under the PBF, above).
A declaration from the Prophet asking couples to have more children would, if worded correctly, have a strong effect at least in the short term. If President Monson directed us in General Conference that we are to prayerfully consider having at least one additional child per family, or adopting where possible, then it’s likely that many LDS would do so. I would imagine, though, that this would have more of a short term effect than a long term influence on fertility rates; those capable or willing to obey the Prophet in this matter would do so on a fairly accelerated timetable, leaving those unwilling or unable to do so without additional children. Until a new wave of child-capable couples entered the Church, the LDS fertility rate drops again, then a reiteration of the commandment would need to be required for each new child-capable generation to ensure that it is recognized as an evergreen injunction.
4. Reiteration of existing policy/culture
Our existing doctrine and policies already emphasize the importance of children, although in my view the bulk of this is directed towards proper treatment and education of children and not the necessity to grow the ranks of the Church by procreation. If we truly want to encourage high fertility rates, it would be best to emphasize this among our youth and young adults. My personal experience is that we do this more with women than with men, and yet culturally the decision to have children is ideally an equal decision (and in reality probably a decision likely to be made by men). Our young women receive more instruction than our young men with respect to both child-rearing and child-having, and continue to receive more instruction in this respect than men throughout the rest of their lives, and receive more callings with respect to children than men. This has the effect of raising young women who view marriage and childbearing as an absolute priority, but with raising men who may not have that same view. I would imagine that this is borne out by an increase in single men in the Church and an increase in LDS marriage age (and consequently an increase in age for having one’s first child), although of course there is no publicly available data on the topic.
So, to rectify this: even the load. The Proclamation on the Family can be continued to be used to place an emphasis on marriage and childbirth, and it already serves as a counterweight to alternative forms of marriage, women working outside the home and other forces that tend to lower fertility rates. It should be used more directly for the message: HAVE LOTS OF KIDS. Using the Proclamation as a weapon against more incident evils such as against gay marriage etc. is a waste of its power, comparatively speaking, if the priority is lots of LDS babies.
If we really want people to believe that lots of babies is important, babies themselves must be viewed as a priority and our Church must revolve more than it currently does around kids (I would agree that it already does so a lot). Both women and men should receive consistent instruction in the importance of having children, and more men should be given callings involving children. The stigma surrounding service in Primary must be removed, and instead Primary callings must be viewed as the most important in the Church, with instruction to the Youth in 2nd place. Men must be brought to believe that this is really is the most desirable and important form of Church service; while this might be given lip service today, nobody really believes it and men still covet callings of power such as Bishop, presidencies of various sorts, etc. akin to management positions. Breaking this perception would require the existing leadership of the Church to dramatically restructure its public persona, with no more veneration of leaders (this is more properly the topic of a separate post).
Regarding the stigma of Primary, this too is more properly the topic of a separate post but I see a few obvious ways to do this (there are many more). First, eliminate the Chinese wall in effect between Primary and the rest of the ward. Primary teachers are often isolated from everyone else and have little connection to other ward members; vice versa, ward members not serving in Primary rarely care about what happens in Primary so long as there is no spillover to their privileged towers. This must end. Rotate teachers through callings more frequently, increase opportunities for teachers to participate in other church meetings (for example, have someone other than teachers sit with their classes during Sharing Time/Singing Time).
Second, the Primary Presidency should be one of the most ‘powerful’ callings in the ward. Give local Primary presidents more decision-making authority, don’t force the dregs of the ward through their ranks and give the Primary President time during PEC etc. on par with the Relief Society President and the EQ President. If the kids are really that important then stop treating them like puppies and take their instruction and happiness seriously.
Third, fix the curriculum. Primary is a humorless, doctrine-filled affair with precious little time afforded to children to be children. It’s depressing to see six-year-olds being pushed into rote memorization of creeds they cannot understand. The songs themselves are largely terrible dirges focused again on transmission of LDS-specific creeds instead of the joys of life. This must be fixed; again we are treating our kids like puppies who need a rolled-up newspaper. If they’re really the most important thing then it’s time to show it.
Our YM/YW lessons would also need to be fixed to bring this priority into line. Again, the YW already get this message a lot, but the YM don’t. If you want to have a lot of Mormon babies, you need to bring Mormon men on board early. Camping trips and scout budgets are nice but they don’t drive home the point of REPRODUCE the way we need to really make a dent on fertility rates.
For young marrieds, they need to be reproducing early and often. They get the message to babify early in BYU wards but more can be done in this respect. We could go so far as to adjust the temple recommend interviews to include questions regarding fulfilling the commandment to multiply; this would have the effect of permanently establishing the doctrinal nature of having lots of babies. We could also go further in actively discouraging women from entering the workforce, which is a major factor in lower fertility rates. This could be done either by removing the economic need to have women in the workforce (see the economic ideas above), or by reducing the ability of LDS women to compete in the workforce (the ship has sailed in this respect).
We could also forbid the use of contraceptives. It would not be difficult to articulate a doctrinal rationale behind this; indeed LDS couples are already discouraged from using contraceptives if the goal is to perpetuate their own recreational lifestyles, etc., but we can go further. Our Catholic friends already have laid the foundation against contraceptives and we could adopt those rationales for ourselves. We would at least become more consistent in our pro-life stance, which is as of yet not fully fleshed out and results in an anti-abortion position but a pro-contraception position.
In conclusion, there are many ways that we could incentivize people to have more babies in the Church but few of them have real appeal or viability. Further, it seems to me that our baseline culture does not reflect a true priority towards children despite plenty of lip service to that effect. If we are to bolster the ranks through raising up righteous seed to Zion then we need to really get jumpstarted and take things seriously in a new way.