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You Can’t Reclaim the Culture by Having More Kids

February 13th, 2024 | 6 min read

By Matthew Loftus

"The best thing conservatives can do to reclaim the culture is have a bunch of kids and homeschool them.” This is a quote from a prominent conservative commentator from a few years ago, but one can find a similar sentiment on a frequent basis on your social medium of choice. It's an inspiring idea, consonant with the rising pronatalism conservatives are trying to stir up. More importantly, it adds a smug feeling of demographic inevitability to Christian practice: We will win because we're going to outnumber them by doing the things we love doing anyway!

The main problem with this contention is that it isn't really true. At least, so far it hasn't really panned out despite nearly two generations trying it. The “culture war” as we know it has been happening since at least the 1980s, and since then there have been plenty of Christian parents homeschooling their large broods. If the same commentators who espouse this strategy are correct in their assessment that Western culture has been sliding further and further into degeneracy over the past several decades, we can say that it has barely succeeded at slowing that slide.

Most people who think that conservatives can just outbreed liberals are under 40 and simply haven’t spent enough time talking to people from various walks of life. Some of them will say that homeschooling is best, others are believers in certain kinds of private Christian schools. Oftentimes a No True Scotsman fallacy rears its ugly head in these discussions, assuming that any child who rejected their parents’ faith as an adult must have been homeschooled the wrong way or gone to the wrong kind of Christian school. Go to any church, any homeschool co-op, or any Christian school that has been doing things the “correct” way for over a decade, and you’ll find a mix of wheat and tares among the graduates.

The role of college choice is similar. Christian colleges and universities are good, and they are probably more likely to help kids keep the faith than your average public university. (It depends on the school, obviously; some skew so liberal that they may lead young people out of their faith and others are so restrictive that they will generate intense reaction.) But they are not guarantees for anything, and you can easily find graduates from your preferred school who are no longer walking with the Lord just as easily as you can find a vibrant group of believers who just finished at your local state school.

You may also find people who quote Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it”) as some kind of prooftext that parents who raise their children in a Godly way will see those children grow up to be believers. This is both a bad reading of the text and incredibly cruel to parents that have invested their lives in raising kids who turned away from the faith of their family.

There have been few studies trying to assess how effective Christian schools or homeschools are in raising kids to have their own faith. The Gen2 survey from the National Home Education Research Institute seems a little too good to be true for homeschooling; it also found no benefit from private Christian schools. (I suspect that sampling bias played a big role in some of their numbers.) Cardus has produced a series of surveys on a smaller number of students that shows positive, but modest benefits from homeschooling and private Christian schools. Most people who were homeschooled or went to private Christian schools would likely agree anecdotally that these educational environments did help to foster their own personal faith, but were hardly a sure thing.

Why isn’t “have a lot of kids and homeschool them” the winning culture war strategy conservatives want it to be? There are both pull and push factors in play: our broader cultural milieu tends to pull people of all ages out of deep faith in Christ or adherence to Biblical teaching, while a harsh, overbearing parenting style can just as easily push a child away from the Church. Christians have been debating the practical wisdom of how to best protect children from evil influences while equipping them to become adults who follow Jesus for a long time. Those of us who are old enough to remember debates about Harry Potter and Creed lyrics know that zeal and strictness are necessary, but not sufficient factors for raising children.

Some of it is undoubtedly regression to the mean—if the average American is a vaguely spiritual iPhone addict whose churchgoing tendencies will consistently lose out to youth sports, the average kid who is being homeschooled or going to private Christian school will likely be one standard deviation above them, but that’s not always saying very much. That does imply, as the Gen2 survey suggests, that an intentional pattern of family discipleship, in addition to educational choice, will make a larger difference in a child’s spiritual life.

A survey that is also likely subject to some sampling bias found that 80% of missionary kids remain Christians into adulthood. (Here, one of the most variables involved the parents’ commitment to ministry; kids who felt as though their parents prioritized ministry over them were much less likely to be believers as adults.) While not everyone can or should be a foreign missionary, there are still many opportunities to intentionally sacrifice for the sake of others as part of your family’s life.

I have long argued that a family that is otherwise indistinguishable from their unbelieving middle-to-upper-class neighbors in terms of where they choose to live and how they spend their money is probably not different enough to make a difference. If your basic outlook on life still functionally treats financial security and physical comfort as your primary life goals, then homeschooling and family discipleship can easily be perceived as different wallpaper on the same house. We can easily recognize the cultural forces in arenas like sexuality that are encouraging apostasy and even push back against the encroachment of sports leagues, but if there’s no similar effort against Mammon, we run the risk of guarding the front door while the back gate remains open.

Things are slightly different now than they were 20 years ago, and it is likely that not giving your kids a smartphone is in and of itself a radical act that sets one apart from the cultural mainstream. That being said, parents must also model for their children a life of spiritual devotion that isn’t captive to online trends, newly ingrained patterns of life dominated by social media, or the vicissitudes of culture war itself. It doesn’t matter if you have two kids or ten kids if all they see is how beholden their parents are to whatever conservative commentators are telling us.

Most importantly, we don’t have children in order to reclaim the culture. One of the most diabolical ideas we can perpetuate is the idea that kids are pawns in the culture war, even if the other side wants to treat them as such. I can’t think of a more effective way to pull your kids away from faith in Christ than to insinuate that you had them or are raising them in a specific way in order to own the libs. Children are a gift of God, as is faith in Him, and each is worth pursuing and nurturing in your life as goods in and of themselves. Pushing back against cultural degeneracy is a worthwhile task, but it shouldn’t be confused with the joy of raising kids and it ought to be abandoned by any individual who feels like it is supplanting their responsibilities to their families.

Finally–and crucially–the decision our children make to follow Christ or not is ultimately between them and the Holy Spirit. Whether they adhere to other aspects of Christian belief and practice is also ultimately their decision. They are probably overrepresented on social media, but an intensive parenting strategy can often produce Christians who have the same amount of zeal for Christ and opposite political beliefs from their parents. Our influence as parents is critical but penultimate. Our choices about things like church attendance, family worship, media choices, spending decisions, or service to our communities are going to be very similar, irrespective of where our kids go to school and those decisions may be more consequential.

Some conservatives would like to believe that they can outbreed liberals and reclaim the culture, but this is wishful thinking at best and toxic to genuine faith at worst. I’m thankful that my parents chose to homeschool me and I’m glad that I have the opportunity to homeschool my kids, but unless those piano lessons we’re insisting on pay off and they become a pop star, their influence on the culture is likely to be negligible. Christians who want the surrounding culture to be less hostile to their faith have only the same options available to those who came before us, and our choices to love God and our neighbors will require the same discipline, sacrifice, and wisdom that our parents demonstrated to us.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org