The date of this issue, April 22, throws me back to when I was in college 36 years ago and we observed the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. The celebration gained wide backing that year for reasons as polluted as the rivers that needed cleaning. Some supported it out of fear of overpopulation. Richard Nixon publicized it in the hope that students who spent time on ecology would have less time for anti-war demonstrations.
Some Christians-I was not one at the time-became involved for the right motives. They understood that God made Adam a gardener, calling him to take the raw materials of nature and make them more beautiful and more productive. Early this month New York City pastor Tim Keller offered an excellent exegesis on this theme to a group in his city. He observed that many people, including venture capitalists, are gardeners, taking the bare materials of the world and adding value.
God wants us to be fruitful and multiply, but I started thinking after hearing Mr. Keller that gardeners do not grow on trees. To help us produce gardeners, God provided incentives such as sex and the expectation of old age. Within marriage, if it feels good, do it-and behold, a certain percentage of unions will multiply the population. Within the confines of old age, folks who know they will weaken want children who can support them down the road.
Overpopulation fanatics a generation ago, forgetting that every "extra" mouth brings with it one more pair of hands, ardently tried to make big families unfashionable. They were aided by the removal of the age-old incentives. Effective contraception offered sex without reproduction (and abortion became a backup). Social Security offered retirement income without reliance on children. Sure, other incentives remained: Kids are fun, it's satisfying to watch them mature, and God says all that is good. But with sex and security no longer tied to procreation, many couples had one child instead of four.
Over the years the separation of sex and security from reproduction has trimmed but not stopped U.S. population growth, because the United States is the most religious country in the West, and many people still have the faith to have children. We've also learned that affluence and ecology are not at odds: A rich country can afford environmental protection. Still, abortion has led to a shortage of willing hands for many needed jobs, so we take in immigrants.
Many de-Christianized European countries have shrinking populations. The 20 million or more immigrants who do Europe's dirty work are from Muslim countries and therefore much harder to absorb. The Ottoman armies centuries ago could not get past the gates of Vienna, but demographic changes make Europe ripe for Islamic takeover during this century.
Similar population concerns have now led to an immense policy change in Israel. Demographers predicted that Israel, if it annexed the West Bank, would eventually have an Arab majority. Most Israelis shuddered, said they could not allow that to happen, and voted to hand over territory to Palestinian terrorists. Japan, although not threatened by invasion, is having its own anguished debate as a census unveiled earlier this month showed a decreasing population.
I'm not, let me emphasize, arguing against contraception used by married couples who have been fruitful or plan to multiply. (Other Christians differ on that, and we should respect each other's positions.) Nor am I saying it's necessarily wrong to have government stipends for the elderly. (Some Christians disagree.) My point is that massive social changes have consequences unanticipated by planners but predictable by those who, because of biblical teaching, discern the nature of man. Children are a blessing but also a lot of work, and our sinful nature is to be risk-averse unless material benefits are evident.
This puts a different spin on Christian calls for societal revival. We normally speak of the need to be born again to attain eternal life in heaven, and that is true. But cultures that have been Christian and are now losing population need to be born again through a new Reformation that would once again emphasize God's command to be fruitful and multiplying gardeners. A nation that is not born again will eventually die, and its environment will revert from garden to wilderness.