The rate at which Christian blogs and publishing houses are churning out jeremiads against the so-called idolatry of marriage and family is dizzying. You’d think we were living through a repeat of the 1950s, with white picket fences, DuPont products, and rows of beaming children monopolizing the imaginations of churchgoers in their 20s and 30s. Just look at the well-trafficked evangelical writers denouncing the worship of family and fecundity that is purportedly rampant in our congregations here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Now we have books about this fabled outbreak of deified domesticity, most notably Kutter Callaway’s “Breaking the Marriage Idol” (Intervarsity Press), which condemns the evangelical church for adopting “a distorted and distorting vision of marriage, singleness, and sexuality from our cultural environs,” and of organizing “our entire common life together as if this vision were normative for everyone within the Christian community.”
I perceive that in every way we are very religious (or think we are). We have no shortage of writers bewailing idolatry of matrimony and maternity, which we have allegedly picked up from the surrounding culture. But if I may draw our attention for one moment to an altar I noticed in a lonely corner of our evangelical Areopagus, I’d like to introduce us to the false god we worship unaware, because I don’t think it is marriage, family, or kids.
Choosing Indulgent Leisure Instead Of Children
Sometime around 2033, elderly Americans will outnumber children for the first time in our nation’s history, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. That not-so-distant year will mark a critical transition in the sustainability of our population. We will enter what might be called “Japan mode”—a self-perpetuating spiral similar to what the island nation is currently experiencing, in which it becomes more difficult with each passing year for the young to bear the burden of both their aging parents and new children. Put another way, it may never again be as easy as it is right now to have and raise kids, but the need for it will continue to grow.
This transition will be the result of decades of Americans’ individual choices involving priorities about college, career, marriage, and spousal roles. Millions of people my age made and are making the choice to invest their youth, energy, and money into educations they don’t need and can’t afford. The job market for liberal arts majors is infamously sluggish compared with the demand for trades. They’re also investing deeply in animals (dog and cat ownership is at an all-time high, and the pet accessories market is booming), and in self-indulgence.
This last group is particularly detrimental. At least dogs make a lot of people happy. Performative leisure, on the other hand, just makes most people jealous. While only a select few actually succeed at making a career out of being tourists, lifestyle and travel blogging have become a kind of millennial American dream. Consider this couple with nearly half a million subscribers on YouTube, who describe themselves as “professional, full-time travelers.” They’ve been to 66 countries, none of which viewers can actually see because these two won’t get their impossibly smug mugs out of the way. They’re living the dream, “falling in love” with each place they visit, meaning each location they use as a backdrop for their extended, circumglobal selfie.
Their success is no accident. They’ve figured out how to monetize their audience’s envy. Their project is not about the places, cultures, people, or natural wonders they encounter, as a BBC or National Geographic documentary might be. Those things aren’t even in focus, much of the time. Near pristine ignorance of the countries they visit is a feature, not a bug, because the unspoken but in-your-face message of each video this young couple releases is: “Look at us! Don’t you wish you were here right now, having experiences like these?”
Of course, children are nowhere in the picture. Neither is the future.
The Perpetual Spring Break
The same is true for Elsa Rhae, a self-described “Professional Creative,” who has a quarter of a million subscribers and dwells with her “partner and dog” (not the same person) in a travel trailer, living a life of “essentialism” and documenting her experiences. The low-hanging criticism of Rhae’s lifestyle is how unbearably first-world it is.
But a young adulthood modeled after “Stuff White People Like” reveals much more than how frivolous my generation’s conception of the good life has become. It reveals the ideal that has sapped so many of their will to raise families and invest in a world beyond their own lifetimes. As they pour their hopes and imaginations into a perpetual spring break and the experiences they want, the clock continues to tick, and the years to slip away.
Don’t misunderstand: millennials aren’t all traveling the world and “vlogging” about it on YouTube. Most cannot afford that. The vast majority simply watches lifestyle idols do these things on screens. But their hearts are deeply invested in this vision of happiness, and they book flights when they can. Surveys indicate my generation places travel higher on their spending priorities than cars, homes, or paying off debt. They view tourism (although they never call it that—tourism is what their fanny-pack-wearing, Gen-X parents did) as a kind of stand-in for actual worldliness and learning. This is why those who’ve spent a semester abroad so often reconstitute their identities around this glorified vacation.
Those who aren’t globe-trotting are studiously preserving their freedom for experiences they hope to have. They avoid settling down, integrating in a community, or building families because that would mean the death of their misbegotten dream to become “professional, full-time travelers.” Alice Merton’s song “No Roots” is an apt anthem for my contemporaries, who devote just enough attention to their childbearing years to wave at them as they pass by.
At precisely the critical point when most millennials are in their late twenties and early thirties — the point by which human beings throughout history have always produced the next generation — too many of us are not only refusing to settle down and become parents, but basking in Christian writers’ misguided, pious-sounding denunciations of these things as idols. I don’t doubt that there are churches out there where marriage and children are overemphasized to the detriment of Christian singles. But as a colleague of mine likes to say, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.”
The statistics overwhelmingly indicate that if American adults my age are making an idol out of anything, it isn’t family, marriage, fertility, or even the future. It is the rootless, fruitless, experience-filled now. The good news is that this form of idolatry is self-extinguishing. The bad news is that it’ll take our society with it.