Right’s New Apocalypse

Declining birth rates and aging populations are a concern to countries around the globe. Conservatives have taken to using "demographic winter" as a catch phrase for turning the discussion into another battle in the culture war. For many conservatives, demographic winter—or "birth dearth" as it is sometimes called—is rooted in the rise of feminism, legalized abortion, the acceptance of homosexuality, illegal immigration, the growth of minority populations, and the result of a multi-decade campaign by liberals to undermine "natural law" and the "natural family."

According to Devin Burghart, vice president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, an organization that tracks and exposes right-wing movements, "’Demographic winter’ is a relatively new phrase that describes the old alarmist ‘birth dearth’ concept—the idea that we’re facing declining birth rates which is supposed to portend all sorts of cataclysmic events.

"One particular strand of dearthers," Burghart reports, "led by folks like Pat Buchanan, focuses particularly on the supposed danger of declining birthrates among white people in the United States and Europe, which they argue is leading us towards the impending demise of ‘Western Civilization.’ Buchanan details the argument in his 2002 book, Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil our Country and Civilization. The concept melds nativism and Islamophobia together with the Christian Right’s infatuation with procreation and heterosexuality."

Rachel Tabachnick, an independent researcher who specializes in "end times" narratives, says that in the context of her work, she has found that the term "demographic winter" refers to "the belief that western civilization is in decline and at risk because of lowered birth rates." Often, Tabachnick points out, "This belief is sometimes used to attack gays, feminists, birth control, etc., because of the perceived role they play in reducing birth rates. Some use it in arguments claiming that Islam will take over Europe and other parts of the globe because Muslims are reproducing faster than Christians."

Another strand in the "demographic winter" debate was outlined by Stephen Baskerville, a political science teacher at the conservative evangelical Patrick Henry College and the author of Taken Into Custody: The War Against Fathers, Marriage, and the Family. In a February 2009 article titled "The Dangerous Rise of Sexual Politics" published in the journal The Family in America, Baskerville maintained that "women’s liberation, the boldest social experiment ever undertaken in the Western democracies," is responsible for "a massive restructuring of the social order [and] demographic trends that threaten the very survival of Western civilization…"

Family Research Council

In June 2010, the Family Research Council, a Washington, DC-based Christian conservative lobbying group—as part of its Family Policy Lecture series—sponsored a presentation titled "The Roots of Demographic Winter and the Global Economic Crisis." The promotional materials for the event claimed that, "Demographic Winter didn’t happen in a vacuum. Bad ideas and misguided policies have led to rapidly declining birthrates worldwide."

The featured speaker was former syndicated columnist and Boston Herald editorial writer Don Feder, who is president of Jews Against Anti-Christian Defamation as well as the Communications Director for the World Congress of Families (WCF), a group that is made up of a collection of religious right organizations (local and international) brought together to celebrate and fight for the "natural" family, which, according to the WCF website, is the "union of a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage."

In January 2009, Feder spoke about demographic winter while addressing the 36th annual March for Life Rose Dinner in Washington, DC: "In the Western world, birth rates are falling and populations are aging. The consequences for your children and grandchildren could well be catastrophic." He also claimed, "In 30 years, worldwide, birth rates have fallen by more than 50 percent. In 1979, the average woman on this planet had 6 children. Today, the average is 2.9 children, and falling.

"Demographic Winter is the terminal stage in the suicide of the West—the culmination of a century of evil ideas and poisonous policies," which includes abortion, contraception, delayed marriage, and a culture that devalues children. The Ruth Institute, for instance, a San Marcos, California-based organization, according to its website, is dedicated to "promot[ing] lifelong married love to college students by creating an intellectual and social climate favorable to marriage."It’s a project of Maggie Gallagher’s highly controversial group, National Organization for Marriage, one of the organizations leading the charge against same-sex marriage.

Near the end of Section II of a document titled "Ruth Institute—Strategic Plan 2010-2013" was a statement affirming that the Institute "aims to work hand-in-hand with other organizations in the marriage movement to:

  • Decrease the divorce rate
  • Increase the marriage rate
  • Decrease the cohabitation rate
  • Increase the number of children who grow up with both married parents
  • Reduce the lag time between the age of sexual initiation and the age of first marriage
  • Maintain at least a replacement-level birth rate, so that the devastation of a European-style "demographic winter" is avoided

Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst with Americans for Separation of Church and State, remembered seeing Don Feder "giving a short talk on the subject" at the 2008 Values Voter Summit. Boston recalled that Feder, "did not explicitly espouse racism directly. He tended to portray falling birthrates as a worldwide problem, but anyone who follows population trends knows that third-world birthrates remain high, and obviously the world’s population is far from being in decline. [Feder’s] implication seemed clear to me: birth rates are up in the ‘wrong’ places (poor, mostly minority countries) and down in the ‘right’ ones (affluent, mostly white countries). I found his talk to be distasteful and xenophobic."


Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.