Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Guest Post: Evangelicals and International Adoption

Mother Jones recently ran an article by Kathryn Joyce purporting to expose the sordid underbelly of Evangelical Christian international adoptions, focusing mainly on one messy family in Tennessee.

In 2007, the Christian Alliance for Orphans, which took root around the same time Campbell published her first adoption articles, held a pivotal meeting at the Colorado headquarters of James Dobson's Focus on the Family; pastors emerged ready to preach the new gospel of orphan care and adoption, according to an account in the Los Angeles Times. Focus was soon predicting that, within a decade, it would be "pretty uncommon" for Christians "to not adopt or not care for orphans." 
Indeed, just two years later the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Christian denomination save the Catholic Church, passed a resolution calling on its 16 million members to get involved, whether that meant taking in children themselves, donating to adoptive families, or supporting the hundreds of adoption ministries that were springing up around the country to raise money and spread the word. Neo-Pentecostal leader Lou Engle also called for mega-churches to take on the cause, which would give them "moral authority in this nation." 
The movement spawned numerous conferences and books built around the idea that adopting a needy child is a form of missionary work. "The ultimate purpose of human adoption by Christians," author Dan Cruver wrote in his 2011 book, Reclaiming Adoption, "is not to give orphans parents, as important as that is. It is to place them in a Christian home that they might be positioned to receive the gospel." At an adoption summit hosted by the Christian Alliance for Orphans at Southern California's Saddleback Church, pastor Rick Warren told followers, "What God does to us spiritually, he expects us to do to orphans physically: be born again and adopted." 
Families wrote about their "adoption journeys" in blogs with names such as Blessings From Ethiopia or Countdown 2 Congo and raised money for their adoption fees by soliciting donations or selling T-shirts. Describing herself as "a dumpster diving orphan lunatic," a mother wrote that she was still "afflicted with my Orphan Obsession" after bearing two kids and adopting four more. One ministry declared simply: "Adoption is the new pregnant."

Brianna Heldt, a Catholic convert from evangelical Protestantism and adoptive mother, wrote a response to Joyce's post, with the provocative title of The Sin of Adoption.

This "orphan fever" phenomenon among evangelicals has actually intrigued me for a long time now.  Because adoption is not only common in evangelical circles, it has spread like wildfire.  If you don't believe me, consider that adoption ministries, organizations, agencies, support groups and grant funds have exploded in recent years.  When we brought our sons home in early 2006 for example, there were five agencies placing children from Ethiopia.  Within a few years that number had jumped to well over fifty.  It's simply a fact: evangelicals have the corner on international adoption. 
My interest in evangelicals and adoption has only grown since converting to Catholicism, because international adoption seems to be more or less unique to evangelicals.  In other words, international adoption is not nearly so common among Catholics or other religious/nonreligious groups.  For whatever reason, it is the evangelical Protestant subculture that has somehow managed to build an entire theology around adoption, mobilizing thousands of couples (most of them perfectly capable of having more biological children) to cross the globe in order to add to their families.  It's rather fascinating really, and indicative of a question that I believe many evangelicals are asking: what is the purpose of the church?  Of faith?  Of a relationship with Jesus?  Is there more to Christianity than a good sermon and Chris Tomlin choruses sung over and over again?

Those questions honestly make sense to me, because I started asking them myself once upon a time.  (Watch out by the way, because if you dig too deep and read too many papal encyclicals and Scott Hahn books you might wind up reconciling with the Catholic Church.  Just sayin'.)  Protestants have of course answered those questions differently throughout the centuries, and adoption seems to be one of the primary "answers" right now for evangelicals.  They tout scriptures like James 1:27, and use the fact that we are all adopted by God (a la Ephesians 1:5) as a sort of mandate or justification for adopting orphaned children.

I have even seen adoption become a litmus test for being a Christian (or for being pro-life) within evangelical circles--if you truly want to follow Jesus, you'll care for the orphan in this way.  If you really believe abortion is wrong, you'll put your money (and life) where your mouth is and adopt.  All of a sudden, the conservative evangelical standard had been raised from reading the Bible and going to church each week to claiming vulnerable and abandoned children as your own.  And this shift in thinking and religious practice has manifested itself in what we see today: a booming international adoption infrastructure and, in the case of the agencies placing children, business.

As it is, I know several Catholic families who have pursued international adoptions. One of those friends, who is currently in the midst of her adoption process, wrote a response to Joyce's article and graciously allowed me to run it as a guest post:

Recently there has been a lot of media interest in the evangelical adoption movement, prompted mostly by Kathryn Joyce.  She published this article in The Nation in 2011.  She has since gone on to publish her book The Child Catchers, which has set off another flurry of articles such as the one in Mother Jones. I'd first like to poke holes in Joyce's arguments. 
Joyce lumps evangelicals and fundamentalists together and I have seen other articles imply that Rick Warren started the adoption movement. Evangelicals and fundamentalists have very different world-views. The Allisons, the family profiled in the Mother Jones article, are extreme fundamentalists. We're talking live off the grid, buy a lot of guns, and practice a form of courtship that looks a lot like arranged marriages. Fundamentalists generally do not like Rick Warren because they think that he is a wolf in sheep's clothing preaching a feel-good psychobabble in a Christian dressing in order to get rich. There was a movement toward "orphan care" in both fundamentalist and evangelical circles and it preceded Warren. He is just well known enough that it caught the eye of the secular media once he started really trying to spread it in evangelical circles. 
Second, articles make this seem like the next big thing that is really gathering steam. International adoption has declined every year since 2004.  Today the number of international adoptions is half of what it was in 2004.  Topics such as homeschooling and courtship get much more discussion and interest among both evangelical and fundamentalist churches. 
While it is true that there are more adoption conferences and ministries now, these people are not all rushing to adopt. Similar to how the media presents the entire pro-life movement as people picketing abortion clinics, the adoption movement is much more than actual adoption. For most churches, an adoption ministry would include praying for families who choose to adopt and supporting their fundraisers, bringing them meals when they return, and maybe having an adoptive families group at their church. Large churches might actually partner with a particular orphanage in the Caribbean or Africa which they support financially and visit for mission trips.  (For an inside view of adoption ministry, you might listen to this podcast.) 
Articles critical of the evangelical adoption movement focus on international adoption because it fits the narrative, but many of these same churches are also helping the foster community. In in a large city in my area, there is one well-respected adoption agency that partners with local churches to host info on becoming a foster family or offering respite care. Sometimes churches will have a lending closet of clothing and baby furniture for foster families to use when they need to come up with a crib and clothing for a placement on short notice. This is a good article about one church that really made foster adoption a mission
Now to be critical of the adoptive community: I would agree that they often turn a blind eye to the trafficking issue and can make it worse. The main problem is that most people who want to adopt only want a baby girl. I can't tell you how many times I've run across someone has said that "God told me to adopt a baby girl." There are at least 20 on my China adoption group and people say it over and over again! This creates a market for baby girls, and this is where the trafficking comes into play. I do question how many of these people are confusing their desires for an ideal family with what God is asking them to do. Call me cynical, but I have a hard time thinking God would tell someone to wait in a line for 2 years to adopt a baby girl when there are so many boys, older children, and children with special needs who need homes right now. 
I have really only seen a few people say that evangelization was a motivation for adopting. Usually it is tossed in towards the bottom of the list "... oh, and we're also kind of spreading the Gospel this way, too." But I agree with the "Sin of Adoption" blog post that what the real problem is, is a feeling of entitlement. There is very little understanding for the hard decision that families made for these children to be available for adoption. Many people seem to feel that if trafficking is going on, yeah, it's kind of bad, but these kids are probably better off for it anyway. Any Mom who abandons her child, brings them to the orphanage, can't provide for them, they don't deserve the child. There is always the presumption that those moms must not like girls, those moms hate them because of their special needs, those moms must have cast them off like garbage because they don't care. It seems to never have occurred to many of them that this was a decision made out of love so that the child wouldn't starve, or so they could get life-saving medical care. I think for many adoptive parents it is probably a defensive reaction, so that they don't feel guilty for benefiting from another family's poor circumstances.   
At other times, couples which feel a call to adopt might take on more than they can handle in terms of age, large sibling groups, or special needs.  Families such as the Allisons profiled in Mother Jones seem unprepared for children who have survived trauma, sexual or physical abuse, and have suffered losses.  Often the evangelical adoption community can portray "the miracle of adoption" with a romantic narrative.  The parents fall in love with the child in the photo at first sight, and as they are united on "gotcha day" they all live happily ever after.  Adoptive parents are sometimes afraid to speak frankly about the challenging aspects of adoption because of fear of backlash, fear of scaring people off from adoption, and because they want to respect the privacy of the children involved.  In my opinion, a church with an adoption ministry would want to ask couples to consider adoption, but also help them discern if they can handle the needs of the children who need homes.  Sometimes those couples might find that the answer is actually no.  In that case they should put their energies into supporting "orphan care" in other ways rather than increasing the demand for baby girls so that they can feel they have done their part to make the number of orphans "one less", as the t-shirts frequently say.


Kelly said...

I'm not sure I'd point the finger at the evangelicals for the Ethiopia boom. 2006 was right when the slowdown hit in China and people starting looking for another program where they could get a healthy baby girl in about a year. Melissa Faye Green's There's No Me Without You was published that same year, and thousands of people swarmed from the China line to Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is a majority Christian country which should discount the evangelism factor, but it's also possible that many evangelical Christians wouldn't find the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to fit their idea of Christianity.

Peter and Nancy said...

Thank you for sharing these excerpts and thoughts. We are protestant Christians who have adopted twice. I was upset by the article in Mother Jones and the book -- not least because of the narrow lens Joyce uses (why didn't she interview more parents or talk to ethical Christian agencies?), and her seeming ignorance about different branches of Christianity. But I am also dismayed because of the numbers -- adoptions are dramatically down, as you've noted here. I would hate for more children to lose out on having a family because of the incomplete picture she paints.

Peter and Nancy said...

Also, the reason we adopted wasn't because we had "orphan fever." Our church has no orphan care ministry or adoption ministry. We couldn't have any more biological children, and we hoped to be parents to more than our two sons, while providing a safe, loving family to children who wouldn't otherwise have one.