Religious Righteousness and Adoption

I don’t think it will surprise anyone that adoption as a practice is dripping with issues of class and race.  Fact of the matter is, when agencies charge fees of anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000 or more per adoption, it’s inevitable that the people who will be able to afford to adopt are usually white middle and upper-middle class Americans.

But the religion piece is important, too, as this recent article in the Nation by Katherine Joyce demonstrates.  I’ll be upfront about my biases:  conservative evangelicals who choose to adopt to save souls make my skin crawl, and I have a hard time keeping my blood pressure from sky-rocketing through the roof.  The fact that natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake in 2010 led to evangelicals rushing to claim “orphans” as adoptable children raises about a million and one ethical questions.  The sheer numbers are disturbing.

Adoption has long been the province of religious and secular agencies, but in the past two years evangelical advocacy has skyrocketed. In 2009 Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of the 2009 book Adopted for Life, shepherded through a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) resolution calling on all 16 million members of the denomination to become involved in adoption or “orphan care.” Last year at least five evangelical adoption conferences were held, and between 1,000 and 2,000 churches participated in an “Orphan Sunday” event in November. And in February, the mammoth evangelical adoption agency Bethany Christian Services announced that its adoption placements had increased 13 percent since 2009, in large part because of the mobilization of churches.

“We expect adoptions will continue to rise as new movements within the Christian community raise awareness and aid for the global orphan crisis,” Bethany CEO Bill Blacquiere said.

One result has been the creation of “rainbow congregations” across the country, like the congregation Moore helps pastor in Louisville, Highview Baptist. An active adoption ministry has brought 140 adopted children into the congregation in the past five years. These children don’t recognize the flags of their home countries, Moore proudly noted at a 2010 conference, but they can all sing “Jesus Loves Me.”

There are so many pieces here to unpack and pick apart I don’t even know where to start: class, race, religion, notions of salvation, white privilege…The image of these children not recognizing their home country flag, losing their language, losing their culture, and instead being filled with evangelical rhetoric makes my heart ache.

But underneath the rage (we’re not charity projects in need of salvation, damn it!), there’s also a fascination with the intersection of adoption and religion.  It is so pervasive in the adoption culture.  Holt International, founded by Harry and Bertha Holt of Oregon, was the first official agency to handle Korean adoptions in the immediate aftermath of the Korean War–and they were evangelical Christians who felt called to adopt these babies and raise them as Christians.

Missionaries and charities are nothing new…in fact you can argue that historically, after informal family networks, they were the first form of social welfare.  But to see this attitude so prevalent in contemporary culture is disheartening on so many levels.  The fact that many children adopted from impoverished countries like Haiti are not actually orphans only adds salt to the bitter wound.

In Reclaiming Adoption, Cruver bluntly declares, “The ultimate purpose of human adoption by Christians, therefore, 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.”

In person, Russell Moore denies that invoking the Great Commission means adoption is a vehicle for evangelism. But in Adopting for Life, he calls adoption “evangelistic to the core,” since Christian adoptive parents are “committing to years of gospel proclamation.” Likewise, although Medefind dismisses the idea of proselytizing through adoption, the Alliance membership agreement envisions “every orphan experiencing God’s unfailing love and knowing Jesus as Savior.”

Let me be clear.  I’m not anti-Christian (although I’m not Christian myself), and I’m not anti-Christians adopting and raising children.  But when this is the rhetoric used to justify the unethical adoption of children who might not even be orphans…well, it’s just unacceptable.  And beyond that…it’s hard not to be cynical when you consider the economics running the industry. Yes, I do see adoption as an industry.  And behind closed doors, so do the agencies facilitating them:

Despite the Silsby affair, the Haiti earthquake helped accelerate the rise of the evangelical adoption movement, and increased its influence. At the Christian Alliance summit, JCICS’s DiFilipo implored the audience to advocate for less restrictive adoption policies, pointing to the drop in international adoptions from nearly 23,000 in 2004 to a projected 7,000 by 2012.

These numbers underlie a feeling among adoption advocates that even though demand is increasing, international adoption is under siege. “The days of a large sending country are over,” Johnson has said.

The decrease is often attributed to the closure of Guatemala and the slowdown in China. DiFilipo says the threat is far broader, with eight or nine countries “functionally suspending” intercountry adoption within the past three years—something he attributes to “institutional bias” against international adoption rather than documented ethical lapses.

As the numbers have dropped, the adoption industry has constricted, with the closure or merger of 25 percent of US agencies since 2000. The shuttering of Guatemala in 2008—what Luwis called “the gravy train” for many agencies—was a major factor. JCICS felt the squeeze too. In an internal 2009 document, the organization described financial shortages that forced it to halve expenses and staff in recent years.

“In the last few years, a bunch of top placing agencies in the US met together kind of clandestinely,” recalls Luwis. “To me it was a ‘saving our rear’ meeting. I take no salary. But for some of the others, this is their livelihood. They place thousands of kids; this is the way they’ve done it, they’re not going to change.”

I’m not sure where to go from here…but this felt like something I needed to get off my chest.  I don’t feel better for having written it…but it’s a start.


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