The Evangelical Adoption Campaign

As Bill Clinton works to spring U.S. missionaries charged with kidnapping in Haiti, the case highlights a new evangelical strategy: Adopt Third World babies and convert them.

02.06.10 7:30 PM ET

For the past week, the news from Haiti has been dominated by the story of 10 American evangelicals from Idaho who were caught at the border of the Dominican Republic attempting to take 33 Haitian children, many with living parents, out of the country without documentation. The Americans, missionaries with the recently created New Life Children’s Refuge, were arrested and charged with kidnapping and criminal conspiracy—a reprieve from the child trafficking charges they may have faced.

American evangelical churches are embracing a new orphan theology that urges Christians to see adoption and “orphan-care” as an integral part of their faith.

The details that emerged about the group’s plans and leader, Laura Silsby, were unsavory. Although Silsby, the legally embattled CEO of a personal shopping business, claimed that the group never intended to put the children up for adoption, an itinerary for New Life’s mission, published by an affiliated Southern Baptist church, bluntly described a plan to “gather 100 orphans from the streets and collapsed orphanages” onto a bus, then take them to a hotel in the Dominican Republic. There, New Life hoped to build permanent orphanage facilities, including a beachfront restaurant and “seaside villas” for prospective adoptive parents—amenities that underscore their understanding of local adoption residency requirements, even as they claimed ignorance of Haitian law. Additional planning and fundraising documents described the group’s goal to “equip each child” with the opportunity “for adoption into a loving Christian family,” and help them “find new life in Christ.”

After the arrests, Silsby and supporters explained that they’d been called by God to help orphans in Haiti, that they were “acting not only in faith but God’s faith.”

The news of an adoption organization driven by missionary zeal surprised many, but it shouldn’t. Although New Life’s illegal actions have been condemned by other religious adoption agencies, their sense of calling fits into a growing movement of American evangelical churches embracing a new orphan theology that urges Christians to see adoption and “orphan-care” as an integral part of their faith—and a means of spreading the gospel.

This January, Christianity Today declared adoption the next culture war issue, and a major theological development of 2009. Indeed, 2009 was filled with news of adoption, as Russell Moore, dean of the theological school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, released his book Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches, exhorting Christians to “be at the forefront of the adoption of orphans close to home and around the world.”

Moore’s message came with both political and theological justifications, both positioning adoption as part of a holistic “pro-life” stance and, in a stunning admission, as a means for Christians to fulfill the Great Commission: evangelizing and making converts of the nations. In fact, adoption has become such a critical, though under-recognized, part of the evangelical agenda that in 2008, The Wall Street Journal’s “Taste” section advised Senator John McCain to highlight his adopted daughter—once the target of an ugly smear campaign—as a means of shoring up his lukewarm evangelical appeal.

This June, Moore helped pass a Southern Baptist Convention resolution calling upon all 16 million members of the denomination to prayerfully consider whether or not God was calling them to adopt. With both domestic and international adoption described as almost “contagious” in evangelical churches, with even small congregations boasting dozens of adopted children, it’s evident that more Christians are feeling that “call”—whether from God, or from leaders like Moore.

This November, hundreds of churches participated in “Orphan Sunday,” a nationwide adoption event where churches focused their sermons on promoting adoption as a Christian duty. And in 2007, Focus on the Family estimates it reached 19 million people through its “Cry of the Orphan” campaign. A number of upcoming conferences will further the message, including the Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit this April, which will now focus on Haiti, promoting adoption as a “long-term response” to the crisis and the best way that “ordinary people can make a lasting difference for orphans.”

In the wake of the New Life fiasco, Russell Moore worried the news would “give a black eye to the orphan-care movement,” as anti-abortion vigilantes had to the pro-life movement—a lawless take on a shared agenda. But there are larger problems with the call for American Christians to adopt en masse. Among them are the widely misunderstood definitions of orphans, which lead to ever-ballooning estimates of children in need of adoption. Another is the strong taint of colonialism in casting American adopters as saviors and focusing on adoption as a solution for impoverished communities. In some countries in recent years, including Liberia and Ethiopia, religious adoption organizations have been singled out for censure by national authorities, accused of using church ties to legitimize unethical practices.

To be sure, many Christians and non-Christians involved in adoption keep these considerations in mind, and while the activist group Christian Defense Coalition is campaigning for the release of New Life missionaries, many other Christian groups have distanced themselves from a plan some denounced as “child trafficking.” But the wholesale call for Christians to adopt as a solution for poverty and disaster—often at a cost of up to $30,000 per child—and particularly for purposes of proselytization, seems destined to lead to more people jumping headlong into a perceived “calling” to care for orphans without understanding the complex ethics that surround all adoptions.

Kathryn Joyce is the author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement (Beacon, 2009).