The End of International Adoption?
EVANGELICALS AND OTHER Christians involved in adoption and “orphan care” ministries have often evoked Paul’s use of adoption as a metaphor: God “adopts” us into the family of God, so we should adopt children as a manifestation of the gospel.
But New Testament scholar Erin Heim, a U.S. domestic adoptee herself, has raised questions about Pauline adoption metaphors. “The thing that always gets said — ‘contemporary adoption is a horizontal expression of God’s vertical adoption of us’ — there’s something at face value that is a little bit comforting about it, but that doesn’t sit very well for very long,” Heim said in a podcast about her research on these metaphors.
Adoption by nature is a vertical relationship, Heim explained, referring to power inequities between parents and children and between cultures. “There’s no such thing as horizontal adoption,” she said. “When we make mini vertical things that [try to] look like what God does in the Bible, it’s idolatry.”
Christians were pioneers in the establishment of international adoption to the United States in the 1950s and later spurred an orphan care movement during the peak of international adoption in the early 2000s. Since 1948, roughly 1 million children globally have been placed in new families, far from their original families and culture, through intercountry adoption, according to demographer Peter Selman — more than 380,000 of them between 2000 and 2009.
While faith has guided Christians in promoting adoption, religious narratives also have upheld harmful power structures and practices. “White saviorism” and racial hierarchies have led to the separation of children from their cultures of origin. Adoptees who are now adults have shared stories of struggle within families and societies that deny or misunderstand these dynamics.
Today, some international adoption providers have shifted more attention toward preserving original family and community ties and addressing social factors that can lead parents to relinquish children to adoption. Meanwhile, some adoptees and other advocates seek healing and redress for those affected by illegal or unethical adoption practices.
How have Christians applied new theology to these tasks as they’ve wrestled with past religious narratives?
Birth of a movement
DURING THE KOREAN WAR, which ended in 1953, more than 100,000 children — from both South and North Korea — were orphaned, and their desperate situation sparked the birth of an international adoption movement led largely by Christians, evangelicals in particular. In her 2021 book Adopting for God: The Mission to Change America Through Transnational Adoption, Soojin Chung, a professor of practical theology at Azusa Pacific University, explains how and why Christians advocated for adoption from Korea. She describes the emergence of “child sponsorship” programs, in which sponsors sent money to support the needs of children overseas — a strategy of “virtual adoption” that struck a chord with American evangelicals.
Robert Pierce and Everett Swanson, who went on to found World Vision and the Everett Swanson Evangelistic Association (now Compassion International), respectively, were pioneers in the child sponsorship approach. Two evangelicals from Oregon — Bertha Holt and her husband, Harry — were inspired by a World Vision film depicting the plight of the Korean children, particularly those fathered by U.S. soldiers in Korea, to adopt eight children and lobby for special legislation to permit their immigration. In 1956, Bertha — who became known as “Grandma Holt” and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame — and Harry formed the Holt Adoption Program (now Holt International) to find more adoptive families for children around the globe.
Because of their conviction that all people are God’s image-bearers, some adoption pioneers decried racist arguments against forming interracial families. But Chung points out in Adopting for God that the way Pierce and Swanson framed the issue of Korean adoptions made “Asians objects of tragedy in need of Western rescue.” Pierce and Swanson emphasized evangelism through child sponsorship, and the Holts did the same with adoption, selecting only “born again” Christian parents who would raise children to “accept Christ as the Lord.”
David M. Smolin, director of the Center for Children, Law, and Ethics at the Cumberland School of Law (and an adoptive father), rebukes this “cultural hierarchy” approach to international adoption. Smolin argues that “taking children out of their nations and cultures and bringing them to the United States in order to evangelize them ... is entirely contrary to the original and recurrent Christian vision of the faith being planted and developing indigenously and incarnationally within every culture and nation in the world.”
In the last chapter of her book, Chung describes the continuity of the theological narrative of orphan rescue between current evangelical adopters and their predecessors. “In this story of salvation, Christian Americans who hold deeply traditional family values are the solutions to family breakdown, single motherhood, teenage pregnancy, illegitimacy, institutionalization, and at-risk children,” she wrote. “The problem with this religious narrative is the innate power inequality between the adoptive parents and the children, not merely within individual families, but also in the larger social and global context.”