Saturday, August 30, 2008

Defend the Orphan: An Age-Old Christian Lesson


Defend the Orphan: An Age-Old Christian Lesson Gets a New Lease on Life

August 29, 2008; Page W9

If John McCain is looking for a way to shore up his support among evangelical voters, he might start talking about adoption. In 1993, the McCains adopted a daughter from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh, and the senator has co-sponsored legislation to aid adoption, including measures that would provide tax credits for expenses and would remove barriers to interracial and interethnic adoption. But his efforts are rarely mentioned on the campaign trail at a time when adoption is a hot topic in the evangelical community.

Earlier this month, Rick Warren, the best-selling author and pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in Lake Forest, Calif., asked both presidential candidates if they would consider some kind of emergency plan to help the 148 million orphans around the world, something along the lines of President Bush's AIDS efforts. Both said yes, but a number of Christians and their organizations are not waiting for the next administration to act.

[A nun kisses a handicapped baby at Shishu Bhavan, a home for orphaned children, founded by Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India.]
Associated Press
A nun kisses a handicapped baby at Shishu Bhavan, a home for orphaned children, founded by Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India.

Russell Moore, the dean of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., is the author of a forthcoming book called "Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches." A few years ago, Mr. Moore and his wife adopted two boys from Russia, and he notes that his church has posted a large map showing which countries member families have adopted children from. "In any given church," he notes, "you rarely see only one family who has adopted. . . . It becomes part of the culture of the congregation."

Tony Nolan, an adoptee himself, now travels with Christian bands and speaks to their massive audiences about adoption. During "Winterjam," a 30-city tour that recently concluded, Mr. Nolan recounted his story to some 350,000 people. His biological mother was homeless, mentally ill and a prostitute. A month before she died, he visited her in the hospital. "She grabbed me by the hand, looked at me and said, 'The doctors told me not to have you,' " Mr. Nolan says. On tour, he conveys the message that "God knew what he was doing." And after every concert, money is collected to help a local family with its adoption expenses.

Several groups are trying to remove the financial barriers to adoption. The Abba fund in Charlotte, N.C., sets up families with no-interest loans for adoption fees and travel expenses. Others are spreading the news that many children need to find loving Christian homes. The Cry of the Orphan -- a campaign co-sponsored by several Christian adoption agencies, ministries and awareness groups, including Focus on the Family -- ran Internet, TV, radio and print ads that reached 19 million people last year.

The theme was "You Are God's Plan for the Orphan," which represents something of a shift, says Kelly Rosati, who oversees Focus on the Family's adoption and orphan-care division and is the mother of four adopted children. "The traditional way of viewing adoption was something you considered if you were facing infertility." You could call it God's Plan B for the Couple. But now, according to Ms. Rosati, "the commitment to adoption is part of a holistic sanctity-of-human-life ethic."

This fall, Focus on the Family (whose leader, James Dobson, has been slowly warming to Sen. McCain) will be launching a different sort of adoption campaign. In cooperation with the state of Colorado, where the Christian organization is based, it will be shining its media spotlight on the 127,000 children in the U.S. who are considered unadoptable -- kids, typically over the age of 8, who are languishing in foster care. Many are racial minorities.

"There is much more openness to transracial adoption today," Ms. Rosati says. And Mr. Moore has been very vocal about this issue. Groups like the National Association of Black Social Workers have taken a strong stand against placing black children in the homes of white parents, a position that outrages Mr. Moore. He recently compared social workers who oppose transracial adoption to George Wallace. "Both are saying the same thing, 'Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.' And both pretend they're just being realistic about racial discrimination."

The command to "defend the orphan" (Isaiah 1:16-17) has always been vital to the Christian message, Mr. Moore tells me. One thing that distinguished early Christians from their pagan neighbors was their treatment of unwanted children. And adoption is also the literal manifestation of a metaphor that Christians use to describe themselves all the time. "Every one of us who follows Christ was adopted into an already existing family," says Mr. Moore.

So what could Sen. McCain, who has been reluctant to mention his faith explicitly, add to these efforts? For one thing, his example. There are very few serious people on the national stage who are encouraging adoption. Madonna and Brangelina are not exactly the perfect role models.

But the issue goes beyond do-goodism. Adoption is most often mentioned in the second clause of a sentence that begins with abortion. Democrats have long made the specious argument that Republicans opposed to legalized abortion want to leave women with only two options: public shaming and dangerous back-alley surgeries. Sen. McCain could highlight the real choice that Christian organizations provide every day.

Finally, the subject would give Sen. McCain a chance to talk about the importance of religious liberty. It may be recalled that the maverick flubbed a question on George Stephanopolous's show about whether gay adoption should be legal. After a little back and forth, he finally concluded that the matter should be up to the states.

But this solution creates its own set of problems. Earlier this year, the Archdiocese of Boston stopped offering adoption services because the state of Massachusetts was going to force it to provide them to gay couples. The local bishop was unwilling to violate basic church teachings on the family. If Sen. McCain sticks to his position of leaving gay-marriage decisions to the states, he might also emphasize that those states need to allow religious organizations to operate according to their own beliefs, lest we lose the vital social services that they provide.

Who knows? With a little luck, religious folks may adopt John McCain as one of their own.

Ms. Riley is the Journal's deputy Taste editor.

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