Growing God's Family

The Global Orphan Care Movement and the Limits of Evangelical Activism

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Samuel L. Perry
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , June
     2017.
     288 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479803057.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Growing God’s Family, sociologist Samuel L. Perry examines a social movement among American evangelicals that advocates for believers to expand their families through the adoption of children. In contrast to Kathryn Joyce’s provocative Child-Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption (PublicAffairs, 2013), Perry asserts that the very principles of evangelical Christianity that motivate adoption practices are the same ones that limit their expansion. Perry draws upon interviews with over 200 leaders of the evangelical adoption movement, relevant primary literature and data, and ethnographic material culled from three years of participant-observation at numerous adoption events. The result is a book that is capable of sifting through overly pious rhetoric in order to determine the actual impact of the evangelical orphan care movement.

According to Perry, the success of the movement, like many evangelical movements, is not rooted in a desire to solve social problems. As numerous other sociologists of evangelicalism have noted before him, socially conservative evangelicals prioritize individual piety over collective change, idealism over activism, and obedience over tangible results. He identifies this approach as ultimately self-limiting and ineffective because it is concerned with the unquantifiable results of spiritual transformation, rather than numerical success (4, 70, 157). Though evangelicals are no more likely to adopt than non-evangelicals in the United States, the adoption movement has created an effective rhetoric that makes the movement appear more extensive than it actually is (157).

Like the contemporary purity movements that I study, these evangelicals prioritize orthodox belief over orthodox practice. Many of Perry’s interviewees discussed “motivations of the heart” as if only actions rooted in purity of intent could produce right action. However, interviews Perry conducted with adoptive families reveal how they utilize both idealism and pragmatism in making their choices about adoption.

Adoption narratives found on the websites of evangelical organizations often include adoption stories which are framed in the genre of religious testimonials. These narratives describe a family’s path to adoption as a divine calling that emerges in response to engaging with gospel teachings. Perry calls this language “pietistic idealism,” a recurrent theme in his analysis. He began his interviews with adoptive families with a simple question: “Why did you adopt?” The answers provide greater insight into the motivations and desire of the families whose stories are utilized by organizations to promote adoption as a sacred duty. He discovered that most evangelicals adopt for the same reason other Americans adopt: because of a desire to expand their family and their biological inability to do so (137). Many who adopt are not initially part of an evangelical movement, but only become so after that fact. Those families who adopt for seemingly more pious reasons are often church leaders and clergy. These findings from chapter 4 provide an important corrective to Joyce’s portrayal of the alarming growth of evangelical families through adoption.

Perry’s analysis is an important addition to our understanding of contemporary evangelicalism in the US. Reading it, I kept thinking about Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s Divided by Faith (Oxford University Press, 2000), which studies evangelical views on race and racism. Perry’s conclusions about evangelical activism and piety fit nicely into Emerson and Smith’s thesis, a connection that he expounds on in his conclusion. I extend some leeway to scholars of evangelicalism whose work has been published after the election of Donald J. Trump. The revelation that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump has sent waves through the ranks of academics whose work it is to understand the political leanings of the group. It was hard not to think about this as I read Perry’s astute book. But now more than ever, it is apparent that those of us who study evangelicals cannot overlook the topics of race, racism, and national identity. I imagine that if Perry were starting the project now, he would wonder about what it’s like for families whose children are immigrants to this country, or whose skin color is different from that of their adoptive family. How do evangelical views of race, immigration, and national identity impact their practices of adoption?  The inclusion of Smith, Emerson, and Gerardo Marti’s work is important, but it would have been more useful had Perry used this to inform his methodologies rather than to just reinforce his conclusions. International adoption is a critical site for understanding how evangelicals connect racial, religious, and national identity. This was a missed opportunity in an otherwise carefully crafted study for furthering our understanding of evangelicalism in the United States.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sara Moslener is lecturer in the department of philosophy and religion at Central Michigan University.

Date of Review: 
October 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Samuel L. Perry is assistant professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. He received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago. He also holds a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary. His research explores the changing dynamics of religion and family life in the United States. 

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