Creating a “movement of churches that engages all of the peoples in America, not just one kind. . . . That is very difficult, . . . and anybody who says that that’s not true has never actually done it.” These words from J. D. Greear, the 62nd president of the Southern Baptist Convention, come at the latest difficult juncture for the largest denomination in the United States. Grear, for his part, is trying to navigate a middle ground between members of the church who (in his words) see “southern” as more important than “Baptist” and those who have embraced critical race theory (CRT), the idea that the sin of racism is collective and ever present. A few months ago, two prominent black pastors left the denomination after a group of seminary presidents released a statement saying that CRT is incompatible with the SBC’s statement of faith.
Since then, the two sides have gone back and forth about exactly what critical race theory is and whether it diminishes the role of forgiveness in a religious context or the idea that all people hold equal value in God’s eyes. It is tempting for people in the pews to throw their hands up and dismiss this as either a politicized debate over whether Christians are racist or a dispute over academic abstractions.
The truth, though, is that this controversy over critical race theory could have real-life implications for a population that is already among the most vulnerable: children in the foster-care system. In recent years, Evangelical congregations, including a great many Southern Baptist ones, have led a revolution in foster care and adoption. They have formed hundreds of ministries and other organizations devoted to the recruitment, training, and support of families who foster or who adopt children out of foster care. And their efforts have shown enormous success, both in drawing more people into the system but also giving them the education and the help that they need to stay in it for the long term.
There are, of course, a disproportionately high number of black children in the foster-care system and a disproportionately low number of (nonrelative) black foster and adoptive families. And so, inevitably, many of the families who volunteer to foster or adopt do not look like the children they are caring for. There was a time when this development would have been celebrated as a triumph of tolerance and racial harmony. But that time is not today. Instead, it is hardly uncommon for our cultural elites to question these interracial relationships.
A recent article from scholars at the Brookings Institution cited as still “relevant” today the 1972 statement against transracial adoption by the National Association of Black Social Workers: “Only a Black family can transmit the emotional and sensitive subtleties of perception and reaction essential for a Black child’s survival in a racist society.”
And it is not just secular commentators who have made this claim. An article in the Catholic magazine America also cited the same statement and added that white parents who adopt black children are “establishing a situation that risks repeating a dangerous narrative: White people are the benevolent rescuers and patrons of needy Black people. So it is important to say right at the start that when white parents adopt a child of another race or ethnicity, they are depriving that child of a profoundly valuable resource: a mother and/or father who can guide that child in navigating U.S. culture as a minority and can also connect that child to the rich cultural heritage that is their birthright.”
Though most Americans have been largely insulated from or unmoved by these ideas, they are spreading. Telling potential foster and adoptive parents that they are responsible for “depriving that child” is a dangerous game—and one that is likely to result in more parents being reluctant to step up. Why would you want to be part of the problem?
And if critical race theory has come to Southern Baptist seminaries, these ideas are spreading much faster than we think. John Wilson, the former editor of Books & Culture, an Evangelical literary journal, tells me that “these ideas have gained a foothold in constituencies that on the face of it you wouldn’t think would be so vulnerable to buying into them.” Wilson, who lives near and has many friends at Wheaton College, a flagship Evangelical school, says that even there “it is often framed as you have to accept the effusions of someone like Ibram X. Kendi” (who criticized Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett for her transracial adoptions). Either that “or you’re just perpetuating the racism of the past.”
Even if the proponents don’t refer to these ideas as critical race theory, they will often talk about the problems of systemic racism, how white people are collectively guilty for the treatment of blacks, and how the stain of racism has created a permanent division between racial groups that cannot be bridged. Wilson says the rhetoric about these transracial relationships is “so unbalanced. This work is incredibly sacrificial, but instead of honoring that, these families are portrayed as having perpetuated an injustice.”
Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, tells me that he is concerned that these ideas “could be something that paralyzes the willingness of some white Christians to be involved in child welfare.” He sees some division in the Christian community between folks who are more elite—“progressive churches tend to be more in sync with cultural trends”—and people who just say, “There are kids in need right now and we need to help them.”
Thomas Kidd, a historian at Baylor University, is somewhat less worried. He says that in his own church in Texas he has seen little awareness of these social-media controversies: “I think the compelling value of adoption and foster care would totally overcome that. For your average church, those are unassailable commitments.” But he does acknowledge that, among Christians in more-liberal parts of the country, “you could run into people who take ideas” about systemic racism and transracial adoption “seriously.”
Indeed, these ideas spread pretty quickly, especially in an era of social media. The messages from hip, liberal pastors of yesterday are easily found in more-conservative churches today. One need only look at the change in the view of international adoption. Twenty years ago there was no doubt that international adoption was an “unassailable commitment” on the part of Evangelical congregations across the country. Now it is much more common to hear people talk about trying to help children in their home countries and even suggest that bringing international orphans to the U.S. demonstrates a kind of “white man’s burden” attitude. Indeed, just last year Bethany Christian Services announced the end of its international adoption program, something no one would have foreseen just a decade ago. And it’s not because there is a shortage of orphans who won’t be cared for in their own countries.
For his part, Medefind believes “there can be a de-escalation” in these conversations about race. For the sake of the kids who need families, let’s hope so.