A Hatmaker family photo. Photo courtesy of Jen Hatmaker

How adoption has forced evangelicals to grapple with race relations

Jen Hatmaker with her adopted daughter Remy. Photo courtesy of Jen Hatmaker

Jen Hatmaker with her adopted daughter Remy. Photo courtesy of Jen Hatmaker

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) Before she and her husband adopted a son and daughter from Ethiopia, popular evangelical blogger Jen Hatmaker said she had a different view about race in America.

“A couple years ago, I would’ve said we’re moving to a post-racial society because I was so under-exposed to people of color and the issues they deal with on a daily basis,” said the white Christian author, whose home renovation to make space for their growing family of seven was recently featured on HGTV.

As evangelicals have turned their attention toward adoption in the past decade, families like the Hatmakers are grappling with race relations in a profoundly personal way, especially as national news spotlights racial tension in New York; Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.

And evangelicals aren't alone: A new Gallup poll found that 13 percent of Americans believe racism is the country's most important problem, the highest figure since the 1992 verdict in the Rodney King case sparked riots in Los Angeles.

And, as Gallup noted: "After barely registering with Americans as the top problem for two decades, race relations now matches the economy in Americans' mentions of the country's top problem, and is just slightly behind government (15 percent)."

That same Gallup poll also found that nonwhites are more than twice as likely as whites to call race relations or racism the country's most important problem.

As the Hatmakers' son Ben, 11, creeps closer to the ages of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown -- unarmed black teenagers whose deaths have put race into a national conversation -- the family talks about race more frequently. Her son learned about America’s racial history in public school during Black History Month in February.

“Every time we talk about it, there are tears, there’s confusion,” said Hatmaker, who said her son lives in a “no man’s land” because he's black but not necessarily African-American. “He didn’t understand he was coming into a culture with a racial bias.”

Brandon Hatmaker reads with Ben. Photo courtesy of Jen Hatmaker

Brandon Hatmaker reads with Ben. Photo courtesy of Jen Hatmaker

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

As the wife of a pastor, Hatmaker said her Austin, Texas, church of about 600 people is filled with an estimated two or three dozen adoptive families, including many who have adopted interracially. She and a number of female evangelical leaders and Bible teachers who have adopted interracially, like fellow Austin-based author Jennie Allen, are mulling ways to use their influence to discuss race.

“We have to do the humble hard work of listening,” Hatmaker said. “We serve a God of justice and equality, and I’m anxious to see the transformation he’s prepared for us in our culture right now.”

Perhaps more than most religious groups, white evangelicals have a complicated history with race: The Southern Baptist Convention was born with a defense of slavery, and many Southern Christians upheld Jim Crow laws. Even as more recent generations of evangelicals began to oppose racism, sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s 2001 book, “Divided by Faith,” found that most white evangelicals see no systematic discrimination against blacks.

Kathryn Joyce, author of “The Child Catchers,” who has raised questions about evangelical adoptions, has been surprised by the number of conversations about race on adoption forums.

A Hatmaker family photo. Photo courtesy of Jen Hatmaker

A Hatmaker family photo. Photo courtesy of Jen Hatmaker

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“Self-critique is happening with a lot of conversations focusing on big issues like racial justice, social justice, class, privilege,” Joyce said, saying she first heard about Martin’s 2012 death on an evangelical adoption forum.

“These parents, mostly moms, were thinking about race early on because they had this personal connection.”

To be sure, Christians have cared for orphans for centuries, but the most recent wave of interest came alongside the focus on the global HIV/AIDS crisis, a shrinking world with the increase of technology and well-known Christians becoming adoptive parents, like musician Steven Curtis Chapman and retired megachurch pastor John Piper.

Piper, a white pastor who grew up in the segregated South and has spoken on his own history of racism, now has an adopted daughter who is black.

“Nothing binds a pastor’s heart to diversity more than having it in his home,” Piper wrote in his 2011 book, “Bloodlines.”

In any given week, especially when there’s a flashpoint in the culture, Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore says he now hears from white evangelical parents of black children who have concerns about race.

“If anything, adoption exposes evangelicals’ weaknesses as well as strengths,” said Moore, who is white and adopted two white children from Russia. “In any given month, I’m dealing with a couple adopting a child of another race dealing with relatives who object, sometimes in nakedly racist terms.”

Adoption has forced evangelicals to reconsider all manner of issues, from poverty to race to health and international relations, Moore said.

The Hargrove Family, 2010. Photo courtesy of Linda Hargrove

The Hargrove Family, 2010. Photo courtesy of Linda Hargrove

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“I’ve seen predominantly white churches that have become more intentional about reaching out to African-American communities because now the ethnic barrier has been broken within the church,” said Moore, who is president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

“People who previously assumed that racial prejudice was back in the Jim Crow era are awakened by it with their own kids.”

Interracial adoption can be fraught with unseen road bumps, as some white parents find themselves navigating cultural differences. Linda Hargrove, a black mother of three black adoptive children who lives in North Carolina, said she encourages her white friends who adopt to go the extra step with their children, like helping their black daughters do their hair with up-to-date styles.

“It gets me when anyone says love is colorblind,” Hargrove said. “You want to be able to help them to do well in life, to be aware that some people might treat you differently.”

The colorblind mentality can be prevalent in evangelical churches, said Jaeran Kim, who was adopted into a white evangelical family and is researching evangelical adoption while working on her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.

“There’s a difference between celebrating diversity and understanding racism,” said Kim, who is Korean-American. “While I’ve seen movement toward celebrating diversity, I think we have a long way to go when it comes to racism.”



  1. One reason that having a conversation about race is so difficult is that folks tend to start getting upset before other folks get out a complete sentence. Assumptions abound and group pressure is the prevalent force. When I travel, I often refuse to identify that I am from the deep South (though I suspect most can tell), in order to not get the assumptions going. Group guilt is just as unfair as group exclusion. To “Judge by the content of one’s character” seems as far away now as when it was uttered.
    Class is a greater divider than race, but it is not permanent. Middle class folk seem to get on pretty well, or as well as any group. I live in an integrated neighborhood that reflects the general middle class distribution of race in my area. I am convinced placing the emphasis on race is counterproductive. The root problems are ignorance, poverty, and poor health. Attack these problems in a race neutral way, and racism will decline dramatically, as will all manner of problems related to exclusion. I have lots of illustrative stories, but I will save them for later.

  2. This is an utterly incoherent article whose facts about the welcome rise in interracial adoption contradict its premise that racism is increasing, rather than receding, across society.

    The people being interviewed seem obsessed about race and about parading their moral superiority at adopting black kids, as opposed to taking a truly color-blind position by saying that the race of their children is irrelevant, because people should be judged on meaningful criteria, not on race.

    Until white liberals and evangelical wannabes decide they want a truly color-blind society, we’re never going to get there.

  3. It’s silly to say anyone is color blind. It’s only human to notice similarities and differences in people. …and some people react to differences in a negative manner. May I ask, do you have any black children? On what do you base your perception that these parents are all lying about how their children are treated? Are you going to tell me that when a 5-year old child asked me (regarding my black adopted child) if I was going to be sad when he goes to jail, “cause they all go to jail” that he didn’t learn that prejudiced perception from an adult? Are you going to claim that my gentle-natured 18 month old black baby boy deserved to be kicked out of our church’s daycare for “choking a baby…and we have pictures of the red rings on the baby’s neck to prove it”? …an 18-month old child? …accused of something so contrary to his nature? Do you know that statistics show that black children are kicked out of daycare/preschool at a much higher rate than white children? I believe that many of us white folk pretend” to be color blind. It certainly makes it easier to have a stance that prejudice and racism don’t occur. But now, adoptive white parents of black children are learning what black parents have known for decades (and longer).

  4. Way to go, Jackie. I hope that people like you who are willing to adopt keep helping all of us to rejoice in the beautiful diversity that God made. I hope people like you continue to stick up and speak out for your own children–and that helps all of us. Bravo to you!

  5. Jack,

    You are upset that the people who were interviewed in an article about race relations are talking about their experience as white parents raising black children; that makes them obsessed with race? You say that “people should be judged on meaningful criteria, not on race.” Yes. The article is pointing out that white evangelicals’ eyes are being opened to the fact that people still ARE being judged by their race, because they’ve noticed how their non-white adopted kids are being treated differently. Perhaps the next question should be, how can white evangelicals who have not adopted inter-racially–I’m guessing this is you, Jack–have their eyes opened. I think it starts with having relationships with others of different races. Listening to them. Having them over for a meal. Understanding what life really is like for them. Probably a lot more fruitful than just commenting on how the best way forward is to be color-blind and not to talk about race too much. (Hint: being color-blind is NOT the answer).

  6. “The people being interviewed seem obsessed about race and about parading their moral superiority at adopting black kids, as opposed to taking a truly color-blind position by saying that the race of their children is irrelevant, because people should be judged on meaningful criteria, not on race.”

    As a gay man, Jack, I find Christians of a certain type are obsessed about sexual orientation, and obsessed about parading their moral superiority to gay people, especially to gay people with children– often the cast off unwanted products of irresponsible heterosexual reproduction, often children of a different race, often children that no one else could be bothered to adopt.

    you’re right. People SHOULD be judged on meaningful criteria, not on race, not on religion, not on gender, not on sexual orientation, not on alleged sinfulness. Christian theology tells us all are sinful. Facts tells us that gay people make good parents.

    Facts are what you might call meaningful criteria,. Stories made up by people obsessed with homosexuality, religious dominionism, the need to accrue power and money at the expense of innocent others, or their own personal issues and projections are not.

  7. Samuel, claiming that racism will decline dramatically with a decline in poverty is absolutely inaccurate. Ask any black professional to describe the many major and minor instances of racism he/she experiences on a daily basis. And your assertion that a reduction in ignorance will reduce racism has validity only if you’re referring to a reduction in white people’s ignorance about racism in America. Racism exists in all segments of American society, and at all economic levels. And… Jack, you’re not colorblind, unless you’re actually blind. What makes you judge these adoptive parents as obsessed with race and “parading their moral superiority?” They may have been naive when they adopted. Now they’re confronted with the negative toll that racism is taking on their children. Of course they’re concerned and maybe even a little obsessed.

    Samuel and Jack, perhaps you could benefit from examining your own racist views.

  8. Agreed, the article is utterly incoherent. I wouldn’t blame the subjects (some of whom seem to be over-thinking their problems). It’s the author who is in a hopeless state of confusion about whatever it is she seeks to depict or demonstrate. You have to hand it to Religion News Service. They’re adept at showcasing the slush pile.

  9. “As the Hatmakers’ son Ben, 11, creeps closer to the ages of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown — unarmed black teenagers ”

    Miss Pulliam/Bailey, Trayvon Martin had two arms, which he used to punch the local neighborhood watch captain, break his nose, wrestle him to the ground, and beat his head on the concrete. Unluckily for Trayvon Martin, the man was armed. As for Michael Brown, he was 6’4″ tall and weighed 300#. The distinction between ‘armed’ and ‘unarmed’ was, in his case, factitious.

  10. I wonder why it is that some people seem to think that any view that diverges from their own is racist. I decided long ago my intellect,my desire for honest and open dialogue, was not welcome in this particular arena. Any group that name calls as a way to shut down diverse opinion totally loses my respect.

  11. Ken, being color-blind absolutely is the answer. That was the goal of the original civil rights movement. Judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin, was the clearly articulated goal and dream of every civil rights leader all the way through the 1960s. Those were Dr. King’s words, and he meant every word he spoke.

    The heart of racism is to make race-based judgments and to assume others are doing likewise.

  12. Ken, just to add to my comment, I grew up well after the civil rights movement in a well-integrated community in New York, not in some exclusive white-bread hamlet, so I’ve had friends and acquaintances of all races since I was a child and have thought nothing of it. We were all too busy playing ball to be obsessing about each other’s race or ethnicity. Whites who are obsessed with racism are generally those who are themselves afraid that they are racists because they grew up in lily-white enclaves where everyone talked a good liberal line but somehow none of the homes in such areas were ever sold to black people.

  13. Art Deco, I agree it’s mostly the author who creates the confusion, and that some of the subjects are “over-thinking.” That’s a nice way of saying they’re more than a little neurotic and the risk is that they will pass this fear along to their adopted kids.

  14. my wife and myself have adopted a little girl who is black and we are both white we see this more and more from people who just don’t understand. we don’t see that she is a different color than us. she didn’t asked to be put in this situation. we love her the same. we get the look, we get the comments but it dose not bother us. she is our dauther just the same. i just hope by the time she gets older she doesn’t have to deal with this bs. We pass this crap down to our kids and they pass it down. when will it stop. i am glad to say both me and my wife have meet some families just like ourselves and they face the same issues. so having that support helps. we even saw this when we where foster parents for three years. we had three placements and they were all black females, we never once said no to any of them we treated them like they were our own. when are we as a country going to get past this problem. ok i am done with my soap box.

  15. I found this article not only interesting but confusing as well. I am a Hispanic Southern Baptist, married to an Irish guy with 3 biological children. We also have a Chinese and an African daughter. Basically, we are target for any and every racial prejudice out there. We did not set out to adopt different races, it just turned out that way.That being said, we are not color blind. We celebrate our diferrences. When one of them bemoans their particular diferrence, we hammer it out . We don’t glaze over it. We don’t ignore it. A heart struggle is a struggle regardless of race, age disability ( one of our daughters has cerebral palsy), or faith. I’m not interested in making their lives a fairy tale. I’m interested in making strong and honorable individuals who can overcome what society will throw at them. And society will always have something to throw. AT everyone. That being said, our church is very diverse. Because our goal is living out the faith. Period.

Leave a Comment