Children sleep in an orphanage in Nepal. Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons (bit.ly/102eiwp)

Karen Handel and the spurious Christian case against LGBT adoption

You know you've made it in American public life when you land on the cover of The New York Times. Republican Karen Handel secured that honor this week when she won a contentious special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District.

Most political commentators have spent the week parsing the implications of Handel's victory as a referendum for (or against) President Trump. But Handel's campaign raised another issue especially relevant for Christians that has been mostly overlooked in media coverage.

At a campaign event earlier this week, Handel told the mother of a lesbian that “my faith calls me” to oppose LGBT couples' ability to adopt. The news left some progressives clutching their pearls, but Handel’s comment was not all that shocking. After all, she stated that she was against LGBT couples' adopting children and pledged to “absolutely” consider outlawing it in 2009. Handel's comments are also unsurprising given that the candidate is an evangelical Christian. While Gallup reports that 63 percent of Americans now believe gay couples should have the right to adopt, 35 percent oppose it. Opposition among conservative Christians is presumably higher than the national average.

Handel's comments beg an important and timely question: Does the Christian faith call believers to prevent LGBT couples from adopting children? The answer, I believe, is a resounding "no." But some Christians have arrived at poor conclusions due to two myths that have become popular among believers.

The first myth is, simply, that the Bible prohibits LGBT couples from adopting. When news broke about Handel's comment, CNN's Kirsten Powers tweeted the story and contended that the Christian faith doesn't actually forbid such matters. The Christian Twittersphere immediately shot back. "You really don't understand what Jesus said or accomplished do you?" one person replied. Another claimed that Powers could only be right if she discounted the writings of the Apostle Paul.

https://twitter.com/KirstenPowers/status/876795950081224706

But I've read the Bible dozens of times, and that's precisely the problem for people like Handel, because the Christian Scriptures never address the question of LGBT couples' adopting. Those ancient cultures were not asking such a question. If you scribbled down every Bible verse that directly addresses such matters, you would end up with a blank page.

If they are honest enough to cede the point, most conservative Christians will admit the Bible is silent on this matter. So these Christians often appeal to general principles about marriage and family found in the Bible. They claim the Christian Bible has only one model for marriage: "one man and one woman for life." But even a fifth-grade Sunday school student with a cursory knowledge of the Bible can tell you that this claim doesn't smell quite right.

The Bible often portrays — and yes, even blesses — a range of marital models in addition to what we call "traditional marriage." To wit:

  • Most marriages in the Bible are arranged and not the result of love. Interfaith marriages were forbidden by law.
  • Jewish law recorded in Deuteronomy claims that a male rapist should marry his victim (and pay the victim's father 50 shekels for damages, of course).
  • Moses commands in Deuteronomy and Numbers that the Israelites should slaughter the Midianites — men, women and children. But virgins should be spared, Moses said, and Israelite men were free to marry these prisoners of war.
  • Lots of Bible figures engaged in polygamist marriages — Esau, Jacob, Gideon. Solomon, who the Bible contends is the wisest person to ever live, had hundreds of wives.
  • In Exodus, a slaveowner was given the power to force his male and female slaves to wed.
  • In Genesis, a widow who had not given birth was required to marry her brother-in-law.

If you believe that adoption should only be permitted to couples in "biblical marriages,"  then you must also decide which version of biblical marriage you're speaking about exactly. Do you want a biblical marriage in the mold of David, who the Bible calls a man after God's heart, who had multiple marriages? I think most would not. The issue becomes even more complex when you consider that the Bible's many authors pen tens of thousands of verses, and yet never condemn these alternate forms of marriage even once.

We don't assume that something must be morally good just because the Bible doesn't condemn it, of course. But conservative Christians who have made "traditional marriage" their raison d'etre must surely reckon with why the many Bible writers never even once attempt to settle an issue of such paramount importance or even speak negatively about blatant deviations from what God intended.

This doesn't mean that anything should go when it comes to marriage or that the Bible doesn't offer principles for what a healthy marriage looks like. It does. And there is a respectable conservative case to be made for why a two-parent heterosexual marriage represents God's best design. But it's a far more complex and nuanced issue than some conservative Christians assume. A single straight line cannot be drawn from the Bible to the issue of gay adoption.

But while we're talking about the Good Book, it's important to note that the Bible speaks far more directly to the issues of child welfare and care. It speaks of children as a divine gift that should be protected and not harmed. Parents are instructed to not even provoke their children to anger. Orphans are listed along with widows, immigrants and the poor as one of the four groups of people that God especially values. And the elevation of children as a group of special concern to God intensifies in the New Testament.

We can construct a Christian framework for marriage by extrapolating various principles from the Bible and discerning the trajectory of the text. But constructing a Christian view of child welfare is not nearly as complicated. While Christians of mutual goodwill debate the Bible's vision for marriage, I can name none who disagree that God intends for every child to be protected, loved, cared for and nurtured. Period.

This leads to the second myth popular among many Christians: Allowing LGBT couples to adopt would mean placing children in environments that are less than ideal. If the most favorable environment for raising children is a home with a male and female parent, some argue, then gay adoption robs a child of a chance to experience God's best.

I actually don't disagree that a home with a mother and father is an ideal setting for children to be raised. Multiple studies have indicated that having regular exposure to both masculine and feminine presences in the home is healthy for children. In fact, I know many LGBT couples who have sought creative solutions to regularly expose their children to both genders. But let's be clear: The choice is not whether a child will be adopted by a gay couple or a straight couple. It is between being adopted by a gay couple or not being adopted at all.

There are more than 100,000 children waiting to be adopted in the American foster care system alone. Around the world, 17.8 million children are double orphans (have lost both parents) and millions more are single orphans. These children are made in the image of God and therefore deserve dignity and love. They are crying out from cribs, languishing in musty orphanages and passed around by a foster care system that often reinforces their preconceptions of being unwanted and unlovable.

Will Christians really argue that God would prefer a child to grow up malnourished in an overstuffed orphanage than in a loving home with parents of any gender mix? I can't imagine a good argument for such a position that is rooted in Christian ethics. So no, Karen Handel, I don't think your faith calls you to oppose LGBT adoptions.

And we cannot have this conversation without pointing out the gross hypocrisy of many Christians who make such arguments. Most conservative leaders I know who vocally oppose LGBT adoption are not lining up to register as foster parents. They are not opening their homes and parenting children in need of families. No, instead they are attempting to prohibit LGBT couples from addressing a social crisis that they've effectively washed their hands of. Those who aren't willing to help solve a problem are in no position to criticize those who are.

When it comes to adoption, it's time for Christians to put up or shut up. If believers want to oppose gay adoption, then they should begin helping the millions of children who need a home and a family. Imagine if conservative Christian leaders like Karen Handel stopped trying to close the door to LGBT adoption and began opening their homes and families to orphans. Now that would be news worthy of the front page.