by Emily Hunter McGowin
Today’s post is from Emily Hunter McGowin, who is Associate Lecturer of Theology at Wheaton College. She is the author of Quivering Families: The Quiverfull Movement and Evangelical Theology of the Family. She holds a PhD in theology from the University of Dayton and MDiv from Truett Seminary. Her research is at the intersection of religion, theology, and ethnography. She also serves as a deacon in the Anglican diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO). You can learn more about Emily at her website.
Every child is a gift. Every child is a blessing. These are bedrock convictions of conservative evangelicalism. Right?
The idea that every child is a gift rests on three theological assumptions. First, the belief that God has a direct hand in the creation of every child, which is rooted in scripture. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” the Lord says to Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5). “For you created my inmost being,” the psalmist says, “you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps. 139:13). Second, the God who creates each child also loves each child personally and unconditionally. This, too, is rooted in scripture, particularly the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. If these two assumptions are true, then the third also follows: The gift nature of children is unqualified. The circumstances of a child’s conception, birth, and life do not change the reality that the child is a blessing created uniquely and intentionally by God.
Arguably, the most passionate evangelical practitioners of the child-as-divine-gift principle are found in the Quiverfull movement. In my book, Quivering Families, I wrote about the development of Quiverfull, as well as its cultural features, discourse, and practices. Put simply, Quiverfull families are characterized by a life of Christian patriarchy, homeschooling, and what I called pronatalism. The mothers and fathers of the Quiverfull movement embody their commitment to the blessing of children by refusing to prevent or even seeking to manage their conception. Every pregnancy is viewed as a direct work of God’s creative hand. As a result, these families often have six or more children and devote their lives to “bring[ing] them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
Another way this child-as-divine-gift conviction shows up in evangelical culture is in the realm of adoption, both local and international. Perhaps the most visible and vocal proponent of the cause among American evangelicals is Southern Baptist leader, Russell Moore, who advocates not only for the practice of adoption among Christian families but also the cultivation of an “adoption culture” in local churches. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this,” the letter to James says, “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Evangelicals like Moore take this admonition to heart and seek to provide Christian homes to needy children worldwide.
(Of course, both the Quiverfull movement and the evangelical adoption movement have faced serious criticism both inside and outside evangelicalism. Space prevents me from reviewing these critiques here, but the interested reader is invited to do their own research.)
In addition to birthing and adopting children, though, evangelicals are also known for creating and supporting organizations that prioritize the needs of children. Take, for example, Compassion International, which, among other things, allows households to sponsor children on a monthly basis and provide for their physical, educational, and spiritual needs. A similar child sponsorship program is run through World Vision, along with other ways to give to children in impoverished and war-torn locales across the globe. Also, countless American churches participate in the Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child program, which involves packing boxes of small gifts to be sent to tens of thousands of children for Christmas every year. This is not to mention the Vacation Bible Schools, Awana programs, and other such child-focused events sponsored and staffed by evangelical churches annually. Each of these organizations and programs is grounded in the conviction that children are gifts from God and deeply loved by God.
All of the above is in addition to the white evangelical participation in and support for, the pro-life/anti-abortion movement. Even where evangelicals are not marching or working in organized ways, evangelical Christians have been faithful supporters of professedly pro-life political candidates since Jerry Falwell and the Religious Right helped mobilize evangelical voters to elect President Ronald Reagan in 1980. Today, abortion remains a key issue for conservative evangelical voters, cited over and over again as the reason for white evangelicals’ continued support of President Trump.
Every child is a gift. Every child is a blessing. Right?
Yet, these convictions are painfully and strikingly at odds with the behavior of large swaths of evangelicalism in recent years. I’ll detail just a few.
First, we have seen story after story emerging from evangelical churches in recent months about the repeated failure of church leaders to protect children from sexual abusers. It’s happened among Southern Baptists, independent Baptists, Reformed denominations, and non-denominational Bible churches. Reports from newspapers all over the country have revealed that over and over again leaders in countless evangelical churches have chosen to prioritize the reputation of their leaders and prestige of their institutions over the protection of children in their pews.
While the sexual abuse crisis was brewing in evangelical churches, the past couple of decades have also seen an alarming rise in gun deaths among children in the U.S. as a whole. While most of the media attention is given to school shootings, the vast majority of gun deaths among children do not happen in those settings. Though the rate of firearm-related homicides has declined since the 1980s, gun violence is now the second most common cause of death among American children. The majority of children—an incredible 85 percent—under the age of 13 who were shot to death from 2003 to 2013 were killed in a home. In addition, nearly two in three of gun deaths of all ages are the result of suicide. It is also important to note, as The Atlantic does, that African Americans make up about two-thirds of gun-homicide victims among those ages 15-29, which means they are 18 times more likely to be murdered by guns than their white peers.
In the face of this alarming threat to the well-being of American children, white evangelicals have done almost nothing. (One notable exception is evangelical pastor and activist Shane Claiborne). Most don’t even consider the matter a serious priority. It is this issue where the commitment to maintaining access to guns (born of constitutional conservatism regarding the Second Amendment) conflicts with the conservative commitment to protecting children. And the Second Amendment always wins (at least so far). The pursuit of any legal changes to regulate, or in any other way limit, the proliferation of guns is a political non-starter among white evangelical voters. Thus, deeply held convictions about the blessing of children have not led to any widespread effort to take tangible steps to curb child deaths by gun violence in the U.S.
Finally, I must mention the thousands of immigrant and refugee children separated from their families and being detained indefinitely by the U.S. government. Although recent reports have rightly focused on deplorable and inhumane conditions at facilities along the southern border, the separation of children from their parents and their indefinite detention on U.S. soil has been a regular practice since the Trump administration’s implementation of a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal border-crossers in April 2018. Even though President Trump walked back the more extreme child separation policy through an executive order in June 2018, by that point more than 2,700 families had been separated at the border. And, even though the policy has officially ended, the practice continues to this day.
Some evangelical leaders and organizations have criticized the immigration policies of the Trump administration, particularly on the matter of family separation. The Evangelical Immigration Table, headed by leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals, World Vision, and World Relief, is attempting to catalyze a cultural shift on immigration among American evangelicals. But, it is notable that the unjust immigration policies and cruel treatment of immigrant children has done nothing to reduce white evangelical support for President Trump. It seems that their prioritization of “law and order,” an ideal going back to the Jim Crow era, is more important than their commitment to the welfare of children. In the words of Janelle Wong, author of the book Immigrants, Evangelicals, and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change, “Evangelicals are in a difficult position because of their emphasis on supporting the traditional family. But here, if you strongly support the president’s overall strategy on immigration and see immigrants as dangerous lawbreakers — some even blame the parents for putting their children in this position — it’s easier to justify.”
Why am I linking the evangelical response (or lack thereof) to the sexual abuse crisis, gun violence, and treatment of immigrant children? Because I think they betray a damning pattern.
When I was working on my book about the Quiverfull movement, I noticed that leading Quiverfull figures often failed to apply their children-as-divine-gift conviction to all children. Even though they said all children are gifts of God, they didn’t really mean all children are gifts of God. Our children—that is, the children of white evangelical Protestants in the U.S.—are gifts of God; the children of ethnic and religious “others” are not.
For instance, in her book The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, Mary Pride says, “Scripture draws a fundamental distinction between the children of the righteous (of whom there are never enough) and the children of the wicked (of whom there are always too many). The children of the righteous are blessings… On the other hand, curses are on the children of the wicked…” In Pride’s work, as well as the writings of other Quiverfull proponents, the children of Muslims were regularly singled out for special mention. In order to motivate Christian couples to embrace reproduction, authors raised alarm that Muslim children might come to outnumber Christian children within just a few decades. Fear of “other” children was always part of the discourse.
Most white evangelicals would never use such explicitly xenophobic language. But, I think this differentiation between “us” and “them” transcends the Quiverfull movement. All of the above scenarios (and there are more I could mention) reveal that there are ideological and political limits to the theological conviction that every child is a gift. It seems to me that evangelical Christians feel bound to love and protect children only insofar as they are like “us” and are not perceived as a threat to “our” way of life. That is to say, most white evangelicals are eager to love, serve, and protect children, but only on their own terms.
Think about it. If the child victims of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches were faces in a Compassion International campaign, they’d be happily supported and prioritized. If the child victims of gun violence were located in the Democratic Republic of Congo rather than Chicago, they’d be happily donated to, sponsored, or even adopted. If the children presently living in overcrowded cages in McAllen, TX were the recipients of a Casas por Christo home-building effort they’d be happily held, played with, and provided for. But, the key is, such children could be loved and served on our own terms, in our own time.
When children do not seem to be like “us,” when children are causing “us” discomfort, when children are imposing themselves upon “us,” when children are challenging our ideologies—most evangelicals have had enough. The children of “others”—political, religious, or ethnic—are not worthy of sacrifice and activism. Children who would force a change in our ideologies and practices are not worthy of our support.