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Monday, November 18, 2013

Supersized Families and Words of Knowledge: A Connection? Or, Right You Are If You Think You Are

When I was commenting on Kathryn Joyce’s Slate article about the terrible life and death of Hana Williams last week, I was struggling to think of a reason why adoptive parents would try to care for more children, and more challenging children, than common sense would say anyone could manage effectively. It’s clear, as Kathryn and other writers have frequently pointed out, that fundamentalist Christian beliefs have often driven the growth of “megafamilies”--  although in cases like that of the Schultzes in Tennessee a few years ago, it was not God but Mammon that was probably the motivating factor. Still, there are many fundamentalist Christian families who have adopted some children, but stopped while they were still in control of the situation--  so why do some go on and on? In my earlier post, I speculated that there might be some form of emotional disturbance that would create a powerful, anxiety-based drive for more and more children--  but even in talking about this, I realized that I was trying to separate some aspects of megafamily adoption from religious beliefs, in the hope of identifying some characteristic of potential adoptive parents that could be used to keep their family size within manageable limits.

While reading about the Williams family, I noticed particular statements about the adoptive parents’ emotional reactions to pictures or information about come children--  that their hearts went out to Hana, for example. This stayed in my mind as I went on to read a second article about a megafamily, or, as the author Maggie Jones called it, a “supersize” family ( So far, I’m delighted to say, this family has not had a tragic history, although the adopted children come from difficult histories of their own.

According to Jones, the adoptive mother of this family “latched onto the idea of adopting from foster care after hearing an ad on K-LOVE, a  [Denver area] Christian radio station, about a new organization… that was helping Christians adopt foster kids… ‘Has God been calling you to adopt?’ the voice-over asked.” Jones also noted that of “the dozens of evangelical and conservative Christian parents I spoke to, many said that church sermons, Christian radio shows or other Christian campaigns, including Focus on the Family’s national foster-to-adopt program, pushed them to adopt.”

Why were these ads and sermons so effective? Presumably, Christian adopters are not more susceptible to persuasion in a general way than other people are—they don’t, I suppose, buy more from catalogs or e-mail ads than most of us. Can it be that there is something in their belief system that makes them more easily persuaded to adopt, and adopt more and more? I think there are a couple of points of belief that do have this impact.

One of the points is institutionalized to some extent because of its appearance in the New Testament. James 1:27 tells Christians to care for distressed orphans and widows. (As others have pointed out, the widows seem to be getting pretty short shrift, but that’s a whole different issue). The form that care should take is not described, and in the past contributions to missionaries and orphanages were generally considered to put a person in compliance with this admonition. Today, as Kathryn Joyce pointed out in The child catchers, care for orphans is conflated with the Great Commission of spreading the Gospel, and for many the child’s conversion to Christianity is as important a goal as relieving physical distress. (One can see why this is the case, given the belief system.)

A second point of belief has become part of one type of Christian belief system over the last hundred years, in spite of the rejection of this idea by mainstream churches. This is the belief that miraculous events, of the types described in the Bible, can still occur today for people who are committed to a system that is variously described as charismatic or Pentecostal. Charismatic believers consider that they can experience or carry out supernatural events like those described as occurring for Jesus’ followers after his death. These include the ability to detect evil spirits and to exorcise them--  an ability to be expected after one is shown to be part of the system by “speaking in tongues”.

Of the phenomena to be expected by a convinced charismatic, a superlatively important one is to be spoken to by God, who will indicate his wishes for a person. The K-LOVE ad literally referred to this: “Has God been calling you to adopt?”

The idea of a direct message from God is a difficult one for nonbelievers to understand, and this is partly because even when joking about this we tend to think of a spoken message of the kind we would receive from another person. Gary Trudeau made much of this idea several years ago in showing his reporter Rick Redfern at a press conference where God spoke to the person being interviewed--  but “only on background. This was not for attribution.”

But charismatics do not necessarily expect a message from God to come in the form of a voice they can hear. It is more likely to be in the form of a “word of knowledge”. According to, a word of knowledge is “a definite conviction, impression, or knowing that comes to you in a similitude (a mental picture), a dream, through a vision, or by a Scripture that is quickened to you. It is supernatural insight or understanding of circumstances, situations, problems, or a body of facts by revelation; that is, without assistance by any human resource but solely by divine aid.”  If I understand this definition, it means that a divine message could come in the form of preoccupation with an idea or text, as well as by intense emotional responses that are experienced as conviction. I don’t understand to what extent self-editing or examination of conviction and impressions is acceptable, and to what extent it would be considered as disobedience to the divine message. It would seem, though, that all that is needed to identify a word of knowledge is a sense of certainty--  or, in the title of Pirandello’s play, Right You Are If You Think You Are.

Mr. and Mrs. Williams reported the sense that their “hearts went out” when they saw Hana’s pre-adoption photograph. Did they identify this experience as a word of knowledge or a divine command, I wonder? Similarly, the family Maggie Jones wrote about, when they were reluctant to adopt more children. received an e-mailed picture from an adoption caseworker, which they said “pulled them in”.  Did they too identify  as a divine message the compassionate impulse that most of us feel toward children in trouble ? If so, perhaps we have an explanation of why some adoptive parents do go on accumulating children, sometimes with obviously tragic outcome, sometimes, perhaps, with unknown impacts on the children and the adoptive parents themselves.

What should we do, then? Can we possibly ask potential adoptive parents if they have charismatic beliefs that might affect how they manage their families? No, of course not, and I don’t think even the most militant atheist would care to countenance such a question and its influence on adoption decisions. (Presumably most of us would not want free-thinking or any other view of life to prevent us from adopting.)

However, we can limit the size of adoptive and foster families as we limit the size of other care groups. For example, in many states, family day care homes (services that care for young children in the caregiver’s residence) are limited in the number of children to be cared for and the age range of those children. In New Jersey, family day care providers may not care for more than three children under a year of age, or more than four children under two years of age, of whom no more than two may be under one year. If one or more children under 6 are present as well as those younger children, a second caregiver must be present as well as the primary caregiver. Interestingly, with respect to the family described by Maggie Jones, the New Jersey guidelines for family day care prohibit leaving children alone with an assistant under the age of 18 except in an emergency, and forbids children under 16 from working so many hours that schoolwork is affected--  whereas Jones’ article describes a daughter now 18 who has been driving siblings to school and changing one child’s tracheostomy dressing, apparently for some time.

Whatever the religious or personal motives for the creation of megafamilies, it would seem that we already have a template for limiting them. Like so many other issues, however, applying the template requires political will, and acceptance of conflict with some adoptive parents--  and, no doubt,some adoption caseworkers.

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