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Originally Authored by Emily Helder and Elisha Marr in The Routledge Handbook of Adoption


In the US, religious groups are regularly called upon to consider adopting in order to provide a home for a child in need (ABBA, n.d; Daly, 2015; One Church One Child, 2019). While Jewish and Islamic religious traditions accept child adoption (al-Azhary Sonbol, 1995; Yarden, 2012), at this point most of the literature on adoption in the US has focused on adoption in the Christian tradition. Research reported in this chapter will have a predominantly Christian sample unless otherwise noted. Clearly articulated or implicitly insinuated is the message that the issue of the large number of children in need of homes can be addressed by the acts of a few individuals/families who are willing to open their home. There is a notable amount of literature dedicated to examining religious theology, ethics, culture, organizations, and movements, particularly on the topic of encouraging and mobilizing Christians to adopt a child (Coburn & Smith, 1999; Joyce, 2013; Perry, 2017; Smolin, 2012). However, there is less scientifically sound research on the relationship between religiosity and the adoption practices of these individuals (Perry, 2017), and the existing information is relatively decentralized. The broader, more macro-level perspectives on religion and adoption need to be complemented with more comprehensive and thorough micro-level understandings of the religiosity of individuals involved in the adoption process.

This chapter focuses on potential and current adoptive parents because adoptive parents have the most decision-making power in the adoption process. Acknowledging that adoption is shaped by many factors (e.g., number of children available, domestic and international laws), potential and current adoptive parents’ willingness to adopt is central, and fundamentally essential, to the adoption of a child. Adoption begins as a voluntary act by potential adoptive parents’ consideration of adoption, followed by seeking of information, applying, completing an adoption, and raising a non-relative child. Undeniably, adoption greatly impacts the lives of adoptees, their birth parents, their adoptive families, and adoption professionals involved in the matching, yet adoptive parents are the catalysts of the adoption process. The role of religion in their experiences is an important, yet under researched area. In fact, all of the research studies cited in the next section analyze potential and current adoptive parents with only one-quarter additionally including information on birth parents who are not the central focus of their projects (see section on religion and willingness to adopt).

This chapter contributes to the scholarship on religion and adoption by compiling what is known about the relationship between religiosity and the activities of potential and current adoptive parents, concluding with a consideration of the ways this information can better inform pre- and post-adoption practice. Areas of future research are also identified that could provide insight into whether micro-level adoption activities among the religious can be connected with more macro-level efforts among religious groups to encourage their congregants to adopt. The chapter begins with a review of the literature on the relationship between self-identified measures of religiosity and willingness to adopt, which is followed by an examination of self-professed religious motivations to adopt among adoptive parents and how these might impact parenting and child outcomes. Finally, it proceeds to explore how adoptive families use religiosity and spirituality to give meaning to their adoption experiences and ends with a discussion of the implications of this information for adoption research, policy, and practice.

Religion and Willingness to Adopt

Much of the nationally representative research providing insight into how religion might impact a person’s willingness to adopt has been demographic analyses of those who have considered adopting a child. When a national survey includes questions about whether the participants (which have predominantly been women) have ever considered, taken steps toward, or adopted a child, those who have responded affirmatively are examined to identify patterns in age, marital status, fecundity, and religious identity and practices. The National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) has been the main source of this information for almost 50 years (1973–present). Participants are asked a series of questions about the ways in which people create families involving topics such as marriage, cohabitation, birth control, biological reproduction, and adoption. Some of the adoption questions focus on a woman’s decision to place her child for adoption. The other adoption questions focus on the extent to which the participant has considered or taken steps to grow their family by adopting a child. Thus, this data source provides a breadth of information about those who have considered adoption, yet regarding religion, the information has been limited to the participants’ self-identified religious affiliation, their frequency in attendance at religious services, and the importance they place on religion.

The other major source of information on the role of religion in propensity to adopt is the National Survey of Fertility Barriers (NSFB) which collected two waves of data since its inception in the early 21st century. The survey includes questions regarding the participants’ consideration of adopting a child as well as religious practices (e.g., frequency of prayer) and religious beliefs (e.g., level of closeness to God). The NSFB also includes questions about the participants’ attitudes toward children and parenting (e.g., importance of motherhood, ideal number of children).

Since neither of these two national representative surveys, nor a few other large data sources (e.g., Bausch, 2006; Vandivere, Malm, & Radel, 2009), include self-professed motivations to adopt that are explicitly about religion, the nationally generalizable research on willingness to adopt focuses on the relationship between the consideration and/or act of adopting and religious identity/affiliation or religious attitudes and practices. There are also a notable number of studies that examine the impact of demographic factors on willingness to adopt yet do not include religious measures (Chandra, Abma, Maza, & Bachrach, 1999; Malm & Welti, 2010).

Religious Identity/Affiliation

Bonham’s (1977) analysis of NSFG data from 1973 to determine which demographic factors were associated with higher willingness to adopt a child is the earliest research currently known to the authors that attends to the role of religion and adoption. At that time questions about adoption were only asked of married women who indicated that they intended to have more children. Half of the Protestant women in this group considered adopting (50.0 percent). This was a slightly greater proportion than Catholics (45.3 percent) and other religions (46.1 percent) who also considered adopting (Bonham, 1977). These proportions were similar to those among the White women in this group (51.7 percent Protestant, 45.9 percent Catholic, 49.0 percent other religions). Black women, however, were less likely to consider adoption than White women in every religious category: however, Protestant Black women were still the most likely (36.9 percent), followed by Catholic Black women (30.9 percent), and Black women from other religious groups were the least likely to consider adopting a child (18.9 percent) (Bonham, 1977).

Bernal, Hu, Moriguchi, and Nagypal’s (2007) work on historical determinants of adoption included a table on the characteristics of adoptive women during the first six cycles of the NSFG from 1973 to 2002 (Bernal et al., 2007, Table 7). One characteristic included was religious affiliation of adoptive mothers for each of the six years. The most distinct pattern gleaned from this table is that in each surveyed year, women who identified as Protestant were the majority of adoptive mothers (range of 53.9 percent in 1995 to 74.7 percent in 1988) followed by Catholics (range 16.1 percent in 1988 to 31.9 percent in 1982 and 1995). An additional observation is that in 1973, there were small proportions of adoptive mothers who identified with a religion that is not Protestant or Catholic (2.6 percent) or did not identify with any religion (1.6 percent). Yet over the 30-year period, more adoptive mothers fell into these categories, with 5.2 percent identifying as a religion that is not Protestant or Catholic and 8.6 percent identifying as not having a religion in 2002 (Bernal et al., 2007).

We hypothesized that these longitudinal patterns in the religious affiliation of adoptive mothers could be partially explained by overarching trends in religious affiliation in the US, for which there has been a decrease in the proportion of those who identify as Protestant and an increase in those who do not identify with a religion. We then decided to complete an original analysis to (1) compare the religious affiliation of adoptive mothers in 1995 and 2002 with the religious affiliations of the US population and (2) add information about the religious affiliation of adoptive mothers since 2002, the last year included in Bernal et al.’s (2007) table. Our initial discovery was that the percentages in Bernal et al.’s (2007) table were not weighted, which is necessary for more accurate national estimates (National Center for Health Statistics [NCHS], 2016). Additionally, Bernal et al. (2007) categorized any female respondent who indicated that she had adopted a child as an adoptive mother. Since this chapter focuses on the adoption of unrelated children, opposed to the adoption of a stepchild or relative, women who adopted related children were excluded from our analysis. The comparison of our analysis with Bernal et al.’s (2007) table revealed that for 1995, Bernal’s 53.9 percent of Protestant adoptive mothers was 2 percent more than the weighted Protestant adoptive mothers of unrelated children (51.4 percent) in our analysis (Table 21.1). Bernal et al. (2007) also had 2 percent fewer Catholic adoptive women at 31.9 percent than our result of 33.6 percent (Table 21.1). There were no differences in the “other religion” and “no religion” categories for 1995 (Bernal et al., 2007). The differences between Bernal et al.’s (2007)

Table 21.1 Comparison of religious proportion of adaptive mothers and US population
*Statistically significant at the .05 level
**Statistically significant at the .05 level
Data on adoptive mothers from the National Survey of Family Growth
Data on US population from the General Social Survey

table and our analysis for 2002 were starker. The unweighted proportion of Protestant adoptive women in Bernal et al.’s (2007) table was 62.1 percent, which is over a 4 percent difference from the weighted proportion of Protestant adoptive women of unrelated children of 57.8 percent in our analysis (Table 21.1). For Catholic adoptive women the difference was slightly over 13 percent, with 24.1 percent in Bernal et al.’s (2007) table and 37.3 percent in our analysis (Table 21.1). Those belonging to other religious groups (5.2 percent unweighted in Bernal et al.’s 2007 table) and those who did not identify with a religion (8.6 percent unweighted) each comprised 2.4 percent of adoptive mothers of unrelated children in 2002 (Table 21.1). We concluded that although Bernal et al.’s (2007) table provides some insight into overarching longitudinal trends about the religious affiliation of adoptive mothers, it is not as useful when seeking more precise figures on the nationally representative religious affiliation of adoptive mothers.

After analyzing the 1995 and 2002 NSFG data for the religious affiliation of adoptive mothers of unrelated children, we obtained more current NSFG data on adoptive mothers of unrelated children from the periods of 2006–2010 and 2013–2015 (the NSFG began continuous interviewing in 2006 to provide public use data on a more frequent and timelier basis; NCHS, 2016). We also obtained data from the General Social Survey (Smith, Davern, Freese, & Hout, 2018) for the years 1995, 2002, 2008, and 2014 about religious identification in the US. We completed a two-tailed t-test for difference in proportions to learn whether the religious proportions of adoptive mothers for each year are similar to the religious proportion of the US to test our hypothesis.

Table 21.1 shows that there are statistically significant differences during each sampled year. In 1995, the proportion of Protestant women who had adopted unrelated children was 7 percent less than the proportion of Protestants in the US, overall. Conversely, 6.7 percent more Catholic women had adopted unrelated children than the proportion of Catholics in the US. In 2002, although 13.8 percent of people in the US did not identify with a religion, they comprised only 2.4 percent of adoptive women. Again, Catholic women are a greater portion of adoptive women (37.3 percent) than the proportion of Catholics in the US (25.5 percent). Although 5.1 percent of the US identified with a religion that was not Protestant or Catholic in 2002, adoptive mothers affiliated with these other religions were half of that proportion at 2.4 percent.

The majority of the adoptive mothers of unrelated children during 2006–2010 and 2013–2015 were Protestant (86.3 percent and 72.5 percent, respectively, Table 21.1) despite fewer people in the US identifying as Protestant during the same time periods. The statistically significant differences between Protestant adoptive women and people in the US of 33.0 percent in the 2006–2010 time period and 24.0 percent in the 2013–2015 time period indicate that Protestant women are highly overrepresented among adoptive women of unrelated children in the 21st century. Although Catholics consistently comprise slightly more than 25 percent of the US from 1995–2005, their proportion of adoptive women decreases over time resulting in a difference of about 13 percent in the 2006–2010 time period and 16 percent in the 2013–2015 time period. Whereas Catholics were overrepresented as adoptive mothers in 1995 and 2002, they are highly underrepresented as adoptive mothers in 2006–2010 and 2013–2015.

Adoptive mothers of unrelated children who identify as a religion other than Protestant or Catholic have no discernible pattern over time. Comprising a little more or less than 5 percent of the US throughout these sampled years, they are underrepresented as a portion of adoptive mothers in 2006–2010 (–3.3 percent) and overrepresented in 2013–2015 (4.9 percent; Table 21.1). The proportion of those in the US who do not identify with a religion has increased throughout the 1995–2015 time period. Yet similar to the religious others, their proportion of adoptive mothers varies over time, with no adoptive mothers identifying as no religion in 2006–2010 despite being 16.8 percent of the US and 7.6 percent of adoptive mothers in 2013–2015, and despite one-fifth of the US not identifying with a religion (Table 21.1).

Thus, our conclusions do not support our hypothesis that changes over time in the proportions of adoptive mothers of unrelated children are explained by changes in religious identification in the US. A project seeking to explore an additional hypothesis of the changes in the proportion of religion among adoptive mothers being a factor of the choices of birth parents was abandoned after a quick analysis of the NSFG data on women who surrendered a child for adoption during the same time periods revealed that a large proportion did not identify with a religion (25 percent in 2002, 43 percent in 2013–2015) while the percentage who identified as Protestant or Catholic dwindled (35.6 percent Protestant, 12.5 percent Catholic in 2013–2015).

Some have noted that those who are not religious experience discrimination in their efforts to adopt children in a highly privatized and religious system of adoption (ABBA, n.d; Perry, 2017). Since faith-based adoption agencies are predominantly Protestant or Catholic, as private organizations they have the ability to determine which parents are able to adopt the children in their care.

The current most plausible explanation for Protestants being overrepresented as adoptive mothers is the orphan care movement among evangelicals, a branch of Protestantism. Books, conferences, and organizations have been promoting adoption and foster care among evangelicals to show God’s love to vulnerable children. In his 2017 book Growing God’s family: The global orphan care movement and the limits of evangelical activism, S. Perry dedicates much of the first chapter to examining trends in adoption and foster care to determine whether adoptions are increasing due to the efforts of evangelicals. Acknowledging the scarcity of nationally representative data on adoption, he reviews information from the US Children’s Bureau, the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, and even previously published data from the NSFG, to determine that adoptions have been on the decline since 2005, and at the time of publication, there was no reliable evidence that evangelicals are adopting and fostering at higher rates than in the past or more than other Americans. Our findings do not provide any insight into foster care, yet provide some evidence that when adoption of unrelated children is occurring, the women are much more likely to be Protestant. Future research should seek to provide insight into whether there is a connection between the evangelical social movement and the decisions of potential adoptive mothers. Additionally, religious affiliation and identification have been found to be important aspects to consider when learning about motivations to adopt.

Measures of Religiosity

The NSFG has also been a primary source of information about the relationship between the propensity to consider adopting a child and measures of religion that are not limited to identification and/or affiliation with a particular religious group. In addition to current religious affiliation, the NSFG survey also includes questions about the religion within which the respondent was raised, how frequently the respondent currently attends religious services, as well as the frequency of their attendance when they were 14 years old. The participant is also asked, “Currently, how important is religion in your daily life?” and given a three-point Likert scale with responses ranging from “very important” to “not important.” Studies on religiosity and adoption that examine NSFG data use one or more of these measures of religiosity in their analyses of women who have ever considered, taken steps, and/or adopted a child.

Bonham’s (1977) analysis of the 1973 NSFG data only included a consideration of religious affiliation. Bachrach, London, and Maza’s (1991) analysis of the 1988 NSFG data, however, did include the respondent’s religious participation at age 14. They determined that of women aged 15–44 who ever took steps to adopt (e.g., contacted a lawyer or agency to explore adopting a child), the proportion who regularly attended religious services at 14 was only slightly higher than the proportion who attended religious services less than weekly at the time of the survey (Bachrach et al., 1991). Specifically, approximately 3.8 percent of White women (which they refer to as “Nonblack”) regularly attended religious services at age 14 and sought to adopt, whereas a smaller 2.8 percent of White women had lower rates of attending religious services at age 14 and sought to adopt. Similarly, 4.0 percent of Black women who sought to adopt were more regular attenders of religious services at age 14 than the 2.1 percent who were less frequent attenders. Frequency in religious participation at age 14 was not a statistically significant predictor of having taken steps to adopt for Black women or White women in the logistic regression models (Bachrach et al., 1991).

Hollingsworth (2000) used the importance of religion variable in the analysis of women who took steps to adopt in the 1995 NSFG data. Extrapolating from the numbers and percentages describing the various characteristics of women 18–44 who ever sought to adopt, approximately 70 percent of all women, 66 percent of White women, and 77 percent of Black women seeking to adopt considered religion to be “very important” (Hollingsworth, 2000). The logistic regression revealed that all women and White women who considered religion to be “very important” were 1.95 times and 2.67 times, respectively, more likely to seek to adopt than those who considered religion “not important.” Importance of religion was not a statistically significant predictor of Black women’s propensity to adopt (Hollingsworth, 2000).

Although Hollingsworth (2000) and Bachrach et al. (1991) examined the differences between White women and Black women in their analyses, Lamb (2008) sought to understand the difference between Hispanic women’s and non-Hispanic White women’s propensity to seek to adopt a child using the 2002 NSFG data. Of the women who took steps to adopt, almost three-fourths (71.3 percent) of Hispanic women with partners (married or cohabiting) and two-thirds of all Hispanic women (67.8 percent) considered religion to be “very important” (Lamb, 2008). These proportions are higher than non-Hispanic White women who took steps to adopt, of which slightly over half of all women and those who were partnered considered religion to be “very important” (54.2 percent and 55.1 percent, respectively). The differences between Hispanic women and non-Hispanic White women in regard to frequency of religious attendance were less stark, with slightly more than half of Hispanic women, partnered or not, indicating that they attend services weekly (54.4 percent partnered Hispanic women, 51.1 percent all Hispanic women). Approximately 44.2 percent of partnered non-Hispanic White women and 42.5 percent of all non-Hispanic women attended services weekly. The logistic regression analysis revealed that the only statistically significant variable for predicting propensity to adopt was religious attendance for non-Hispanic White women. Those non-Hispanic White women who attended religious services weekly, opposed to less than weekly, increased the odds of having sought adoption by 28 percent for partnered women and 25 percent for all women (Lamb, 2008). Thus, neither religious attendance nor religious importance were statistically significant indicators of Hispanic women’s
propensity to seek to adopt.

Bachrach et al. (1991), Hollingsworth (2000), and Lamb (2008) focused on women who took steps to adopt yet did not compare them with women who had adopted. Marr and Hoeksema’s (2019) analysis of the 2013–2015 NSFG continuous cycle data compared those who never considered adoption to anyone who considered adopting, compared those who considered adopting but did not take steps to anyone who took steps to adopt a child, and compared those who took steps but did not adopt a child with women who had adopted. Measuring religiosity as frequency in attendance at religious services and importance of religion to respondent, the findings revealed that those with those higher levels of religiosity were more likely to consider adopting opposed to not considering adopting a child. Higher religiosity was also found among those who took steps to adopt compared with those who had or were considering adopting but had not yet taken steps. This pattern did not hold when comparing those who took steps to adopt, yet did not, and those who adopted. One of the measures of religiosity, attendance at religious services, was higher among those who took steps to adopt, yet did not, than it was for those who adopted. There was not a statistically significant difference in importance of religion between the groups of women who adopted and women who had taken steps to adopt but did not. Marr and Hoeksema (2019) suggest future research explore why there are higher levels of religiosity among women who consider and take steps to adopt a child than there are among the women who Religiosity and adoption adopt a child. They note that this information will be important to adoption professionals who seek to cultivate adoptive parents who will complete the process.

In addition to frequency of attendance at religious services and importance of religion, the NSFB included more measures of religion than the NSFG, specifically frequency of prayer, closeness to God, and how much religious beliefs influence the respondents’ daily life (Park & Wonch Hill, 2014; Van Laningham, Scheuble, & Johnson, 2012). Van Laningham et al. (2012) analyzed the pilot data for the NSFB collected in the spring of 2002. Although their study did not include religious affiliation or identity, they did acknowledge that Christianity was likely the predominant religion of the representative probability sample of Midwestern women ages 25–50 (they reference the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s estimate that almost 80 percent of people in the Midwest, and the overall US, identify as Christian) (Van Laningham et al., 2012). They created a scale of religiosity using the mean score of three variables: frequency of prayer, influence of religious beliefs, and closeness to God, with higher numbers indicating higher levels of religiosity. They learned that considering adopting a child (i.e., considered adopting yet did not take steps) was significantly correlated with these higher levels of religiosity in comparison to those who did not consider adopting. In fact, for each unit increase in religiosity, women were 1.3 times more likely to consider adoption. However, religiosity was not a statistically significant predictor of which women were likely to take steps to adopt a child (e.g., contact an adoption agency or lawyer) in comparison to those who merely considered but did not take steps and those who did not consider adoption at all. They note that since religiosity affects considering adoption, but not taking steps, future research should be done to learn about how pro-adoption, anti-abortion attitudes might not result in adoption seeking behaviors. Additionally, they explain that their conclusions find “support for involving churches and other religious organizations in the education and recruitment of potential adoptive families, with the goal of encouraging those who may already be considering adoption to move forward in the process” (Van Laningham et al., 2012, p. 17).

Park and Wonch Hill’s (2014) research on childless women from the 2004–2007 NSFB data also included a scale of religiosity compiling the variables regarding frequency of prayer, importance of religion, and closeness to God. They also included frequency of attending religious services as a variable separate from the religiosity scale. The bivariate analysis showed that those with higher levels of church attendance (mean 2.86) were more likely to be currently considering adoption than formerly considering adoption (2.63) or had never considered adopting a child (2.46). Similarly, those with higher levels of religiosity (mean 3.84) were more likely to be currently considering adoption, than formerly (3.60) or never (3.47) (Park & Wonch Hill, 2014). The multinomial regression analysis showed that for every unit increase in church attendance there was a 25 percent increase in the odds that someone is currently considering adoption opposed to never having considered adoption. The religiosity scale was not a statistically significant predictor of consideration of adoption in the multinomial regression analysis. They concluded that both frequency of attendance at religious services (which they refer to as church attendance) and the religiosity scale were associated with a greater likelihood of currently considering adoption, yet there were few differences between those who formerly considered and those who never considered adopting a child (Park & Wonch Hill, 2014).

One of the other nationally representative surveys on adoption, the 2007 National Survey of Adoptive Parents (NSAP; Vandivere et al., 2009), only included one measure of religion, yet it applied to adopted children rather than adoptive parents: child attends religious services at least monthly. Approximately 78 percent of adopted children ages 0–17 attend religious services monthly, which is a statistically significant difference from the 70 percent of all children in the US. Children in foster care are the most likely to attend religious services monthly (87 percent), followed by domestic adoptees (77 percent), and international adoptees (66 percent; Vandivere et al., 2009, p 34). This ratio of approximately four out of five adoptive children regularly attending religious services is consistent with the ratio of four out of five adoptive mothers associating with a religious identity in the 2006–2010 NSFG continuous cycle data as mentioned in the first section of this chapter.

In summary, several measurements of religiosity, spanning from frequency of attendance at religious services to closeness the respondent feels to God, have been found to be predictors of whether women consider or take steps to adopt a child. However, no specific measures of religiosity are consistently found throughout the literature to impact a woman’s willingness to adopt. Nor are religious measures statistically significant predictors of willingness to adopt among all of the racial and/or ethnic groups in the analysis. In general, women of color who seek to adopt are found to be more religious than non-Hispanic White women; however, there is some evidence that level of religiosity plays a greater role in non-Hispanic White women’s propensity to seek to adopt than it does among Black and Hispanic women.

Religion not Included

A survey of the scholarship on nationally representative research on willingness to adopt reveals that although levels of religiosity are included in some analyses, a similar number of studies do not include religious variables. Some of these studies that do not include religious variables acknowledge the importance of religion in shaping adoption decisions. Yet whether it was due to the lack of religious variables collected for their data set, or their own decisions prioritizing and choosing relevant variables to consider, these projects reviewed literature on religion and adoption, yet did not include religion in their analysis. Other studies did not include a consideration of the role of religion in willingness to adopt in their literature reviews, analyses, or discussion. Following is a review of the literature currently known to the authors on willingness to adopt that do not include any religious variables in their analyses.

Ishizawa and Kubo’s (2014) examination of factors affecting adoption decisions acknowledges that religion is commonly cited as a motivating factor for adopting a child. They note that potential adoptive parents’ decision-making process often involves seeking a child with traits similar to their own and indicate that religion is on the list of traits; however, religion is not a part of their analysis. The literature review in Malm and Welti’s (2010) article on motivations to adopt includes a section on altruism and religiosity summarizing results from studies in which prospective and current adoptive parents indicate religious, spiritual, and humanitarian beliefs as their reason for considering adopting a child. Their analysis of data from the 2007 NSAP includes altruistic independent variables (e.g., to provide a permanent home for a child, to help child avoid foster care), yet none specific to religion. Bausch (2006) analyzed data collected from 185 randomly sampled married adults in the Midwest, as well as 47 individuals in the process of adoption at a local agency, to identify which demographic and attitudinal factors were predictors of willingness to adopt a child. Although the survey included questions regarding pronatalist beliefs, there was not a direct connection to religious beliefs, nor were there any other religious aspects in the literature review or the analysis (Bausch, 2006).

US Department of Health and Human Services reports on adoption from the NSFG cycles four (conducted in 1995) and five (conducted in 2002) also do not include any information on how religion could be a factor in willingness to adopt. Chandra, Abma, Maza, and Bachrach’s (1999) analysis of the 1995 data considers whether those who are currently seeking to adopt, or have previously sought to adopt, preferred to adopt a child of their own religion (e.g., Protestant women preferring to adopt children born to a Protestant birth mother), yet in their analysis of which demographic factors increased a woman’s propensity to seek to adopt no measures of religion were included. Jones’ (2008) analysis of the 2002 data did not include the preferences of the religion of an adoptive child nor a consideration of religious affiliation or practices on propensity to adopt.

Religious Motivations to Adopt Among Adoptive Parents

In addition to examining ways that religious affiliation and religiosity impact the consideration of adoption and taking steps to adopt, research has also directly measured the frequency of religious motivation among adoptive and foster parents and the ways that this motivation is associated with choices families make, parenting practices, and outcomes. This research has found that a substantial minority of adoptive families endorse religious motivations in their choice to adopt. Specifically, Brooks and James (2003) reported that 24 percent of their sample of domestic adopters in California reported that religious or humanitarian motivations were present in their decision to adopt. Similarly, Berry, Barth, and Needell (1996) found that religious and humanitarian motivations were present for 27 percent of their sample of US parents who had domestically adopted. Among studies including participants with higher levels of religiosity, religious motivation is reported even more frequently. Belanger, Copeland, and Cheung (2008) reported that 64 percent of families adopting domestically in areas of Texas and Louisiana stated that their faith was essential in their decision to adopt, with only 5 percent of the sample indicating that their faith was not associated with their adoption decision. The presence of religious motivation has also been examined frequently within the context of foster care. Studies in the US that utilized nationally representative datasets of current and former foster parents have found that religious motivations to foster were endorsed by 11 percent (Rhodes, Cox, Orme, & Coakley, 2006) and 13 percent (Howell-Moroney, 2014) of families. Among Canadian foster parents, 15 percent reported that they chose to foster due to their religious calling (Rodger, Cummings, & Leschied, 2006). Additionally, in smaller samples recruited through child welfare agencies, religious reasons were among the top five most commonly selected motivations to foster across several studies (De Maeyer, Vanderfaeillie, Vanschoonlandt, Robberechts, & Van Holen, 2014; Gillis-Arnold, Crase, Stockdale, & Shelley, 1998). Among the general population who has not adopted, Tyebjee (2003) also found that religious motivation for US families open to adopting was frequently reported. Specifically, among those in the sample that expressed an openness to considering adoption, motivation to adopt due to religious beliefs about caring for children was endorsed by the majority of participants (57 percent definitely applied, 29 percent somewhat applied). Additionally, 22 percent (Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, 2017) of those considering becoming foster parents in the US stated that they are motivated to do so by their religious faith. While these motivations are frequently endorsed by adoptive and foster families, it is important to acknowledge that they are often not the sole motivation endorsed and it is common for families to simultaneously express multiple motivations (Berry et al., 1996). Additionally, Perry (2017) has critiqued research on self-professed religious motivation to adopt by suggesting that expressed religious motivations can also be viewed, at times, as “vocabularies of motive” which religious individuals might use when describing their actions in particular contexts where self-interested motivations might be less socially acceptable to endorse.

Research has also been conducted to examine the ways that religious motivation affects the decisions that adoptive families make while taking steps to adopt. Adoptive families with higher levels of religious motivation are more likely to adopt children with special needs, such as severe behavioral and emotional difficulties (Belanger, Cheung, & Cordova, 2012) or cognitive or developmental disabilities (Glidden, 1985; Jennings, 2010). Families with greater religious motivations have also been reported to have larger family sizes, adopting more children and/or adopting children in addition to biological children already in the home (Belanger et al., 2012; Helder, Timmermans, & Gunnoe, 2019). Additionally, families who endorse religious motivations to adopt are more open to adopting transracially (Brooks & James, 2003). Among the general population this holds true as well, as individuals who report higher levels of religious practice (more frequent prayer, reading of religious texts, and service attendance) were more supportive of the practice of transracial adoption (Perry, 2010). However, research examining the link between approval of transracial adoption and self-identified religious affiliation suggests a more complex relationship, with Protestants in the general population less supportive of transracial adoption than Catholics and those identifying as non-religious (Perry, 2010). Similarly, among social workers, Fenster (2003) found that White Protestant social workers were less supportive of transracial adoption than White social workers who identified as Catholic, Jewish, or other. Among Black social workers, Fenster (2003) did not find a relationship between religious affiliation and views on transracial adoption.

Several studies have also examined whether religious motivations to adopt might be associated with parenting practices. Across both domestic (Reilly & Platz, 2003) and international (Helder et al., 2019) adoption samples, families who were more religious or endorsed religious motivations to adopt tended to be stricter and place a higher emphasis on obedience in their parenting practices. Reilly and Platz (2003) additionally found that adoptive parents with higher levels of religiosity were more likely to support the use of corporal punishment.

Additionally, a small body of literature has examined the link between religiosity, religious motivations to adopt, and outcomes for children and families. With regard to child outcomes of behavioral adjustment, studies that have examined parent-reported religiosity and support from religious communities found that higher religious support was associated with fewer behavioral problems among adopted children (Belanger et al., 2012). This is consistent with research outside of the adoption context which has linked greater parent religiosity with fewer child behavior problems and less adolescent risk-taking, even when controlling for demographic factors and other predictors, such as peer relationships (summarized in Bridges & Moore, 2002). However, research that has examined religious motivations to adopt and their longitudinal relationship with later child behavioral outcomes, reports that religious motivations are not a significant predictor of child behavioral adjustment after controlling for relevant demographic factors (Helder et al., 2019). Similarly, Kumsta, Rutter, Stevens, and Sonuga-Barke (2010) also found that types of motivation in their study (e.g., infertility vs. altruism) were unrelated to child behavioral outcomes. Child attachment outcomes and their relationship with initial parent motivations have also been examined. In the context of foster care, Cole (2005) reported higher levels of insecure attachment among infants whose foster parents endorsed religious motivations to foster. However, this was not replicated when examined within an international adoption context, with both Helder et al. (2019) and Kumsta et al. (2010) reporting no links between parent motivation type and child attachment quality.

Research examining the link between religious motivations and parent outcomes is similarly mixed in terms of its findings. Belanger et al. (2008) reported that higher levels of religiosity and the presence of religious motivations to adopt were associated with lower parenting stress. However, Smith (2011) and Helder et al. (2019) found that religious motivation to adopt was unrelated to parenting stress when controlling for age at adoption.

Very little research exists that examines the impact of religiosity on outcomes such as adoption dissolution, though what does exist finds that parents who agree that “the adoption was part of God’s plan” had a reduced incidence of adoption dissolution (Belanger et al., 2012). Relatedly, in a qualitative study of foster parents, Buehler, Cox, and Cuddeback (2003) reported that 80 percent of foster families cited faith or church support as a contributor to their success in caring for their foster children.

To summarize, religious motivations to adopt are present in a number of families who adopt children. Research consistently suggests that religious motivations impact choices adoptive parents make, such as an increased willingness to adopt children with special needs and to have larger families. The literature that examines the relationships between religious motivations and parenting practices and outcomes is quite small at this time. Findings consistently suggest that higher religiosity and religious motivation to adopt predict stricter discipline approaches. Yet among studies examining child and parent outcomes findings are quite mixed, which is likely due to significant methodological differences among studies, including whether the analysis examined religiosity more generally or religious motivations to adopt specifically, variability in sample characteristics, and differences in approaches to operationalizing religiosity and religious motivations. This last issue could be especially important in explaining differences in findings, as several researchers have pointed out that religious motivation is not a monolithic concept and likely can be subdivided into several types of religious motivation, some of which might result in positive outcomes (Firmin, Pugh, Markham, Sohn, & Gentry, 2017b). For example, religious motivations that are primarily driven by a sense of obligation, duty, or external pressures from a religious community (see Cole, 2005) might be differentially associated with poorer outcomes compared to intrinsic religious motivations, such as adoption due to an outflow of personal faith values, relationship with God, and calling (described in Marx, 1990). Additionally, many of the outcome studies are cross-sectional in design (Belanger et al., 2008, 2012; Cole, 2005; Reilly & Platz, 2003; Smith, 2011) and ask parents to retrospectively report on religious motivations, which limits the ability to make strong conclusions about the impact of religious motivations over time. Much more research, especially longitudinal studies that operationalize religious motivation consistently, is needed to better understand the link between religious motivations to adopt and outcomes for adopted children and their families.

Religion Meaning-Making in Adoption

Beyond examining religious motivations to adopt, several studies have also examined ways that adoptive families utilize religiosity and spirituality to frame and give meaning to their adoption experiences and vice versa. Thus far, all of the existing research has focused on the adoptive parents’ perspective, rather than adopted individuals themselves, and the majority of the studies have been qualitative in nature. Recently, Wrobel et al. (2018) examined interview responses of 15 adoptive mothers from the Minnesota-Texas Adoption Research Project (Grotevant & McRoy, 1998; Grotevant, McRoy, Wrobel, & Ayers-Lopez, 2013) regarding religious meaning associated with the adoption of their children. All adoptive mothers identified as Christian and were religiously active. Within the four domains
identified (Prayer, Influence of Religious/Church Community, God’s Plan, Religious Importance for the Family), the most frequent categories endorsed by the mothers as influencing religious meaning were: (1) God had an active role in the adoption process (e.g., felt God was in control and had a plan, God provided an avenue for adoption after infertility) and (2) discussion of adoption with other religious individuals (e.g., clergy, other church members).

Among common themes emerging across other studies examining this issue, one was that adoptive parents found that their faith provided them with hope for the future in the context of their adoption process (Belanger et al., 2008; Foli, Hebdon, Lim, & South, 2017; Marx, 1990). Belanger et al. (2008) suggested that this might be evident in their finding that higher religiosity was linked with lower parenting stress. A second theme was that participants’ faith played an important role in coping with uncertainty (Foli et al., 2017), disappointments (Jennings, 2010), and fear (Marx, 1990) that adoptive parents experienced throughout the adoption process and in their family life post-adoption. Third, several studies found that participants described that faith was central to developing trust in God’s will, such that challenges they encountered as a part of the adoption were a part of life (Foli et al., 2017) or “God’s plan” (Firmin, Pugh, Markham, Sohn, & Gentry, 2017a; Marx, 1990) and that God would provide (Firmin et al., 2017a; Foli et al., 2017) and/or God’s plan would prevail (Marx, 1990). A fourth theme raised across several studies was that faith communities provided significant support in the adjustment of adoptive families, both initially and after adoptions were finalized (Belanger et al., 2012; Firmin et al., 2017a; Foli et al., 2017; Wrobel et al., 2018). Last, Firmin et al. (2017a) reported on ways that evangelical Christian participants reported that the adoption experience gave greater meaning and depth to their faith, specifically that they formed a more mature faith because of experiences related to the adoption and developed a deeper understanding of faith concepts, such as God’s grace and unconditional love.

Implications for Policy and Practice

The findings described in this chapter have a number of relevant implications for researchers, adoption agencies, and practitioners serving adoptive families and adoptees. Among adoption scholars, more research is needed to examine the association between religious affiliation, religiosity, and considering, taking steps, and adopting a child. Much of the literature that has provided insight into these relationships explores how a variety of fertility and demographic factors influence a woman’s propensity to initiate and progress in the adoption process. Since the more macro-level work on adoption explores how certain religious cultures frame adoption as a way to honor God, and how faith-based adoption agencies work with specific denominations and churches to motivate individuals to adopt, it is important to examine if and how that is playing out in the micro-level decisions of religious and non-religious people. Additionally, the inconsistent findings in regard to the influence of race and socioeconomic status on individuals considering or taking steps to adopt illustrate that not only should they be a focus of future research, but specific attention should be given to how they interact with religious affiliation and religiosity to provide insight into adoptive behaviors.

Furthermore, while a number of studies document that religious motivations to adopt or foster are present for a significant number of families, there is a dearth of research examining the ways that these motivations influence parenting and outcomes for adoptees and adoptive families. What little research does exist has used widely varying methods to assess religious motivations and religiosity, making drawing conclusions across studies quite difficult. Notably, there is little literature on this topic from the adopted individuals’ perspective. Researchers could examine outcomes from the adoptees’ perspective when their adoptive parents endorsed religious motivations. Additionally, it would be valuable to explore how adopted persons do or do not use religious themes in understanding and framing their narratives of their own adoption. Since adoptive parents and adoptees make choices within structural and cultural contexts, it would be interesting to determine the extent to which their self-described experiences, perspectives, opinions, and activities reflect the values and actions encouraged by their religious communities and institutions.

The findings summarized above can also inform adoption agencies seeking to find adoptive homes for children. It is important to provide empirical, scientifically sound data because conclusions from projects that lack validity or accuracy might be used to incorrectly inform adoption agency practices, funding, and legislation (see Perry’s critique of Barna Frames’ research, 2017, pp. 57–59). Religious individuals are more likely to consider adopting, though not necessarily to complete an adoption. Agencies looking to recruit potential foster and adoptive caregivers could focus attention on these religious communities and the factors that could move them from considering to completing adoption. However, the strength of the relationship between religiosity and considering adoption varies by race and ethnic group, so this might not be as effective a strategy for recruiting adoptive families of color. Within the research on religious motivations to adopt, families adopting who endorsed religious motivations were more likely to adopt difficult-to-place children and utilize existing social networks (such as faith communities) to provide support. This is important recruitment information for agencies looking to place older children and children with more significant care needs.

It is hard to draw firm conclusions about outcomes for adopted individuals and families when religious motivations are present, due to the dearth of research and the variability in methods. At the very least, religious motivations are generally not found to be related to poorer outcomes for adopted children and their parents. More research is needed, but at this point agencies and adoption practitioners should not be concerned that parents endorsing religious motivations to adopt (especially intrinsic religious motivations) are at risk for negative outcomes.


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