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The Intermarriage Exchange, Part 2: What Jews Can Learn from Mormons

by Shmuel Rosner

July 14, 2013 | 7:34 am

Naomi Riley

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer whose work focuses on higher education, religion, philanthropy and culture. She is the author of God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America (St. Martin's, 2005) and The Faculty Lounges ... And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Pay For (Ivan Dee, 2011). Riley is also the co-editor of Acculturated (Templeton Press, 2010), a book of essays on pop culture and virtue. Ms. Riley's writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other publications. She appears regularly on FoxNews and FoxBusiness.

In part two of this exchange about her new book "'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America" (Oxford University Press, 2013), we take a look at the interesting differences which Riley examines in her book between Jewish and Mormon attitudes to faith and inmarriage. 

(part one of this exchange can be found here)

 

Dear Naomi, 

Thank you for your honest response. I'd like to dwell on the subject a little more and quote what I thought was one of your most illuminating (and to some degree damning) paragraphs on Jews and interfaith marriages. Here's what you wrote:

More than one Jew I interviewed told their spouse that they had to raise their children Jewish because of the impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish people. It’s possible that this will induce enough guilt in the non-Jew for it to work. But what has been gained? How does the Holocaust turn into a lesson or a value that a non-Jew or a convert to Judaism can pass on to his or her children?

So assimilation is an integral part of the American way of life and fighting with guilt won't do. Yet, in an interesting chapter you dedicate to a comparison between Jews and Mormons, you give the reader the impression that the Mormons are more successful in their battle to keep their children (or grandchildren) within the faith. So what is it that makes them more successful, and can their strategies work for other groups as well (Jews included)?

 

Thank you for your thoughts,

Shmuel.

 

Dear Shmuel,

I do think that assimilation is a fact of American life, but not all assimilation. The United States, it turns out, is much more accepting of religious diversity than cultural diversity. As Will Herberg suggested in his book "Protestant, Catholic, Jew," we are not really one big melting pot. We are a number of separate ones. Over time the Irish Catholics and the Italian Catholics all simply became Catholics and the Polish Jews and the German Jews all became Jews and soon Pakistani Muslims and Egyptian Muslims will all be Muslims here.

Religious diversity, though, flourishes. America has what people call a vibrant religious marketplace. The Mormons have learned how to compete in that marketplace. When it comes to marriage, the most striking demographic difference between Jews and Mormons is the age at which they get married. The average age of a first marriage for Mormons is, according to my study, 23, and for Jews it’s 27. The importance placed on marriage in the LDS church cannot be overestimated and the Mormon elders realize that they cannot afford to let young men and women enter this phase we now call "emerging adulthood." The drifting that often occurs then causes young people to lose sight of the importance of their faith.

Besides marriage, the pinnacle Mormon experience is probably the mission trip. When men and women have just finished high school they are asked to leave family and friends for up to two years and "own" the faith. They go knocking on doors trying to explain the faith to strangers. American Jews tend to have their pinnacle experience at age 13, not exactly a time they are likely to think about a faith or a religious community as their own. 

Many of the Jews I interviewed for my book had been told by their parents that they should marry in the faith because of the Holocaust. For people who are two or more generations removed, this reason simply does not work. The flip side of the Holocaust argument is a kind of cultural pride, or a sense of peoplehood. Again, this has not historically been a very successful way to keep ethnic groups in America marrying in the fold. After all, you can still eat chopped liver and even celebrate the existence of Israel without being married to another Jew. 

Finally, it's not unheard of for Mormons to marry out. But the spouses, anecdotally speaking, often convert, sometimes after years or decades of marriage. The church regularly presents conversion as an option to non-members. It's not a hard sell, but periodically members of the congregation will come and talk to the nonmember about the church. It relieves some pressure from the Mormon spouse. But it also makes it clear that the community is confident in its message and has a certain amount of faith that nonmembers will eventually come around. Conservative and Reform Jews have nothing like this confidence and conversion is rarely mentioned. There are good historical and theological reasons for that. But if Jews want to compete in the marketplace, they have to get their message out.

Best Regards,

Naomi

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