July 18, 2013
The Intermarriage Exchange, Part 3: On the Idea of One Big (Boring) American Religion
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 try to find out if and how intermarriage might be affecting the major religions in America.
Thank you for your illuminating response. I'd like the next round to go a little bit beyond the scope of your discussion in the book, to a question that isn't quite about "marriage" itself but rather about the aftermath of it. My main interest is Judaism, of course, but the question really concerns all other major religions as well.
Most of your book deals with individuals, and with the way interfaith marriage impacts their lives and their families, but there's also the impact which these marriages have on the different religions. At the outset of the book you write:
So my question is this: besides the fact that interfaith families are "weaker" in their observance, they are also different in their observance, and thus, with time, their growing number is altering religion itself, is it not? So where are we heading - towards a future in which there is only one "American" religion which is actually a mixture of all religions blended together by interfaith families and their practices? A troubling thought...
The vast majority of interfaith couples are not engaged in the kind of blending of religions that many people assume. Most of the interfaith couples I interviewed over the past few years decided to raise their children in one faith or another. The second most popular choice was "none." Over and over, these mothers and fathers used the word “impractical” to describe the idea of raising children in two faiths. And the older the child, the less likely they were to try it.
That being said, I think there is a small but growing contingent of intentionally interfaith communities. These children are having an entirely different kind of religious experience that could resemble the kind of syncretism you worry about. Children in these communities (usually a hundred or so families in a major metropolitan area) are gaining a kind of superficial understanding of both Christianity and Judaism and they are growing up in an environment where "both" seems normal.
But this is not a trend that I expect to affect mainstream Judaism much. Rather, it will be the people who choose "none" who will change the face of Jewish America. Reform and Conservative Jews who marry out will become increasingly disaffiliated and their children are more likely to grow up "nones." What will be left will be the Orthodox and the unaffiliated.
But that's just Judaism. In the rest of America, I do not see religion disappearing or becoming some amorphous universal thing. American religion is quite dynamic. Children of interfaith couples may choose none but they may also choose one of the hundreds of different kinds of churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques out there. And they may switch several times over the course of their lifetimes. Intermarriage may expose people to new kinds of religious experiences. But it's not as if we are all going to become generic mainline Protestants. The Unitarian Church is not growing.