Successful Interfaith Marriages Ignored Once Again

In yesterday’s Washington Post, an author named Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote an extremely opinionated attack on interfaith marriage, stating that such marriages “can be tragic” and that “tsk-tsking grandmothers may be right.” I have so many problems with the way this article was written, it’s hard to know where to start.

First of all, Riley devotes her first several paragraphs to the (old) news of the Reyes case, a spectacular interfaith divorce that has already been widely covered in the press and blogosphere. This was not a case of an interfaith marriage gone bad, as much as it was a case of two people in a really, really ugly divorce using religion as a weapon. It is outrageous to imply that the Reyes case is common or indicative of any trend.

Second of all, Riley did not even bother to declare her own biases. This should have been an ethical problem for the Post editors, but never mind that. Every statement by anyone about interfaith marriage is colored by the experience of the person making the statement. Is Riley trying to defend her own choices? Is she, for instance, a Jewish woman married to a Christian, raising children Jewish, as Ms. Reyes tried to do?  I guess we’ll have to wait for the “online chat” with the author this afternoon to find out. But in my experience, writers rarely cover this topic unless it stems from personal experience. And at this point in America, every person with an extended Jewish family has personal experience with this topic.

The heart of Ms. Riley’s “argument” is that divorce is inevitably more common among intermarried couples, a statement that has been made by those “tsking grandmothers” for generations now, based on scanty data, and studies that are often conducted by researchers with a very strong anti-intermarriage bias.

The data Riley references is extremely shaky. One study dates back 17 years–before the advent of communities designed for interfaith families, and before many Jewish institutions began to accept and welcome interfaith families. When she does cite a more recent study, she cherry-picks from the results, pointing out two particular scenarios under which interfaith marriages have higher divorce rates, and ignoring the actual conclusion in this study. The abstract reads, “Theological beliefs and the belief dissimilarity of spouses have little effect on the likelihood of dissolution ((of marriage)) over time.”

That sure makes sense to me. Our rabbi and minister have seen hundreds of interfaith couples put their children through our dual-religious education program over the past 15 years. Of these hundreds of couples, our minister notes, three couples have gotten divorced–and one of those three couples got back together.  Statistically, we’re a bunch of ridiculously happy interfaith marriages over here, getting ignored by researchers and writers. Part of what makes our marriages strong, I believe, is the experience of building our interfaith community together.

Interfaith divorces can happen, as in the Reyes case, when one parent or the other cannot abide being held to a promise made before marriage to raise children in the other partner’s religion. That doesn’t happen in an interfaith families community, where both parents are free to fully share their religion with the children. Interfaith divorces can happen when couples feel lost, alone, without a community to support them. That doesn’t happen in an interfaith families community, where both members of the couple have equal standing in a community that fully supports their choice to intermarry.

Obviously, I have a bias based on my own experience in our vibrant interfaith community. I am very open about that bias.  But I  also know a bunch of very happy interfaith families now raising Jewish children, in Jewish communities that have been working hard to fully include them. The statistics Riley relies on, even the more recent ones, do not reflect where interfaith families are right now in this journey, or where we are heading. It is a shame that the Washington Post gave such prominent display to a piece infused with outdated research, and a strangely antiquated attitude.

13 Replies to “Successful Interfaith Marriages Ignored Once Again”

  1. If you take a look at her book description and reviews on Amazon it is pretty clear where her prejudices lie.

    1.5 hours until that online chat. I’ve found previous Was. Post online chats to be mostly worthless but at least it could be fun to watch the carnage.

    Thanks for getting this out online. Just discussing this amongst ourselves isn’t going to make a difference. We need to get our happy, healthy, interfaith marriages out in the public.

  2. Can someone point me to the “calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.”?

    I’ve read most of the ARIS for 2001 and I’ve searched across it for every instance of ‘divorce’ and ‘mixed religion’ (their term for interfaith) and I cannot find anything that indicates a connection between interfaith and divorce.

    Of course there might be other studies that use the raw data from this survey to make such connections…I just can’t find it…even after asking the author directly.

  3. National Study of Youth and Religion Study mentioned in the essay is funded by the Lilly Foundation, Inc. The group states on their site that one of their goals is:

    “Our primary aim in this field is to deepen and enrich the religious lives of American Christians, principally by supporting efforts to encourage, support and educate a new generation of talented pastors and to strengthen current pastors in their capacities for excellence in ministry. We seek to help congregations be vibrant, healthy communities of faith, and we encourage efforts that make available and accessible the wisdom of the Christian tradition for contemporary life. We support seminaries, theological schools and other educational and religious institutions that share these aims. We also support projects that strengthen the contributions which religious ideas, practices, values and institutions make to the common good of our society.”

    How does this color any conclusions taken from the study? I can’t tell because I cannot find the specific study/article/essay that the author took their quote from.

    What I am most upset with this author is her lax citing habits. It is a simple matter with url linking to direct people to source material. This author avoids that direct linking at all costs. But I assume that makes it easier to make vague statements about the outcomes of studies and analysis when you make it difficult for individuals to fact check your work.

  4. Please let those of us who couldn’t make the online chat know what happened. I’m dying to hear how she could possible defend herself.

  5. Christine,

    She made all the normal “it’ll confuse the children” and “people change” arguments. Nothing particularly new nor interesting.

    The whole thread can be seen here:

    This experience has reminded me what I like about open comment boards…they may be messy but at least people are able to communicate. There were several times I wanted to jump in and tell the commenter that this author was an idiot and don’t listen to her.

  6. I agree with the thought of submitting your piece as a letter to the editor in response to the article. . .

  7. Riley is affiliated with a conservative think-tank, the “Institute for American Values.” It’s not clear why this identification was not made clear in her story or her byline.

    Riley ignored the question I submitted to the heavily-moderated “online discussion” at the Post, asking her to describe her own relevant interfaith background.

    Special thanks to Mark for more scrutiny of her use of statistics and for providing her missing hyperlinks.

    As for printing my blog response in the Washington Post, top newspapers will not rerun blog posts as editorials (nor should they!). The beauty of a blog is getting the response out fast, inserting lots of links, and getting it out to all the folks who no longer read newspapers. I know people in happy interfaith marriages have flooded the Post with letters. Let’s hope they print some.

    You can read additional critiques of Riley’s piece from the “intermarried but raising children Jewish” bloggers at…


  8. Just finished a super long comment over at I detailed the location or lack thereof for every study/article/poll/survey/etc.

    I hope it helps.

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