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.