Raising Interfaith Children, and Letting Them Go

Being Both M&Ms
I want to give a thorough response to a recent Washington Post blog post (printed in today’s edition of the paper) entitled, “Not what I expected from my interfaith marriage.” The piece re-enforces some misconceptions about why parents choose to raise children with both religious traditions. In short, raising kids with both religions does not mean they will always claim “both” as a lifelong identity. Nor should it.

The author, Susan Sommercamp, states that she and her (former) husband wanted to share both traditions and “thought” their children could be “both,” but that “unfortunately things don’t always go as planned.” The big reveal in the piece is that one daughter chose to practice Christianity, while the other daughter chose to practice Judaism. From my perspective, having children choose two different religions is not an unfortunate or surprising result. It’s a typical result. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

First of all, we don’t control the ultimate beliefs, practices or affiliations of our children. This is true in mono-faith families, as well as in interfaith families. How many of us have siblings with identical religious practices to our own? As parents, we can choose an initial religious label for our children, and a form of religious education for them. But ultimately they grow up and make their own decisions. This is not “unfortunate,” it is just life. This would be a good moment to put on Sweet Honey in the Rock’s gorgeous rendition of Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Children,” which states, “They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

Second, as a corollary, raising children with both traditions cannot have the goal for children to become, and stay, religiously both. Some will, and some won’t. As documented in Being Both, some will choose one religion, or the other, or both, or none, or a new religion. And the choice may not be permanent. Pew Research has found that some half of all Americans change their religious affiliation at least once. The benefits of educating children in both family religions include allowing them to make more informed religious decisions, and allowing them to feel a connection and support from both sides of the extended family, and giving them bi-religious literacy. Not fixing them permanently in a “both” identity.

There were unfortunate aspects of this family story, but they do not stem, in my estimation, from the initial decision to raise the children with both religions. Of course it was unfortunate that the couple divorced, and that the children may have felt a competition between the parents (and parental religions) as a result. It was unfortunate that (partly as a result of the divorce) the two religions were each celebrated with only one parent, and without the support of an interfaith families community, so that the parents and children did not have a way to discuss and integrate their identities in a neutral and supportive space.

And while the author claims in the first paragraph that the couple had agreed to share both “faiths and heritages,” she admits that she took them to synagogue and Jewish religious education, and felt “surprise and some disappointment” when her husband begins taking them to church. In reality, she was attempting to raise them solely with Judaism, plus some holiday celebrations, not with full exposure to both. It is only after the divorce that she tersely accepts a sort of “separate but equal” exposure to both religions. So this family’s experience in no way reflects “doing both” in the context of good communication between the parents and full dual-faith religious education.

Ultimately, despite the divorce and initial tension as the two daughters claimed their religious identities, the author concludes that “we are all more tolerant and understanding because of our messy interfaith family.” It is interesting to note that Sommercamp saw the benefit of being an interfaith family, even after the difficulty of divorce. But those of us who raise our children with both religions with the intention of letting them go, of letting them claim the practices and identities and affiliations most meaningful to them, would never use the word “tolerant” in this context. The goal is not to tolerate each other, but to embrace each other, and embrace the religious choices of everyone in the family.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

‘Til Faith Do Us Part: A Contrary View

The world needs many more books documenting interfaith marriage and interfaith children in the 21st century. However, Til Faith Do Us Part by Naomi Schaefer Riley takes a strangely pessimistic stance. The book title itself compares the inevitability of interfaith divorce to the inevitability of death. As the daughter of parents who have been happily intermarried for over 50 years, and someone who has spent decades researching this topic, I have a very different view: one that celebrates the benefits of interfaith families. What’s more, I don’t believe Riley’s doom and gloom is supported by her own data.

A few years ago, Riley wrote a piece warning against interfaith marriage in the Washington Post, and was met with strong pushback and multiple critiques. Her work is funded by various conservative organizations and foundations. Quoting notably conservative Jewish, Christian and Muslim sources, Riley seems to be trying to dissuade people from intermarrying, despite the fact that she herself married a man raised as a Jehovah’s Witness.

How might conservative funding affect Riley’s perspective and conclusions? She states that interfaith couples are ignoring the challenges of intermarriage because of “our obsession with tolerance at all costs.” She claims that her survey shows that interfaith marriages are “generally more unhappy” and “often more unstable.” She then goes on to state that she would be “sorry if too many people entered into marriages that were unhappy or unstable.”

One issue is that Riley’s survey only included 44 Jews, and most of her conclusions about “interfaith” marriage are actually based on what I think should more accurately be called “interchurch” marriage. She defines black Protestants married to mainline Protestants, or mainline Protestants married to evangelical Protestants, as “interfaith.” Riley’s own survey found “no discernible difference” in divorce between intermarried and same-faith marriages overall. She did find that evangelical Christians, specifically, were more likely to divorce if married to non-evangelical Christians–an effect I attribute to inflexible fundamentalist theology, rather than the risks of interfaith marriage. Those who believe the Bible is literal truth will find it hard to be married to those who believe otherwise.

The fact that most of Riley’s “interfaith” couples were Christian/Christian couples skews her data. For instance, she writes about how few couples had clergy co-officiating at their weddings. A Christian/Christian “interchurch” couple might not feel it is necessary to have both ministers involved in a wedding. A truly interfaith couple, whether Jewish/Christian or Muslim/Hindu, would have a lot more incentive to involve both clergy members, if they can find clergy to support them.

In short, intermarried Jewish couples (or anyone in an interfaith marriage other than Christian/Christian “interchurch” couples) should hesitate before applying Riley’s conclusions to their own families. Riley found more divorce among intermarried Jews, but because her sample was so small she admits the finding is “tenuous.” To bolster her claim, she goes back to Evelyn Lehrer’s 1993 study of stability in interfaith marriages. Given the dramatic recent shifts in attitudes towards marriage (whether interfaith or gay), I am not compelled by statistics from an era twenty years ago when Jewish families were still commonly disowning children for intermarrying. In contrast, my own surveys and interviews document people in happy 21st-century Jewish and Christian interfaith marriages, supported by family, friends and clergy.

In terms of marital satisfaction, again, Riley found that the evangelical Christians were the group most unhappy in “interfaith” marriages. Those with a creed centered around being born again or saved may find it difficult to be married to anyone who does not share those concerns. No surprise there. The surprise, for me, was that Riley found that Jews actually reported being happier in interfaith marriages than in same-faith marriages, though the difference was not statistically significant because of the small number of Jews in her survey. Or, maybe I’m not surprised, given the rarity of divorce among Jewish/Christian couples in our interfaith families community.

Riley states that “those who marry outside their faith tend to take religion less seriously or lose their faith entirely.” In my research, I found the opposite effect among couples celebrating both family religions. For instance, many a Christian spouse has testified to the fact that their Jewish spouse is far more engaged with Judaism after intermarrying.

While Riley’s detailed profiles of specific (though largely anonymous) interfaith couples are a contribution to the literature, I found myself simply disagreeing with many of her conclusions. She writes that the “cultural pressures of pluralism” are “pushing people toward interfaith marriage.” In contrast, my observation is that interfaith marriage is still something we choose in spite of cultural pressures, not because of them. And I believe our “obsession with tolerance” is a good and necessary trend, not a threat.

In her conclusion, Riley writes, “There is nothing about having diverse perspectives in a marriage that will make it inherently better–in fact, it may be less likely to succeed in the long run.” I don’t believe Riley’s own statistics support that statement. My own experience, and my research on interfaith families who chose both religions, brings me to the opposite conclusion. Diverse religious perspectives can lead to deeper questioning, deeper communication, deeper empathy, deeper bonds. And happy interfaith families.

Note: This post was updated on 6/16/13 in response to various recent articles.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes: What Exactly is the Interfaith Lesson Here?

In recent days, I have been frustrated by bloggers who cite the breakup of celebrity couple Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes as a cautionary tale about interfaith marriage.

Interfaith marriage does not have to be difficult. My parents have been happily intermarried for over 50 years. In my community of interfaith families, out of hundreds of couples, my minister and rabbi can only think of a handful who have gotten divorced. Over 25 years of marriage, my husband and I have often argued. We have never had an argument about our religious differences.

It is particularly frustrating to see writers citing the outdated statistic that interfaith divorce is “three times more prevalent.” I recently spoke to one of the authors of the study that was the source of that statistic, the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001. Barry Kosmin confirmed to me that there is no valid measurement reflecting the current divorce rate or prevalence among interfaith couples. A survey from 2001 reflects divorce in the previous century, in the decades prior to that study, when interfaith couples were often excluded and shunned, and still had little support from extended family or clergy or houses of worship. Times have changed, and no one has produced the updated statistics.

I am not questioning the idea that religious difference, and pressure Holmes felt to raise her daughter as a Scientologist, may have been a factor in the Cruise and Holmes breakup. Press reports speculate that Holmes, who was raised Catholic, will return to Catholicism. What lesson do I take from this? The same lesson I take from the spectacular Reyes interfaith divorce case, in which a Catholic father who felt forced into converting to Judaism took his daughter to church for a stealth Baptism.

Bullying or sweet-talking a spouse into giving up his or her religion “for the sake of the child,” does not contribute to the stability of the marriage or benefit the children. The belief, often promoted by well-meaning clergy, that choosing one religion for the family will “solve” the challenges of being an interfaith family, can backfire if both parents actually have deep roots in and strong connections to their own religions.

Do I conclude that interfaith couples should not get married? No. Do I conclude that they should only get married if they don’t care deeply about religion? No. Do I conclude that they should only get married if they are willing to capitulate and subsume their own religious beliefs and desires for the good of the child? No.

I conclude that parents have the right to freely share their beliefs and family history and beloved rituals with their children. Both parents. And that the children will benefit from this rich religious and spiritual education.

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.

How Not to Interfaith Parent: The Reyes Case

For months now, I have been ignoring suggestions that I tackle the disturbing case of the Reyes interfaith divorce in Chicago. I guess I had been trying to distance myself from the bad behavior of Joseph and Rebecca Reyes, who have been using their interfaith differences as weapons against each other and against their child. Rebecca (allegedly) allowed her parents to (allegedly) pressure her husband into converting from Catholicism to Judaism. Bad move. The marriage fell apart and Joseph had his three-year-old daughter baptized without Rebecca’s permission. Bad move. Rebecca convinced a judge to prohibit her husband from taking their daughter to church. Bad move. Joseph took their daughter to church anyway, with a TV crew in tow. Bad move.

The only blessing is that Ela Reyes is three, not six or sixteen, and probably missed most of what was going on around her. Last week, the judge ruled that Joseph will be allowed to attend church with his daughter, and that the child will go with her father on Easter and Christmas, and with her mother on Passover and the High Holy Days.  In essence, the court decided that allowing the child to be exposed to both religions is in the best interest of the child, under these circumstances. Interesting.

Recently, I have been advising a group of young interfaith couples in a weekly workshop: I do not want them to be discouraged by the abysmal failure of the Reyes marriage. Instead, I would like to point out hopeful signs of evolution in some of the blogosphere essays on the Reyes case.  Over at the excellent blog Killing the Buddha, I appreciate the way fellow half-Jewish writer Laurel Snyder writes about how the conversion of a spouse can backfire:  “The pressure that we, as a Jewish community, place on conversion and absorption, on quieting the multitude of non-Jewish voices in our midst is a problem for me.”  Jewish blogger Julie Weiner, who, like Snyder, is intermarried, praised Snyder for her post, agreeing that “too often the Jewish community pushes (conversion) in a way that seems like a dishonest, cosmetic solution to intermarriage.”

Ruth Abrams at interfaithfamily.com praises Snyder and Weiner, but she also appears to chide Joseph Reyes for going back on his promise to raise the child Jewish (though he denies making such a promise). She writes, “Sticking with agreements about religion is just as important as sticking with other parenting agreements, like the ones about school and who will supervise a small child.” Here, I disagree. When a partner changes spiritual direction, it need not always break up the marriage. Children can, and do, adapt to change, and can even thrive under such circumstances. I do not think, in this case, that what appears to have been a terrible marriage could have been saved by simply allowing the daughter to attend church, but there are most certainly marriages that could be saved this way. I have seen families in distress when a parent can no longer live with a promise to raise children in one religion, and I have seen that distress resolve when they allow children exposure to both religions.

So I also disagree with Snyder when she writes that the biggest problem in intermarriage is often “the shifting of a child’s religious identity—whatever it may be—after it has been solidified and formed.”  Our religious identities do shift, continuously: if your identity is truly solidified, you are probably dead.

The most sensitive anlaysis, and the most surprising, for me, was that of Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld. He agreed with the judge’s ruling that the father has the right to take his Jewish daughter to church. Rabbi Hirschfeld stunned me with his statement that “…there is no evidence which shows that kids are harmed by exposure to multiple faith traditions…the argument that such exposure creates moral or psychic confusion is simply untrue.” As an interfaith child and an interfaith parent, I knew this. But few clergy members have been willing to put such a statement into print. The rest of Rabbi Hirschfeld’s post is equally brave and inspiring. I urge you to go read it.


Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families and interfaith bridge-building, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

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