By Stanley Fish
April 1, 2013
Back in 1963, my brother Ron was going out with (that was the phrase then) an Irish Catholic girl named Ann who was attending the University of Rhode Island. One day, she was sitting in class and suddenly through the window she saw my father, who, it turned out, had tracked her down by finding out from the university administration what classes she was taking and at what times. He took her to dinner and then proceeded to tell her that it would ruin his son’s life if he were to marry a non-Jewish girl. He then asked if she would be willing to have no contact with Ron for a year; in return, he offered to pay all her expenses during that time. She refused.
Meanwhile I had been asked if I could get Ron into the University of California at Berkeley, where I was then teaching. (My father, as I recall, was for this plan, and may even have initiated it.) I went to the head of the admissions office and said, “My brother has to get out of Rhode Island. Can you admit him here?”
“Sure,” he said, and it was done. (Those were the days; if I tried that in 2013, I would be run out of town.)
If the idea was to separate the two young people, it didn’t work. Shortly after Ron got to California, he sent Ann a plane ticket. When she arrived, they got married and have remained married to this day. She got a job at the university, took a class in Judaism and, much to my brother’s surprise, converted, although it took her a while to find a rabbi willing to give her the required course of instruction. Just the other day she remarked, “It was a hard club to get into.”
In 1963 I didn’t know any interfaith couples, but things have changed, as Naomi Schaefer Riley reports in her new book, “’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America.”
According to Riley’s research — in 2010 she commissioned a large interfaith marriage survey — the interfaith marriage rate in the United States is 42 percent. The book is chock-full of fascinating statistics (“Jews are the most likely and Mormons are the least likely to marry members of other faiths”), but at its heart is a cautionary thesis: the growing number of interfaith couples don’t know what they’re getting into. “Interfaith couples tend to marry without thinking through the practical implications of their religious differences. They assume that because they are decent and tolerant people … they will not encounter difficulties being married to someone of another faith.”
They do, however, worry about marrying someone whose political views differ from theirs. Riley’s data show that “inter political party marriages are far less common than interfaith marriages.” Why, she asks, “do Americans seem so much more reluctant to marry outside of their political affiliation than their faith?”, and she answers that they may be “unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that religion can be a serious dividing in a marriage.” Because debating political differences is part of the culture in a way that debating religious differences is not, two people entering into a relationship are likely to be more concerned with the former than the latter.
That, Riley suggests, is a mistake. Early on, a difference in faith may seem unimportant and an occasion for practicing tolerance, while a difference over same-sex marriage or global warming or gun control may seem intractable and full of future hazard. (I can’t marry someone who believes that!) “But faith,” Riley insists, “is a tricky thing and it sneaks up on people,” especially at significant moments when the pull of old loyalties supposedly outgrown reasserts itself. “The death of a loved one, the birth of a child, the loss of a job, a move to a new city — all of these things can give people a sense of religious longing, a desire to return to the faith of their childhood.”
This can be true even of those whose childhood faith was weak and perfunctory. A Christian may think of herself or himself as not being religious at all, yet “find it hard to imagine family life without a Christmas tree.” A wife or a husband, also not particularly religious, may feel that having a Christmas tree goes too far. In an interfaith marriage, Riley observes, holidays can “become like bargaining chips.” (I’ll do this if you’ll do that, and if the children get to choose.) Even when one of the partners has converted and religious tensions have supposedly been eliminated, the fact of conversion can be the source of its own tension, as when one spouse, in the course of an argument, “plays the conversion card” and says “but I left my faith for you,” or, in other words, “You owe me big-time and for a long time.”
Once you begin to think about it, it’s obvious how many potential pitfalls await interfaith couples, but it is often not obvious to them, Riley says, for at least four reasons.
First, the liberal rhetoric of individualism and personal choice is casually affirmed without sufficient attention to the ways in which one’s choices and much else are influenced by tradition and community. Many interfaith couples have “chosen the romanticism and the individualistic ethos of America over the demands of the communities that they have come from” only to find, later on, that those demands still exert a force.
Second, young people today “consider religion to be a pursuit of the individual” and therefore downplay differences in ritual and doctrine; they minimize the requirements of faith by conceiving of faith as something without a specific content that might become the source of friction.
Third, the assertion, found everywhere in American cultural life, that differences are to be celebrated and embraced — our “obsession with tolerance at all costs” — obscures the extent to which those differences touch on something deep and immovable. “Ironically, interfaith marriage may awaken people to the fact that … that the particulars of practice and belief do matter, and that not all interfaith conflicts can be solved with the placement of a menorah next to a manger.”
And fourth, faith has become “racialised”; that is, we have come to think that “like skin color [it] is a trait that need not divide us.” But, Riley demurs, believing that faith “is a superficial characteristic the way race [and] ethnicity are” doesn’t make it so. In fact, “religious identity … can and should be considered” as more substantive than racial identity; and like any other substance it remains in place even when the commonplaces of multicultural doctrine tell us that it shouldn’t really matter.
My rehearsal of Riley’s points may suggest that her book is a brief against interfaith marriage. Far from it. She is herself a partner in an interfaith marriage (and in an inter-racial one, too), and she and her spouse have made it work. She just wants prospective interfaith couples to know that it is work that love doesn’t conquer all, that “a rocky road may lie ahead of them” and that they “need to think in practical terms about their faith differences— how it will affect the way they spend their time, their money, and the way they want to raise their kids.” Her message is that if you don’t make the mistake of thinking it will be a bed of roses, you’ll have a better chance of its not being a bed of thorns.