The Arizona Jewish Post (can we please have a high-five for religions that maintain excellent newspapers?) has a great look at the interfaith marriage of former first daughter Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky. Clinton was raised Protestant in the Methodist tradition, and Mezvinsky is Jewish. Although the article does not state which branch of Judaism Mezvinsky adheres to, it is safe to assume it is Reform Judaism, which allows (although it does not encourage) interfaith marriage if the bride and groom agree to raise the children according to the Jewish faith.
The Post has excellent reporting on a topic that concerns every honest religious leader. Even ministers in religions that accept interfaith marriage will say they prefer the young ones in their congregations “marry in.” This is a concept that is very hard to understand for people who do not regularly practice their religion or for those who’ve never had a religious practice. “What’s the big deal,” these people might say.
To which serious practitioners of various faiths and the leaders of those faiths would reply: “Plenty,” especially when it comes to raising children. Everything’s fine and dandy until you have a baby and Mom wants to get him baptised and Dad wants him to have a bris. Parenting is where the rubber hits the road in interfaith marriages and that, primarily, is what rabbis, ministers and priests are concerned about when they wrestle with the reality of interfaith marriage in an interconnected world.
This issue is especially keen among Jews, which has a tiny population in proportion to the rest of the religious (or cultural) world. Jews have a low birthrate, and as their children marry non-Jews (as about 50 percent of U.S. Jews do), the chances of the children of that union being raised in Judaism – either culturally or religiously- lessens … even if the non-Jewish partner swears, during the blush of new love, that it won’t be any problem at all raising her children in a faith other than her own. But as one source in the Post article said, “The horse is out of the barn on that one,” because it is virtually impossible to guarantee young people will only find people of their own faith to marry. Unless, of course, you believe in arranged marriage – which some folks swear by – or if you live in a religious ghetto.
Interdenominational marriage – marrying among the sects of Judaism or Christianity or Islam – is easier than interfaith marriage because at least there are basics to agree upon once children are born. This is much harder to do if, say, a Hindu wants to marry a Southern Baptist. Or, a Jew marry a Methodist. If you doubt this, you might want to take a look at the research surrounding the success of interfaith marriages, which was the topic of a recent Washington Post article. A snippet:
In some ways, more interfaith marriage is good for civic life. Such unions bring extended families from diverse backgrounds into close contact. There is nothing like marriage between different groups to make society more integrated and more tolerant. As recent research by Harvard professor Robert Putnam has shown, the more Americans get to know people of other faiths, the more they seem to like them.
But the effects on the marriages themselves can be tragic — it is an open secret among academics that tsk-tsking grandmothers may be right. According to 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.
Even though a Methodist minister was present at the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding, the rituals and symbols were predominantly Jewish, which led the leader of a Jewish-led group that does outreach to interfaith couples remark that Clinton had “married in.” Paul Golin pointed to the chupah, rabbi and tallis (as well as a prominent Jewish wedding contract) as evidence that Clinton was leaning toward Judaism more than Mezvinsky was leaning toward Christianity. Having known many young people in the wedding planning phase of life, I can only say that Golin may be giving credit where it isn’t due. Lord knows there are plenty of young couples who marry amid symbols and rituals to appease parents or out of a nostalgic look to their childhood – not a deep personal commitment to their faith. Because, frankly, if one is taking their faith seriously, it is one of the major factors they consider when searching for a mate.
Of course, and we certainly do not know if this happened in the C-M wedding due to the phenomenal privacy surrounding the service and preparations (congrats to them for keeping away the media!), there may have been serious premarital counseling before the rabbi agreed to participate, counseling that included deep discussions about what religion and faith meant to each member of the couple. Such counseling is required in Orthodox Judiasm, Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism, and, more and more, by various Protestant denominations that have decided the divorce rate among Christians is a sign that folks aren’t fully prepared for what marriage entails nor fully aware of the sacramental context in which they said their breathy “I do.”
If said premarital counseling took place, we have to believe the religious symbolism at the most famous wedding of the summer was more than just window dressing and Clinton and Mezvinsky will be raising their children, should they have them, in Judaism. To which every religious person – including Methodist ministers – would say “L’chaim!” because the one thing religious leaders agree upon (really, they do agree on some things) is that children of interfaith marriages need to be raised in one faith to avoid confusion. Although not all couples agree with the clerical opinion.